So this is to be the first of a new semi-regular series called "The Devil's Advocate". The purpose of these articles is to assume a position that I normally oppose and make an honest attempt to argue the case from the other side, both in the interests of learning and to give readers something different, especially as some readers will likely disagree with the positions that I normally support.
Today we're going to start with Special Forces. Or more precisely, the case against them as separate, dedicated units, especially in these times of squeezed budgets.The Origins
The global military history of irregular forces (defined as small units who engage the enemy in a manner deemed "unconventional" for their time) is long and varied, but for the purposes of this discussion we're going to focus on British "Special Forces" as we know them today. The origin of units such as the SAS and SBS begins not in the deserts of North Africa in 1941 - as many believe - but on the River Clyde in Scotland, in 1940.
After the German invasion of France and the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted a method to hit back at the Germans, partly to cause them problems in their new territory, but predominantly to boost morale at home after the recent disasters, with stories of how Britain was fighting back and beating the Germans. What he wanted was a new force of soldiers, highly trained "hunters" as he described them, to conduct small, limited scope raids on hostile shores that would be easy to resource and would provide a series of what in modern parlance would be called "quick wins".
The answer to Churchill's desire was a plan drawn up by Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke, to form units of physically fit, well trained men referred to as "Commandos", who would use small landing craft to deploy onto enemy territory and conduct small scale attacks against important enemy installations. One of the officers of these new "Commandos" was Lieutenant Roger Courtney.
Courtney had joined the army shortly before the war, serving in the King's Royal Rifle Corps (poetry unintentional. Sadly). After joining the Commando's, Courtney became interested in the use of collapsible Kayak's as a method of quiet deployment, seeing an opportunity to use them to silently approach targets such as moored warships, which could then be rigged with charges.
Finding no support for his theories among his superiors, Courtney decided to demonstrate the principle practically. Thus he took to the River Clyde one night and paddled over to the infantry landing ship HMS Glengyle which - so the story goes - he boarded quietly, writing his initials on the door to the Captains cabin and stealing the cover off of one of the deck guns, before escaping without any alarm being raised.
How much of a genuinely practical demonstration this actually offered for his planned concept is up for debate, but it worked in the sense that he was able to convince several senior officers of the validity of his approach. Promoted to Captain, Courtney was given authorisation to raise a force of less than twenty men (Courtney's vision was for a brigade of Kayak mounted warriors!) who would become the core of what was later termed the Special Boat Section (SBS - the name section was later changed first to "squadron", then finally to "Service", as it stands now).
Courtney's men would get their first taste of action in the Mediterranean, as part of a new formation called "Layforce".
Colonel Robert Laycock was sent to the middle east with a composite brigade made up of men drawn from numbers 3, 7, 8 (Guards) and 11 (Scottish) Commando's, along with some Commando attachments already in theatre. This hodge podge force was referred to as Layforce, and originally planned to conduct commando style raids against German and Italian supply lines.
Once in theatre however, it became apparent the situation was not as positive as when they had first left Britain. Layforce found itself gradually being pushed more and more into conventional roles, often acting as a reserve for other forces. The few Commando style operations that it did attempt were hampered by a lack of resources, poor weather, and poor planning.
One of the officers most frustrated by this constant lack of action, and by the poor performance of the force when it did go into action, was a Lieutenant from the No.8 (Guards) Commando by the name of David Stirling. A keen mountain climber, Stirling joined the Scots Guards at the start of the war before he - like many of his contemporaries - realised that the Commandos offered a much greater opportunity to see action.
Now frustrated and disillusioned, he and a number of other officers had 'acquired' some parachutes that just happened to be off loaded by mistake in Alexandria. With no instructors and no equipment necessary to support parachute operations, Stirling and his comrades had to learn the craft from scratch. For reasons known only to them, probably because it was the only aircraft they could talk their way onto, they chose a Vickers Type 264 "Valentia" (essentially a rebuild of earlier Vickers Victoria aircraft), as their jump plane.
They would have struggled to find a worse plane for such an experiment, and predictably the first jump resulted in a serious accident when Stirling's parachute was partially torn on the aircraft's tailplane. He landed heavily, injuring his legs and back, and was hospitalised. It was during this period of recovery that he would dream up his plan for a small raiding force.
With plenty of time to ponder on the matter, Sterling concluded that the major cause of failure for earlier Commando raids had been the size and complexity of the operations. Routinely deploying upwards of 200 men to attack targets close to each other significantly increased the chances that the force would be detected. Now dispersed, the individual pockets of men faced a local numerical inferiority relative to their opponents.
He also concluded that operations from the sea were problematic, as it required either travelling to the objective slowly on board a ship that was too large to go unnoticed, and too small to protect itself adequately against air attack, or it meant travelling by Submarine, which wasn't such a problem going out, but had previously caused problems with the rendezvous for the return journey.
Sterling's new concept was to parachute a much smaller force behind enemy lines which would then break up into teams of five to ten men. Each team would attack a different target, preferably high value targets like airfields and fuel dumps, using small explosives. The whole force would then meet up again to be extracted. Once Sterling was well enough to walk he set about taking his ideas to the senior officers in Egypt.
There are many versions of what happened next. Some accounts are quite mundane, stating simply that Sterling used a contact who was serving on the staff in the headquarters of the Middle East command to get access. Some are slightly more in keeping with the daring history of the SAS (and perhaps a little fanciful), which include the young Lieutenant crawling through a gap in the fence and evading several guards. Quite how a man who was still on crutches after a serious parachuting accident managed to perform such amazing feats is often over looked.
Eventually, by whatever means, Sterling found himself sat down opposite the Deputy Commander of the Middle East forces, General Neil Ritchie. He explained his proposal in brief and handed over his written notes, which Ritchie then shared with the head of the Middle East Command, General Claude Auchinleck. The next day Stirling was summoned back to the headquarters, where he was promoted to Major and authorised to raise a force of six officers and sixty men, which would form "L Detachment" of the Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade.
The Brigade itself was non-existent, the latest in a series of intelligence ruses for which the British military would become quite famous many years later. It even extended to the length of dropping dummies fitted with parachutes within sight of an Italian prisoner of war camp. Meanwhile L Detachment was sent to RAF Kibrit, an airfield close to the Suez Canal. There they found their camp consisted of three tents, a 3 ton truck, and a sign indicating which unit was stationed there. What followed was the first raid ever conducted by the SAS (and is probably one of their most famous)... against the home of a nearby New Zealand division. They returned with, amongst other things, a sofa and a piano.
In order to prepare the men for their missions in the desert, Stirling began a training regime that frequently featured night navigation and long marches carrying heavy loads (as much as 30kg over 65km). There was no selection process back then, so Stirling made up for it with the intensive nature of the exercises that he put his men through.
And herein lies the first real point about why Special Forces might have had their day.
The "originals" as they came to be known never underwent a selection process, nor did those who followed them in the deserts of North Africa as casualty replacements. Almost all of the original men were hand picked by Sterling from among the ranks of Layforce. With a short period of additional intensive training (certainly no more than two months in length), his force was ready to go.
It's first operation was to attack three airfields in what is modern day Libya, ahead of Operation Crusader (a push west by the British Eight Army to relieve Tobruk). Despite appalling weather, including strong ground winds, the jump into enemy territory went ahead. The entire force was subsequently scattered across miles of desert. Those who managed to link up with Stirling collected some equipment together, only to find out that they had bombs but no detonators (it's said that Stirling ordered on the spot that explosives and detonators were never to be packed separately again, and that this might well have been the the first ever formal SAS Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)).
Those who remained had no choice but to abandon the mission and head for the rendezvous point with the Eight Army's specialist deep reconnaissance unit, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), who ironically were composed mostly of the best and brightest soldiers and officers from the same New Zealand division whose camp the SAS had raided for supplies!
Only around 30% of those who set out on the mission made it back. Some were killed during the initial jump. One aircraft was shot down by Italian forces as it tried to fly low for navigational purposes. Many were injured on landing and either died making their way back or were captured by the axis forces. Many of those who were unharmed were also captured by axis patrols. That even 20 or so men managed to make it out alive is a testament to the preparation they underwent at Kibrit.
It's also a testament to what can be achieved with even a little physical training. Modern Royal Marine Commandos and members of the Parachute regiment are easily trained equally as hard during their basic training as the men who made up Layforce would have been. With additional training for certain units, such as those assigned to the modern Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), it is arguable that they would be more than fit enough to take on any of the tasks required by modern special forces.
Fitness is not a genetic predisposition. Given enough time and the correct regime, anybody who is physically able to walk and run can be trained up to a high level of fitness. Determination, willpower, drive, (whatever you want to call it) the things that are supposed to get people through the modern special forces selection, are closely related to fitness. People quit on physical activities when they reach the limits of their strength and endurance. The physical limit largely defines the mental limit.
Thus it is reasonable to assume that - if necessary - a selection process designed to "wash out" a large number of candidates could be adapted to instead build them up gradually. The fact that regiments like the Parachute Regiment have historically been a source for large numbers of successful special forces candidates suggests that a properly structured training program built off of current parachute/commando training could be used to bring a large number of individuals up to a very high level of fitness, suitable for the kind of operations we currently ask only a relative few to undertake.
Operations in the Desert
After recovering back at Kirbit from his first major set back, Sterling took on new recruits and rallied his men for another round against both the axis and the desert. At this point some bright spark noted that if the LRDG could pick up the SAS men after their missions, then it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to use the LRDG to drop them off in the first place, to which the LRDG agreed.
In mid-December, 1941, the SAS went back into action. This time they were much more successful.
The technique initially adopted was to use the LRDG to get them to a drop off point, from which the force would split up into small teams and walk to the various target areas under the cover of night and lay up nearby. The next day was spent observing the target and planning the final stages of the attack. Then after night fall they would creep onto the objective and plant small charges (a combination of plastic explosives, thermite and diesel) before withdrawing. Eventually everyone would meet up again at a rendezvous with the LRDG, who would ferry them back to friendly positions.
Despite some set backs, the new method worked well. It was developed even further when Sterling was able to get his hands on a collection of trucks and Willy's jeeps, which now permitted the SAS to operate at its leisure, without having to plan around the missions and time table of the LRDG.
The tactics stayed largely the same, until one attack by Sterling and a small party on an airfield that was home to a large number of German transport planes. Half the explosives planted failed to detonate, so Sterling order the vehicles back to the target. Using the light of the aircraft already on fire for guidance, Sterling and his men poured fire from their vehicle mounted, ex-RAF Vickers machine guns into the remaining aircraft, with a good deal of success.
This set the tone for a new tactic of attacking airfields; vehicles would now form up in line abreast and race onto the airfield, all guns blazing. Having passed once across the airfield, the vehicles would now circle it in line astern, pouring yet more fire onto whatever targets were left.
All of this was highly successful, and within one year the SAS had claimed over 100 aircraft destroyed in the theatre (supposedly more than the RAF over the same period) along with a multitude of petrol dumps, communications areas and other targets of value to the axis forces. The question is, how relevant would such actions be to modern special forces? Do these kind of campaigns even have a place anymore?
Things have advanced significantly since World War 2. Modern aircraft and warships are able to attack fixed targets from considerable distances using a variety of stand off weapons such as cruise missiles and glide bombs, with a greatly reduced risk to the personnel involved. If over flight of the target is required then the risk factor increases, but at least we're talking about just one or two pilots normally, a handful at most, protected by a variety of sophisticated defensive measures vs. 8-20 men who in most cases would have to physically move onto the target area and expose themselves to close range enemy fire.
Under these circumstances, is there really a need for this kind of up close and personal assault on a target? As the war progressed, SAS and SBS teams moved to the European continent, much of which involved attacking railway lines and bridges. Back in that era, bombers were lucky if they could bomb the right city (and in some cases, the right country), let alone a specific point target. In the modern era, and given clear weather, a pilot would probably consider himself a little unlucky if just one bomb didn't hit the target.
There are some cases that might throw up exceptions to the rule, usually where control of the skies is contested heavily and as such restricts bombing conditions. One such example was the attack on Pebble Island during the Falklands War.
On the night of the 14-15th May, 1982, D Squadron SAS, attacked the airfield on Pebble Island, just north of West Falkland. A company sized attack, it involved the force being flown to the Island by Sea King, followed by a short march of about 3-4 miles. Charges were placed on a number of aircraft, before the howling winds were drowned out by the sound of machine gun fire and light anti-tank weapons. Eleven aircraft (including six ground attack aircraft) were destroyed, before the force withdraw under the cover of naval gunfire and mortars.
While the attack was a complete success and one which probably could not have been replicated by the Harriers of the task force, it's questionable whether this was a mission that really required the SAS to perform it. The attack was something that in all probability could have been performed equally well by members of either the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines. You could probably even go to the extent of arguing that any infantry company that was sufficiently familiar with helicopter operations could have performed it.
Another case that might argue the need for these kind of "raids" is that of the special forces operations conducted in the western desert of Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Part of the "Great Scud Hunt", SAS teams went back to their second world war roots by forming vehicle convoys that scoured back and forth across the vast expanses of rough terrain looking for Iraqi Scud missiles that were being fired at Israel.
During the campaign significant numbers of Scuds were reported as being destroyed by the teams, either using anti-tank weapons such as the Milan missile, or (more commonly) by calling in air strikes on targets. Post-war analysis revealed that it's almost certain that no Scuds were hit on the ground, by any method. Most of the attacks appear to have been conducted against either fuel tankers or unlucky locals (who in that part of Iraq were fond of large, long tents that from a distance could easily be mistaken for a parked and camouflaged Scud).
Again though, regardless of the ultimate result, it is questionable whether this was a task that exclusively required the use of a unit like the SAS. Many units have proven themselves just as capable in light vehicle operations and you could even argue that a light cavalry regiment, re-tooled at short notice with land rovers/Jackal etc, would make better candidates for such an operation in the future.
Of course the first Gulf War also throws up another special forces activity that is worth looking at; deep reconnaissance. Sometimes referred to as a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), I am of course referring to the type of mission conducted by the now infamous Bravo Two Zero patrol.
Deployed deep behind Iraqi lines, the 8 man SAS patrol was tasked with observing an Iraqi Main Supply Route (MSR) and feeding back information, with a particular interest in keeping an eye out for the movement of Scud missile launchers. The patrol was soon compromised by locals and forced to abandon their position. Lacking communications with their higher headquarters, the team was unable to call for a helicopter to extricate themselves from their new predicament, and instead were forced to head off on foot towards the Jordanian border.
What happened next is a matter of much debate. At least four books that I know of have been written that focus solely on the events of the patrol, all of which have come in for various amounts of criticism. The accounts range from an almost hollywood style escapade that left a trail of over 200 Iraqi soldiers dead in its wake, to a very critical account (accompanied by a TV show) that attempted to retrace the steps of the patrol nearly twenty years later... and just happened to conveniently bump into what must have been almost every single Iraqi who came into contact with the members of Bravo Two Zero back in '91. The strong likelyhood is that a combination of the various accounts would reveal the true story, but I'll let someone else probe that particular minefield.
Suffice to say that three of the men died, four were captured by the Iraqi's, and one managed to walk around 190 miles to Syria, who then returned him to British hands.
The question is; could such operations be handled by regular forces? During the second Gulf War, members of the UK Parachute Regiments Pathfinder platoon were deployed north of the Euphrates river ahead of its crossing later by American forces. Could the Pathfinder platoon then take on this role of deep reconnaissance, either without modifying its current training practises or perhaps with a slight extension to cover such things as escape and evasion, if such techniques are not already taught?
It would certainly seem plausible to a degree. Further, with the draw down from Afghanistan we're increasingly seeing the regular reconnaissance regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps supplement their conventional skills with additional work on dismounted techniques, including deeper level reconnaissance. For example, earlier this year members of the Household Cavalry tested their dismounted skills alongside members of the Parachute Regiment on exercise in Italy.
Even the Police have been getting in on this sort of act over the years, especially in response to the threat of terrorism, with what they usually term "Rural Surveillance". Although not quite up the same street (given that they're on friendly territory for a start) the principle of maintaining covert observation posts, often for several days or weeks at a time, is the same. Could a training package for LRRP be put together for various units (such as the Pathfinders, all reconnaissance regiment soldiers, and the members of reconnaissance platoons from regular infantry battalions) to rotate through?
It certainly doesn't seem beyond the realms of possibility.
Gas Masks and Flashbangs
On the 5th May, 1980, the SAS burst into the public spotlight in dramatic fashion. They did so by bursting into the Iranian Embassy in London, captured live on television and broadcast around the world, as they were sent in to end the six day siege of the building that had been triggered by six members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA) taking the building and its occupants hostage.
The terrorists had already murdered one hostage, which was the significant event that prompted the storming of the building. Five of the terrorists were killed, but not before they had murdered an additional hostage, and wounded two others. One terrorist survived by posing as a hostage and was later arrested.
The role of the SAS as a counter terrorist unit stems back to the Aden Emergency (1963-67). The emergency began with a grenade attack against the British High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, and in the early stages much of the focus of the insurgents was on attacking off duty British soldiers. Members of the SAS had been deployed to the theatre and responded to the attacks by taking the offensive.
This took the form of requesting a quantity of handguns, building a close quarters battle school in theatre, and then self-teaching themselves the art of close quarters gun fighting. The thinking behind this was that teams would go out in two pairs; one pair would be dressed in British uniforms and act as bait to lure out an insurgent attack, while the second pair would be dressed in local clothing and would follow on in close proximity, ready to counter any insurgent activity. All members engaged in such activity were carrying concealed handguns.
This kind of operation required sharp reflexes and excellent close quarters shooting skills, traits that would come in handy in counter terrorist scenarios like those at the Iranian Embassy. It also came in handy for the Regiments other main role in the Aden theatre; the protection of VIP's.
The first attack against Sir Kenendy Trevaskis had demonstrated the need to provide bodyguards to dignitaries in the region, both permanent and visiting. This role fell quite naturally to the SAS given their new focus on close quarters shooting, but it also prompted thought about what to do if a VIP was taken hostage by the insurgents. The early work done in Aden would bear the most fruit in 1972, in the wake of the Munich massacre.
On 5-6 September, 1972, German Police took action to end a hostage situation involving members of the Black September group, who had taken 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. In the process of the botched rescue attempt all eleven hostages were killed, as well as one German police officer. The utter failure of the rescue operation highlighted the need for properly trained counter terrorism teams to deal with such incidents.
In the UK the problem was particularly acute, as there was no suitable armed police unit which could form the core around which a new organisation could be built. Thus the task was handed to the SAS, whose experience in Aden and whose work training the bodyguards of other nations would form the basis of the new Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) wing.
At the time this made a lot of sense and was the most natural response given the circumstances of the day. Since then, things have moved on somewhat. Much of this has been a reaction to various terrorist acts since the Iranian Embassy siege, such as the July 7th bombings in London (anniversary on Sunday). With the rapid growth in the number of firearms officers in the UK, as well as the rapid growth of counter-terrorism units in the UK police (especially the growth in size and quality of the Metropolitan Polices Counter Terrorism Command) it's questionable whether military special forces are still required for such duties.
Domestically we would probably be better served by handing the nationwide counter terrorism role to someone like the Met's Counter Terrorism Command. What to do abroad? Well predominantly this is the domain of other nations forces, but in terms of hostage rescues in places like Afghanistan for example, it might be possible to develop a capability within the Royal Military Police, or among the Marines/Parachute regiment, to conduct limited scale hostage rescue operations. Conceivably, in future counter insurgency operations it might be that one platoon or company from the next brigade due to deploy would be assigned as the theatre hostage rescue unit, and spend a chunk of its pre-deployment training period working with the Met's Counter Terrorism Command, adapting the training as needed for the theatre in question.
Into the Jungle
In 1950, Brigadier James "Mad Mike" Calvert saw the need while serving with British forces fighting the Malayan Emergency to raise a unit of irregular soldiers who would take the fight right into the heart of the enemies territory, deep in the Malayan Jungle.
Calvert had served as a "Chindit" in the Burma theatre during the second world war, under the command of General Orde Wingate. It was here that he acquired the nickname "Mad Mike", due to his penchant for leading attacks from the front, made all the more seemingly "mad" because of his luxury of a rank that would allow him to stay well clear of the fighting if he so decided. Based on the details of some of the actions that Calvert was involved in, it's possible that he was indeed genuinely mad.
After being returned to the UK due to injuries sustained in an accident, Calvert was appointed (in March 1945) to command the SAS Brigade, now a genuine brigade in its own right and not just a paper deception. It was to be his first exposure to the Regiment that he would later be responsible for reviving.
Post-WW2, the regular SAS had been disbanded. In 1950 a reserve unit called 21st SAS Squadron (Artists Rifles) was raised for the Korean War. However before it deployed it was deemed surplus to requirements, so the squadron volunteered instead to go to Malaya. 21st SAS squadron subsequently became B squadron of the Malayan Scouts, a unit raised by Calvert that would later go on to be raised to full Regimental status as 22nd SAS. Calvert also went on a recruiting trip to Rhodesia which generated a third squadron.
Together this motly band and their mad scientist inventor pioneered the modern art of patrolling in Jungle terrain, the major principles of which still form the basis of current training for all British soldiers who receive instruction in Jungle warfare.
It was in the jungles of Borneo that the SAS settled around the concept of the four man patrol; linguist, signaller, demolitions and medic. Each skill was vital for the type of operations being conducted, and in practice most patrol members would learn some degree of over lapping skill sets to account for wounded/invalided comrades. It was also in these jungles that the SAS pioneered the concept of winning the "Hearts and Minds" of local populations, something that would be transplanted later to other theatres and form one of the core pillars of all future Counter Insurgency strategy.
At this point we ask ourselves again the same basic question that we asked earlier when considering the formation of L Detachment during world war two; if you can take a bunch of volunteers from scratch and turn them into a highly regarded, highly skilled fighting force with just a bit of extra conditioning and training, then what is stopping us from simply devising new training serials to put our Royal Marines and Parachute regiment soldiers through every now and again, as part of their annual training activities? What is stopping us from testing that theory with regular line infantry as well?
Looking at Borneo also reminds us that the primary reason most modern special forces units were raised, from the SAS to the American Navy SEAL's, Green Berets and Delta Force, was to fight counter insurgency wars; "unconventional warfare". Yet many of the major tasks involved in "unconventional warfare" are being conducted by regular forces right now in places like Afghanistan, primary among which is the training and development of friendly indigenous forces.
The Credit Crunch
The last and perhaps most pertinent argument against special forces in the modern era is cost.
The reality of the world right now is that these are economically constrained times. Budgets are tight and defence has to achieve the maximum value that it can from its share. Special forces soldiers are expensive; they're paid a premium compared to their regular counter parts, they cost a lot of money to train (both initially and over the course of their service), and they consume a number of valuable resources that are dedicated solely to supporting their operations (such as the SFSG).
When times are hard you go looking predominantly for two things; the largest areas of spending, and the areas where spending is generating the least returns. Given the significant quantities of spending on special forces, do we really get value for money? Could indeed the bulk of the tasks conducted by special forces be carried out in a more cost effective manner, as outlined above?
Well, there you have it, the argument against Special forces like the SAS and SBS. I think I've given it a fair crack of the whip and there are some things in there I could perhaps agree with, such as the nature of how counter-terrorism is dealt with at home.
Final question for you; what do you think?