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The British Army are looking to create a new level within its special forces units to better combat the threat from Islamic State. Known as “Tier 2” the proposal would involve hundreds of highly skilled and specially trained soldiers and officers who can be deployed rapidly to troubled areas around the world.
This in itself is not a new concept exactly but what makes “Tier 2” forces different is that their primary aim will be to train local forces in specialist combat techniques to tackle Islamic State. They will also act as coordinators between regular British units and the local forces tackling Islamic State or other extremists groups around the world.
The new concept will build on existing experience of British special forces units working with and training local forces. As far back as the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s where the SAS worked closely with local tribesmen to defeat communist insurgents, British special forces have worked with locals to fight enemies of the UK. The “Tier 2” concept is not too dissimilar to American operations by units such as the Green Berets who have been active since the 1960s.
Earlier this week it was revealed that British Special Forces will return to Camp Bastion in Southern Afghanistan to repel repeated efforts by Taliban forces to capture the former base. The decision was announced following the US confirming that they will be extending their military presence in the country beyond 2016. Originally the US planned to pull the last of their combat forces out of the country by January. The British team will operate under the American command structure as part of US forces. Additionally, more British soldiers will be deployed to the country to train the Afghan National Army.
The US extension came after the Afghan government expressed their fears that the Taliban are attempting to seize control of the province which would be disastrous for the Afghan leadership. Some observers have already used the request to emphasize both NATO’s failure to secure victory in Afghanistan and that it pulled out of the country too soon despite 13 years of military operations.
A USAF MV-22 Osprey inserted the SAS unit (commons.wikimedia)
Britain’s military elite, the Special Air Service (SAS) working alongside a US Army Delta Force unit inflicted a heavy blow on ISIL when a mission to kill a senior Islamic State (IS) commander Abu Sayyaf was carried out deep inside eastern Syria earlier this year. The mission was preceded by an intensive surveillance operation on Sayyaf for the US-led mission by the British special forces unit before the operation to kill him was authorised by Washington and London.
To aid in identification of friendly units between the two special forces teams the British troops wore US uniform during the operation and were inserted in to Deir ez-Zor by American Osprey aircraft to establish the observation post which recorded the militants’ lucrative black market oil and gas trade. This vital information was then fed back to the military planners in Washington for Delta Force’s raid to guarantee the maximum damage not only to ISIL’s command structure but also to their financial support chain.
The operation began with an attack on Sayyaf’s compound by US fast-jets before 50 Delta Force troops stormed the site. In the battle that followed 15 ISIL fighters including Sayyaf himself were killed. A number of prisoners were also taken including Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, and reportedly a slave girl his family was keeping. There were no American or British casualties and US forces stated that it was the SAS’ reconnaissance operation that made it all possible.
While the SAS is best known for its hostage rescue and raiding operations, reconnaissance operations such as the one carried out at Deir ez-Zor are a major part of the elite unit’s mission. During the Falklands War, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Gulf and Afghanistan this largely unsung mission of the SAS has perhaps been its most important contribution to final victory by locating key enemy personnel or equipment and organizing an attack. Despite the popular image of the SAS charging in to battle, 99% of the time they will coordinate air or artillery operations to destroy the target before slipping away leaving the enemy’s survivors to wonder just how the British knew of their location. This most recent operation is therefore almost a textbook example of the SAS’ work in this area (excluding the US uniforms of course).
Back in the UK news of the SAS’ involvement in the operation has sparked yet more questions over the extent of British forces operating in Syria following the parliamentary vote not to send troops in to the war-torn country last year. Last month some politicians claimed David Cameron’s government was circumventing the vote by having British pilots fly operations over Syria with French and American air forces.
An RAF Reaper Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) (www.raf.mod.uk)
“One of the things that will mean is making sure we will have the drones, the spy planes, the special forces, the unique capabilities that make sure we can deal with [Islamist extremism] at its source.”
– David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted what he says are his government’s list of priorities ahead of the forthcoming defence review. Despite his government’s promises of being committed to the armed forces and the recent promise to maintain the 2% GDP on defence spending the British public has had very little information as to how their armed forces will look in the coming years. Mr Cameron’s words today therefore offer an interesting and unique insight in to what is being discussed behind closed doors in Downing Street and at the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Deciphering politician’s words can be a task worthy of the Bletchley Park codebreakers but in this instance Mr Cameron was quite clear as to how he viewed Britain’s future defence situation and needs. In the wake of the Tunisia shooting and the promise of more direct British action it is clear that Cameron’s government are stepping up the fight against Islamic State and its supporters. Almost certainly the armed forces are going to be morphed in to a new configuration to meet the needs of such a conflict but how will that look?
Drones – It is interesting that David Cameron specifically mentioned unmanned aircraft first. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) as they are known to the RAF offer numerous advantages over manned combat aircraft especially in the fight against terrorism. In the relatively low-tech arena they are stealthier, cheaper and in many ways just as capable as manned combat aircraft. They also have the advantage of not running the risk of having pilots captured and paraded on Islamic State websites.
Spy planes – This is an interesting one. In the previous Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats Cameron put plans to scrap the RAF’s three most important intelligence gathering aircraft – the Nimrod MR.2, the Nimrod R.1 and the Sentinel R.1. In the time since, the RAF has sourced a replacement for the Nimrod R.1 in the form of American RC-135 aircraft while the Sentinel somehow remained in service but the RAF still lacks a Nimrod MR.2 replacement. In previous statements the government has said that it is reviewing the current anti-submarine capabilities of the British military and that a decision on whether a replacement will be ordered soon is currently being debated but again we have heard very little since. If David Cameron’s government views IS as the biggest threat to Britain’s security rather than Russian submarines then it is possible this replacement could be delayed even further.
Special forces – The last thing in the world this government wants is to put British troops on the ground in Syria or Iraq the same way as in Afghanistan. The strong but recovering economy would be put at risk from another prolonged ground war but as every defence analyst and former senior military officer has said in the last few years; Islamic State cannot be defeated by air power alone. In order to meet in the middle the government has talked extensively in the last few weeks about the use of special forces such as the SAS and the SBS. These elite units can conduct reconnaissance, rescue and even assassination operations if required without the “mess” of an air strike. There is also a psychological factor in using the SAS/SBS; their reputation could discourage extremist activity while at the same time reassuring the British public that the very best are at the front of the ongoing war on terror. On the other hand it would be a political disaster if a number of SAS/SBS troopers were killed or captured.
Unique capabilities – It is possible David Cameron is simply referring to the professionalism of the British military as a whole as British soldiers especially have a reputation for thinking on their feet and doing the most with very little (something they have had to learn from defence cuts as well as being in the field). However it is also likely that he is referring to a number other factors that the MoD has invested in particularly the fight against extremisim in cyberspace. Earlier this year the Army formed the 1500 strong 77th Brigade whose sole purpose was to locate and monitor extremist websites and even engage in online psychological warfare by trying to discourage extremism through both positive and negative ways. As the threat from home grown terrorism especially stems from the internet it is likely we may see this effort expanded.