Britain has a number of Special Forces units, which include the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines, which are themselves considered to be elite troops.
These units are commanded by a Director Special Forces major general, from the UKSF Directorate.
Special Air Service (SAS)
The SAS was formed in the Western desert during World War Two, and despite being disbanded briefly, has emerged into the world’s most elite Special Forces unit. It does both its traditional behind the lines reconnaissance and sabotage role, and counter-terrorist and hostage rescue work as well. They are also able to operate on rivers and estuaries, but not at sea.
Special Boat Service (SBS)
Also formed in the Second World War, the SBS specialises in small boat, diving and swimming operations at sea and on land up to forty miles inland; and maritime counter-terrorism. Their traditional maritime use has been extended to Afghanistan, where since 9/11 they’ve been working often with the SAS, targeting the Taliban leadership.
Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR)
The Special Reconnaissance Regiment were formed more recently as part of the war on terrorism, to gather intelligence; carry out surveillance operations. Members of the SRR are recruited from throughout the UK military, including women.
Special Forces Support Group (SFSG)
The Special Forces Support Group gives combat support to SAS and SBS operations, inserting cordons to prevent interference with Special Forces operations, and a wide range of tactical and logistical activity.
SFSG gives Special Forces a significant increase in capability and manpower: the 650 men of 1 Para, 150 men from F Company Royal Marines, plus personnel from the RAF Regiment.
They were formed after it became operations in Afghanistan revealed that the SAS and SBS were squadrons were being misused for tasks more suited to parachute or commando troops.
18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment
18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment provides communications, and SIGINT support for other UKSF regiments.
148 Commando Forward Observation Battery
148 Commando Forward Observation Battery are commando and parachute trained, with men selected from the Royal Artillery and Royal Navy, to carry out reconnaissance and bring down fire deep behind enemy lines.
The unit have eight 6-man fire support teams commanded by Royal Artillery captains, which can split into two 3-man teams.
As in the Falklands War, they deploy with the SAS and SBS on operations, and have played major roles in all recent operations.
They share the Special Boat Squadrons’ base at Royal Marines Poole in Dorset.
The Royal Artillery also provides 4/73 Special Observation Post Battery – known as “Sphinx Battery”, which more recently in Afghanistan, has switched to a vehicle-borne reconnaissance and patrolling role.
RAF / AAC / Fleet Air Arm Special Forces Flights
In addition, specially trained pilots and aircrew from the RAF, Army Air Corps and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, insert and extract special forces teams, using modified Chinooks HC2 helicopters, C130s, Lynx AH7s, Seakings and Agusta A109s.
Training and Selection for UK Special Forces
Special forces – as opposed to elite forces like the Paras and Marines, are characterised by the determination of each individual to carry through with the mission even if he or she be the last one standing.
It’s assumed that people recommended for Special Forces selection are already very good team players, so Special Forces selection courses are far more individually demanding than for example the Parachute Regiment’s “P Company”, or the Commando Course.
Emphasis is on endurance and long, dark hours undertaking solitary, arduous and often seemingly impossible or even pointless tasks. The instructors provide no encouragement or motivation to aspirants, instead urging them to quit rather than waste any more of everyone else’s time.
Officers undergo a special week of individual tests of determination and planning ability mixed with sleep deprivation and diversionary tasks, their efforts often cruelly judged by the SAS senior NCOs to who they have to deliver their Orders.
The SAS and SBS have joined forces to combine their main initial selection process, culminating in a week of increasingly more gruelling marches carrying full equipment over the wet, inhospitable Brecon Beacon mountains of South Wales.
Assessment continues long after selection is completed, as people are expected to improve in the job. Remaining in a Special Forces unit is more difficult than getting there in the first place.
Special Forces selection and training is designed to test personal motivation to the point where actual operations present challenges that candidates have already overcome. There’s no point in suffering doubts at 0300 hours, in the silence after a helicopter has dropped you off 200 miles behind enemy lines.
Commando survival in Norway
During winter arctic operations (in northern Norway), despite temperatures well below zero, we’d start skiing wearing nothing but a tee shirt, windproof smock and single layer trousers – feeling very cold.
The tent, sleeping bags and stove fuel were vital, and camping skills were honed well beyond post-graduate levels. Ice had to be melted for water, dehydrated rations soaked and heated, and thermos flasks filled with water for breakfast. People did guard duty outside in pairs. In the morning, after breakfast further snow had to be melted and thermos’s filled for the days operations. Getting dressed and packing up the tent was a split-second, precision operation, with only a few minutes allowed between ‘pulling pole’ and skiing away.
Carrying very heavy equipment, we soon heated up and would sweat profusely, which if we’d allowed our warm clothes to absorb, would have killed us very quickly once we stopped.
We’d stop every hour for ten minutes, replacing most of our many layers of clothing starting with our furry hats, then stripping off again just before re-starting.
We ate 5000 calories and more every day (lots of chocolate…) and drank a lot of water, as the heavy sweating and dry, cold winds were extremely dehydrating.