Last Updated: 08 August, 2016

1.0     Introduction

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 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:

  1. Counter Indirect Fire;
  2. Base ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance); and
  3. 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).

1.2     Background

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.

1.3     Role

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

2.1     Eligibility

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.

Emblem, Lateo Triangle, 4-73 Spec Obser BatteryTraining 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.

STA Patrols Course

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).

3.0     Miscellaneous

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.

3.2     Promotion

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.

4.0     References

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: [Accessed: 08 August, 2016].


5 thoughts on “4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery Royal Artillery

  1. An excellent and well informed piece.
    I challenge the “advanced observation equipment” comment though, perhaps you meant “old, out of date, too heavy and not fit for purpose” – but maybe things have improved in the Army..

  2. Is it possible to get a copy of last years course program please? or just the hill phase so i know what am training for thank you.

    1. (Former Badged Member of 4/73) This information maybe slightly out of date, but was accurate at the time of my Course (2012 and 2013/2014) The Hills phase consists of three weeks of team, pairs and individual navigation routes within Otterburn training area (X/Y/Z in the north of the area if you military maps). At the end of each of the three weeks there were assessment trials to gauge how your fitness and endurance was improving. Although these were tough they were not pass fail tests but your performance was obviously monitored by the D.S) These three weeks are designed to familarise you with the area, practice route selection and get KM in your legs, each day was between a minimum of 12Km and as much as 20Km especially in the individual third week, and each day the weights in your bergan increased.. Word to the wise – although there is a temptation to “bergan watch” and follow the man in front, it does not pay off…

      The forth week is test week. First is the 10mile, 20KG? best effort, the first 5miles being cross country and then back in on tarmac fr the final 4miles. The following day is the individual 22km Nav 4.5?hours with 22kg plus and the next day the 18Km individual Nav 3.5 hours with 22Kg plus.. Assuming you pass all these then comes the 42KM cross country group march (FYI its NOT flat at any point!..)

      On my course and to the best of my knowloedge, nobody gets forced to leave the course during hills, the D.S just wait out for the slow and weak to V.W and will drive arpund the area in Landy and minibus waiting like vultures to pounce on anyone who wraps or gets caught on the tarmac (which is strictly OOB.) Not that you would, but obviously dont expect any words of encouragement or support from D.S, infact expect the opposite. The hills are there to weed out those who cant endure and push themselves through.. The vast majority of þose who rock up on day one dont see the end of week Two, but if you make it through to and beyond test week then it becomes more training rather than whitling away the chaff, and you will be glad fpr the miles in your legs as the weights on the test execises and þe infill routes are honking!
      Its all worth it if you get badged as ots a great Battery and a good place to be. Good luck.

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