20 Jul 2013
July 20, 2013

SAS problems look under-reported

0 Comment

I wrote the blogpost below last week.  It’s emerged that another TA soldier has died as a result of the same TA SAS selection walk.  It now seems that 6 soldiers were either killed or seriously injured on the same exercise. There’s a reorganisation (Times, paywall) of the regular (22) SAS going on; I think this crisis, if not handled properly, could result in the end of the TA (21 and 23) SAS in it’s current form.

There have been two stories about the UK’s elite soldiers, the Special Air Service, in the papers over the last week: the conviction of a Sergeant for the illegal possession of a Glock handgun with ammunition, and the death of two Territorial Army soldiers during an SAS selection walk. I think there may be something significant occurring behind the scenes and it all looks a little under-reported to me.

What might we reasonably infer from the conviction of Sergeant Danny Nightingale and the facts that seem to be in the public domain? Well, we know that after his arrest there was an amnesty at the SAS’s headquarters and main barracks and that, reportedly, a skip was filled with guns and ammo (separate skips, hopefully). Loading ‘trophy’ kit into boxes and sending them home at the end of a tour seems to have been commonplace. Quartermasters, or at least quartermaster sergeants, would surely have known about that.

Perhaps because over the years the occasional special forces soldier has had the odd illegal weapon confiscated by the cops without charges, or because of the fact that the troops in question were involved in operations which set them a long way apart from soldiers in other parts of the army, the ‘offence’ seems not to have been taken as a serious one by some – more something to which a blind eye could be turned. To many elsewhere in the army, that would be a serious abrogation of responsibility.

And what about the deaths of the two TA soldiers?  Well, deaths on TA selections were commonplace-ish in the 70s and 80s. Rules were tightened up a lot from then on, though, and today the army is aware of the impact of deaths in training – especially when the individuals concerned are, like it or not, essentially civilians: local teachers and suchlike.  When such people die on a straightforward exercise in Wales, millions of people take notice.  Extreme physical exertion in the heat is not, after all, the preserve of the military.  Watch any peloton pass, see people climb mountains in the mid-day heat.

SAS selection naturally has to be tough and demanding, but like civilian sportspeople, the army’s been wise to the risk of heat-related deaths for years.  It’s terrible that two fit young men died and that, in addition, several others were injured. Explanations centering around jerrycans of water and the role of directing staff, which I’ve seen in the media, don’t cut it at all.

This seems to have been the early phase of a TA selection course in which fit young men, well-prepared for the selection, would have been expected to navigate for several hours up and down steep gradients with a significant weight on their backs. There were no navigational or poor weather issues, other than the fact that it was hot. There’s really no excuse for such a tally of death and injury. It looks like a clear-cut case of terrible command and control of an off-the-shelf exercise.

Here’s what I think might be on the go.

Our SAS troops are astonishing people in many ways and their skills levels are the finest anyone could achieve.  They’re small in number and for some time, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, were deployed with amazing intensity on duties which involved a very great deal of extreme violence.  They’re different from other soldiers and they’ve likely been cut a lot of slack when it comes to bringing home ‘trophies’ (a Glock with ammo isn’t really a trophy – it’s a weapon you might use in future civilian employment).

But how much slack can you cut before you start undermining assumptions which underpin the way the British Army itself is run? Experienced soldiers elsewhere in the army would regard sloppiness in equipment transport and ownership of illegally held guns and ammo as amongst the worst kind of indiscipline there is. Moreover, the failure of command and control on such a straightforward exercise last weekend is more evidence that something’s awry in the SAS command structure and culture.

In many ways, the SAS is dominated by the Sergeants’ Mess. They’re some of the best soldiers in the world and the careers of non-commissioned officers can revolve around SAS postings rather than around their own regiments or corps. The experience in depth of doing the kind of things SAS soldiers do exists primarily amongst those already good enough to enter the SAS but who then rise to become Sergeants after many fighting deployments.

Officers’ careers are different.  As a Captain, they’ll spend a tour as an SAS officer then go on with their careers elsewhere in the army, or leave. A small number of the former will return to command a squadron later in their careers, and a tiny number of those return to command the regiment.

The role of SAS officers is of course to command on very tough operations, but as they become more senior they’re by definition more removed from doing the combat stuff their men do on a daily basis. That’s different from company and battalion commanders in mainstream units, where relatively senior officers will be in the front trench whenever that’s needed, and will also be intimately involved in moving their troops around the field of engagement in the thick of battle.

It seems to me that while all army officers are responsible for the maintenance good discipline, morale and culture of their unit, in the SAS these things take on a different kind of significance. It’s one thing for a new young officer to be taken under the wing of his or her experienced Sergeant while s/he gains experience; it’s quite another for the Sergeants’ Mess to acquire the power over discipline and culture that should reside in the Officers’ Mess.  Taken to extremes, the risk of the latter would be that the command structure could become inverted – officers ‘popping in for a piss and out again’ with everyone knowing who the real bosses are.

I don’t think things will quite have reached that pass in today’s SAS. But something’s not right, and it seems clear that senior army officers have become aware and are no doubt beginning to pull things back into line. They’re the best judges of how that should be done, but here’s one final thought.

SAS Sergeants, many of whom could have made excellent young officers themselves, do not get a stunningly good deal.  They get double-pay while they’re still with the SAS, but when they’re done, they’re done. It’s true that some move into successful, well-paid employment in private security, but an awful lot don’t. Violent combat experience will have made many aggressive and strong-headed, aware of their own elite status and difficult to control when quite a separate set of characteristics are required in, say, bodyguarding, or in sensitive business-related contexts.  Britain’s private security companies are amongst the best and most responsible in the world; discipline standards are high and there’s a deep pool of potential recruits. Moreover, the power of the Sergeants’ Mess extends to recommendations for future employment in the private sector. That’s a meaningful power, all right.

SAS soldiers are a bit like Olympic athletes in a minor sport; amongst the best in the world but facing an uncertain future. But while athletes can ‘de-pressurise’ their bodies over time, discarded elite soldiers who have seen extreme violence find it hard to de-pressurise their brains in a pacific society which long ago forgot how to treat a ‘returning’ soldier class.

Army chiefs can’t fix all of that, anymore than school heads can fix child poverty, but they’ll be aware that some serious thinking needs to be done about the implicit assumptions around which the present day SAS operates.