Last Updated: 08 August, 2016
The Pathfinder Platoon is a reconnaissance unit within the British Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade. Pathfinders act as the Brigade commander’s eyes and ears typically operating ahead of the Brigade’s front line, often deep behind enemy lines, where they perform advance force reconnaissance operations and mark out drop zones (DZ) and helicopter landing sites (HLS) for use by Brigade forces.
Although not technically a Special Forces unit, the levels of discipline and skills required of Pathfinders are close to, if not entirely comparable to, the United Kingdom’s Special Forces (UKSF). Indeed, a stint in the pathfinders is often a good grounding for those wishing to serve in the UKSF.
During World War II, the Pathfinders were a group of volunteers selected within the airborne units who were specially trained to operate navigation aids to guide the main airborne body to the drop zones. The pathfinder teams of the day were made up of a group of eight to twelve pathfinders and a group of six bodyguards whose job was to defend the pathfinders while they set up their equipment.
In 1942, the 21st Independent Parachute Company was formed with the task of ‘pathfinding’ around war torn Europe and was a unique concept at this point in time. The concept of pathfinding had been pioneered by Major John Lander who set about raising a company of handpicked volunteers drawn from the Parachute Regiment.
The operational role of the Pathfinders was to arrive at the drop zones half an hour in advance of the main body of airborne troops in order to set up beacons to pin point the dropping area for the advancing aircraft, to clear any obstacles from the zone that would impede the gliders, and also to lightly secure the immediate area from enemy interference. During World War II, the company saw their fair share of action including Sicily and Italy.
Following the 1982 Falklands War (Operation Corporate) 5 Airborne Brigade was established as a light, rapid reaction force for similar requirements. The brigade was formed from the Parachute Regiment, and associated airborne support assets. The Brigade Commander identified a requirement for an independent intelligence collection capability, deployable into a hostile or non-permissive environment ahead of the main force.
The primary role of the platoon was battlefield preparation, identification and marking of airborne insertion points (Parachute Drop Zone’s and Landing Zone’s) and carry out reconnaissance tasks on pre-designated targets prior to the delivery of the main body. In 1999, 5 Airborne Brigade merged with 24 Air Mobile Brigade to form 16 Air Assault Brigade with the Platoon remaining attached to the Brigade Headquarters (HQ).
The Pathfinder Platoon, in its current form, was established in 1985 with personnel drawn initially from the Patrols platoon of each of the three Parachute Battalions (David Blakely (a former Pathfinder) in his 2013 book simply states that the Pathfinders formed in the 1980s). There is record of Pathfinders in 1958 at Amman Airfield, Jordan, with 3 Para (Ferguson, 1984, p.36); also accompanying a picture Ferguson (1984, p.39) states: “Detail of the parachute, reserve, and altimeter used by HALO (‘high altitude, low opening’) jumpers. Used extensively by the SAS and SBS, the technique is being taught to the Pathfinders of the newly formed 5th Airborne Brigade.”
The British Army (as at September 2015) refers to members of the Pathfinder Platoon as ‘Parachutist Reconnaissance’ who will be part of the Pathfinders Group, and must complete the All Arms Pre-Parachute Selection (AA PPS) Course (aka P Company) before Pathfinder Selection: Role Finder, British Army Website, Pathfinder Platoon, Parachutist Reconnaissance (2015-09).
1.2 Women and the Pathfinder Platoon
I am currently unaware of any women who have applied for, attempted or passed the selection process.
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).
Pathfinders may be inserted up to a week ahead of the main force, usually in 4-6 man teams. The personnel of the pathfinder platoon are skilled in:
- Covert insertion: they are specialised in airborne insertions by:
- Low-level parachute;
- High altitude low opening (HALO); and
- High altitude high opening (HAHO).
- Intelligence gathering.
Secondary roles can include providing light role defence for the incoming assault force, co-ordination and control of air defence assets, and conducting high priority direct action tasks.
Pathfinders are highly skilled in airborne insertion by parachute, including HALO and HAHO techniques. They use a range of parachute systems, including the BT80 multi-mission parachute combined with the High Altitude Parachutist Life Support System, which provides oxygen when jumping at high altitude.
Besides airborne insertion, Pathfinder Platoon may also patrol in vehicles, usually heavily armed WMIK Land Rovers, or more recently, MWMIK Jackals. A typical Pathfinder mounted patrol comprises of two vehicles with three personnel on each.
The platoon work under the command of the Brigade HQ, which is based at Merville Barracks in Colchester, Essex.
The Officer Commanding the platoon is a senior Captain (OF-2) or Major (OF-3) with an Operations Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2, OR-8) as the Second-in-Command (2IC). The platoon has a compliment of approximately 45 personnel (Blakely, 2013) and many of the unit’s ranks come from the Parachute Regiment and from other units within 16 Air Assault Brigade.
The Field HQ element is deployed on the ground to assist in the coordination of patrol movement and communication, whilst the remainder of the platoon mount either foot or vehicle patrols. Generally speaking all patrols are structured around a four man basic group. However, due to the flexibility of the platoon, six man groups can be tasked if required.
3.1 Team Members
There are a variety of roles which team members can fulfil:
- Lead Scout: this key member of the team is a patrol demolitions specialist and may also have been trained as a patrol tracker.
- Patrol Commander: is SCBC (Section Commander’s Battle Course) qualified and would typically have worked his way through all of the other patrol jobs. The Patrol Commander is responsible for the operational effectiveness of the patrol and is expected to shoulder responsibility far beyond that associated with his rank. The Patrol Commander is normally a combat ready Forward Air Controller.
- Signaller: Possibly the most important man in the patrol, this is because without the ability to communicate the patrol is pretty much redundant. This individual is well trained in the communications skills required for the vast range of communication systems at the platoon’s disposal.
- Medic: Trained to the level of Advanced Trauma Management and a qualified Combat Medical Technician (CMT), this member of the team would have undergone numerous medical courses and would have had the opportunity to go on hospital attachments and received civilian paramedic training.
- Gunner: this team member would provide the largest proportion of the patrol’s firepower in any contact. He may also be qualified as a helicopter handling instructor.
- Sniper: Issued with either the 8.62 mm L96 or the 8.59 mm LLR, this asset offers the team a truly long range offensive capability. The sniper can also be detached from the main team for discreet tasks and will normally have another qualification which will enhance the patrol’s overall effectiveness.
4.0 Operational Attachments
On operations, the platoon may include attachments from other brigade elements such as the Royal Engineers or Light Electronic Warfare Teams (intelligence operatives who specialise in collecting and analysing enemy communications) so as to carry out specialised reconnaissance.
5.0 Pathfinder Platoon Selection Course
The Pathfinder Platoon’s 6-week Selection Course, known as ‘The Cadre’, is one of the most arduous in the world. The Cadre covers much of the same ground as the UKSF Selection course with many of the marches taking place across the Brecon Beacons, although condensed into a shorter time scale.
View ‘2014DIN01-076 – Selection Process and Service with Pathfinders (PF), 16 Air Assault Brigade’s Advance Force’ (or its successor DIN) for further details.
The Pathfinder Platoon is a tri-service unit, although I am currently unaware of any candidates from the Royal Air Force or Naval Service (Royal Navy and Royal Marines) who have either attempted or subsequently passed The Cadre.
As such, the core of personnel is taken from units in 16 Air Assault Brigade especially the Parachute Regiment, 9 Para Squadron Royal Engineers and 216 (Parachute) Signals Squadron.
It is a non-direct entry role, i.e. no civilians, and individuals must complete the All Arms Pre-Parachute Selection (AA PPS) course (aka P Company) prior to Pathfinder selection: Role Finder, British Army Website, Pathfinder Platoon, Parachutist Reconnaissance (2015-09).
5.2 Course Outline
The Pathfinder selection course consists of:
- Week 1, Aptitude Phase: candidates will complete:
- Two, eight mile speed marches;
- A ten mile speed march; and
- A two miler (all carrying personal weapon and pack (Bergen).
- In between the physical tests, candidates are taught navigation and signals (VHF/UHF/HF) skills which will enable them to proceed onto the next phase.
- Week 2, Navigation (or Hills) Phase: this phase features four DS-led (Directing Staff) cross-country marches known as “walkabouts” and four test marches. The first test march is a 26km tab over the hills of the Brecon Beacons and the second test march is a 24km tab across the Black Mountains. The test marches culminate in Endurance, a 40 miler. If candidates reach the end of week two they will have covered approximately 245km (Cordner, 2014).
- Week 3, SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) Phase: candidates gain a solid grounding in Pathfinder SOPs, including:
- Basic patrol skills;
- Contact drills;
- Helicopter procedures; and
- The construction of concealed observation posts (OPs).
- Week 4, Range Phase: this live firing phase takes place on Sennybridge Training Area (SENTA, see below) and focuses on contact drills, especially man-down drills, and training in basic demolitions. All the skills taught in the previous week are put into practice but with live ammunition. Starting with 1-2 man drills, before moving onto 4-6 person contact drills and then finally a platoon-sized live assault.
- Weeks 5 & 6, Final Exercise: candidates, working in 4-6 person teams, plan and execute typical reconnaissance missions. Selection culminates with the candidates being ‘captured’ and put through mock interrogations in order to test their resistance to questioning (i.e. SERE or Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract Training). SERE training has been based at RAF St Mawgan, near Newquay, since 2008. SERE is an inclusive term (of US origin) that has superseded terms such as Escape and Evasion and Conduct After Capture. SERE encompasses all practical and theoretical measures required to prepare candidates for captivity, isolation and recovery (MOD, 2012).
5.3 End of the Pathfinder Platoon Selection Course
Candidates who successfully complete the Pathfinder Selection Course will be presented with their PF DZ Flash and maroon beret. However, personnel retain their parent unit cap badge.
The first year after qualifying is probationary and personnel can be returned to unit (RTU) if not achieving the ‘grade’. After selection personnel move onto employment training in weapons, radios and other patrol skills. Pathfinders qualify as high altitude parachutists by completing a HALO/HAHO training course.
6.0 Parachute Training
Pathfinders not already parachute-trained will need to complete the All Arms Basic Parachute Course (AABPC) at RAF Brize Norton, successful completion will see personnel awarded the Basic Parachute Wings Badge.
Pathfinders are now eligible to attend the Military Freefall (MFF) course along with RAF jumpmasters and UKSF personnel. This 6-week course takes place in the UK, South Africa or the USA and starts with an introduction into basic skydiving at 12,000 feet, before progressing onto the HALO phase where personnel are dispatched out of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft at an altitude of up to 25,000 feet, carrying 80+ lbs of equipment. Due to the high altitudes, all personnel and the aircrew are fitted onto an oxygen system once they pass above 10,000 feet with personnel moving onto their own bottled system prior to jumping. As the course advances, personnel master the ability of landing in tight groups at both day and night, in all weathers.
HAHO parachuting was introduced into the military as a way of inserting airborne personnel into a location where there was a possibility that enemy air defence assets were in place. The HAHO method of insertion allows personnel to be dispatched from an aircraft at an altitude in excess of 30,000 feet and glide via the Global Positioning System (GPS) to a pre-designated position at distances of up to 40+ miles (dependant on wind speeds).
The Sennybridge Training Area (SENTA), requisitioned in 1939, is the third largest military training area in the UK (MOD, 2014a). In 1940 the Training Area became the site of a Royal Artillery Practice Camp. Today it hosts sophisticated live firing and dry training facilities for light forces including light (105mm) artillery. The camp can accommodate up to 1760 soldiers.
SENTA is part of the Defence Training Estate (DTE) Wales and West, one of six regional trainings areas covering the UK (MOD, 2014b). View Section 10.5 for public information and maps. There are also training areas of varying size and complexity used by the UKSF overseas, including:
- Belize: 5 training areas;
- Brunei: 2 jungle training areas;
- Kenya: 13 training areas; and
- Canada: 1 training area (three times the size of Salisbury Plain Training Area).
SENTA lies in Mid Wales within the counties of Powys and Carmarthenshire. Situated just outside the Brecon Beacon National Park to the north west of the county town of Brecon it covers an area of approximately 31,000 acres (12,000 ha) of MOD freehold land and 6,000 acres (2,500 ha) of land leased from Forest Enterprise. It measures approximately 12 miles (19 km) SW to NE and 5 miles (8 km) SE to NW.
SENTA consists mainly of a flat upland plateau known locally as Mynydd Epynt. From this plateau there are spectacular views across to the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian Mountains and the Carmarthenshire Black Mountain.
The uplands of the Epynt Plateau lie between the Brecon Beacons to the South and the Cambrian Mountains to the North. The area became famous as the breeding ground for Welsh Cobs – the very name Epynt originating from an ancient expression meaning “haunt of horse”.
The geological features consist of Old Red Sandstone in the south and centre of the area, with a band of Silurian shale in the north. Much of the upland area is above 1,250 feet (380 m) with the highest points at the Summit (Grid SN 927434) and the Lookout (Grid SN 961464) at 1,533 feet (475 m) and 1,563 feet (478 m) respectively. Most of the stream valleys lie between 784 – 899 feet (240-275m).
8.0 Useful Books
- The 2014 book ‘Maverick One: The True Story of a PARA, Pathfinder, Renegade’ by David Blakely (a former Pathfinder) provides an insight in the Pathfinder Platoon’s selection process. It includes a details account of the unit’s selection cadre. It also features first-hand reports of Pathfinder operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the author’s earlier experiences in the Parachute Regiment.
- The 2013 book ‘Pathfinder: A Special Forces Mission Behind Enemy Lines’ also by David Blakely provides an insight into a reconnaissance mission in 2003 in Iraq.
- The (May) 2015 book ‘Operation Mayhem‘ by Steve Heaney MC (Military Cross holder and former Pathfinder) and Damian Lewis tells the story of the Pathfinders foray in to the civil war-torn country of Sierra Leone in 2000, and their battle against superior numbers of rebel fighters.
- The (September) 2015 book ‘X Platoon‘ by Steve Heaney MC and Damian Lewis provides an insight into the Pathfinders from the perspective of Steve.
Blakely, D. (2013) Pathfinder: A Special Forces Mission Behind Enemy Lines. London: Orion.
Cordner, R. (2014) 16 Medical Regiment. Mind, Body and Soul: The Annual Journal of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps. Number 97, 2013/14, pp.66-67.
Ferguson, G. (1984) Osprey Elite Series 001: The Paras, British Airborne Forces 1940-1984. London: Osprey Publishing Ltd.
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2012) Joint Warfare Publication 3-66: Joint Personnel Recovery. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/joint-warfare-publication-3-66-joint-personnel-recovery. [Accessed: 14 July, 2014].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2014a) Public Access to Military Areas. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.gov.uk/public-access-to-military-areas#sennybridge-and-epynt-way. [Accessed: 14 July, 2014].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2014b) The Defence Training Estate. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.gov.uk/defence-infrastructure-organisation-and-the-defence-training-estate. [Accessed: 14 July, 2014].
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].