Special Operations: Looking For A Few Good Frenchmen

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February 4, 2018: The French Air Force is seeking to recruit 40 candidates for its Air Force Special Operations unit. This force only has a strength of 750 and only a third of them are in commando (“operator”) type jobs. Actually the operator units are about 12 percent short of their authorized strength, thus the French Air Force is seeking a reasonable (as in small) number of suitable candidates from the civilian population. The 40 who make it through the basic military, parachute and commando training will then be selected for specialist training, which is what most of the French Air Force Special Operations do; specialize.

To attract the required hundreds of potential candidates (who meet the basic age, physical and psychological criteria) a video was prepared to use in the media and on the Internet. The video presents a rare insider description of a top-secret commando organization. The ten man air force commando teams contain personnel with different specialties and spend most of their time training. On average each team will deploy (usually overseas) for a combat operation once a year. The air force commandos tend to specialize in intelligence gathering in hostile territory as well as calling in airstrikes or establishing landing zones for additional commandos and regular troops. Many of the French special operations troops use technical skills found in civilian occupations, which makes the air force optimistic that their recruiting effort will succeed. Another encouraging factor is the success of British and American special operations units recruiting from the civilian population. These efforts were not always as successful as the British or Americans wished but they did provide enough guidance and success to make the French believe their goals were realistic.

The most recent effort in this area took place in 2011 when Britain sought civilian candidates for the SAS (Special Air Service) commandos. The SAS was the original modern commando force that set the standards for all that followed. Normally the SAS had no problem attracting enough qualified candidates from active duty British military personnel. But the 21st century had presented some new problems. First, the SAS decided in 2004 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). But then something else developed. Since 2003 Britain had been sending more combat troops overseas (first to Iraq, then 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 were few options when you have this sort of situation. The U.S. Army Special Forces ran into a similar problem after 2002 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. But the Americans had a large army to begin with in 2001 and were expanding their ground forces after that, so the pressure to get commando candidates direct from civilian life was not as urgent.

In contrast the British infantry force was shrinking, for several reasons even though more troops were being sent into combat. In 2007 the British Army revealed that it was short about 3,000 infantry, mainly because fewer Britons were willing to join. The situation has not improved much since then. In 2011 there were only 51 infantry battalions in the British army, and only 37 were active duty units. That's about 26,000 infantrymen (if the battalions are at full strength). But from 2003 to 2011 troops had been heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2011 army troop shortage were 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). From 2002 through 2011 over 1,500 British troops were killed or wounded in Afghanistan. There were far fewer casualties in Iraq.

While the British military has been all-volunteer since the 1950s, the early 21st century 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), were particularly attractive to the private security firm recruiters and vice versa.

Noting the American success with reenlistment bonuses, the British began offering bonuses of about $10,000, for troops who agree to sign up for more time in uniform, or return after having been a civilian for a while. Some of the troops who had gone off to work for the private security companies, found the work not to their liking and came back to the army. This bonus system encouraged more such returns. But it was not enough to generate a lot of additional commando recruits.

In addition, Britain has been reducing its infantry force since the 1990s. Battalions were being disbanded. In 2011 it was also noted that about eight percent of the infantry are tied down in ceremonial functions, a distraction that had largely gone unnoticed. Many infantrymen leave the military 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 British infantry battalion shortages was 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 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. 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.

France has always had larger ground forces, even though they also ended peace time conscription by 1996. France also had another source of recruits; the Foreign Legion, which many Frenchmen were technically not allowed to join. But much of the Foreign Legion consists of French citizens and some manage to join despite the prohibitions. After 2001 France faced another problem, a growing proportion of its military age population was Moslem and surveys indicated more of these young men were willing to join an Islamic terror organization that a French combat organization. French commandos, like those of every other nation, have high security clearances and get exhaustive background checks.

The French Special Operations forces know that they survive by being innovative and resourceful. That is why some special operations organizations survive and others fade away. So the French will solve their recruiting problems or else.

 


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