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SAS creates a new squadron to counter threat from al-Qa‘eda

  • Thread starter Jason Jarvis
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Jason Jarvis

SAS creates a new squadron to counter threat from al-Qa‘eda

By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
Daily Telegraph (Filed: 07/03/2004)

The Special Air Service, Britain‘s elite fighting force, is to be increased in size for the first time in more than 50 years, the Telegraph can reveal.

The 400-strong unit, which is based in Hereford, will be ordered to recruit an additional 60 to 80 members over the next five years to create a fifth sabre squadron capable of deploying on operations.

The decision represents a significant escalation in Britain‘s efforts to combat al-Qa‘eda and other Islamic terrorists. It follows a warning from defence chiefs that Britain‘s special forces are struggling to cope with the number of operations that they are being asked to carry out around the world.

As well as operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, the special forces are also required to have teams on permanent standby for counter-terrorist operations in the United Kingdom. They also take part in a significant number of Foreign Office sponsored "exercises" in friendly countries around the world.

Since the al-Qa‘eda attrocities of September 11, 2001, the SAS and its Royal Navy equivalent, the Special Boat Service, both of which come under the control of the Director of Special Forces, an Army brigadier, have been on permanent operational deployments.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the continuing hunt for Osama bin Laden have only been achieved by using volunteers from the regiment‘s territorial battalions, 21 and 23 SAS.

The expansion has been made possible by the announcement last July by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, of a £1.5 billion funding increase for the special forces.

Previously, one of the main hurdles to increasing the size of the SAS was the potential cost. Man for man, the regiment is the most expensive in the British Army with an annual budget that runs to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Until now, the SAS has resisted expansion attempts, claiming that it would ultimately lead to a "dilution of excellence" and undermine its operational effectiveness.

Of the thousands of soldiers who volunteer to serve with the regiment every year, only between 10 to 15 are accepted.

One former squadron sergeant major expressed his concerns, saying: "The SAS is the regiment it is because it is highly selective and refuses to compromise on its standards. Change that system and you change the regiment.

"If it is being over-tasked, then it is up to either the Government or senior officers to prioritise what they want the regiment to do."

Another former SAS officer insisted, however, that standards could be maintained. "Not everyone in the regiment is signed up to the rationale that recruiting can only be increased if standards are lowered," he said.

"There is a growing acceptance that the size of the special forces can be increased by micro-changes to the selection process, such as giving the benefit of the doubt to a few exceptional candidates.

"Most in this bracket could have successful careers in the regiment, but are never given the chance."

The expansion comes at a time when the SAS is examining its military ethos. The SAS‘s raison d‘etre since its creation in 1941 has been to conduct small, covert operations against strategic, high-value targets.

Although that philosophy still holds true today, the regiment has been used to conduct an increasing number of conventional rather than special operations, which many within the regiment believe is a misuse of a valuable resource.

The most notable of these was during an operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan when a squadron of the SAS was used to attack a joint al-Qa‘eda/ Taliban camp.

After the battle, the SAS squadron commander famously declared that an infantry company "could have done it better".

The move to expand the SAS follows a similar recruiting drive undertaken by the US military, which is planning to increase the size of its special forces to counter the growing threat from terrorist organisations that are based in Iraq.

Frances Fragos, the US Deputy national security adviser, said recently: "The special operations community represents the future of fighting. We will use them more, not less, as we go into the future."