“The patrolling soldiers emerge from the woodland to be greeted by a female civilian who desperately pleads for assistance from those she identifies as friendly forces.” (Long, 2020, p.31).
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 (1 ISR Bde), set up in September 2014.
The Battery “…has deployed to every major theatre of operations since its formation in 1982.” (Long, 2020, p.33), and is currently located at Marne Barracks, Catterick.
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.
“…only around 300 personnel have earned the right to wear the unit’s green triangle tactical recognition flash since it was established in 1982.” (Soldier, 2021, p.17).
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.
Provide a surveillance, reconnaissance, and joint fires capability for commanders in high-risk environments.
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 (usually) operate in teams of six, which must be able to operate alone and at range for up to ten days (Long, 2020).
Whilst in Afghanistan Sphinx Battery switched to a vehicle-borne reconnaissance and patrolling role.
The Battery provides the Commander 1 ISR Bde with the following capabilities:
- Static Covert Surveillance (SCS):
- Observation Post’s (OP’s) conducted in the rural and urban environments.
- Evidential quality stills photography:
- The ability to capture evidential quality images at range, from cover whilst remaining undetected.
- Beyond Line of Sight Communications (BLoS):
- The ability to conduct long range communications and data transfer in order to pass information and imagery to the supported commander.
- The control of Joint Fires:
- The ability for each patrol to prosecute targets with the full range of Joint Fires assets such as mortars, artillery, GMLRS and all air delivered munitions.
- Manned Aerial Surveillance and Reconnaissance (MASR):
- STA Patrols can conduct surveillance and reconnaissance from aerial platforms.
- All Close reconnaissance tasks:
- STA Patrols are trained to facilitate all light role reconnaissance tasks.
- Temporary Landing Zones (TLZs):
- STA Patrols are trained to establish and sponsor TLZs for aircraft, in order to facilitate resupply, insertion and extraction at range.
- Limited offensive action:
- STA Patrols can support offensive action using crew-served weapons.
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.
“If successful, personnel initially join in a two-year posting and then have the option of transferring to the battery to extend their stay further.” (long, 2020, p.33).
- The course is open to all three Services.
- Officer Candidates will be loaded onto the course by RA Officer Wing when Troop Commander appointments become available.
- Regular forces aspirants should be male and over 16 but less than 33 years of age, and is “open to all cap badges.” (Long, 2020, p.33).
- 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.
- Students require Security Clearance (SC) and medical clearance from their Chain of Command in the form of the Self and Commanders Certificate of medical suitability, as per JSP 950 (further details are contained within the course Joining Instructions).
- Non-RA volunteers should note:
- On successful completion of the STA Patrols Course they will retain their parent unit identity but are employed in a 4/73 Battery PID for 24 months.
- On completion of the STA Patrols Course, they will be assigned to 4/73 Battery for 24 months from the date of course completion.
- Promotion is authorised by their parent unit and granted if a suitable PID exists.
- Following a 24 month assignment the individual will return to their parent unit, unless an extension is agreed upon or the individual is permitted to transfer to the Royal Artillery in order to serve full time in 4/73 Battery.
- Successful candidates will be allowed to conduct career courses as identified by their parent unit/service while serving with 4/73 Battery.
2.2 Advice to Candidates
- Although candidates will be tested within the first week of arrival; they should have recently completed all of their Mandatory Annual Training Tests (MATTs), ACFT and Military Swim Test.
- Candidates are strongly encouraged to arrive ‘boot fit’, injury free and with the ability to conduct weighted marches.
- The course is designed to be progressive, developing the candidate’s strength, endurance, stamina and tactical awareness in order to enable individuals to patrol tactically by day and night, covering long distances over varying terrain whilst carrying a considerable burden (up to 65kg).
- Candidates must be robust, well motivated, and have a positive attitude.
- A basic level of map reading and field craft is essential.
2.3 Briefings and Preparation
4/73 Battery delivers a two week mandatory pre-course training package, known as Ex LATO FOUNDATION, for all officers and soldiers who have volunteered to attend the STA Patrols Course.
2.4 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). It is now a “14-week course.” (Long, 2020, p.31) or “ten-week selection course” (Soldier, 2021, p.17).
The STA Patrols Course, formerly known as the Surveillance and Reconnaissance Patrols Course (SRPC), is delivered once a year, starting
at the end of August February (Long, 2020), and begins with 3-weeks of fitness and navigation training in the Northumbrian hills, “… with tests over ten miles and 18, 28 and 44 kilometres…” (Long, 2020, p.31). Candidates will be covering 8 miles on day one, carrying 25 kg and personal weapon. The course is sometimes delivered twice per year, in February and August.
Attention then switches to the tactics and procedures needed at an individual through to patrol level, and covers medical procedures, communications, patrol skills, observation post construction (“sub-surface, surface, and urban environments” (Long, 2020, p.31)), and tested during a tactical exercise.
A formative patrols phase follows ahead of a live firing stage featuring several weapons (currently the SA80, general purpose manchine gun (GPMG), and pistol (Glock). The course culminates with a 2.5 week 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. As STA Patrols operate in isolation and in close proximity to the target they feature on the Troops Prone to Capture and Exploitation (TPTCE) list and must be trained to SERE Level C.
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.
2.5 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).
2.6 Unsuccessful Candidates
Candidates who fail the course or are withdrawn due to injury or compassionate reasons will be permitted to volunteer for the next course.
2.7 Successful Candidates
- On passing the course, candidates will qualify as Crewman 2000 Level 2 Special Observer and Crewman Gunner Command Systems Level 1.
- The course also exempts Gunners/Privates from having to attend a Potential Non-Commissioned Officer (PNCO) Course (or successor course).
- On completion of the STA Patrols Course candidates will also attend the following courses in order to deploy operationally:
- STA Patrol Camera Course – held at the Defence School of Photography.
- Observation Post Assistant Level 2.
- Quad bike operator.
- SERE Level C.
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 Further Tours
Personnel that have passed the course and have served a two year assignment can apply to complete further tours with the Battery.
Successful applications will require a recommendation from the Battery Commander and agreement from the individual’s parent unit.
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.
3.4 Course Dates
Dates of the Regular and Reserve STA Patrols Course covered in this article are published annually in the relevant DIN (currently
Alternatively course dates can be obtained from the Training Cell of Sphinx Battery.
3.5 Recruitment and Retention Pay
There is no recruitment and retention pay applicable to this role.
3.6 Useful Documents
- Soldier: Magazine of the British Army, March 2014, pp.32-35.
2019DIN07-117 – Volunteers for 4/73 (Sphinx) Special OP Royal Artillery (November 2019) (Amended July 2020).
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].
Long, R. (2020) Covert Quest. Soldier: Magazine of the British Army. December 2020, pp.31-34.
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.
Soldier. (2021) Special Observer Call. Soldier: Magazine of the British Army. April 2021, pp.17.