Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Elitism and Specialness: Count Pointer-Count (with thanks and apologies to The Kentucky Fried Movie)

An interesting and little-noticed article was lurking in the Guardian on Tuesday:
Senior military officers are battling to persuade the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, to create a specialist infantry battalion that would provide back-up to the SAS against the worldwide challenge of terrorism.

The absence of such troops providing communications support contributed to the SAS's failure to capture Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan two years ago, military analysts have concluded.

The army board, chaired by General Sir Mike Jackson, wants to create a special force - less well trained than the £2m a soldier invested in the SAS and Special Boat Squadron - to fill a gap in the same way the much larger American Delta Force is supported by specialist ranger units. Army chiefs do not regard the estimated £20m cost of training and equipping the special battalion as excessive.


The new unit, which could be built around the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment and located near SAS headquarters outside Hereford, would involve infantry redeployments during the restructuring of the army's historic regimental system.

We must be circumspect in passing judgement at this stage as details are sketchy at the time of writing. However, if the broad details of the article are accurate, some preliminary suggestions can be made...

"Well, Michael, I guess even you and your liberal cronies have finally found the light at the end of the tunnel of love..." (or, a Sceptical take on special operations forces expansion)


Let me declare a prejudice (one among many...) right away. I side with Field Marshal the Viscount Slim of Burma in being of the opinion that there are not many military tasks within the broad spectrum that war throws up that cannot be accomplished by well trained, well led and well motivated regular troops. This is not to say that I have no time for special forces, quite the opposite. What I do believe, however, is that the instances in which special forces will add most value and most justify their status are highly specialised. To provide some context I will employ a template developed by Colin Gray in which the various tasks that may be carried out by special forces troops are categorised as tactical, operational and strategic.

Tactical - Operations in which special forces act as a "value-added" factor in a conventional battle, pumping up the performance of non-special forces troops. Obvious examples include the actions of Delta Force troops in Mogadishu and some SAS activities in the Falklands.

Operational - Operations that have an impact on an ongoing campaign - eg. SAS sabotage ops in the desert against Nazi supply lines and airfields, Chindit operations in Burma and Skorzeny's antics during the Battle of the Bulge.

Strategic - Operations that have the potential to fundamentally alter the course of a war, eg. British WW2 operations to capture material relating to Enigma or to destroy the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant.

There are undoubtedly those who would argue that all three of these three categories are, if not illegitimate, then not worth the expense and effort of ploughing resources into exotic special force units. I disagree, but it seems to me abundantly clear that the third category is the key. In the case of the tactical category one is tempted to ask whether special forces troops would not be better employed serving as senior NCOs in "bog standard" line units. It is difficult to sustain the argument that the deliberate employment of special forces for "tactical" purposes represents economy of force. In many of the "operational" roles there is more room for debate. Certainly, operations such as the Chindit raids were to a degree "unconventional" - but does that mean that they required specialised, hand picked units to conduct them? Opinion was split at the time but hindsight suggests that the resources required were not in alignment with the benefits gained.

At the "strategic" level we truly see the unique advantages of special forces coming into play. Almost every "strategic" level special operation requires things that only special forces can provide - small, self contained units; a genuinely stellar level of training; a requirement for secrecy and, ideally, economy of force. A battalion of British regulars could not have carried out the Norsk Hydro operation. Secrecy would have been well nigh impossible, the logistics tail required would have been huge, the level of individualism and initiative required would have been absent. A tiny group of specialists succeeded in circumstances in which a battalion would have been ground to mince. Below the "strategic" level we run the risk of mistakenly labelling what are essentially elite troops as special forces.

Storm of Steel

I hesitate to adopt a pejorative tone regarding elitism. Without elitism in its true sense there can be no advancement on merit. However, the plain fact is that historically armies with high proportions of elite units do not ultimately fare well. A noteworthy example is the German army in both world wars. The German offensives of 1918 are instructive. In preparation for their big push, the Germans developed elite units - stormtroopers and assault divisions. The quality of these formations was markedly superior to that of the British units that faced them. However, the inevitable process of attrition (and, contrary to popular perception, stormtroop units took heavier casualties as a matter or course than did ordinary line units) meant that these elite units were soon depleted. Worse, in order to provide the men for elite formations, the ordinary German line units were strip-mined for their best personnel. British units which had proven thoroughly inadequate in the face of German elite troops abruptly found themselves facing German line units that were markedly inferior in quality, after action reports noting that German second line units seemed to be acting like throwbacks to 1915.

The British in World War 2 also provide an instructive case study. During the desert campaign the British were barmy for elite units. A similar impact was felt - in order to furnish ever growing elite commando units, British line regiments were stripped of their best and most experienced men. The effect was twofold. First, the standard British line unit declined precipitously in quality, as below average troops largely ceased to be leavened by a cadre of experienced NCOs, regulars, tough guys and old sweats. Second - and as important - the elite units themselves began to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. In the first instance, any army contains a limited number of men suited to be employed as special or elite troops. As the size of any elite or special cadre is increased, quality must decline - money is not the key factor (if I had a penny for every time I've heard somebody saying that money to be spent on, say, new aircraft carriers, should instead go toward "buying" more SAS troopers...). In the second instance, an increase in size meant that the key advantages of special forces in "strategic" level operations evaporated like spit on a hot griddle. As Gray has pointed out in his Explorations in Strategy, the SAS developed as an explicit reaction to the growth of elite units which had lost all ability to act with speed, stealth and independence, which required an ever growing logistics trail and which were regularly violating the principles of economy of force.

Nothing Changes Under the Sun

So much for the theory: What about the here and now?

My fear is that the British armed forces today face a similar dilemma to its ancestor which slogged through the deserts of Egypt. There seems to be a growing perception among potential soldiers - officers and other ranks alike - that the Paras and the Marines are the only capbadges worth going for. A fortnight or so ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who aims to serve upon the completion of his degree. It was as depressing as it was instructive. He made it abundantly clear that he had little interest in serving in a line infantry regiment and that his sights were set on the Paras or the Royal Marine Commandos. Is there anything wrong with his harbouring this ambition? Probably not - certainly there is nothing morally reprehensible about it. But if everyone maintains the same attitude we are in some trouble. My friend is highly intelligent, sporty, physically fit, intellectualy curious and posessing of broad sympathies and a first class attitude. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that - barring the loss of his legs in a surreal accident involving a giraffe and an out of control combine harvester - he will make a very fine officer indeed. But I admit I found his views depressing.

Yet, why would he feel otherwise? It is at least arguable that we are looking at an era in which there are two British armies - units of an expeditionary, Air Assault bias, who see all the action, appear to get all the glory (and with it the horrendous stresses, overwork and accompanying high drop out rate and burn-out)
and are always the first in. And everyone else - the "bog standard" line units who increasingly carry with them the perception that they offer a career that consists of an endless round of uninspiring garrison duty and the odd bit of peacekeeping and who are permitted to get their AFVs out of grease once every decade for an unpopular hot war.

This, then is the context into which we need to place the idea of the development of a battalion sized support cadre for the SAS. It seems to me that if such a development is on the cards, the following issues must at least be discussed:

- If highly specialised skills are going to be a requirement for our new "SAS-lite", is simply retooling an existing Para battalion really a viable prospect? I would argue not.
- And if not, what will be the impact on the overall quality of British infantry of attempting to create a battalion sized unit of elite, very high skill base troops from an establishment that is shortly likely to consist of a mere 36 battalions? In order to realise this ambition, will these 36 battalions not have to be strip mined for their best and brightest?
- Bearing in mind the criteria suggested for "strategic" level special operations, will the formation of a Ranger-style support battalion risk compromising the principles of self-containment, oprational secrecy and economy of force?

All this said, I am not sure that at this stage I have any alternative solutions to offer to stand alongside my concerns. My best offer at this stage would be that if increased support is needed and if the support that is needed is largely "rear echelon" (though Iraq should have proved conclusively by now that rear echelon is a phrase with about as much utility as "low intensity conflict") in nature, it seems to me worth looking into the idea of inviting back into service at the end of their careers hand-picked senior NCOs and officers with the necessary specialist skills (and appropriate financial inducements). The army could also look without, creating a "purple" organisation or possibly even opening the door to Secret Intelligence Service officers with the correct skill or knowledge base. So long as these operatives (who would, after all, be middle aged at this point) were not required to carry out front line operations themselves it seems to me that a powerful and highly motivated support structure could be built up without compromising the general quality of the British infantry (those joining the unit would, after all, be reaching the natural end of their service lives and set to leave the Army under normal circumstances in any case).

"Why, Anthony, you old stick in the mud. I've been listening to that horseshit of yours for months..." (or, a more optimistic rebuttal)


My opinions differ, slightly. In one sense I think it may make sense for four reasons:

  1. It might lessen the OPTEMPO for the SAS by creating a unit resourced to carry out more appropriate tasks that may not require the boys from Hereford but might require skill sets unavailable in other formations.
  2. This might be an elaborate ploy to get the MoD and Parliament to add an additional battalion to the force structure.
  3. Correct me if I'm wrong but it would likely restand a third Para battalion that has gone into disarray.
  4. It could become a feeder unit for the SAS that might actually cause "bog standard" units to not lose as many high-quality soldiers to the SAS.
In the end, the SAS is all but about 300-400 soldiers, from what I can read between the lines. I don't think that another battalion of 600-800 personnel is going to strip the entire British Army of its "best and brightest". Creating a Ranger battalion-type unit might also save an SAS squadron from undertaking stupid missions such as platoon/company-sized raids on enemy strong points as they did at one point - and griped to the press about it! - in Afghanistan.


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