PART ONE: BACKGROUND
Opportunities exist for members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to serve in Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SASR); invariably known as either the SAS or ‘the Regiment’. The route into the SASR for all ADF personnel is via a highly structured and formal selection and training process.
This process for joining the SASR consists of several steps, the most famous of which is the SASR Selection Course, simply known as ‘Selection’. It is three weeks of near torture, and those in charge show little mercy. They deprive applicants of food, sleep and humanity, usually while pushing them on ridiculously long treks or forcing them to scale seemingly impossible terrain. This is most often done while carrying a pack, leaving those who do not make it, and sometimes those who do, with serious injuries.
In times of armed conflict and war SASR personnel are required to operate in small parties in enemy controlled territory. Operations of this nature require individuals of courage and high morale who are self-disciplined, intelligent, reliable, determined and physically fit, and who possess mental, moral and physical stamina. During peacetime, overseas deployments for training are frequent though usually of short duration; this is balanced by greater stability for families who are able to remain in the Swanbourne area. The SASR will operate in support of conventional forces or independently as directed by the Special Operations Command (SOCOMD).
The role of SOCOMD is to provide ready and relevant forces to conduct special operations across the operational continuum in a joint, combined or interagency environment. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Davies et al., 2014) suggests that SOCOMD facilities this role through a number of potential missions which can be classed as either a direct approach or an indirect approach (simplistically combat focussed and support focussed respectively). As such, SOCOMD assets undertake a number of roles, with a degree of interaction and interoperability:
- Counter-terrorism (CT);
- Unconventional Warfare (UW);
- Covert reconnaissance (CR);
- Special reconnaissance (SR) operations;
- Precision strike (PS) and direct action (DA) operations;
- Special recovery operations (SRO);
- Close protection (CP);
- Counter-revolutionary warfare (CRW, proxy and guerrilla warfare);
- Reconnaissance of the deep battlespace;
- Offensive operations in the deep battlespace;
- Battlespace preparation in transition to war;
- Infrastructure disruption;
- Capture of subjects of interest;
- Human intelligence (HUMINT) collection;
- Defence diplomacy;
- Specialist support (other units of ADF, non-military agencies or coalition forces); and
- Special shaping missions (e.g. training of other nations’ armed forces).
The SASR also provides Australia’s domestic immediate response Military Counter Terrorism (CT) and Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) teams, working closely with state and federal police forces.
Finally, it must be emphasised that a candidate must be physically fit at the beginning of the SASR Selection course if they are to stand any chance of success. The course requires far greater expenditure of physical energy than is normally required in other peace time training. It is essential that candidates arrive fully fit, carrying no injuries and with a sound grasp of basic navigational techniques.
For most SASR aspirants there will be three main stages to becoming SASR-trained:
- Stage 1: Preparation: various psychological, physical and medical elements.
- Stage 2: Selection: The SASR Selection Course (21-days); and
- Stage 3: Employment Training: Reinforcement Cycle (18-months).
This article is divided into five parts for easier reading, starting with Part One which provides a background to the SASR, gender, brief history and organisation of the SASR. Part Two looks at entry standards and applications before moving onto an overview of the latest iteration of selection and training for SASR aspirants (the information most people are after) which looks at the various tests/assessments that must be successfully completed during the course. Part Three provides an outline of the units and training areas encountered during SASR training and selection. Finally, Part Five provides some useful information such as useful links and documents.
The aim of this article is to describe the fundamental entry requirements, selection process and general conditions of service for personnel seeking to serve in the SASR.
1.2 Women and SASR
In accordance with current Australian Government policy on the employment of women in the ADF, service in the SASR is open to male and female volunteers. First announced in 2011, women could apply for frontline roles (e.g. Infantry) from 2013, and Commando and SASR roles from October 2015 (originally January 2016) (Henderson, 2013; Fox, 2015).
Other appointments also exist for males and females within SOCOMD such as support staff.
1.3 Tier 1 and Tier 2 Special Forces
The SASR is the first of three combat capable units within SOCOMD and is a special missions unit with unique capabilities within the ADF. The other two units being:
- 1st Commando Regiment; and
- 2nd Commando Regiment.
The SASR and Australian Commandos are sometimes referred to as ‘Tier 1’ Special Forces (SF) units because they are the units usually tasked with direct action. Other special operations forces are referred to as ‘Tier 2’ units as they, usually, fulfil a supporting role for the Tier 1 units.
1.4 Brief History of the SASR
The SASR can trace its beginnings back to the Australian Z Special Unit and Independent Commando Companies that fought during the Second World War. On 25 July 1957, the 1st Special Air Service Company, Royal Australian Infantry, was raised at Campbell Barracks, Swanbourne, in Western Australia; largely modelled on the British SAS.
“The Company consisted of a headquarters and four platoons comprising about 200 all ranks by the time it became part of The Royal Australian Regiment in 1960.” (SAS Historical Foundation, 2013). At the same time it was given responsibility for commando and SF operations in the Australian Army.
On 04 September 1964, the 1st Special Air Service Company was expanded to become the Special Air Service Regiment with three sabre squadrons (SAS Historical Foundation, 2013). Following disengagement from Vietnam in October 1971, 2 Squadron was disbanded to allow the SAS Training Squadron to be raised (later renamed the SAS Support Squadron, subsequently the Operational Support Squadron).
The SASR gained its CT remit on 23 February 1978 after a terrorist attack on the Sydney Hilton on the 13 February in the same year. In order to maintain the SASRs CT and war role capabilities, in 1982 the disbanded 2 Squadron was reformed (SAS Historical Foundation, 2013).
1.5 Organisation of the SASR
Officially, the size of the SASR is classified (Dodd, 2007), but its reported strength varies with figures of between 500 and 700 personnel appearing in different sources: 500 (Walters, 2006, p.11); 550 (Miller, 2003, p.12); and 700 (Micheletti, 2003, p.133).
Based at Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne (Western Australian), the SASR is a battalion-sized element and is known to be made up of a regimental headquarters (HQ), three sabre squadrons, an operational support squadron, a base squadron and a signals squadron (Horner, 2001). Two sabre squadrons maintain the SASRs war-fighting capability and also train for operational contingencies, while a third squadron is maintained on rotation for counter terrorist (CT) or recovery operations in support of State or Federal police forces (Horner, 2002). The existence of a fourth sabre squadron has been reported in the media but has never been publicly acknowledged (Epstein & Welsh, 2012). The regiment is currently believed to be organised as follows (Horner, 2001; Miller, 2003; Epstein & Welsh, 2012):
- Regimental HQ: led by the CO, a Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4), the RHQ is responsible for maintaining the readiness and combat capabilities of the SASR.
- 1, 2 and 3 Squadron (1 SAS, 2 SAS, and 3 SAS) are the three Sabre squadrons, or primary combat units, of the SASR with approximately 90-100 personnel each (Micheletti, 2003) and commanded by a Major (OF-3). It is believed each squadron is comprised of a HQ Troop, 3 SAS Troops (Water Troop, Free-Fall Troop and Land Troop) (IHS, 2014) and a Signals Troop. A troop, commanded by a Captain (OF-2), comprises four patrols with five or six operators in each patrol (Lee, 2007), and each patrol commanded by a Sergeant (OR-6) (Horner, 2002).
- 4 Squadron (4 SAS): it is alleged that 4 SAS works in conjunction with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). Epstein & Welch (2012) state it is based in Victoria, at Swan Island in Port Phillip Bay, a high-security facility that has doubled in size in the past decade, in part to accommodate the new squadron. The squadron was formally raised in 2005 by the Howard government but its intelligence-focused role was only authorised in late 2010 or early 2011 (Epstein & Welch, 2012).
- 5 Squadron (5 SAS): is the Army Reserve element of the SASR and acts as the reserve support force.
- Base Squadron: provides administrative and logistic support. It also contains several specialised wings such as the Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) Wing.
- Operational Support Squadron: specialist training (selection and training courses) and trials of new techniques and equipment.
- 152 Signal Squadron: provides highly specialised communications equipment to the SASR, as well as being responsible for electronic warfare (offensive and defensive). It allegedly provides one signaller to each 5-Man Patrol. Signals Corps personnel undertake the same SASR selection and reinforcement cycle as the rest of the ADF, however, they are rarely released for Corps transfer to the Infantry due to the requirement to provide SAS qualified signallers to the SASR. Although personnel from 152 signal squadron are encouraged to attempt selection, as a rule if they pass selection they remain in the signal squadron rather than transfer into a sabre squadron.
One source suggests that the SASR also has the 1st Special Reconnaissance Squadron (1 SRS) and describes it as the SASRs own special intelligence asset, specialising in human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). However, 1 SRS could be another name for 4 SAS or something else altogether.
For surveillance operations the SASR usually operates in patrols; however, for CT operations it usually employs larger force elements (Horner, 2002). Support personnel include: signallers; mechanics and technicians; medical staff; supply specialists; drivers; caterers; and various other specialists (Micheletti, 2003). It was reported in 2012 that six female soldiers were being trained in the US for their work with 4 Squadron (Epstein & Welsh, 2012). As of 2003, 152 Signal Squadron comprised at least four troops (DOD, 2003).
The basic sub-unit of the SASR is the 5-Man Patrol, the basic building block of SASR operations, and consists of four operators and one signaller. Easily expanded from 5 to 10, 15 and 20 man patrols, the basic unit is made up of: a Corporal/Sergeant as the patrol commander; a combat medical specialist; a demolitions specialist; a marksman specialist; and a signaller.
Former SASR officers have also risen to the top echelons of military command, and in 2015 three SASR-qualified officers held senior positions (McPhedran, 2015):
- Chief of Army: Lieutenant General Angus Campbell;
- Deputy Chief of Army: Major General Rick Burr; and
- Forces Commander: Major General Gus Gilmore.
1.6 Selection and Training Ethos for the SASR
Special Forces (SF), as opposed to Elite Forces like Paratroopers and Commandos, are characterised by the determination of each individual to carry through with the mission even if they be the last one standing. However, it must be noted that Australia classifies its Commando personnel as SF.
There is a presumption that personnel recommended for SASR Selection are already very good team players, and as a result SASR Selection courses are far more individually demanding than for example the Australian Commando Course.
Emphasis is on endurance and long, dark hours undertaking solitary and group, arduous and often seemingly impossible or even pointless tasks. The instructors provide no encouragement or motivation (positive or negative) to aspirants, a method known as ‘silent running’.
As identified by Horsfield (2000) the SASR has a practice of basing competitive selection for the SASR on non-specific generic personal attributes such as moral, physical and mental stamina and humour, rather than on specified, preordained and absolutist criteria. With this in mind, the core SASR ideology is heterogeneity (i.e. difference rather than homogeny, all being the same) of personalities, ideas, and perspectives. This ideology arises from the desire to continue as a genuinely unconventional force. In order to achieve the SASR must select candidates who are good communicators, sociable, independent and unassuming, well-adjusted to themselves and others and stimulated by their environment and who will promote a culture that will generate unconventional answers to strategic and tactical problems from any SASR soldier regardless of rank (Horsfield, 2000).
Candidates for the SASR are subjected to sleep and food deprivation that takes them to levels of physical exhaustion not experienced before. Exhausted candidates are required to think and speak coherently, for example, by answering questions and describing phenomena passed since the last checkpoint. In such stressful circumstances it is assumed that the ‘inner person’, the base personality traits, or how you are when you are not being observed cannot be hidden and will emerge in verbal and non-verbal communication behaviours. A candidate may arrive very fit physically on the SASR Selection Course but because the activities are so tough any fitness advantages tend to be lost in the first few days: only character and personality attributes can sustain the candidate for the rest of the course.
However, despite physical stamina being essential, the criteria of the SASR Selection Course address generic qualities, not specific physical or mental skills. Therefore, all successful candidates must possess a good measure of such qualities as practical intelligence, maturity, honesty, integrity, teamwork, initiative, discipline, leadership, stability under stress, endurance, judgement, decisiveness, influence in a group, task effectiveness, as well as having good spoken and written communication. As Horsfield (2000) describes it “The result is a mixture of physical types and personalities, and many SASR soldiers appear relatively ordinary and nondescript.”
Not officially written into the SASR Selection Course criteria is the concept of ‘a sense of humour’ that surfaces readily when things go wrong. Humour can be difficult to define, as it can take many forms and therefore it is left to the course assessors’ discretion. Humour is a very serious matter in the SASR. On one Selection Course the candidates all agreed that one of their number was a certainty for selection: the man was physically fit, coped easily, helped others and was a good team man. But he was suddenly returned to unit (RTU). Very angry, he demanded to see the CO, who told him that the reason for his rejection was his lack of a sense of humour. The candidate angrily thumped the CO’s table and said, “That’s bullshit!” The CO said, “That’s what we mean.” (Horsfield, 2000).
For those who successfully complete the SASR Selection Course, assessment will continue long after selection is completed, as personnel are expected to improve in the job. Remaining in a SF unit can be more difficult than getting there in the first place!
SF selection and training is designed to test personal motivation to the point where actual operations present challenges that candidates have already overcome. The argument being that there is no point in suffering doubts at 0300 hours, in the silence of a tactical operation, after a helicopter has dropped you off 200 miles behind enemy lines.
Unlike most training courses in the ADF, SASR Selection has a ‘select out’ policy rather the norm of ‘train in’.
PART TWO: OUTLINE OF THE SASR SELECTION PROCESS
The SASR selection process, like all Australian military courses, has evolved over the years. And, although the core principles of selection and training have not changed since the 1960s, other elements have been adapted due, for example, to lessons learnt and doctrinal changes. As such, the exact make-up of the SASR selection process has gone through a number of iterative guises with the latest version outlined in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: Outline of the SASR selection process, 2020
Although a non-direct entry role, volunteers for service with the SASR may be accepted from any part of the ADF (including the Reserves) to serve with the SASR. Commanding Officers (COs) may not withhold applications on manning or structural grounds.
In order for trained ADF personnel to be eligible to apply for SASR training they must be qualified up to 343-2 Rifleman standard, applicants will not be allowed to undertake the SASR Selection Course until they are qualified Infantrymen.
Service as an operator in Australia’s Special Forces is physically and mentally demanding and requires a high level of individual robustness, strength and endurance. Therefore, candidates must be medically and physically fit and psychologically suitable to undertake Special Forces selection and reinforcement training.
2.1 Infantry Operations Course
SASR candidates, who have not already done so, must attend the standard Royal Australian Infantry Initial Employment Training course delivered by the Australian Army’s School of Infantry located at Lone Pine Barracks, Singleton in New South Wales.
SASR candidates will attend the 72-day Royal Australian Infantry Rifleman Infantry Operations Basic (ECN 343-2) Course. All candidates will be trained and qualified in basic infantry tactics and a range of specialist infantry weapons and equipment.
Candidates who are unable to successfully complete their Infantry training will not be permitted to continue with the SASR selection process.
2.2 Special Forces Accelerated Infantry Training Programme
Those SASR candidates who successfully complete the Infantry Operations Course will then attend the 6-week Special Forces Accelerated Infantry Training Programme. This programme is delivered by the ADF School of Special Operations (ADF SSO), based at Singleton in New South Wales, and is designed to prepare SASR candidates for the Special Forces Screen Test and subsequent SASR training, as well as developing their tactical awareness.
This accelerated training will enhance a candidate’s physiological and psychological conditioning and provides an opportunity for candidates to apply the skills and knowledge developed during previous training. The programme will also provide candidates with further training in navigation, communications, first aid, and field-craft, as well as additional skills and knowledge such as instinctive weapon handling.
During the programme candidates will also commence the 15-week Commando Physical Training Package undertaken by SF candidates already serving in the ADF.
Put simply, this phase of training aims to provide candidates with more knowledge and skills, make them battle fit and mentally tougher. This training will increase a candidate’s chance of success during SF training. Most importantly, it builds a sense of commitment and motivation to becoming a SASR operator.
2.3 Commanding Officer’s Recommendation
When submitting an application for service with the SASR, candidates must seek the approval of their CO who will give a positive or negative recommendation.
2.4 Special Forces Medical Assessment
All candidates must complete a SF medical assessment no more than six months from the course start date, as these assessments are only current for six months. Over six months and the candidate will forced to undertake another SF medical assessment.
A candidate’s medical fitness will be assessed by a doctor, requiring them to complete an extensive questionnaire covering their medical history and it will be followed by a comprehensive physical examination.
2.5 Special Forces Psychological Examination
All candidates must complete a psychological examination, usually recommended at five months before the course start date. Candidates must have a completed AD343 and a COs recommendation.
This assessment, used to determine psychological suitability for service with SF, will require candidates to complete a series of questionnaires and a comprehensive interview with a qualified psychologist.
2.6 Special Forces Panelling Board
Prior to selection SASR candidates will face a ‘paper board’ convened by the ADF SSO, approximately two months prior to the course start date, to check records and see which part of the SF service the candidate is vying for (i.e. SASR or Commandos).
Approximately 80-85% (McPhedran, 2005) will meet the medical and psychological standard and continue to the Special Forces Screen Test.
2.7 Special Forces Screen Test
After the above initial screening and before commencing the SASR Selection Course, candidates will be required to show that they are committed, motivated and capable of withstanding the severe physical and environmental stresses associated with the SASR Selection Course (McKenzie, 2006).
In 2006 (McKenzie, 2006) the Special Forces Entry Test as it was then known, included:
- The run/dodge/jump course to be completed in less than 50 seconds.
- Strength test involved: a minimum of 60 push-ups; a minimum of 100 sit-ups; and a minimum of 10 heaves using any grasp.
- A 2.4km run to be completed in 11½ minutes or less with patrol order weighing 7kg, rifle and runners.
- The Special Forces swim test followed the run, which consisted of treading water for two minutes and swimming 400m in less than 18 minutes – these tests were done in Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniform (DPCUs) and runners.
- TEWT (training exercise without troops) for officers and a navigational theory test for soldiers.
- 15km endurance march, carrying 28kg, in marching order. The march had to be completed in less than two hours and 20 minutes.
Candidates now undertake the Special Forces Screening Test (SFST) which is conducted over approximately a 7-hour period and includes a range of physical assessments, and it is here where candidates are really pushed. There will also be a cognitive screening aspect to the test, which will involve an interview before a SF panel. Both of these activities are designed to determine a candidate’s suitability to attend the SASR Selection Course. The SFST is usually conducted two months prior to the course start date. To be assessed as suitable, candidates must complete a fitness assessment involving:
- Press-ups (cadence);
- Heaves (cadence) ;
- Vertec (vertical leap);
- Flexibility Test;
- Sit-up Test;
- Beep Test (shuttle run or multi-stage fitness test);
- Agility Test;
- Yo Yo Intermittent Recovery Test;
- Pack March (5km carrying 40kg) ; and
- Swim Test (2 minutes of treading water before swimming 400m in DPCUs).
- SF Screening Test Descriptions
There is no minimum standard during the SFST and individual candidates will be measured against all other candidates on the SFST, although approximately 64% will pass. At the conclusion of the SFST, a Selection Advisory Committee will be convened to determine whether candidates have the potential for service in SF and whether they are suitable to attend the SASR Selection Course. The committee’s determination will be made on a candidate’s performance during all training up to this point, including their results from the SFST.
Candidates who do not pass the SFST and are not recommended by the Selection Advisory Committee will be encouraged to undertake training for critical support trades within SF or within the general Army.
In summary, this phase of a candidate’s training will get them to a point where they are assessed as suitable to commence the SASR Selection Course.
3.0 The SASR Selection Course
After the SFST, successful candidates then continue on to the twice-yearly (Smith, 2003b) 21-day SASR Selection Course conducted at the Bindoon Training Area, Western Australia (Dodd, 2007) which assesses both the individual’s strength and endurance (mental and physical), as well as overall fitness, ability to remain calm in combat, and to work effectively in small teams (MacKenzie, 2006).
In the 2010 documentary, SAS: The Search for Warriors, the then CO of the SASR eloquently articulated the purpose of the SASR Selection Course (Prospero Productions, 2010):
“The selection course is designed to break an individual down to see their character, revealing strengths and weaknesses in situations where they are at the absolute limits of human endurance, to come up with a solution to achieve the mission. Selection gives a good insight into the soul of the individual.”
It is reported to be one of the most physical challenging and psychologically demanding military selection processes in the world, most who start will never finish. It is a test of mental and physical strength, endurance and resolve over the mountainous, rugged terrain of Western Australia. Candidates can lose significant bodyweight during the course, like Sam and Stuart who went from 68kg to 55kg and from 92 to 80kg respectively (Smith, 2003a).
During this 21-day course candidates are (nominally) based at the SASRs HQ in Perth, Western Australia, and will start with approximately 130 candidates of all ranks (i.e. officers and soldiers) drawn from across the ADF.
From the moment they step of the coach, their every move will be scrutinised by the directing staff (DS). Further, during this phase of training candidates will be taught almost nothing, instead they will learn a lot about themselves!
The course is conducted by staff from the SFTC, which was established in 1998 (Kuring, 2004) and only 16-30% pass the SASR Selection Course (McPhedran, 2005).
3.1 Withdrawal At Own Request Form
The Withdrawal at Own Request Form is the only mechanism by which a candidate can remove themselves from the SASR Selection Course. If a candidate makes use of the form they will not be able to return for another go at the SASR Selection Course.
However, if a candidate is removed from the course for another reason, i.e. a medical withdrawal because of injury, they may be able to attend another course at a later date. Some candidates attempt to take advantage of this by getting the DS to remove them from the course rather than using the form, although the DS are very wise to this trick.
3.2 Phase One: Days One to Ten
The following draws heavily on the 2010 documentary ‘SAS: The Search for Warriors’, but is supplemented by other sources.
- Candidates are issued their personal weapon and a three digit number which is worn on the left and right upper arms, and a head shot photograph is taken with this number for their course file.
- Candidates will initially form up in a hangar-type building with their equipment, with each given a camp cot (bed) as a base.
- The first task to be completed by candidates is to write an essay about themselves (which invariably draws a few nervous grins and muffled laughs). Candidates are told to demonstrate their literary skills and clarity of thought by submitting an erudite, inventive and stimulating essay.
- Next candidates are issued with their course kit, followed by the instruction to remove all clothing (including watches, underpants and dog tags). The candidates must then follow specific instructions from the DS. Whilst responding to these instructions, the naked candidates are asked questions by female soldiers; the purpose of which is to ‘level out’ candidates and place them out of their comfort zone. Responding to uncertain situations is an important skill for SASR soldiers.
- Once all kit has been packed the candidates will now leave the hangar building for a bush camp, Bindoon Training Area North of Perth, where the real training will begin.
- Driven two hours in to the night, the candidates are then marched another 8km to the bush camp (carrying all their kit).
- At the bush camp, candidates will be housed in a cold shell of a building known as ‘The Embassy’; it will be well past midnight before they are allowed to sleep.
- At approximately 02:00 the candidates will be awoken by sound emanating from speakers situated around their sleeping area, and told to parade outside with their webbing and weapons.
- From this point forward the candidates will be continually torn from their beds and punished for any indiscretions, and the process of breaking down (known as retraining) the candidates will begin.
- After an inspection of personal equipment the candidates will experience physical training that will last hours and will include individual and group exercises (both with and without weight).
- During the daylight hours of day two candidates undergo psychological interviews with serving and ex-members of the SASR who will probe for any mental weakness. This may include referring back to the essays written on day one or making inferences on the candidate’s current job role (e.g. stereotypes about PTIs). This is partly to gauge the initial reaction of the candidate (i.e. body language) and how they respond (i.e. verbally).
- Part of day three is a brutal ‘circuit-style’ PT session, which is used to gauge how the candidates are ‘travelling’. There will be a delineation between the strong members of the course and the candidates who haven’t prepared themselves properly or are not going to finish the course.
- The PT session is designed to create fatigue and put the candidates out of their comfort zone.
- By now there will have been a steady stream of candidates who will have requested removal from the course. After a psychological assessment they will be left to reflect in ‘Camp Happy’ before being transported back to their original units.
- Of the original 130 candidates less than 90 still remain.
- The first timed loaded march is a 20km (20 clicker, 12.43 miles) pack march carrying 28kg (61.73lb, 20kg in the pack and 8kg in the webbing) in under three hours and 15 minutes. The test is repeated on day 10, six days later, for those who fail first time. The purpose of this march is to confirm that candidates can ‘land’ at a strategic insertion point and march to the mission objective (as well as a simple fatigue factor for the course).
- This is an individual test meaning no PTI is time keeping and, apart from safety staff, no DS will interfere in a candidate’s progress.
- Water jerrycans for fluid replenishment are provided en-route for 1) hydration and 2) so candidates remain within pack weight.
- Some candidates will cover the distance relatively quickly, with over 30 minutes remaining whilst others will be 30 minutes over the time limit.
- At this stage of the course, over a third of the candidates will have withdrawn (either voluntarily or by the DS).
- With fatigue and injury taking its toll, the tempo of the course is ‘moved up a gear’.
- Candidates will now face a kaleidoscope of intense obstacle courses, including blacked out, water filled obstacles, aerial courses and combat exercises (e.g. house clearing scenarios).
- Candidates will also participate in roleplaying designed to test the body and mind. The candidates must attempt to collect intelligence whilst engaged in a conversation and being distracted by the SASR ‘actors’, who will utilise a number of devious ploys to facilitate this distraction.
- Solo navigation exercise: one of the aims of this exercise is to continue the physical wearing down of the candidates whilst providing enough space to encourage their growing self-doubt.
- Candidates will not just aimlessly wonder cross-country, they must visit checkpoints (all checkpoints during the day and minimum of two at night).
- They will cover 68km to 76km.
- Typically the DS will ask the candidates which checkpoint they have just come from and then direct them to the next one, whilst at the same time asking how many they have visited (and informing them that they are probably behind everyone else!).
- A number of candidates will be forced to withdraw due to fractures sustained during this navigation exercise. Due to the levels of fatigue that candidates will be experiencing they will be very prone to stumbling into potholes and falling down when climbing the hills.
- Day seven is a continuation of the solo navigation exercise.
- Those candidates who make it to this stage, evening of Day Eight, will receive a few hours of respite from the relentless pace of the course back at the bush camp. They are given some time to sort their equipment out and to get some much needed sleep.
- Once again the candidates will be awoken by sound emanating from speakers situated around their sleeping area, and told to parade outside where they will receive another gruelling PT session lasting hours.
- Scenarios: in this scenario candidates must demonstrate that they can plan well, under pressure in a foreign land. The candidates will be asked to develop a plan to achieve a particular objective, but at this stage, due primarily to fatigue, they may forget to apply even the basic principles of patrolling (i.e. enemy strength, positions etc).
- Candidates will now proceed up a steep hill (wearing 8kg webbing and weapon) to where the next tortuous PT session will start.
- In order to cull more candidates the DS apply maximum physical and emotional pressure, whilst the candidates will move up and down the hill completing individual and group exercises.
- The DS will keep the tempo up until the desired affect is achieved, i.e. candidates want to withdraw.
- At this point less than half of the original 130 candidates will remain.
- Retest of the 20 clicker, if required!
- The route is 10km out and 10km back, with cones marking the turnaround point (where water jerrycans are provided).
- Candidates who fail this test a second time are immediately RTU’d (returned to unit).
- It is unclear what the other candidates, who passed first time, are doing during this retest.
- Having the physical fitness and mental resolve to stay on the course does not guarantee selection, nor does passing the required tests. Every result and every behavioural trait is observed and recorded, and entered into a database (Table 1).
- The remaining 53 candidates are told to form up outside The Embassy, for some this will be their last act on the SASR Selection Course.
- 6 candidates will be removed from the course after being judged unsuitable for service with the SASR.
Table 1: Examples of SASR Selection Course Assessments
3.3 Phase Two: Days Eleven to Twenty One
Phase two of the SASR Selection Course starts with 47 candidates out of the original 130.
Day Eleven to Fifteen:
- After the punishing routine of the first 10 days, the candidates now face a whole new ball game; Exercise Happy Wanderer!
- As the CO SASR states: “There are certain circumstances where a patrol will be required to infiltrate very long distances over very rugged terrain. So Happy Wanderer tests that. It also tests their ability to traverse that terrain when they are at the very limits of their human performance.”
- Happy Wanderer will test a candidate’s ability to navigate, traverse rough terrain, operate by themselves (e.g. remain optimistic despite the uncertainty) and push themselves to their limit.
- Dropped into one of the most isolated and rugged mountain ranges in (Western) Australia, carrying over 50 kg on their backs each candidate is now on their own. All candidates carry radios for communications and emergency purposes.
- Candidates will navigate up to 150 km over 5-days, scaling treacherous peaks and crossing vast, inhospitable valleys.
- As one instructor states: “They have been through quite a lot, their bodies are fatigued, and this is going to fatigue them even more. Then once they do get to these hills, its serious business trying to get up them.”
- One candidate comments that all the checkpoints appear to be at the top of mountains, separated by 25 km legs.
- At no point will candidates be told how they are doing, how best to approach the task or even if it is achievable.
- Some candidates may get two checkpoints in one day and another may not get a checkpoint for a day and a half!
- By day three of Happy Wanderer another 9 candidates will have withdrawn themselves.
- On the fifth and final day of Happy Wanderer the DS will radio all the candidates to return to the base camp, where they will be transported 6 hours north back to the base at Bindoon.
- At this point the DS will, once again, consider the performance of all candidates, and probably cull more from the course. Concurrently, the candidates are left outside, unfed, and uncertain as to their fate whilst the DS discuss who will continue onto the next evolution of training.
- Another 2 candidates are removed, leaving 36 out of the original 130.
Day Sixteen to Twenty-One:
- If Happy Wanderer didn’t fatigue the candidates, then the 5-day Exercise Lucky Dip certainly will.
- The candidates will be provided with just one hot meal and allowed virtually no sleep whilst undertaking a variety of extreme mental and physical challenges.
- Lucky Dip tests a candidate’s determination and tenacity to get the job done, despite knowing that it probably won’t be completed.
- For example, the candidates could find themselves plunged into a fictitious civil war where they must do whatever they can to aid the guerrilla leaders.
- For many of the candidates, these 5-days will be the most difficult of their lives.
- The first night is spent talking with a local chief.
- On the morning of the second day of Lucky Dip, the candidates get a tastier of the purpose of these 5-days. They will be given ‘impossible tasks’ by the DS who are posing as the guerrilla leaders. Whilst still carrying their packs, the candidates must move objects as a team across country (typically several 7-10 km). Just like the role-play scenarios, the purpose is to see how the candidates react.
- Although the DS will be assessing the task leader (who is rotated throughout), they will also look for others who may have a better solution (as well as those who just hang back).
- By the end of the first day of Lucky Dip another 7 candidates will have withdrawn themselves from the course.
- Finally, on Day Three of Lucky Dip, the candidates are offered food (e.g. boiled offal and rice).
- By the final day, as one candidate puts it, “everyone is a walking ghost”.
- On the final night the DS will, for the final time, assess all of the remaining candidates and come to a collective decision. Successfully completing the 21-day course does not guarantee that a candidate will be selected.
- Of the 130 who started the course, only 26 will be selected for the next phase, employment training (otherwise known as the reinforcement training).
3.4 Other Examples of SASR Selection Course Activities
On one Selection Course activity a famished team was given food to take to a ‘starving patrol,’ a task that necessitated a 2-day march on an empty stomach. The team was told that if the food was delivered untouched then it would be rewarded with a hot chicken dinner. They completed the task, and the chicken dinner was ready for them. However, the chickens had not been plucked or prepared, and some of the hungry team refused to eat the broiled meal. Others were marked down for pouring the nutritious broth out onto the ground in a vain search for vegetables (The Battle for the Golden Road, Channel 9 Perth, 1984).
Supervisors assess candidates’ verbal and non-verbal reactions closely, both as individuals and as team members – the candidate must pass both. For example, SASR soldiers must know Morse code and on one Selection Course a Morse code receiving test was administered to physically exhausted applicants. The test given was intentionally too hard for the candidates and their behaviours during the test were observed. Some became stressed but the more likely applicants rejected the test, shrugged, laughed or gave up without undue concern.
Another typical Selection Course activity requires candidates to form a team and move a laden but wheel-less jeep five kilometres along a track within a given time. They were given four rimless tyres to assist them. This pointless and exhausting activity tested commitment to soldiering, initiative, leadership, lateral thinking, team cooperation, and endurance.
Disappointments or ‘sickeners’ may figure in SASR Selection Course strategies. These frustrations help to identify the candidate who is sustained by a false or romantic idea of being in the SASR or whose mental calendar has identified a date on which the ordeal of the SASR Selection Course will end. For example, the candidates will be told the Selection Course is over and they have passed, and the assessors offer congratulations all round. Then in their moment of triumph candidates will be told the SASR Selection Course is actually still on and they have to start up again. Some candidates, despite having passed 3-weeks of exhausting tasks, have withdrawn themselves at this point. Most dropouts are by candidates withdrawing themselves but the rejection process begins very early and the instructors can RTU (return to unit, that is, fail) a candidate at any time.
3.5 Officers’ Assessment
The officers on the course face the additional hurdle of having to meet extra criteria, including decision making under pressure and group acceptance based on written peer ratings.
A self-assessment form for officer candidates is used as a foil for SASR Selection Course assessment, that is, the officer’s self-assessment is compared with the DS assessment.
A crucial criterion in officer selection is their willingness to take advice and even direction from more experienced lower ranks.
4.0 Reinforcement Cycle
In the 2010 documentary, the then CO SASR informs us that most candidates will say that the hardest part was their selection, however, he states that the hardest part (for him) was the first activity after selection.
Following selection candidates, known as REO in this part of training, must complete up to 18 months of further courses (Smith, 2003a) before they join a squadron as a junior trooper (other ranks) or troop commander (officers), in what is known as the reinforcement cycle. During the reinforcement cycle another 6 candidates from the documentary fell by the wayside.
The range of courses (discussed below) attended by candidates during the reinforcement cycle will include weapons, basic patrolling, parachuting, combat survival, signaller/medic, heavy weapons, demolitions, method of entry, and urban combat, before posting to a sabre squadron if successful (Smith, 2003b). All members of the SASR are parachute qualified, and each member of a patrol has at least one specialisation, including medic, signaller, explosive expert or linguist (Horner, 2001).
Each of the three sabre squadrons works on a three-year training and operational cycle, although the system is flexible and can be accelerated or varied depending on operational requirements and deployments.
- In the first year new members of the regiment develop their individual skills and practice the new techniques they have been taught, while more experienced members undertake advanced courses.
- In the second year mission skill sets for conventional warfare are trained.
- While in the third year clandestine tasks are practiced and the squadron becomes the online CT squadron (Micheletti, 2003; Miller, 2003). CT training includes close quarters battle (CQB), explosive entry, tubular assault (in vehicles such as in buses, trains and aircraft) and in high rise buildings, as well as room and building clearance (Miller, 2003). This training is conducted in a range of advanced facilities, including electronic indoor and outdoor CQB ranges, outdoor sniper range, and urban training facilities at Swanbourne.
Additional facilities include a special urban complex, vertical plunging range, method of entry house, and simulated oil rig and aircraft mock-ups in order to provide realistic training environments for potential operational scenarios (Horner, 2001). SASR personnel also provide training in weapons handling and the use of explosives to intelligence agents and members of elite police units at Swan Island in Victoria (Nicholson, 2007; Nautilus Institute, 2015).
Examples of the courses that a candidate may attend include:
- Basic SASR Patrol Course: The basic SASR patrol course is one of the first modules undertaken in the reinforcement cycle (Smith, 2003a).
- Urban Combat Course (6-weeks) (Smith, 2003a).
- Special Forces Weapons Course, including heavy weapons (3-weeks): the Heavy Weapons element of the course is designed to train and qualify SF personnel in a suite of large calibre tripod and vehicle-mounted heavy machine guns that are integral weapon systems to SF on certain operations.
- Special Forces Demolitions Course (2-weeks): this course is designed to train and qualify personnel in the TTPs of SF demolition techniques, such as the preparation, carriage, placement and initiation of demolition charges.
- Special Forces Basic Parachute Course, including water insertion (3-weeks); this course is designed to qualify personnel as a paratrooper. It consists of two components. The first component is the standard basic parachute course that trains personnel to conduct parachute descents onto land, by day or night, carrying combat equipment. The second component trains and qualifies personnel to conduct parachute descents into water, by day or night, again carrying combat equipment, as part of a special operations amphibious activity. This is why personnel are asked if they are a volunteer for parachuting. If personnel enjoy this course, there are advanced parachute courses that involve jumping from higher altitudes and using advanced parachutes. These are available to personnel later in their career as a SASR operator. In addition to Static Line insertion techniques SF also maintain a range of amphibious insertion techniques that employ parachuting. These techniques are Parachute Load Follow, Parachute/Ship Rendezvous and Beach Parallel insertions.
- Special Forces Signals Course (3-weeks); communications are essential to SF operations and, as a result, this course is designed to train personnel to operate secure tactical and operational radio-telephone communications equipment, integral to SF.
- Special Forces Military Roping Course (2-weeks); as SF, personnel will be required to operate in a range of environments, including the requirement to operate in the vertical environment. This is true in both the field environment, such as cliffs, and in the urban environment including high-rise buildings. Therefore, this course trains personnel in the TTPs for negotiating vertical obstacles, both ascending and descending, in the field and urban operational environments. It also trains personnel in the TTPs for equipment haulage, and self and other person rescue. This course can also include training in airborne roping techniques depending on the availability of rotary wing aircraft, or this can be completed separately. Therefore, if personnel are thinking of applying for SF they should not be afraid of working at height.
- Combat First Aiders Course (3-weeks): this course will train personnel in advanced first aid, including advanced resuscitation and casualty management skills, casualty evacuation procedures and preventive medicine principles.
5.0 End of the SASR Selection Process
Only on successful completion of reinforcement training will candidates be ‘badged’ as members of the SASR, receiving the coveted sand-coloured beret with the distinctive winged dagger insignia, and posted to an operational Sabre Squadron within the SASR.
Advancement through the ranks requires the completion of the same promotion courses as the rest of the conventional Army.
Possibly 10% of the original candidates who started the SASR Selection Course 18 months ago may reach this stage!
PART THREE: TRAINING UNITS AND AREAS
6.0 ADF School of Special Operations
The ADF School of Special Operations role is to conduct individual SF recruitment, selection, training and education to meet force generation, trade and professional development requirements for SOCOMD.
Information on the ADF School of Special Operations can be found here.
6.1 ADF Parachuting School
The ADF Parachuting School (ADF PS) is located in Nowra, NSW, at HMAS Albatross. ADF PS provides the ADF with training all areas of personnel parachuting.
Information on the ADF Parachuting School can be found here.
6.2 Operational Support Squadron
The Senior Course Instructor, a Warrant Officer (WO, OR-9), for SASR Selection is responsible for the day-to-day (operational) management of the training and selection of potential SF candidates in the SASR, overseeing course instructors and all SF candidates.
The Operational Support Squadron was previously known as SAS Support Squadron, and prior to this the SAS Training Squadron (SAS Historical Foundation, 2013).
6.3 Campbell Barracks
Located in suburban Perth, the low-key army base in Swanbourne, has been the base of the SASR since it was established in 1957.
6.4 Bindoon Training Area
Most training takes place at Bindoon army base, northeast of Perth, which includes live-fire ranges, training areas and an SAS mock-up area with ‘The Embassy’ building and sniper towers.
An official leaflet by the Australian Government from 2013 outlines the purpose of the Bindoon Training Area, WA.
6.5 Swan Island Training Area
The Swan Island Training Area is located on the eastern part of Swan Island, near Queenscliff in Victoria. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service acquired the 175 hectare property in the late 1950s from the Royal Australian Navy.
It is used primarily for the training of ASIS agents, and also is the location of a substantial ASIS communications facility and a special operations storage site. In addition to its ASIS role, the Swan Island Training Area is also used by ADF Special Forces, especially from the SASR, under the rubric of the Swan Island Army detachment (SIAD) (Nautilus Institute, 2015).
PART FOUR: SASR TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF SERVICE
The pay, pensions and service conditions within the SASR differ considerably from those in the remainder of the ADF. This section of the article outlines some of those differences.
Officers only complete the necessary basic courses to qualify them for service in the SASR, as their expertise is in planning and administration. However, they must complete additional courses to qualify as an officer in the regiment, with requisite expertise in operations, administration and command (McPhedran, 2005). In general, they do not get the opportunity to complete all of the specialist courses required of the other ranks.
A newly qualified troop commander (Captain, OF-2) is carefully mentored by both the troop Sergeant and the patrol commanders. Generally, a troop commander will only serve in the SASR for 2-3 years before returning to parent Service duties. However, they may return at a later date as a squadron commander (in the rank of Major), as the Commanding Officer (in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel), or serve in a staff appointment within SOCOMD.
There are no changes to officers’ rank or seniority on entry into the SASR. Officers’ careers, including promotion, continue to be managed by the parent Service. Subsequent tours with the SASR are subject to the aspirations of the individual and Service requirement.
8.0 Other Ranks
Other ranks may serve in the SASR for the rest of their career, but this will typically be interspersed with instructional postings. Promotion for other ranks in the SASR can be quite slow.
On receiving their sand-coloured beret, all other ranks revert to the rank of trooper (equivalent of private) and will transfer to the Royal Australian Infantry Corps (if not already in the Infantry Corps).
Most candidates are generally in their late-20s and are on average older than most soldiers (Walters, 2006). Despite a possible reduction in rank, SASR operators receive significant allowances, which make them among the highest-paid soldiers in the ADF, with a trooper earning about $100,000 per annum (Walters, 2006).
PART FIVE: MISCELLANEOUS
The SASR is open to all male and female officers and other ranks of the ADF. The SASR seeks to attract determined, highly-motivated, intelligent, reliable and physically fit individuals to serve with the SF. This article provides the basic information to allow individuals to make an informed judgement before applying for SF Selection.
9.1 Useful Documents
- Future of Australia’s Special Operations Capability, The (Davies et al., 2014).
- Special Operations Capability (2014).
- SAS: The Search for Warriors, Parts 1 and 2: developed by Prospero Productions and first aired on 07 and 14 December 2010. Won the AACTA (Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts) award for best documentary series in 2012.
- SAS Australia: Battle for the Golden Road: first aired on Channel 9 in 1984.
9.3 Youtube Footage
- SASR (15 June, 2007): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JRqK2dFQCg
- SAS: The Search for Warriors, Part 1 (25 November, 2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY08ZXSO1CI
- SAS: The Search for Warriors, Part 2 (26 November, 2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XC7OVRTihV8
- Australian SAS: The Untold History (06 February, 2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGfArakzfEU
- Former SAS Soldier Talks on a Current Affairs Programme (20 September, 2009): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_ROlTZxBXk
- Battle for the Golden Road (uploaded July 2012):
9.4 Useful Links
- SAS: The Search for Warriors on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/SAS-The-Search-for-Warriors/219471064784379
- Commando Welfare Trust: http://www.commandotrust.com/units.php
- Avalanche Endurance Events: http://www.thefandancerace.com.au/
- The Australian SAS – The Untold History (11 parts) by Dr Bruce Horsfield: http://forwardscout.com/
- Australian Military Community Forums: https://ausmilitary.com/forums/index.php
- SAS Historical Foundation: http://www.australiansas.com/
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Dodd, M. (2007) Our Smoothest Operators. Weekend Australian. Canberra: News Limited. 22 September 2007, p. 21
Epstein, R. & Welch, D. (2012) Secret SAS Teams Hunt for Terrorists. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.smh.com.au/national/secret-sas-teams-hunt-for-terrorists-20120312-1uwhy.html. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
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Lee, S. (2007) 18 Hours: The True Story of an SAS War Hero. Pymble, New South Wales: Harper Collins.
McKenzie, H. (2006) Hard Slog Pays Dividends. Available from World Wide Web: http://web.archive.org/web/20130626211812/http://www.defence.gov.au/news/armynews/editions/1138/features/feature02.htm. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
McPhedran, I. (2005). The Amazing SAS: The Inside Story of Australia’s Special Forces. Sydney, New South Wales: Harper Collins.
McPhedran, I. (2015) Army Run by Special-forces Officers. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.news.com.au/national/army-run-by-special-forces-officers/story-fncynjr2-1227387369206. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
Micheletti, E. (2003) Special Forces: War on Terrorism in Afghanistan 2001-2003. Paris: Histoire & Collections.
Miller, D. (2003) Illustrated Directory of Special Forces. St Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press.
Nautilus Institute (2015) Swan Island Training Area. Available from World Wide Web: http://nautilus.org/publications/books/australian-forces-abroad/defence-facilities/swan-island-training-area/. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
SAS Historical Foundation (2013) Australian SAS History. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.australiansas.com/History.html. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
Smith, G. (2003a) Working Outside the Square: Training with the SASR. Available from World Wide Web: http://web.archive.org/web/20130626211750/http://www.defence.gov.au/news/armynews/editions/1087/features/feature03.htm. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
Smith, G. (2003b) Adrenalin Anyone? The Truth about SASR Selection. Available from World Wide Web: http://web.archive.org/web/20121111082205/http://www.defence.gov.au/news/armynews/editions/1088/features/feature02.htm. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].
Walters, P. (2006) Unfinished Business. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/unfinished-business/story-e6frg6z6-1111112316926. [Accessed: 12 August, 2015].