United Kingdom Restructures Special Operations Units

539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines

The British military is conducting an overall restructuring of its defense forces – the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy. There will be cuts in personnel and retirement of expensive equipment in the reorganization. Along with cutting the size of the military there will be a change in capability and relevance for many units. There are some major changes for the UK’s special operations forces – to include a redefining of missions and the creation of the Army Special Operations Brigade (ASOB) and the Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB).

Integrated Review. The changes are prompted by a recent UK government publication entitled the Integrated Review. The document calls for a military force that is lighter, more agile, more lethal, and expeditionary in nature. The publication also provides evidence of a shift in focus to the Indo-Pacific region. Some observers say that despite the cuts the UK military will have a more robust presence abroad. [1]

Defence in a Competitive Age. In concert with the Integrated Review cited above the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has published its paper that outlines the future threats and the capabilities and resources needed to defeat them. The document, Defence in a Competitive Age, consists of nine sections relating to strategic context, the future battlefield, strategic approach, workforce, modernization, transformation, and more. The paper calls out Russia as the greatest threat to European security; but it also recognizes China as the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today. In addition, there are a number of disruptive states, non-state actors, and terrorist groups that continue to pose problems. UK’s military forces will need to be more specialized and professional in nature with the ability to compete with the UK’s adversaries below the threshold of war as well as in high-intensity conflict. [2]

Equipment. Some expensive equipment – tanks, ships, and aircraft – will be taken out of service and retired. New more modern equipment suitable for future conflicts will be purchased for the respective military forces. The review reflects the belief that China and Russia are the primary global threats – similar to the shift by the U.S. to ‘great power competition’. More attention and money will be spent on new technologies such as cyber and electronic warfare and offensive drones. This does reduce the amount of heavy mechanized formations required in a large high-intensity conflict.

Royal Air Force. There are a number of major changes for the Air Force – most of the pertaining to the retirement of some aircraft and purchase of newer airframes. However, some of these relate to UK special operations forces. There are concerns about the plan to retire UK’s C-130 Hercules aircraft fleet – which the UK Special Forces use for parachute drops. The C-17 and Atlas A400M is the designated replacement aircraft but it can’t perform as well as the C-130 in a special operations capacity. Reports indicate that the Atlas cannot fly as low or slow as the C-130 and parachutists can’t exit through both doors at the same time. The C-17 was recently used for UK special operations parachute drops during Exercise Chameleon 1-21.

Army. The Army will see a cut in personnel – losing about 10,000 positions, bringing it down to a force level of around 72,000. The fighting formations will be reorganized and modernized. A lot of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles will be retired as well as some of the older helicopters. The reduction in ‘heavy’ formations frees up money and personnel to invest in the ‘specialization’ of existing units, formation of new units, and adaptation to new technologies. A new Security Force Assistance Brigade will be established within the UK Army. This unit will have specialized infantry units but will also draw on personnel and expertise from across the Army. These SFA units will deploy around the world to assist in building the capacity of allied and partner nations. This SFAB will likely have a similar mission as the six SFABs of the United States Army. Another new unit will be the Army Special Operations Brigade – described below. In addition, the 6th (UK) Division will continue to deliver cyber, electronic warfare, information operations, and unconventional capabilities.

Royal Navy. New model ships and submarines of various configurations are planned for a future navy. Of note is the evolving of the Royal Marines into a Future Commando Force (FCF) and taking on some special operations missions. The Navy will adjust to the maritime requirements of the FCF.

SOF Restructuring. The mission set for the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) is being refocused. The Royal Marines, has been undergoing a transformation into the new Future Commando Force (FCF), will continue to see some big changes. The two new ‘specialized units’ (ASOB and SFOB) will fall under the British Army; not the under the Director Special Forces (DSF). The DSF are where the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service, Special Forces Support Group, Special Reconnaissance Regiment, 18th Signal Regiment, and Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing are found. These changes in the UK SOF community are part of an overall attempt to reduce the size of the armed forces, increase their capabilities with additional training and modern equipment, and make them more responsive to events around the world.

SAS and SBS

The Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) will be focusing more on the persistent and lethal threats posed by Russia, China, and other rogue nations. These Tier 1 units will experience a major overhaul of their training, equipment, and operations procedures in their refined role. Some of the traditional missions of the SAS and SBS will be assumed by the newly-established Ranger Regiment and the Royal Marines. The new direction for the SAS and SBS will see them lined up against high-end targets – perhaps working with the UK’s intelligence agencies to react to the activities of Russian intelligence, specialized military units, and paramilitary contract organizations (such as the Wagner Group). They will continue to provide a high-end counterterrorist force to support the Police in the UK as well as CT operations abroad. There are likely some changes in the works for the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) as well as the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG).

Army Special Operations Brigade

This new brigade is responsible for preparing and generating special operations-capable forces for deployment. The ASOB will be involved in collective deterrence such as training, advising, enabling, and accompanying partner forces. The core of this brigade will be four battalions of the Ranger Regiment – which will form the vanguard of this expeditionary force.

Ranger Regiment.

Hundreds of highly trained soldiers will be transferred into the new Ranger Regiment from other units. The unit will have four battalions of about 250 personnel. The Regiment’s units will be aligned with the new Divisions of Infantry. They will carry out a range of missions to include partner nation training and advising, cyberattacks, electronic warfare, surveillance, gathering intelligence, and information operations. Some of the missions for the Ranger Regiment were traditionally conducted by the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service.

The first of the four battalions will be stood up in early 2021 and are described as ‘Tier 2’ units. It is expected that the unit will deploy elements into high-threat conflict areas – likely in the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific. The Ranger Regiment’s mission will include a focus on counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in regions of strife. Some of the activities of the Ranger Regiment will include training, advising, enabling, and accompanying partner forces conducting counterinsurgency operations.

The Ranger Battalions are to be initially seeded from the current specialized infantry battalions: 1 SCOTS, 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS, and 4 RIFLEs. These four battalions are currently part of the Specialised Infantry Group of the 6th (UK) Division. Over time the Army Special Operations Brigade and Ranger Regiment will select personnel from across the Army.

Future Commando Force (FCF)

The Future Commando Force (FCF), comprised of the Royal Marines, will be deployed around the world on an enduring basis. It will provide the UK with a littoral strike fighting capability. The FCF, like the Ranger Regiment, will also take on many of the traditional missions of the SAS and SBS. The Royal Marines will evolve from an amphibious infantry held in reserve in the UK to a force that is designed to be forward deployed – with some special operations capability. It will be a versatile special operations capable force used to pre-empt and deter ‘grey zone’ activities, deliver specialist capacity building, and counter state threats. The Royal Navy’s conversion of a Bay class support ship will provide the FCF with a lethal littoral strike capability. Supporting units for the FCF will be reconfigured as well. For instance, the Commando Forward Surgical Group (CFSG) “. . . is adopting new technologies and practices to be lighter and more agile on operations around the world.” The move to the FCF began a few years back. In late 2019 the Royal Marines were going through some significant changes as part of their move to being the FCF.

Looking Forward

The Integrated Review of foreign and defense policy is necessary to transform the UK military into a more agile organization that can respond to today’s contemporary operational environment. Special Forces units will spend more time overseas for longer durations. The SAS and SBS will work with intelligence agencies like MI6 and concentrate on Russia and China. The Ranger Regiment will broaden its reach and work more closely with partner nations. The Royal Marines will spend more time abroad as well. While the Integrated Review cuts personnel and equipment – saving money; it also refocuses the military, especially the special operations units, to the ever increasing threats posed by Russia and China – whether in high-intensity conflict or ‘gray zone’ operations.

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References:

[1] Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The UK government released this report that provides an integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy. March 2021, PDF, 114 pages.

[2] Defence in a competitive age, Ministry of Defence, March 26, 2021, PDF, 76 pages. Report released by the MoD.

Photo: Royal Marine. Credit Royal Navy.


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