Special Operations: Where Have All The SAS Recruits Gone


May 2, 2011: Britain is running into problems recruiting commandos for the SAS (Special Air Service) force. This has become an issue for several reasons. First, the SAS decided, seven years ago, to expand its strength by twenty percent. That attracted a lot of the new recruits the SAS would have taken later on. That's because the SAS recruits from people already in the army (usually infantry). Then another obstacle developed. Since 2003, Britain has been sending more combat troops overseas (first to Iraq, now Afghanistan and some new hot spots). Britain does not have a large army, and this meant that most potential SAS recruits were too busy being overseas, or getting ready to go overseas (or recovering from being overseas) to train for the arduous SAS entrance exam. There are few options here. The U.S. Army Special Forces ran into a similar problem a few years back, and tried to recruit directly from the civilian population. That brought in a few good people, but not enough. The best recruits, as always, are those already in the army.

Then there's another problem. The British infantry force is shrinking, for several reasons. Four years ago, the British Army revealed that it was short about 3,000 infantry. The situation has not improved much since then. There are only 51 infantry battalions in the British army, and only 37 are active duty units. That's about 26,000 infantrymen, if the battalions are at full strength. But for the past eight years, troops have been heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest crisis is the accumulation of injuries from repeated deployments that has left 20 percent of active duty infantry unfit for duty in a combat zone. The main reasons are medical, including combat fatigue, and battle wounds, as well as all the exotic diseases one can pick up in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the many accidents (especially vehicular). Since 2001, over 1,500 British troops have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan (there were far fewer casualties in Iraq).

While the British military has been all-volunteer for over half a century, the current shortages were partly driven by the job offers from private security firms, especially for the best people. British troops in elite infantry units (paratroopers, marines, SAS), are particularly attractive to the private firms, and vice versa. Noting the American success with reenlistment bonuses, the British began offering bonuses of about $10,000, for troops who decide to sign up for more time in uniform, or return after having been a civilian for a while. Some of the troops who have gone off to work for the private security companies, have found the work not to their liking, and came back to the army. This bonus system encouraged more such returns.

In addition, Britain has been reducing its infantry force. Battalions are going to be disbanded. It's also been noted that about eight percent of the infantry are tied down in ceremonial functions, a distraction that has largely gone unnoticed. Many infantry get out because of the constant trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. While some young Brits are attracted to the prospect of combat, for others, a taste is enough. Another problem is that not all who join the infantry, have what it takes. The British have high standards, and not everyone can make it through the training.

Finally, a unique problem with infantry battalion shortages is that each regiment (of one or more battalions) does its own recruiting. The regiments are local, except for the five Guards battalions (two of which are always performing ceremonial duties). Some regiments have an easier time attracting recruits than others. But these days, most infantry battalions are going off to Afghanistan shorthanded.

The SAS itself is the model for all modern commando units. The SAS evolved during World War II , from the original commando units (which were more similar to current Royal Marine Commandos and U.S. Army Rangers). SAS developed the concept of elite infantry operating in small groups (as few as 3-4 men) for special operations. Britain has only some 460 men in the SAS, and four 80 man "Sabre Squadrons" form the deployable combat units of the organization. SAS commandos are often sent around the world in groups of less than a dozen men for missions.

The SAS has to recruit and train 20 or more new commandos a year just to maintain its current strength. Several thousand British troops apply to join the SAS each year, but the SAS is very selective in who it takes. Some SAS members felt that expanding to 480 troops would dilute the quality. This is not necessarily so, but the debate over the issue continues within the SAS. Another ongoing dispute has to do with how the SAS is sometimes used. There have been several actions in the last decade where an entire Sabre Squadron was used in one action. As one SAS officer observed, an infantry company would have been more suitable for these operations. But other SAS officers believe that only SAS men could have gotten to scene of the action and launched these attacks in time. Regular infantry may have been able to do the fighting effectively, but the SAS are the best trained force for getting to difficult locations, scouting them out adequately and then quickly coming up with an effective attack plan.

The SAS does not like to speak openly about tactics or internal matters in general. But the current debate over recruiting and tactics have been so vehement that some of it has gotten out to the press. Another problem that does not get as much attention is the frequent inability of senior commanders and planners to recognize situations where the SAS would be the best solution. This is one reason why SAS likes working with the American SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and special international commando task forces for hunting terrorists. The Americans have done more work on developing missions for commandos within larger military operations. The Americans have also ordered SOCOM to take the lead in the war on terror and the hunt for terrorists.

In peacetime, most SAS missions are at the request of the Foreign Ministry, and are usually to solve some problem overseas that does not require a lot of muscle, but must be done quietly. In these situations, the SAS will spend a lot of their time operating as spies, even though all they are doing is reconnaissance for some mission. In peacetime, the SAS rarely operates in groups of more than a dozen men. But the war in Afghanistan found British military planners realizing that the troops that could be moved to that isolated country most quickly were the SAS. For a while in Afghanistan, the only British combat troops available there were SAS. So anything that British commanders wanted to do had to be done by SAS. In effect, the SAS were victims of their own success in being able to get anywhere, anytime, in a hurry.



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