SAS Are Victims of Their Own Success


Britain has decided to expand it’s [sic] SAS (Special Air Service) commando force by twenty percent. The SAS 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 400 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 it’s 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 feel that expanding to 480 troops will 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 recently 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 Task Force 121 (a special commando force 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.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of U.S. special operators. After decades of resistance from the Regulars, there is now quite a bit of pressure to “grow” our SO capability. The problem is that elite forces can currently draw from the best of the best. The expandability of “special” forces, like anything else, could well mean that standards wind up getting lowered and the things that made them “special” go away.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. It is important to remember that the British Army has many of the same difficulties we have with recruiting high quality entrants. A lot of blokes want the chance to be squaddies, but most cannot meet the standard. Plus the service in the UK is less an engine of upward social mobility than it is here and not as well regarded, so there is a lot more self-selection by people who could do well in the force than here.

    Additionally, the British Army is smaller than the US Marine Corps and by mutiple 10s of thousands. So expanding the sas by even one Sabre Squadron, even over a few years will have a huge ripple throughout the force, without a reasonable increase in endstrength to support the recruiting, screening, selection and training effort that goes into that.