British Special Air Service (SAS)

British Special Air Service (SAS) 2020 image
British SAS forces are understood to be on the front line of the final push against ISIS (Photo: GETTY [STOCK])

The Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces unit of the British Army. Being in the Special Air Service is like being in an elite club which you are a member of for a lifetime. Special Air Service (Reserve) is tasked to the highest level and can operate in difficult and often changing circumstances. They may find themselves operating without guidance, and in situations that are important operationally and strategically.

The British SAS is an opportunity for soldiers to work within a unique, independent organization that takes pride in its heritage, role, and professionalism. Service is physically and intellectually challenging, but the rewards are significant.

History

The British prime special operation unit was founded in 1941 as a regiment and later reconstituted as a corps in 1950. The unit undertakes several roles including covert reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, direct action, and hostage rescue. Much of the information and actions regarding the SAS are highly classified and are not commented on by the British government or the Ministry of Defence due to the sensitivity of their operations.

British Special Air Service (SAS) 2020 image
Sim Harris making his escape across the first-floor balcony, as ordered by the masked SAS operator during Iranian Embassy siege 1980 (far right) (Photo: Wiki)

The Special Air Service traces its origins to 1941 and the Second World War. It was reformed as part of the Territorial Army in 1947, named the 21st Special Air Service Regiment (Artists Rifles). The 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, which is part of the regular army, gained fame and recognition worldwide after its televised rescue of all but one of the hostages held during the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege.

Organization

Little publicly verifiable information exists on the contemporary SAS, as the British government usually does not comment on special forces matters due to the nature of their work. What you get up while in the regiments isn’t discussed unless it serves to make a joke or to generate a good laugh.

The Special Air Service comprises three units: one Regular and two Army Reserve (AR) units. The regular army unit is 22 SAS Regiment and the reserve units are 21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) (Reserve) (21 SAS(R)) and 23 Special Air Service Regiment (23 SAS (R)), collectively, the Special Air Service (Reserve) (SAS(R)).

Squadrons

22 Special Air Service Regiment21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists)23 Special Air Service Regiment
‘A’ Squadron (Hereford)‘A’ Squadron (Regent’s Park)‘B’ Squadron (Leeds)
‘B’ Squadron‘C’ Squadron (Bramley Camp)‘D’ Squadron (Scotland)
‘D’ Squadron‘E’ Squadron (Wales)‘G’ Squadron (Manchester)

22 SAS normally has a strength of 400 to 600. The regiment has four operational squadrons: A, B, D and G. Each squadron consists of approximately 65 men commanded by a major, divided into four troops (each troop being commanded by a captain) and a small headquarters section. Troops usually consist of 16 men (Members of the SAS are variously known as “blade” or “Operator”) and each patrol within a troop consists of four men, with each man possessing a particular skill e.g. signals, demolition, medic or linguist in addition to basic skills learned during his training. The term “squadron” dates back to the unit’s earliest days when the unit’s name was intended to confuse German intelligence. The four troops specialize in four different areas:

British Special Air Service (SAS) 2020 image
The Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces unit of the British Army. (Photo: XY)

Boat troop – specialists in maritime skills including diving using rebreathers, using kayaks (canoes) and Rigid-hulled inflatable boats and often train with the Special Boat Service.

  • Air troop – experts in free-fall parachuting and high altitude parachute operations including High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) and High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) techniques.
  • Mobility troop – specialists in using vehicles and are experts in desert warfare. They have also trained at an advanced level of motor mechanics to field-repair any vehicular breakdown.
  • Mountain troop – specialists in Arctic combat and survival, using specialist equipment such as skis, snowshoes, and mountain climbing techniques.

In 1980 R Squadron (which has since been renamed L Detachment) was formed; its members are all ex-regular SAS regiment soldiers who commit to reserve service.

22 SAS squadron duty rotations are set up as such that one squadron is maintained on Counter-Terrorism duty in the UK; a second will be on a deployment; a third will be preparing for deployment whilst conducting short term training, and the fourth will be preparing for long-term overseas training such as jungle or desert exercises. In times of war, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it’s not uncommon for two squadrons to be deployed.

Training and Selection

The British SAS (Special Air Service) selection is one of the hardest, and most grueling in the world. It consists of three basic phases. The first phase, Fitness, and navigation is the hardest, with the largest dropout. The second phase, Jungle Training in Brunei, and finally combat survival, including escape tactics and interrogation. The regular elements of the United Kingdom Special Forces never recruit directly from the general public.

Phase I

Endurance Phase:

The selection course begins with a week-long BFT, (Battle Fitness Course), 3-mile run, the first mile and a half must be completed in 12 and a half minutes, the rest in your own time. The next 5-6 days consist of basic map revision, orienteering, gym work, and 5-mile runs. 8 Mile cross country runs are also done, with candidates required to finish in 1 hour. At the end of the first week, the candidates face their first real test: The Fan dance.

The Fan Dance

The fan dance consists of carrying a 32 Pound bergen over a route of 24km. Easy? well think about this then: Your day starts at 4 am, and ends at 10.30 pm, and marches range from 15-64km, which means going up, and then down, and then up again and so on, carrying backpacks weighing 40-60 pounds! This also includes a few night marches.

To add to the problem, you are never told when the cut off time is and just have to keep up with the DS or get RTU’d, (return to the unit). However, if a candidate who has been doing well suddenly has a bad day, he may receive a ‘gypsy’s warning’, one more bad day and they are told to report to platform 4, basically you’ve been I’d. Still, think this is easy?

Test Week

This is what all the hard work leads to a series of 24-64km marches, all over the Brecon Beacons, followed by the hand drew map march, and finally, the endurance march, which takes twenty hours to complete!
After this, the candidates are gathered together and told if they have passed this phase or not.

British Special Air Service (SAS) 2020 image
British SAS took the main leaders during the Falklands Wars (Photo: XY)

The survivors are then sent for continuation training, where they are trained on the Special Air Service weapons, as well as eastern block weapons. The physical hasn’t ended with test week as they are expected to keep fit and do gym work, and are tested for their mental abilities, language aptitude as well as mensa tests. this is all done to see if a candidate can adjust to the SAS way of doing things.

Its nice of you all to come along, I don’t suppose most of you will be with us for more than a few days.” These are the first words soldiers hear at the beginning of their SAS selection attempt.

Phase II:

Jungle Phase

This phase takes place in Brunei, at the British army jungle training school. Imagine six weeks without a shower? Imagine six weeks without a shower or a shave in the middle of a tropical jungle? That’s what the jungle phase is all about! The candidates are split into patrols of four and are taught all the jungle tactics they would need, from how to build a basha, (a lean-to), navigation, jungle and contact drills, explosives, clearing landing zone and so on…

Often more than half of the men fail the jungle phase!

Combat Survival

One month of training, living off the land, whilst using evasion and escape techniques. Lessons in how to evade and escape, interrogation techniques from people who have been tortured, or other experiences. The final weak is simply a survival week. Easy, survive for a week off the land! Easy? Well, try surviving in a Greatcoat while being hunted down by Gurkhas and Para’s, when you know that when you are caught you are going to be interrogated!

When you are caught, you are blindfolded kept in awkward positions and interrogated for 48 hours. A candidate can only say 4 things: name, rank, number, and date of birth. The only other thing a candidate can say is, “I cannot answer that question”

If you pass every stage, you then get your SAS beret and are put on one-year probation.

Specialized training after selection

Once the selection is completed the training does not stop there. The soldiers are then sent to their respective troops, Mountain troop, Mobility troop or Boat troop, this is is simply done by whichever troop has openings. They then undergo Special training which includes, Parachuting, (all SAS soldiers have to do this), medical training, advanced weapons training, etc…

HALO, (High Altitude, Low Opening) parachuting is the main technique taught. Over six weeks they will jump about 40 times over Britain and France, from about 12000 Feet, advancing up to 25000 feet. Sounds simple enough? Well try this then, during the first 12 seconds of the jump, you will drop 1480 Feet, reaching a terminal velocity of 120mph!

As Peter Radcliffe explains in his book, “Eye of the storm” it is extremely difficult to remain in the Starfish shape, thus being stable enough to deploy your parachute. Imagine driving your car at 120mph, (192Kmh), and putting your hand out your window! Now imagine the effect that has on your whole body, where even the slightest movement will throw your body all over the place!

Boat Troop does a lot of night navigation 25 miles out to sea, on rubber Gemini’s. This too sounds easy enough, but spending up to 5 or 6 hours a night in the freezing seawater is not my idea of fun! It is however essential that the SAS can operate in any area, climate and situation, whether it is in the desert or the freezing ocean.

And so this is why boat troop spends hours upon hours training in night navigation at sea, diving, underwater explosives, possibly the most dangerous form of explosives, medical care, insertions into the hostile territory from sea, the list goes on.
Then, of course, there is Medical training at hospitals in and around Britain. Every soldier must know medical procedures, for obvious reasons. The SAS spends a month in an ER, learning and practicing the necessary skills, like gunshot wounds, burns, etc..

They will also get the opportunity to spend about a week in a morgue, doing post-mortem examination and examinations of the human body. The other obvious skill that the SAS require, is to hostage rescue.

Equipment

As an elite unit, there is a broad range of various firearms used by the SAS. Here are the known weapons used by the unit – some are made locally while others are imported from abroad.

The main non-issue weapon used by specialist UK units these days is the Colt Canada C8 carbine; it’s light for troops needing low weight more than long-range accuracy, it’s easier to fire from a white-fleet vehicle, and is cleared for specialist frangible ammunition where ricochets or overpenetration are a concern.

What’s often overlooked is that the default answer for “what weapons do ‘Them’ use?” is “the same as other British soldiers”. Why? Because the issue kit works well, and – crucially – avoids the “signature equipment” giveaway.

Imagine, for instance, a busy Contingency Operating Base, with about two thousand multinational troops based there and a lot of movement coming and going. Eight or nine British troops arriving – wearing the usual kit, armed like any other rifle section – having a quiet briefing, and leaving in two green fleet Land Rovers, is lost in the noise of all the other small attachments and detachments.

Eight or nine British personnel in a mix of British DPM camouflage, commercial Multicam, and civilian ‘extreme sports’ wear (including mandatory mirrored Oakley shades), armed with non-standard weapons from Diemaco and H&K with assorted suppressors, holographic sights, and other non-UK-issue add-ons, ostentatiously telling everyone they can’t talk to them, before leaving in a pair of white Jenkel armored four-wheel-drives… stand out like the bollocks on a pit bull terrier.

Now, which are the SAS team about to go take the lead on finding, fixing and lifting a suspected bomb-maker? And which are the group of signallers or vehicle mechanics asked “sign for these, Gucci up your kit, here’s the act we want you to play” so that the Bad Guys’ snoopers and dickers are looking in the wrong place at the wrong time and focussing their attention on the decoys?

In the past (early-mid 1980s), when the issue rifle was the L1A1 SLR, the issue SMG was the L2 Sterling and the sidearm was the L9 Browning Hi-Power, the SAS opted for different weapons for some roles.

For rifles, they tended to go with the US M16, for its lighter weight and full-automatic firepower (if they needed to fight, they needed to break contact quickly), particularly once the M203 grenade launcher became an option.

For close-quarters action such as counter-terrorist work, they famously used the H&K MP-5, which (at the time) was believed to pose less risk of overpenetration than a rifle while possessing closed-bolt accuracy.

And for sidearms, some went with the Browning as a familiar and trusted item, while there was some use of SIG-Sauer P220s and P226 for the double-action trigger (could be carried loaded, ready and hammer down for immediate use, rather than either relying on the safety catch or on making ready before firing).

As a result, there were a fairly distinct “SAS weapons” compared to “mainstream”.

As the L85 rifle came in, “them” initially disliked it as heavier than the M16/M4 and not able to use the M203, so they retained their bespoke armory well into the 1990s. The L86 Light Support Weapon, designed for an infantry assault or defense, didn’t provide the volume of firepower an SF unit needing to break contact quickly required, so they adopted the FN Minimi.

However… as the L85 proved to be rather better than critics claimed, it also gained some of the modifications and accessories SF valued, like the Underbarrel Grenade Launcher that gave it the same (or slightly more – able to use overlength rounds) capability as the M203. Operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq led to the infantry adopting the Minimi as the L110 Light Machine Gun, and the aging Browning pistols were supplemented by the SIG-Sauer P226 (both as Urgent Operational Requirements)

At which point (probably after 2000) the SAS moved from routinely using “signature gear” (cf. Bravo Two Zero in 1991) to using mainstream kit unless there was a clear reason not to, by 2004–2005.

There may be some divergence again since in the post-TELIC/HERRICK rationalization the Army dropped the L110 LMG, which may remain SF signature kit for some jobs, but outside specialist roles the SAS and similar units will be trying not to stand out…

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