The role of United Kingdom’s Special Forces (UKSF), such as the Special Air Service (SAS), has transformed over the past 70 years; from defeating the Axis forces in WWII, to facing down the Soviet Union, to their current preoccupation of fighting the global war against terrorism.
The UK Government has formed new units to assist ‘the long war’, as it is sometimes called, in a move that signals a willingness to engage in the asymmetric warfare of the 21st century. Governments, around the world, are putting more stock in the need for SF: small, well trained and supported units operating on battlefields where the battle lines are poorly defined with enemies mixed amongst friends.
SF are sometimes referred to as ‘force multipliers’ – a recognition that these small teams of operators can achieve results comparable with much larger forces; whether by being integrated with their own military or by training and operating alongside foreign forces.
In Afghanistan, in 2001, USSF worked closely with Northern Alliance troops, coordinating attacks and calling in coalition air strikes. By employing SF in this way, the coalition was able to oust the Taliban with the minimum of ground troops whilst fostering a positive relationship with the indigenous friendly forces.
This article will provide the reader with an outline of the Special Forces within the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, commonly referred to as the Special Forces Group, and the supporting units which provide a variety of functions, such as transport and administration.
As of 01 December 2021, there is also the Army Special Operations Brigade and the Ranger Regiment – although these are separate from the Directorate and will takeover some of the roles undertaken by UKSF.
1.1 Method of Entry
A person can join any branch of the UKSF from any other military branch. So a Royal Marine can join the SAS and an infantry soldier could join the Special Boat Service (SBS) if they so desired. It is interesting to note that a chef in the RAF could join the UKSF if so inclined and was strong enough, both mentally and physically. Unlike the US military model of SF, the first job (method of entry) that a person undertakes in the British forces does not dictate which SF unit they can join.
1.2 Selection and Training for UKSF
Special Forces, as opposed to Elite Forces like Paratroopers and Royal Marines, are characterised by the determination of each individual to carry through with the mission even if they be the last one standing.
There is a presumption that personnel recommended for UKSF Selection are already very good team players, and as a result UKSF Selection courses are far more individually demanding than for example the Parachute Regiment’s ‘P Company’ or the Royal Marines All Arms Commando Course.
Emphasis is on endurance and long, dark hours undertaking solitary, arduous and often seemingly impossible or even pointless tasks. The instructors provide no encouragement or motivation (positive or negative) to aspirants. Officers also undergo a special week of individual tests of determination and planning ability mixed with sleep deprivation and diversionary tasks, their efforts often cruelly judged by the SAS senior NCOs to whom they have to deliver their Orders.
The SAS and SBS (and to some degree the Special Reconnaissance Regiment) have joined forces to combine their main initial selection process, culminating in a week of increasingly more gruelling marches carrying full equipment over the wet, inhospitable Brecon Beacon mountains’ of South Wales.
Assessment continues 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.
2.0 Directorate of Special Forces
The UKSF is a Ministry of Defence (MOD) directorate which provides a joint special operations task force headquarters, and is commanded by the Director Special Forces.
The directorate (Figure 1 below) consists of a number of units including the well-known but secretive SAS and the Special Boat Service (SBS, formerly the Special Boat Squadron).
The UKSF was formed in 1987 to draw together the British Army’s SAS and the Royal Marines SBS into a unified command based around the former Director SAS who was given the additional title of Director Special Forces. The directorate was expanded, during 2005-2006, by the creation of the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, 18 (UKSF) Signal Regiment and the Special Forces Support Group.
Various titles for the grouping of the UKs Special Forces include:
- Directorate of Special Forces;
- United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF); and
- The Special Forces Group.
2.1 Director Special Forces
The Director Special Forces (DSF) is the title of the professional head of the UKSF. The DSF, previously a Brigadier, has since 2009 held the rank of Major-General (Mackie, 2011, p.49) reflecting the increased size of the directorate. The position has evolved from Colonel SAS in 1964 to Director SAS in 1969 and to Director Special Forces in 1988; the post-holder works out of the MODs Whitehall office, based in London.
3.0 Organisation of UKSF
The organisation of UKSF and supporting units is outlined in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Organisation of UKSF and supporting units
A fuller description of the individual SF and supporting units can be accessed by clicking on their headings (on-going).
The SAS was first activated during WWII in July of 1941, as the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), and despite being disbanded briefly, has emerged into the world’s most elite Special Forces unit. It conducts the traditional behind the lines reconnaissance and sabotage role, as well as counter-terrorist and hostage rescue work. The SAS also operates on rivers and estuaries, but not at sea; which is the preserve of the SBS.
Also formed during WWII, the SBS specialises in small boat, diving and swimming operations at sea and on land (up to forty miles inland), and maritime counter-terrorism.
The SBSs traditional maritime use had been extended to Afghanistan, where since 9/11 the SBS worked frequently with their SAS counterparts targeting the Taliban leadership.
The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) was established on 06 April 2005 as part of the war on terrorism to gather intelligence, i.e. conduct surveillance operations. Members of the SRR are recruited from throughout the UK military, including women.
The Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) was established on 06 April 2006 and provides combat support to SAS and SBS operations, inserting cordons to prevent interference with SF operations, and a wide range of tactical and logistical activity.
The SFSG gives SF a significant increase in capability and manpower: 650 men of 1 PARA, 150 men from F Company Royal Marines and smaller number of personnel from the RAF Regiment.
SFSG was formed after operations in Afghanistan revealed that SAS and SBS personnel were being misused for tasks more suited to parachute or commando troops.
The 18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment was established in 2005 and provides communications and signals intelligence (SIGINT) support for other UKSF units.
3.6 UKSF (Reserve)
The Army Reserve (21 SAS, 23 SAS and 63 (SAS) Signals Squadron) and Royal Marine Reserve (SBS(R)) units of the UKSF are collectively known as UKSF(R).
The British Army’s 1st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade (1 ISR Bde) was created as part of the Army 2020 reforms. It will become operational on 01 September 2014 and have responsibility for all British Army ISR capabilities including electronic warfare and SIGINT; Weapon Locating Radar and other technical surveillance equipment; surveillance and target acquisition patrols; and unmanned aerial systems including Watchkeeper. It is intended to be able to deploy tailored ISR Groups to support deployments.
21 and 23 SAS Regiments will become part of this new brigade on the same date (Janes International Defence Review, May 2014, p.4).
4.0 Roles and Tasks
UKSF assets undertake a number of roles, with a degree of interaction and interoperability:
- Unconventional Warfare;
- Covert reconnaissance;
- Special reconnaissance;
- Direct action;
- Close protection;
- Counter-revolutionary warfare;
- Reconnaissance of the deep battlespace;
- Offensive operations in the deep battlespace;
- Battlespacepreparation in transition to war;
- Infrastructure disruption;
- Capture of subjects of interest;
- Human intelligence (HUMINT) collection;
- Defence diplomacy; and
- Training of other nations’ armed forces.
5.0 Tier 1 and Tier 2 Special Forces
The SAS and SBS are sometimes referred to as ‘Tier 1’ SF units because they are the units usually tasked with direct action. 18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment, the SRR and SFSG are referred to as ‘Tier 2’ units as they, usually, fulfil a supporting role for the Tier 1 units.
6.0 Non-Special Forces Support Units
Non-special forces units that provide crucial training and support roles for SF units are outlined below.
The Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW) was established in 02 April 2001. The role of JSFAW, using specially trained pilots and aircrew from the RAF, Army Air Corps and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, is to insert and extract SF teams using modified Chinooks HC2 helicopters, C130s, Lynx AH7s, Seakings and Agusta A109s.
6.2 47 Squadron RAF
Flying Hercules transport aircraft, 47 Squadron’s Special Forces Flight fly airlift and re-supply operations for UKSF, often carrying out missions deep into enemy territory.
6.3 UKSF Medical Group
The UKSF Medical Group provides role 1 and role 2 support to the UKSF. Role 1 care includes carrying out first aid, triage, resuscitation and stabilisation from the point of wounding, back to critical care stations or clearance stations at which role 2 care, including surgery, is administered. Role 2 care may be provided by a dedicated UKSF Medical Group facility.
6.4 UKSF EOD Support
Alpha Troop is a sub-unit of 821 Field Squadron (EOD), 33 Engineer Regiment. Alpha Troop conducts Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) and advanced search operations in the UK and around the world in support of UKSF operations.
6.5 Fleet Diving Unit 1
Fleet Diving Unit 1 (FDU1) provides support to UKSF. FDU1 divers neutralise any explosive threats during SF Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) operations. The unit maintains a very high state of readiness, 365 days a year.
6.6 47 Air Despatch Squadron RLC
47 Air Despatch Squadron RLC provides the aerial supply or resupply of ground or sea borne forces. In addition to supporting 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Squadron may find itself working alongside personnel from 3 Commando Brigade, UKSF and also providing support to ships at sea.
6.7 21 & 23 UKSF(R) Support Squadron’s RLC
21 & 23 UKSF(R) Support Squadron’s provide support staff to UKSF units including Drivers, Technicians and EOD, all selected from the RLC.
The Special Forces Parachute Support (SFPS) Squadron is a sub-unit of the Airborne Delivery Wing based at RAF Brize Norton.
The role of the SFPS Squadron is to advise the UKSF on all operational, training and developmental aspects of military parachuting. As such, the SFPS Squadron is tasked to deliver operational support and training to UKSF to enable parachute insertion across the spectrum of parachute capabilities.
7.0 Women and UKSF
With the exception of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, women are prohibited from applying for and serving in Tier 1, Tier 2 and UKSF(R) units in the UKSF group. However, women can serve with the supporting units identified in Figure 1.
8.0 MOD Posts Relating to UKSF
The Head Special Forces and Legal Policy, an SCS1, is part of the Operations Directorate at MOD Whitehall and is responsible for:
- Operational strategy and planning;
- Direction and conduct of operations at the strategic level; and
- Maintenance of policy context for planning and conduct of operations, including SF and legal issues.
The Army Directorate of Operations and Commitments (ADOC) is headed by the Assistant Chief of Staff, a Brigadier (OF-6), and is a directorate of the Commander Land Forces, a Lieutenant General (OF-8). ADOC has 3 branches:
- Counter-Terrorism & United Kingdom Operations (CT & UK Ops), which includes the Standing Joint Commander UK (SJC(UK));
- Counter-Improvised Explosive Devices (C-IED); and
- Operations Commitments (Ops Cts).
9.0 Austerity Hits the UKSF
In March 2013 the Sunday Telegraph, a British newspaper, published details of proposed cuts in UKSF (Rayment, 2013).
The newspaper reported that UKSF personnel, mainly from Tier 2 units (particularly the SFSG), could be cut by up to 40% with the move of the two reserve SAS units to the regular British Army (as noted above).
The MOD stated the restructuring programme of part of on-going cost-savings across the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom.
10.0 Useful Links
- Special Forces Parachute Support Squadron: http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafbrizenorton/organisation/adw.cfm
Janes International Defence Review. May 2014, pp.4.
Mackie, C. (2011) III: Senior Army Appointments. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.gulabin.com/armynavy/pdf/Army%20Commands%201900-2011.pdf. [Accessed: 07 July, 2014].
Rayment, S. (2013) Revealed: Nearly Half of Special Forces could go in deepest cuts in 50 Years. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9904772/Revealed-nearly-half-of-Special-Forces-could-go-in-deepest-cuts-in-50-years.html. [Accessed: 04 July, 2014].