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The (Arrested) Development of UK Special Forces and the Global War on Terror

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2009


The use of force in international relations by the West is increasingly witnessing a greater reliance on Special Forces. This trend has profound implications for state action because Special Forces represent a very different kind of soldier and they possess the inherent ability to transgress traditional boundaries in peace and war. The development and participation of UK Special Forces in the Global War on Terror provides a microcosm of the positive and negative dimensions of using secret military units as the force of choice against insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and indeed on the streets of London.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2009

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1 The serious literature on Special Forces, Special Operations Forces and Special Operations has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s. These include W. H. McRaven, SpecOps – Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Presidio Press, 1996); S. L. Marquis, Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1997); C. S. Gray, Explorations in Strategy (London: Praeger, 1998); J. Thompson, The Imperial War Museum: War Behind Enemy Lines (London: Pan Books, 1999); S. Biddle, Special Forces and the Future of Warfare: Will SOF Predominate in 2020 (Carlisle: US Army War College, 2004); B. Horn, J. Paul de B. Taillon and D. Last (eds), Force of Choice: Perspectives on Special Operations (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004); R. B. Andres, C. Wills and T. E. Griffith Jr., ‘Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model’, International Security, 30:3 (2005/6), pp.124–60; J. D. Kiras, Special Operations and Strategy: From World War II to the War on Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2006); B. Horn and T. Balasevicius (eds), Casting Light on the Shadows: Canadian Perspectives on Special Operations Forces (Kingston: Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2007); D. Tucker and C. J. Lamb, United States Special Operations Forces (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) and A. Finlan, Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror: Warfare by Other Means (London: Routledge, 2008).

2 One of the first people to articulate this point was Field Marshal Sir William Slim. See William Slim, Defeat into Victory (London: New English Library, 1965), p. 537. See also Marquis, Unconventional Warfare, p. 7; Gray, Explorations in Strategy, p. 149 and Finlan, Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror, p. 7.

3 Finlan, Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror, p. 7.

4 Bernd Horn, ‘Special Operations Forces: Uncloaking an Enigma’ in Horn and Balasevicius, Casting Light on the Shadows, p. 30.

5 Susan Marquis makes a strong case that ‘Special operators fight a different kind of “war”’ – see Marquis, Unconventional Warfare, p. 6.

6 Bernd Horn highlights the crisis environment from which SF emerged. See Horn, ‘“Avenging Angels”: The Ascent of SOF as the Force of Choice in the New Security Environment’ in Horn and Balasevicius, Casting Light on the Shadows, p. 160.

7 This was particularly the case with the SAS – one of the key founders, David Stirling was just 24 when the war broke out – see Gavin Mortimer, Stirling's Men: The Inside History of the SAS in World War II (London: Cassell, 2005), pp. 2–3.

8 The Army Commandos were one such unit that contained excellent well-trained personnel but suffered constantly from poor employment by higher command staffs. See David Thomas, ‘The Importance of Commando Operations in Modern Warfare 1939–82’, Journal of Contemporary History, 18 (1983), p. 696.

9 This fits very much with Thompson's analysis – see Thompson, War Behind Enemy Lines, p. 7.

10 Chevrolet and Ford trucks – see T. Jones, SAS Zero Hour: The Secret Origins of the Special Air Service (London: Greenhill Books, 2006), p. 117.

11 The cheapness of the SAS proposal is often cited as an important element in the creation of the unit. See Kiras, Special Operations and Strategy, p. 86.

12 The difference in figures is reflected in the literature on the SAS. One of the earliest accounts by Virginia Cowles in The Phantom Major: The Story of David Stirling and the S.A.S Regiment (London: The Companion Book Club, 1958), p. 9. gives the figure of over 250 whereas Philip Warner, who wrote the official history of the regiment – see Philip Warner, The Special Air Service (London: Warner Books, 1994), p. 73 makes the claim for almost 400 and includes other material destruction to the Axis Air Forces in the desert theatre.

13 British Commandos famously attacked Rommel's headquarters in November 1941, but the great commander was away at the time.

14 Bernard Brodie illustrated the application of these concepts to strategy in his famous article, ‘Strategy as a Science’, World Politics, 1:4 (1949) which has been recently faithfully reproduced in T .G. Mahnken and J. A. Maiolo, Strategic Studies: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 14.

15 Warner, The Special Air Service, p. 217.

16 John Woodhouse is widely acknowledged as the officer who created the SAS selection process in 1952. Michael Asher provides a good insight into the influences on Woodhouse when he created the system that was centred originally on Snowdonia in Wales before being transferred to the Brecon Beacons. See M. Asher, The Regiment: The Real Story of the SAS – The First Fifty Years (London: Viking, 2007), pp. 328–9.

17 J. Adams, Secret Armies: The Full Story of the SAS, DELTA FORCE and SPETSNAZ (London: Pan Books, 1989), pp. 172–5.

18 See T. Jeapes, SAS Secret War: Operation Storm in the Middle East (London: Greenhill Books, 2005) for the best account of this campaign.

19 Adams, Secret Armies, p. 199.

20 Ken Connor provides a strong critique of the problems this integration of SF and SOF components generated. See Ghost Force: The Secret History of the SAS (London: Cassell, 2004), pp. 509–10.

21 Connor, Ghost Force, p. 314.

22 Adams, Secret Armies, p. 170.

23 See Finlan, Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror, p. 7.

24 R. Norton-Taylor, ‘New special forces unit tailed Brazilian’, The Guardian (4 August 2005).

25 See T. Farrell and T. Terriff (eds), The Sources of Military Change: Culture, Politics, Technology (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2002), p. 6.

26 T. Harding, ‘US calls in Paras for Baghdad secret war’, The Telegraph (24 April 2006).

27 Finlan, Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror, p. 24.

28 The Bush administration increased the budget of Special Operations Command by almost 30 percent to $5.2 billion and that has included expanding the size of the Green Berets and creating a special operations capability within the US Marine Corps. See Testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities – The Honourable Thomas W. O'Connell, Assistant Secretary of Defence (Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict), 8 March 2006.

29 See A. Kemp, The SAS: The Savage Wars of Peace 1947 to the Present (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 183 for an insight of the failure rate in the SAS and Eric L. Haney, Inside Delta Force: The Story of America's Elite Counterterrorist Unit (London: Corgi Books, 2003), p. 123 for Delta Force.

30 Steve Bird, ‘A radio would have saved SAS man from parachute leap death’, The Times (15 March 2008).

31 See S. Hersh, ‘Moving Targets: Will the counter-insurgency plan in Iraq repeat the mistakes of Vietnam?’ The New Yorker (15 December 2003).

32 See S. Naylor, ‘SpecOps Unit nearly nabs Zarqawi’, Army Times (28 April 2006) and also T. Harding, ‘Secret work of SAS in Iraq exposed’, The Telegraph (11 August 2008) which highlights their operations in Baghdad.

33 K. Sengupta, ‘SAS spearheads new surge against Taliban’, The Independent (19 August 2008).

34 S. Grey, Operation Snakebite (London: Viking, 2009), pp. 132–5.

35 See ‘Former SAS soldier blows apart Miliband denial of UK torture involvement’ Stop the War Coalition Online, {} accessed on 11 March 2008.

36 Very little literature exists on the role of US Special Forces in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, but a small chink of light is thrown on some of the murky activities by Eric Haney in his memoirs – see Haney, Inside Delta Force pp. 434–4 on his mission to kill a ‘guerrilla’ leader who turned out to be a former Green Beret.

37 See P. Chatterjee, ‘Ex-SAS Men Cash in on Iraq Bonanza’, Corp Watch, {} accessed on 11 March 2008.

38 T. Harding, ‘SAS chief quits to take security job’, The Telegraph (17 July 2007).

39 The British armed forces are nearly 6000 personnel below strength – see G. Wilson, ‘Troops shortfall overstretches Armed Forces’, The Telegraph (3 July 2007).

40 See the official history of US Special Operations Forces in Iraq (such a publication on British SOF in Iraq would be unthinkable in the current climate of government censorship) by C. H. Briscoe, Kenneth Finlayson, R. W. Jones Jr., Cherilyn A. Walley, A. Dwayne Aaron, M. R. Mullins and J. A. Schroder, All Roads Lead to BAGHDAD: Army Special Operations Forces in Iraq (Fort Bragg: USASOC History Office, 2006), pp. 154–63.