UK Special Forces

Written by N D Bulleyment

The Special Air Service

The 22nd Special Air Service regiment (SAS) is the British Army’s most renowned special forces unit. From the moment several black-clad figures appeared on the balconies of the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980, the SAS became ‘celebrities’ both at home and abroad.

The SAS was born in the African desert during World War 2 and has since carried out many operations.

The 22nd Special Air Service regiment comprises of 4 active ‘Sabre’ squadrons: A, B, D, & G, each made up of around 100 men. Each SAS squadron is made up of 4 troops with each troop specialising in certain areas of expertise.

  • Air Troop – experts in parachute insertions (both HALO & HAHO)
  • Boat Troop – experts in amphibious operations
  • Mobility Troop – experts with vehicles and heavy support weapons
  • Mountain Troop – expert mountaineers and trained in the disciplines of arctic warfare

2 reserve units, staffed by civilians, 21 and 23 SAS, augment the regular troops of 22. TA SAS members are mostly trained for covert reconnaissance missions although may be called on to carry out everything but for Counter-Terrorism operations.

Only the best of the best need apply for the Special Air Service. The selection process is one of the toughest on the planet and the vast majority of candidates fail it.

The SAS are constantly training – learning new techniques and honing existing ones.

The Special Air Service have a wide range of responsibilities, each requiring specific training and disciplines:

Counter-Terrorism (CT)
One SAS squadron is responsible for counter-terrorism duties, with a team on a constant state of alert. The 4 squadrons rotate through this role on a 6 monthly basis.

Intelligence Gathering
Sneaking into enemy territory to gather intelligence about troop strengths and movements is not as glamorous as leaping across embassy balconies but it is the bread and butter of special operations work. SAS recon teams must be able to remain hidden under the nose of the enemy for days on end, lurking concealed in dug out hides on so-called ‘hard routine’ (no talking, no smoking, cooking etc). The Regiment trained to do this against the Russians but in actual fact used the technique to great success in the barren hills of the Falklands and the hedgerows of Northern Ireland.

Combat Air Control
With the emphasis on air power in modern warfare comes a need for skilled combat air controllers: men on the ground calling in air strikes. In any SAS team there’s likely to be one trooper specially trained to communicate with attack aircraft and guide them in for a strike. Sometime a laser designator will be used to ‘paint’ the target; other times the attack aircraft will be guided in verbally. The SAS called in air strikes against Scud launchers during the 1991 Gulf War and against Taleban positions in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001.

Behind the lines sabotage
The Special Air Service regiment began its life in World War 2, carrying out daring sabotage missions behind German lines, first in North Africa and then in the European theatre. The modern day SAS keeps up the tradition and are experts at infiltration deep into enemy territory, destroying fuel dumps, communication lines, bridges and railway lines.

Close Protection
The Regiment are masters at close protection duties (CP), or body guarding to the layman, having developed many of the protocols themselves. Nowadays much of the CP work is being done by specialised military police units. VIP protection is the reponsibility of the Counter Revolutionary War (CWR) wing of the SAS.

Training Foreign Militaries
Over the years, the Special Air Service has shared their expertise with friendly nations, training their own special forces and bodyguards in the dark arts. Known as ‘team jobs’ within the SAS, the UK government gets both political and financial benefits from such arrangements due in part to the reputation of the regiment.

SAS Operations
The Special Air Service has carried out many operations over the years, including everything from counter-terrorist assaults in the glare of the media spotlight to covert operations in Northern Ireland. The SAS are currently having a busy time in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Special Boat Service

Less well-known than their army counterparts, the Special Boat Service is the UK’s naval special forces unit. SBS operators tend to come from the Royal Marine Commandos although the SBS is tri-service. The SBS is part of UKSF, along with the SAS, SRR, and the SFSG.

The SBS has around 200 operators, divided into 3 squadrons:

C Squadron
The men of C squadron are specialists in canoe and small boat operations. Utilizing 2-men klepper canoes and zodiac inflatables for stealth insertion and extraction, the SBS carry out reconnaissance and sabotage missions along coastlines, river networks and up to 40 miles in land.

M Squadron
Trained for maritime Counter-Terrorism operations, the SBS men of M squadron are on standby to respond to deal with the threat of terrorism on ferries, cruise ships, hovercraft, oil tankers and oil rigs.

S Squadron
The divers of S squadron specialise in underwater attack using mini-submarines and swimmer delivery vehicles. During a war, the SBS would sneak into enemy harbours and attach magnetic mines to ship’s hulls.

Since 9/11, the Special Boat Service has been deployed against Al Qaeda in the global war on terror, often working side by side with their SAS colleagues. In Afghanistan, one SBS patrol got drawn into one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war as they helped to squash an uprising of captured Taleban and Al Qaeda prisoners at a medieval fort.

During the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, SBS teams, working with US Navy Seals, secured and scouted the beaches on the Al Faw Peninsula, paving the way for amphibious landings. Other SBS teams secured the southern oil fields. One landrover column of around 40 SBS men were ambushed by Iraqi forces and had to fight their way out of trouble. The SBS continue to operate in Iraq, battling insurgents.

Special Reconnaissance Regiment

The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) is a recently formed special forces unit, specialising in surveillance and intelligence gathering operations. The SRR recruits from across all UK regiments and is the only UKSF regiment to include women in operational roles. The main role of the SRR is to support SAS/SBS special operations by providing close target reconnaissance and ‘eyes-on’ intelligence.

The SRR absorbs the 14th Intelligence Company (‘The Det’), a special plainclothes surveillance unit created in 1973, specifically for operations in Northern Ireland. The skills and experience gained in Northern Ireland will now be brought to bear in the global war against terror.

SRR operatives have to pass a gruelling selection process before training begins, when they master the arts of surveillance, photography, Close Quarters Battle (CQB) and advanced driving. With the shift of emphasis to operations in the Middle-East, SRR operatives become proficient in Mid-Eastern languages such as Arabic and Farsi.

Since its formation in April 2005, the SRR has been involved in several controversial operations.

In July 2005, following a wave of bombings in London, the SRR were deployed on the streets of the UK capital in a bid to counter the threat. It was reported that members from the SRR were involved in the surveillance operation involving Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes. The electrician was mistakenly thought to be connected to the July 7 attacks and was trailed to an underground tube station by SRR operatives. As he boarded the train, he was fatally shot by police.

In September 2005, 2 members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment were arrested in the Southern Iraqi city of Basra. They had apparently been keeping watch on a public demonstration from their car when they aroused the suspicion of Iraqi police. A gunfight ensued and the 2 SRR operators were taken into custody. Unable to secure the 2 men’s release through diplomatic means, they were rescued by their SAS colleagues in a controversial operation which included the use of British APCs in a diversionary raid on a police station.

Special Forces Support Group

The Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) is Britain’s newest special forces unit. Formed around a core component of members of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment (1 Para), with additional troops from the Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment plus CBRN specialists, the SFSG provides infantry and specialised support to SAS and SBS special operations.

The roles of the Special Forces Support Group include:

  • Sealing off and guarding an area of operation
  • Taking part in large scale assaults alongside SAS/SBS forces
  • Carrying out secondary assaults and diversionary raids
  • Acting as a ‘blocking force’ against counter attacks
  • CSAR (Combat Search & Rescue)
  • Domestic anti-terrorist support

A model for the kind of operation that the SFSG has been created for can be seen in the 2000 Sierra Leone ‘Operation Barras’, in which 1 Para attacked a rebel base whilst the SAS/SBS rescued fellow soldiers from a nearby camp. A comparable relationship exists between the 75th Ranger Regiment and SFOD-1 (Delta Force) in the U.S. Military. The Rangers provided perimeter security for Delta Force operations in Somalia in 1993, as portrayed in the movie, Black Hawk Down.

The SFSG was ‘stood up’ at its base in St Athan, Wales in April 2005 and has reportedly been deployed in support of UKSF operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Apart from giving direct support to SAS/SBS missions, the SFSG also provides specialist training support. One of the traditional roles of the Special Air Service has been to provide foreign militaries with specialist training. Since much of this training does not necessarily require the skills of the SAS, such training tasks can now be performed by members of the SFSG, thus freeing the SAS up for direct combat missions.

The RAF Regiment element of the SFSG will provide Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) support for UKSF operations. CSAR usually involves emergency extraction of special forces or downed pilots by helicopter. RAF Regiment troops would provide security for such missions which are likely to take place in hostile territory.

RAF Regiment troops may also provide security around air bases involved in UKSF operations, including ad hoc forward operating bases established in enemy territory.

27 Squadron, RAF Regiment are part of the Joint CBRN Regiment which provides detection and decontamination for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear terrorist attacks.

Commandos from the Royal Marines provide another element of the Special Forces Support Group. Given their expertise in amphibious operations it is likely that the Royal Marines would provide specialist maritime support to UKSF missions. Examples of such support include assisting the SBS in Maritime Counter-Terrorism (MCT) where the Marines would search and secure large terrorist-held vessels or oil rigs whilst the SBS assault teams hit the main objectives. As with the troops from 1 Para, who form the bulk of the SFSG, the Royal Marines may also be employed in diversionary/secondary assaults. It’s thought that the RM will supply 1 strike company (around 120 men) to the SFSG.

It’s also believed that the SFSG will also support the police during domestic terrorist incidents. The precise nature of this support is not publicly known but it is speculated that it may include providing additional area security around a large scale terrorist incident. It’s also beleived that CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiation & Nuclear) specialists from the SFSG would assist in event of a domestic terrorist attack.

18th UKSF Signals Regiment

Created in 2005, along with the SFSG & SRR, the 18th (UKSF) Signals Regiment is one of Britain’s newest special forces units. It’s remit is to provide signals support to other UKSF elements, such as the SAS and SBS.

Support provided by 18th UKSF Signals includes :

  • providing secure communications for UKSF operations
  • signals intelligence (SIGINT) : intercepting and monitoring enemy communications such as mobile phone calls and radio transmissions
  • electronic intelligence (ELINT) : analysing and tracking the location of communications signals

The unit absorbs previous UKSF signals units such as 264 (SAS) Signals Squadron, which carried out a similar role in support of the Special Air Service.

Men of the 18th (UKSF) Signals are highly trained in all aspects of communications. Since they may be expected to accompany UKSF units on operations, they are also trained in various specialised miitary techniques such as parachuting and escape and evasion.

Selection for 18(UKSF) Signals is open to all serving members within the UK military. A 5-day induction proceeds the main selection during which candidates get an idea of what to expect. Main selection comprises of a 25 week Special Forces Communicator (SFC) course, run 2 times a year in May and November.

The Regiment includes a reserves element in the form of TA squadron, 63 (SAS) Signal Squadron

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