Last Updated: 08 August, 2016
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, usually known as the Royal Artillery, currently has two Batteries allocated to the observation role:
- 4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery; and
- 148 (Meiktila) Commando Forward Observation Battery.
4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery provides the British Army’s Surveillance and Target Acquisition capability and 148 Commando Forward Observation Battery provides the Royal Naval Service’s (Royal Navy and Royal Marines) fire support capability.
This focus of this article, 4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery, better known as “Sphinx Battery”, forms part of 5 Regiment Royal Artillery. Its sister Reserve unit is 1 Special Observation Post Squadron, Honourable Artillery Company.
5 Regiment is the British Army’s Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) regiment, and is a singleton regiment meaning it is the only unit which provides these capabilities. On operations, a Theatre STA Battery acts as the eyes of the troops on the ground. 5 Regiment provides three main capabilities:
- Counter Indirect Fire;
- Base ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance); and
- Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) Patrols.
As part of Army 2020, Sphinx Battery sits within the British Army’s 1st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade, set up in September 2014.
This article is divided into three sections for easier reading, starting with Section One which provides a brief introduction, gender, background and role of the battery. Section Two provides an overview of the course that Special Observers must undertake. Finally Section Three provides some miscellaneous information such as course dates and promotion.
1.1 Women and the Special Observer Role
In accordance with current Government policy on the employment of women in the UK military, service in a Special Observer role is only open to male volunteers. However, appointments do exist for women in support roles such as Human Resources.
On 08 July 2016, the MOD announced that all Ground Close Combat Roles (RAC, Infantry, Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment) would be opened to women by 2018 (British Army, 2016).
Sphinx Battery,commanded by a Major (OF-3), provides the British Army’s STA Patrol capability. STA Patrols perform a high risk FIND and FINISH function which complements the activities conducted by other Ground Manned Reconnaissance assets. They work as independent 4-6 man teams and are uniquely trained and configured to operate in isolation, at range and in close proximity to the enemy. They are capable of deploying advanced technical surveillance equipment to develop deep understanding of a target area.
STA Patrols are also trained to control the full spectrum of Joint Fires, enabling them to deliver a long range FINISH capability. This includes covert camera systems that can record a stream of live footage and images by day or night to hi-tech satellite communications to direct fire from artillery, attack helicopters, fast jets or precision missiles to destroy enemy targets.
Teams may be required to live self sufficiently for up to a week without letting the enemy know they are there.
As well as keeping a close eye on the enemy, special observers are fighting troops ready for close range combat. If required, they can also take control of the full spectrum of joint fires, meaning they can destroy a target as well as observe it. Such techniques have proved invaluable in every major theatre of operations since this role was introduced into the British Army in 1982.
The original concept of operations for this unit was for a number of patrols to dig underground shelters and allow the advancing enemy forces to pass by them. Following this, two pairs of Gunners would emerge from each underground patrol shelter to direct fire from 5 Regiment’s guns.
A great deal of thought went into selection and training with visits to P Company (then at Aldershot), Royal Marines training at CTCRM Lympstone and UKSF at Hereford. Input was also sought from Brigadier (later General Sir Michael) Wilkes, the then chief of Staff 3rd Armoured Division, a Royal Artillery Officer who had previously commanded 22 Special Air Service Regiment, this eventually led to a unique selection and training course. Course number 1 was set up and the “Stay Behind Special OP Troop” was born in 1982.
The first selection team included instructors from the SAS, Royal Marine Commandos and the Parachute Regiment, all seconded to 5 Regiment. The Battery retained permanent SAS representation in the form of a Warrant Officer Class Two (WO2) from the SAS until the start of operations in Afghanistan. Originally the course was confined to soldiers from 5 Regiment but was soon opened to units across the Royal Artillery as a whole, and then eventually all parts of the UK military.
Life as a Special Observer can be a great two-year posting or a permanent change of direction for personnel.
The role of Sphinx Battery is to move ahead of friendly forces, often behind enemy lines, in order to be the eyes and ears of the Army and collect crucial information on the pattern of life and enemy movements in the region. In military lingo the high-risk role focuses on the find, understand and finish functions – locating and establishing static covert surveillance on the enemy, gathering intelligence for the chain of command and, if required, calling in joint fires to take out the position.
Personnel operate in teams of six, which must be able to operate alone and at range for up to seven days.
Whilst in Afghanistan Sphinx Battery switched to a vehicle-borne reconnaissance and patrolling role.
2.0 Special Observer Selection and Training
Regular forces aspirants can become Special Observers by joining the Royal Artillery and volunteering for Sphinx Battery selection during Phase 1 initial training or by applying to join the unit from any other part of the UK military. Regular forces aspirants should be male and over 16 but less than 33 years of age.
Reserve forces aspirants can volunteer for the STA Patrols Course after Phase 1 initial training. Reserve forces aspirants should be male and over 18 but less than 43 years of age. There are no formal qualifications required for either Regular or Reserve forces aspirants.
2.2 Briefings and Preparation
As I understand it, there are no formal briefings or preparation for this course.
2.3 Surveillance and Target Acquisition Patrols Course
“To become fully qualified members undergo a total of 47 weeks training, including a 13-week selection course which has a pass rate of less than 15%” (Soldier, 2015, p.25).
The 13-week STA Patrols Course is delivered once a year, starting at the end of August, and begins with 3-weeks of fitness and navigation training in the Northumbrian hills. The process then covers medical procedures, communications, patrol skills, observation post construction, live firing and culminates in a final test exercise.
Training then moves to advanced photography and training in how to call in artillery strikes. Finally, candidates will conduct SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist and Extract) training, learning how to survive in the field on their own and how to avoid capture by enemy forces. After SERE training candidates will then be ready to join a patrol and deploy on operations anywhere in the world.
If candidates pass this course they can wear the coveted Lateo Triangle – the badge of the Special Observers.
2.4 Army Reserve STA Course
After a 3-month foundation package the Reserve course is run in parallel with the Regular course, integrating on key parts of the training and test exercises.
“Training for Reservists previously took place separately but for the first time members of the Honourable Artillery Company undertook the assessment phase and challenging final test exercise alongside their full-time counterparts.” (Soldier, 2014, p.17).
3.1 Additional Skills and Qualifications
Special Observers constantly train and develop new skills, which could include:
- Advanced driving licenses;
- Operating sophisticated communications, surveillance and photographic equipment;
- Advanced forces medical training;
- Forward Air Controller, directing fast jets and attack helicopters onto targets; and/or
- Qualify as a Jungle Warfare Instructor.
All soldiers in the Royal Artillery start out at the rank of Gunner and focus on developing their skills.
As a Lance Bombardier individuals get more responsibility within the Patrol, and might specialise in communications, or become an advanced forces medic. At this rank individuals also ensure that junior soldiers have all the skills and knowledge for the high standards of soldiering needed to conduct long-range patrols.
As a Bombardier individuals have gained leadership experience, and a thorough grasp of STA Patrols. At this rank an individual will be a Patrol second-in-command, and will become more specialised as either the Artillery Controller or Forward Air Controller.
At the rank of Sergeant, individuals will undertake the role of Patrol Commander.
3.3 Course Dates
Dates of the Regular and Reserve STA Patrols Course covered in this article are published annually in the relevant DIN (currently 2015DIN07-030). Alternatively course dates can be obtained from the Training Cell of Sphinx Battery.
3.4 Recruitment and Retention Pay
There is no recruitment and retention pay applicable to this role.
3.5 Useful Documents
- Soldier: Magazine of the British Army, March 2014, pp.32-35.
Soldier (2014) Surveillance Specialists Join Forces. Soldier: The Magazine of the British Army. December 2014, pp.17.
Soldier (2015) Jungle Brothers. Soldier: The Magazine of the British Army. July 2015, pp.22-26.
British Army (2016) Ground Close Combat Roles Open To Women. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.army.mod.uk/news/28632.aspx. [Accessed: 08 August, 2016].