Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 7, Issue 1  /  

British Special Forces in the 2020s: Still A National Asset

British Special Forces in the 2020s: Still A National Asset British Special Forces in the 2020s: Still A National Asset
Harland Quarrington/MOD, OGL v1.0,
To cite this article: Anglim, Simon, “British Special Forces in the 2020s: Still A National Asset,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 1, spring 2020, pages 43-51.

United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) is a tri-service command in the British armed forces which right now appears on the point of a major shift in direction. The past two decades have seen UKSF cooperate with US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in building what one UKSF officer of the author’s acquaintance has called ‘the greatest counterterrorist organisation in history’, executing a global campaign of capture or kill strikes against al Qaeda and Daesh. This originated with US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld’s Al Qaeda Network Execute Order of 2004, which authorised JSOC strikes against high value targets (HVTs) in twenty named countries, and escalated following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Under Obama, US strategy in the global war on terror shifted conspicuously away from the hallmark of the George W Bush administration, ‘regime change’ in terrorist-friendly countries, to a global counter-terrorist campaign utilising JSOC assets combined with drones, manned aircraft and local proxies to hit jihadi networks in Yemen, Syria, parts of Africa and, of course, Pakistan, the most famous strike being the killing of Osama bin Laden himself in April 2011. The UK has been the USA’s active partner in this campaign: since 2015 up to fourteen Royal Air Force (RAF) fast jets and six Reaper Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) have been striking at Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria and an admitted 86 British Army personnel have trained anti-Daesh forces in Syria.[i] From 2016 media reports indicated UKSF deployment also, although as usual the British government was cagey about this: for instance, when Sergeant Matt Tonroe became the first British soldier killed in action in Syria in March 2018, the official press release had him as from 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, his parent unit, even though a US Army Special Forces Operator, Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar, was killed by the same improvised explosive device, Tonroe’s funeral took place at the Regimental Headquarters of 22 SAS at Hereford and most of the British media reported him engaged in a ‘covert’ operation to capture or kill a senior member of Daesh.[ii] This was also rather paradoxical, given that not only were US, French and other NATO SF deployed in Syria but this was acknowledged in official NATO reports.[iii] It was only in February 2019, in response to a Freedom of Information request about Sergeant Tonroe’s death, that the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) admitted that soldiers from UKSF were embedded with anti-Daesh forces in Syria; later that year a book by 22 SAS veteran Chris Ryan revealed they had carried out an aggressive mobile campaign, recalling the original SAS’ operations in the Western Desert in World War Two, as they contested northern Iraq’s deserts with the terrorists two years before.[iv] Previous disclosures hinted at further involvement in the war on terror, most prominently that made by King Abdullah of Jordan in 2016, who, while briefing members of the US Congress, reported that Jordanian SF were about to operate alongside “British SAS” in Libya and also potentially in Kenya as they prepared to strike at al Shabab in Somalia.[v]

This leads to the reported change in direction. July 2019 brought reports in the British media that UKSF were re-prioritising away from terrorism to dealing with the NATO alliance’s most aggressive peer competitor, Russia, in particular that a new Special Operations Concept aimed specifically at dealing with some of the challenges coming from Russia had been forwarded from HQ UKSF for approval from the MOD. The Concept, as reported, shifted UKSF’s focus away from counterterrorism towards counter-intelligence and counter-subversion, the guiding ethos behind this, according to “a senior officer”, was “Right now you do nothing or you escalate. We want to expand that competitive space”, further reports indicating it recommended deeper cooperation with the armed forces and security agencies of friendly states under so-called “hybrid” or “grey zone” threat from the Russians.[vi]

At least one such report alleges the Concept is driven as much by budgetary concerns as by strategic imperatives.[vii] This seems plausible, given that since the 1980s, the principal function of the MOD has been budget management and its focus very much on the means of strategy rather than the ends. Consequently, the major landmarks in British defence policy over the past three decades have been a series of ‘Strategic Defence Reviews’ (SDRs) which were, essentially, reviews of defence expenditure resulting in sometimes swingeing cuts in spending and troop numbers falling consistently over this period.[viii] For instance, the British Army has fallen from a strength of just under 153,000 at the end of the Cold War in 1989 to a projected one, for 2020, of 82,000 and might struggle to reach even that thanks to problems with recruitment and retention.[ix]

Yet, throughout this period, UKSF have expanded noticeably, particularly since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and, indeed, seem to have become invulnerable to the impact of contracting defence spending. In 2003, presenting a White Paper proposing amendments to the 1998 SDR – which cut the size of the Royal Navy and RAF – the then UK Defence Secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, promised increased investment in “intelligence gathering [and] network-centric capability (including enhanced Strike and Special Forces Capabilities)”.[x] The 2015 SDR promised “We will more than double our planned current investment in Special Forces equipment to enhance their ability to operate and strike globally…and in particular to enhance their counter-terrorism capabilities”, stating explicitly that their supporting air fleet would be updated – this from a government carrying out a stringent austerity programme and whose previous SDR, in 2010, cut Army numbers by several thousand.[xi] This was followed in 2017 the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, promising another £300 million to bring UKSF “up to strength” while other units were still being cut and a year later, the latest of the CONTEST series, which outlines the UK government’s measures for dealing with terrorism, stated explicitly that £2billion would be invested in UKSF as part of a multi-agency strategy to “Step up our ability to deliver end-to-end degradation of terrorist groups and networks overseas” and just as explicitly that this would be focused on Syria and Iraq as part of the Global Coalition against Daesh.[xii]

The impact of this spending is highly visible. In 2009, the post of Director UKSF – the senior Army officer double-hatted as overall commander of British Special Forces and overseer of their doctrine, training and standards – was elevated from brigadier to major general, and the Director now presides over a sizeable all-arms force. At the core of UKSF are the British Army’s 22 Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS) and the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service (SBS), units similar in organisation, equipment and personnel selection procedures and performing the same broad range of tasks but each retaining some specialist capabilities, 22 SAS in land and airborne operations, the SBS in maritime and littoral. Both originated in the Second World War and were joined in the mid-2000s by two “new” Special Forces units with distinguished ancestry of their own. The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) was formed in April 2005 and is descended from 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company, which carried out covert surveillance in IRA-friendly parts of Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” from the 1970s to the 1990s.[xiii] The SRR’s strength, organisation and operational role are all classified but it can be presumed it carries out a similar covert reconnaissance and surveillance role for UKSF, other military headquarters, MI5, MI6 and UK Government and it is believed to include female operators like 14 Company before it.[xiv] On strength the following year was the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), a specialist airborne battalion formed from First Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (1 Para), three of its four Strike Companies incorporating a platoon from the Royal Marines and the fourth a platoon from the Royal Air Force Regiment’s airborne No.2 Squadron, alongside specialist elements The Parachute Regiment’s other three battalions do not have.[xv] Mirroring 75th Ranger Regiment in JSOC, SFSG carries out a broad range of tasks supporting 22 SAS, the SBS and SRR including fire support and quick reaction to enemy counterattacks. However, like the Rangers, they have executed strikes of their own against HVTs in Afghanistan, operations seeing The Parachute Regiment carry out its first combat jumps since the Suez crisis in 1956.

Although figures are classified, UKSF almost certainly number at least 2,000 people plus dozens of specialist vehicles and aircraft and have expanded conspicuously at a time when the rest of the British Armed Forces have shrunk and the Army now aspires to a strength of just over half what it was thirty years ago. The number of Special Forces officers rising to very senior positions is also noticeable, culminating in General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, a former Commanding Officer (CO) of 22 SAS and Director UKSF being appointed as Chief of the General Staff in June 2018. Eight of his fifteen predecessors as CO 22 SAS and Director have subsequently reached three-star rank or above, the most famous being General Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of British Forces in the Gulf in 1990-91, General Sir Michael Rose, first to hold the official title of Director UKSF before commanding the United Nation (UN) Protection Force in Bosnia in 1994-1995 and Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, Deputy Commanding General of the Multinational Force in Iraq from 2006 to 2007.[xvi]

It can be construed, therefore, that the UK Government values its Special Forces highly, almost certainly as one of those national military assets allowing the UK to “punch above its weight” globally into the 21st century. What follows discusses what UKSF may offer in return over the next decade whether or not the new Concept becomes doctrine and attempts to place UKSF, in their current form, in the wider context of Britain’s pursuit of global policy aims as it appears to stand now and in a small range of plausible futures. As to the ‘so what’, there are several reasons why this matters, the most obvious being that despite events since June 2016 – and probably now because of them – the UK will remain a global player as a key member of NATO and the UN and a close US ally whose armed forces come with some world-class specialist capabilities and no national caveats. The structure of Britain’s armed forces, and how it uses them are therefore matters of global interest, even more so now, given that the “West”, broadly defined, is challenged by a growingly assertive Russia, China and Iran. Moreover, at non-state level, the global jihadi movement is far from extinct and nor is Irish Republicanism, an internal security issue vexing the UK for 150 years now.

Where UKSF fit in

The paper adopts the broad view of strategy as how states or other actors pursue defence and security-based policy aims, which depends in turn on matching actual or potential opposition with one’s own capabilities and resources. So, a sound start would be to clarify what part Special Forces play in this process. The answer is simpler than may be supposed: as the author has stated elsewhere, Special Forces are like any other military unit – they have a designated role for which they are trained, organised and equipped and their strategic effect hinges on them being used properly in this role.[xvii] This role is to carry out tactical actions producing strategic effect out of proportion to the amounts of personnel and equipment committed and, increasingly since 1945, doing so while leaving as light a physical and political footprint as possible in situations where committing larger forces may impact badly on policy, their country’s standing in the world or the government’s standing with its own people. The NATO definition of “special operations” is explicit about this: “Politico-military considerations may require clandestine or covert techniques and the acceptance of a degree of political or military risk not associated with operations by conventional forces.”[xviii] So, a special operation ideally features high levels of precision, surprise and deniability, essential in situations where precisely focused effect is needed and casualties, collateral damage and political fallout must be kept to a minimum.[xix] Modern Special Forces are tailored for this kind of mission: they are agile and have reach, being maintained at very high states of readiness for deployment and are deployable anywhere their designated air transport can take them, far more quickly than most conventional forces. Personnel and selection procedures are tied closely to maintaining this capability: candidates for 22 SAS, the SBS and SRR must serve in the British forces for at least three years before applying to undergo the notorious ‘Selection’, which lasts for seven months and typically has a failure rate above 90%. Moreover, while any serving member of the British forces can apply, the bulk of successful candidates for 22 SAS traditionally come from a handful of elite infantry regiments – The Parachute Regiment and Foot Guards featuring prominently – while the SBS recruits overwhelmingly from The Royal Marines. Candidates from these units will have endured prolonged and challenging recruit training and selection procedures to get into their original units before even attempting Selection and many will have done multiple operational tours also.[xx] Consequently, UKSF’s ranks are filled with experienced soldiers showing approved levels of the determination, self-discipline, physical bravery and mental agility to complete challenging missions deep inside hostile territory.[xxi]

Tasks remain broadly as they were in the 1940s – surveillance and reconnaissance, support and influence, and offensive action against high value targets, all apparent in the histories of most Special Forces, UK and otherwise.[xxii] It can be construed that much of the surveillance and reconnaissance role now falls on the SRR, a unit formed, organised and equipped to carry out this kind of activity, freeing 22 SAS, the SBS and the Support Group to focus on offensive action along with influence and support, which involves, among other activities, waging warfare in enemy-held areas in cooperation with local forces and British and Allied airpower, either as covert surrogate for deploying the conventional ‘green’ Army in theatre or to ease their arrival. This overlaps the currently fashionable concept of ‘remote warfare’ and UKSF’s interest in this will be covered below.

Their recent focus on influence and support operations in areas of geopolitical importance, combined with flurries of HVT strikes in those same areas, seems to have shaped how UKSF view their place in the world, identifying as they do as a national asset, their role rooted in the NATO definition of the strategic level of war – “The level of war at which a nation or group of nations determines national or multinational security objectives and deploys national, including military resources to achieve them.”[xxiii] This comes close to what some might call “national” or “grand” strategy and when UKSF talk of hitting enemy centres of gravity and other high-value targets, one can presume they mean at global level. Indeed, British special forces since the beginning have insisted they should be employed “for strategic effect” and commanded at the highest levels, at theatre level or higher, and preferably via broad directives giving their commanders as much freedom of action as possible in reaching the objectives set them.[xxiv]

How, then, does this mesh with the UK’s current defence, security and foreign policies? How they match perceived current threats might be a good place to start answering this question. The 2015 SDR defined four broad challenges to global security: terrorism, extremism and instability; the resurgence of state-based threats; technology, particularly cyber threats, and the erosion of the rules-based international order, which could cripple a consensual reaction to the other three.[xxv] Other documents corroborate this: the 2018 CONTEST paper stated explicitly that the threat from terrorism that year was far greater than when the previous edition came out in 2011; its recommended response was based on the UK remaining committed to the global campaign against jihadi terrorism, including the “disruption” of “key senior leaders and networks” and “maintain[ing] our global reach to disrupt those that directly threaten the UK or UK interests”.[xxvi] Terrorism is seen, therefore, as the most obvious and immediate threat, and the UK government rates it at the time of writing at “severe”, the second highest on a scale of five and meaning “an attack is highly likely.”[xxvii]

This points to one clear and obvious ongoing role for UKSF – counter-terrorism inside the UK. 22 SAS has each of its four squadrons rotating through the role of Special Projects Team, tasked with dealing with major terrorist incidents on UK soil, on a six-monthly basis, with a company each from the Support Group rotating through the support role; previous major incidents, such as the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980, indicate their deployment would be controlled at Cabinet level. However, first response to domestic terrorism has always been a police responsibility and, indeed, SCO19, the Metropolitan Police’s armed response wing – whose Counterterrorist Specialist Firearms Officer unit cross-trains regularly with the Special Projects Team – are now seen as global leaders in domestic counterterrorism, passing on their skills via The ATLAS Network, an association of police tactical response units from all European Union countries plus Switzerland and Sweden and in 2016 the Home Office authorised them to select and train 600 new officers following a long hiatus.[xxviii] The threat from domestic terrorism is not going away any time soon, and dealing with it will remain a key UKSF role probably beyond 2030, one in which the SRR is likely to be particularly busy alongside UKSF’s specialist police colleagues. However, as hinted already, UKSF’s most salient role in dealing with terrorism appears to be taking the war back to the terrorists in their havens overseas, leading to one way in which UKSF’s role might evolve and expand.

UKSF in small and remote wars

The “Global War on Terror” has produced two highly divisive “regime change”- themed interventions, in Afghanistan, at a cost of over 450 British dead, and Iraq, with 179 killed and many more maimed for life in both theatres and the strategic worth of both campaigns is dubious in the light of the kind of national governments and security situations they have created. Emily Knowles of the Oxford Research Group is probably not wrong in stating that “The controversy surrounding the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq has cast a ‘long shadow’ over British foreign policy, and has had implications for parliamentary and public trust in the decision-making process surrounding the deployment of British troops”, noting also the war-weariness the decade-long deployment in Afghanistan seems to have induced in the British public.[xxix] An obvious expression of this was the 29 August 2013 parliamentary vote rejecting British military action against the Assad regime in Syria, identified explicitly by Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa as indication of “public hesitation about the use of armed force”; that same year the MOD Commissioned a report discussing how to maintain military operations overseas despite this, recommending an increase in spending in UKSF almost certainly linked to the pledge for an extra £5 billion mentioned already.[xxx]

UKSF, in partial response, are showing an interest in the concept of “remote warfare”.[xxxi] The term originated in the 2000s and is of major current interest to the aforementioned Oxford Research Group, a leftward-leaning British foreign policy think tank focusing on the causes of armed conflicts and alternative means to resolving them, and currently running a research programme on ‘remote warfare’ and its implications. The Group’s core argument is rooted in the current political atmosphere: given a range of current political and social factors – particularly risk-averseness among the political class and distrust of politicians among the voting public, to which we can add shrinking defence budgets – and a real need to act against terrorists in their safe havens alongside pressure from allies, there is a strong incentive for Western governments to wage war by “remote” or “discreet” means instead of deploying large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ with the level of political and military commitment and the risks that entails.[xxxii] . The most obvious of these ‘remote’ assets are airpower (including unmanned systems), Special Forces and proxy local ‘partners’ and the concept does provide a convincing rationale for why British governments expanded their SF capabilities while other forces were cut as given their salient characteristics, UKSF are, indeed, an excellent fit for “remote” operations as demonstrated recently in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Moreover, they have collective memory to draw upon: as with many fashionable military concepts, the term “remote warfare” might be new, but the assumptions and practices it encompasses are not: 22 SAS have carried out “remote” operations for almost sixty years, most obviously in the defeat of the communist insurgency in Dhofar, southern Oman, in the 1970s, cited often as their finest hour.[xxxiii] They deployed to Dhofar as “British Army Training Teams”, there ostensibly to train the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces but actually raising, training and then operating alongside firquats, local militias consisting partially of turned insurgents which proved highly effective at taking on the communist adoo in regions of the Dhofar mountains they had previously thought safe, supported from the air by British-made Strikemasters bearing the markings of the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces but flown by RAF pilots on attachment.[xxxiv]

A likely future role for UKSF might, therefore, be in Dhofar-type support and influence operations in regions experiencing aggressive penetration by jihadi groups or state-based “peer competitors” and their proxies which may, in extreme cases, need to escalate into kinetic interventions of the type seen in Libya in 2011. In some circumstances these would combine with HVT strikes as appears to be the case in Syria. There are hints on where this might happen: Daesh has been destroyed in Iraq and appears on its last legs in Syria, but the international jihadi movement has metastasised from region to region before and it is still likely that jihadis will seek to establish themselves in any weak, unstable or war-torn country where there is a Sunni Islamic dimension, a situation which might also attract the malevolent interest of Russia or Iran. It is probable, therefore, that UKSF will be involved in something having many characteristics of “remote warfare” somewhere else in the Middle East or Africa by 2030 and possibly over a prolonged period, so their interest in the concept seems justified.

UKSF and Peer Competitors

Whatever the interest in “remote warfare”, it seems now that the most pressing issue facing UKSF is that outlined in the new Concept and the reorientation of mission types it might entail. Reports indicate that the Concept hinges on recent government priorities and UKSF’s existing strengths and, as Mark Urban puts it, “continuing to provide more options for low-profile actions in places where overtly committing conventional troops would be difficult”, the aim apparently being to neutralise Russian action before war breaks out.[xxxv] The context for this is obvious, a Foreign Office appreciation in late 2018 – almost certainly prompted by the Russians’ assassination attempt on the former GRU officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury in March – identifying Russia as “a declining power that in increasingly willing to and able to use both traditional and new capabilities…to act as a disruptor in international relations”, commending the UK government for its strong reaction to the Skripal episode while recommending it “continue to work closely with its allies to counter Russian disinformation campaigns and deter its hybrid warfare tactics [sic]”, such as those used to seize Crimea in 2014 and which also proved very effective against British forces in Iraq when applied by Iran the decade before.[xxxvi]

The Russians are not unaware of their dubious chances of winning a conventional war with a US-led NATO and many see their use of so-called “hybrid warfare”, with all the problems it poses in international law and the domestic law of liberal states, as a means of securing foreign policy aims without the risk of NATO invoking its Article V and armed hostilities breaking out.[xxxvii] Countering such a strategy successfully could therefore cripple swathes of their disruptive external policy and in this case, would involve mutating the counter-terrorist role at which UKSF have gathered so much experience over the past fifty years and much of the same tactical skill set. Reports on the Concept indicate the SRR would take the lead in covertly locating, tracking and monitoring the agents running and expediting the subversive networks on which “hybrid” operations hinge, perhaps on the soil of “a Baltic country or Africa”.[xxxviii] What follows is not covered in the public domain, but one option might be to develop a target list for “hard arrests” by local police, security forces or possibly even 22 SAS and the SBS with the aim of rupturing these networks as those supporting the insurgents in Baghdad were in the 2000s.[xxxix] Catching identifiable Russian agents engaged in “active measures” on NATO or other allied territory would no doubt provide enormous political capital, also.

Conclusions and Caveats

UKSF have been strategically astute over the past two decades, anticipating and working hard to match their political masters’ priorities: when the global jihadi terrorist network was the main threat, they focused on HVT strikes and support and influence operations as part of the JSOC-led global counterterrorist campaign; with the emergence of state-based peer competitors using so-called ‘hybrid’ means, they now show an interest in counter-subversion.[xl] Given contracting government expenditure in the UK alongside post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq war weariness and diffuse and remote threats, pursuing security aims via combining technology with small numbers of highly-trained volunteers seems cost-effective politically also, so is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Oxford Group’s objections to remote warfare – that it constitutes war ‘on the cheap and under the radar’ which empowers unpleasant local actors and aggravates political divisions on the ground – are mainly ethical and so belong in a paper different from one assessing strategy.[xli] However, David Betz’s argument, that it constitutes an ignis fatuus for the strategically timid or inept does have some bearing here.[xlii] The ‘remote’ approach is applied all too frequently to conflicts of major geopolitical importance, and often seems to work initially – for instance, being key in toppling the Taliban, Saddam, and Gadaffi – only, in most cases, to see significant parts of those regions then collapse into terrorist-friendly ‘black holes’. Indeed, remote operations seem to be developing a record of providing a highly effective means of reaching badly thought-out or sometimes downright inane policy aims, for instance ‘stopping the killing’ in Libya in 2011 or ‘containing’ Daesh, which so often give little indication of any desired end-state beyond ‘It’s the right thing to do’.[xliii] The current proclivity for remote war, including deployment of SF, might therefore present a telling example of a modern phenomenon pinpointed by Hew Strachan – the tendency of some service chiefs to recommend and pursue favoured operational models regardless of whether they match the stated policy aim or even if there is no clear aim at all.[xliv] This can be compounded if those models prove attractive to the politicians as ‘remote warfare’ seems currently and there is, indeed, something of a record of UKSF cultivating the attention, if not the outright patronage of senior politicians going back at least as far as Mrs Thatcher; to cite one recent example, it is no coincidence that the number of infantry battalions to be cut under the 2003 Defence White Paper was reduced by one when senior Army officers at MOD approached Mr Hoon positing converting 1 Para into the UKSF Support Group.[xlv]

Moreover, the potential use of Special Forces in counter-subversive operations creates other risks, especially if UKSF assets deploy on the streets of British or European cities in search of hostile agents among their own civilian population or that of an ally.[xlvi] This is evident from recent experience: General Stanley McChrystal’s campaign of HVT raids in Afghanistan and Iraq were certainly effective, particularly in Iraq, where they collapsed whole segments of the insurgent infrastructure; nevertheless, they were contentious, due to poor or non-existent cooperation with other forces and the political fallout from the killing, detention and intimidation of civilians by a foreign force which in the case of Afghanistan led to some very public complaints from President Karzai.[xlvii] The SRR’s purported central role in the Concept suggests further issues, as the mere suspicion of “army spies” working alongside the police inside the UK raises hackles in the liberal media even without their alleged involvement in episodes such as the shooting dead of the innocent Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, misidentified by sources unknown as a jihadi terrorist, by Metropolitan Police officers at Stockwell tube station in July 2005. Mistaken identity notwithstanding, counterterrorist operations produce situations where operators have to decide to open fire in split seconds under ambiguous circumstances and often in front of witnesses, then face judgement from others who have never been in that situation.[xlviii] One well-known example of this was the Gibraltar ‘incident’ of March 1988 which, although the action by 22 SAS was strategically and tactically correct, resulted in an uncharacteristic show of panic from Mrs Thatcher, a lengthy public inquest in Gibraltar and a subsequent court case in which the families of the killed IRA members sued the British government (unsuccessfully); likewise, the de Menezes episode produced an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Authority and a public inquest. Matters would reach new levels of complication were episodes like these replicated on the streets of Tallinn, Vilnius or Sofia: if the proposed Concept becomes doctrine then devising means of working with local police and security services and, in particular, allowing them to take the lead in any direct action would be critical, especially in peacetime.



My thanks to Colonel David Benest, Dr Mark Baillie and Lt General Jonathon Riley for their comments and suggestions, which go alongside those of other military personnel I cannot name here.


[i], accessed 25 February 2019
[ii] Ashley May, ‘U.S. soldier killed in Syria attack identified as Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar’, USA Today 31 March 2018, Accessed 19 July 2019. It is a British government convention that members of UKSF are reported as from their parent units in the media. Reports are vague as to Dunbar’s unit, but most have him “assigned to HQ US Special Operations Command (SOCOM)” a common cover term for members of Delta Force.
[iii];, both accessed 25 February 2019; Madeleine Moon, NATO Special Operations Forces in the Modern Security Environment – Draft Report to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Defence and Security Committee, 4 April 2018, p.1
[iv], accessed 25 February 2019; Chris Ryan, The History of the SAS: As Told by the Men on the Ground (London: Coronet 2019) pp.331-333
[v] Randeep Ramesh, ‘SAS Deployed to Libya since start of year, says leaked memo’, Guardian 25 March 2016, Accessed 26 May 2019; See also Ryan, History of the SAS pp.335-336
[vi] Mark Urban, ‘UK’s special forces set for new Russia mission’, BBC News 13 June 2019 accessed 15 June 2019; Sebastien Murphy-Bates, SAS turn their attention to Putin: British Special Forces are secretly plotting to shift focus from ISIS to Russia in the wake of Salisbury Novichok attack’, Mail Online 13 June 2019, accessed 15 June 2019;
[vii] Urban, Op.Cit
[viii] See Christopher L Elliott, High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (London: Hurst 2015), especially pp.77-80; Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, CUP 2013), pp.24-25, 73-76
[ix] For an introduction to this issue, see Andrew Foxall and John Hemmings (Editors) European Security at a time of Transatlantic Uncertainty (London: Henry Jackson Society 2018), pp.9-10, 12 On the other hand, the withdrawal from EU defence structures which mirror those of NATO may eliminate some duplication of spending.
[x] Paragraph 1996 of Strategic Defence Review (SDR): A New Chapter (London: Ministry of Defence 2002)
[xi] Paragraphs 4.45-4.46 of National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom (London: HM Government 2015)
[xii] Megan Karlshoej-Pederson, ‘The True Cost of Special Forces?’ (London: Oxford Research Group 2018); CM 9608 CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism (London: HM Government 2018), Paragraphs 14, 140, 265, 270, 284 .
[xiii] For more information on 14 Company, see Mark Urban, Big Boy’s Rules: The Secret Struggle against the IRA (London: Faber & Faber 1992), especially pp.35-49
[xiv] Reports put the SRR’s strength as anywhere between 150 and 400.
[xv] Prior to 2005, infantry support for special operations was usually carried out on an ad hoc and temporary basis, for instance, the attachment of A Company of the then 1 Para to D Squadron, 22 SAS for Operation Barras in Sierra Leone in 2000. The creation of the Support Group was the brainchild of the then Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General David Richards; Richards had operational command over Barras but his aim seems almost as much to have been saving an infantry battalion from yet more cuts in manpower. See General David Richards, Taking Command (London: Headline 2014), pp.195-198
[xvi] The post was entitled ‘Director SAS’ up to 1988. For a good introduction to General Lamb’s role in Iraq, see Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq (London: Abacus 2011)
[xvii] Simon Anglim, ‘Special Forces: Strategic Asset’, Infinity Journal Issue 2, Spring 2011, pp.16-20
[xviii] Quoted in Moon, ‘NATO Special Operations Forces’, p.4
[xix] Anglim, ‘Special Forces’, p.16
[xx] Members of The Parachute Regiment have been traditionally encouraged to apply by the Regimental hierarchy (Private Conversations) but Any serving member of the Royal Navy, British Army or RAF may apply. The SRR and some of UKSF’s support units use somewhat revised forms of the Selection process
[xxi] Private Conversations, 2011-2019. The selection procedures undergone by SF candidates are often a good indicator of their designated roles and how they go about them. They might also be good cultural indicators, demonstrating a preference for a certain personality type deemed suitable for these roles, an argument against the proposition that any kind of unit, or any kind of soldier can carry them out.
[xxii] Private Personal correspondence with the author
[xxiii] NATO AAP-6, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Standardization Agency (NSA) Glossary of Terms and Definitions (English & French) (30 Nov 2008) – interestingly, this has disappeared from subsequent editions. Also from private conversations with the author, 2019. As a caveat, based on thirteen years of teaching the subject, the author is fully aware that there are as many definitions of ‘strategy’ as there are stars in the sky but this is the one UKSF seem to be working from, so it has been chosen for this paper, based on some private and confidential conversations.
[xxiv] The author is not exaggerating in saying this is a multi-generational issue in the UK – see Simon Anglim, Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior (Barnsley: Pen & Sword 2014) especially pp.157-159, 166-167
[xxv] Chapter 3 of OM 9161 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom (London: HM Government 2015)
[xxvi] CM 9608 CONTEST Paragraphs 14, 140, 265, 270, 284 . The British Army also has, according to source, 400-1000 troops deployed in Afghanistan engaged in training and mentoring Afghan troops fighting the resurgent Taliban.
[xxvii] , accessed 24 February 2019
[xxviii] Conversations with SCO19 officers, 2018-2019.
[xxix] Emily Knowles and Abigail Watson, Remote Warfare: Lessons Learned from Contemporary Theatres (London: Oxford Research Group 2018), p.7
[xxx] Ibid, pp.7-8
[xxxi] Private conversations in early-mid 2019
[xxxii] 22 Knowles and Watson, Remote Warfare, especially pp.1-3; David Betz takes traces the cultural roots of this in Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power (London: Hurst 2015), especially pp.4-10
[xxxiii] The Oxford Group traces the origins of Remote Warfare to US and Soviet strategy during the Cold War period, and, rather more tendentiously, to British ‘aerial policing’ in the inter-war period. See Tom Watts and Rudrick Biegon, Conceptualising Remote Warfare: The Past, Present and Future (London: ORG 2019)
[xxxiv] For an excellent first-hand account of this by a former CO 22 SAS, see Tony Jeapes, SAS Operation Storm: Secret War in the Middle East (Barnsley, Greenhill 2005); see also John Peterson, Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanate’s Struggle for Supremacy (London: Saqi 2007), especially pp.246-247, 251, 267-268, 328
[xxxv] Urban, ‘New Russia Mission’
[xxxvi], accessed 25 February 2019
[xxxvii] This is put very succinctly in Major Brian W James, ‘Sharpening the Spear of NATO SOF: Deterring Russian Hybrid Aggression through Network Targeting’, in Frank B Steder and Leo Blanken (Editors), Countering Hybrid Warfare: The Best Uses of SOF in a Pre-Article V Scenario (The Combating Terrorism Exchange 2016), pp.75-82
[xxxviii] Hawker, ‘SAS troops set for Russia Missions’
[xxxix] As Major James argues, Ibid, pp.76-79
[xl] Official secrecy conceals how far the initiative came from above or below
[xli] For instance, see Abigail Watson, ‘The Perils of Remote Warfare’,
[xlii] Betz, Carnage and Connectivity, pp.4-6
[xliii] Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s blanket justification for a whole raft of policies, including the 2011 intervention in Libya and the EU Membership referendum of June 2016 which brought about his downfall.
[xliv] Strachan, Direction of War, pp.19-22
[xlv] The senior officers concerned are candid about this, too. See General Sir Mike Jackson, Soldier (London: Transworld 2007), pp.431-434; General David Richards, Taking Command (London; Headline 2014), pp.196-198
[xlvi] Anglim, ‘Special Forces’
[xlvii] One retired senior British Army officer commented to the author that other British forces in area were particularly irate about the frequency with which they only heard about raids after they had happened. See also Gretchen Gavett, ‘What is the Secretive US Kill/Capture Campaign?’ Frontline, 17 June 2011 accessed 6 July 2019; Azmat Khan, ‘Night Raids: Disrupting or Fuelling the Afghan Insurgency?’, Frontline, 17 June 2011, accessed 7 July 2019
[xlviii] The author has personal experience of SCO19’s Judgement Range, which gives trainee officers the chance to make these decisions under simulated conditions.