scorecardFor decades, US special-operations units copied the British, but now the tables are turning
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For decades, US special-operations units copied the British, but now the tables are turning

Stavros Atlamazoglou   

For decades, US special-operations units copied the British, but now the tables are turning
LifeInternational4 min read
A troop of Royal Marines from the 43 Commando approach a beach on an Offshore Raiding Craft at Gullane Golf Club in Scotland, via the Firth of Forth, on July 7, 2015.    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
  • The British Defense Ministry unveiled a major reorganization in March, part of a larger strategic shift amid great-power competition.
  • British special-operations forces will see changes modeled on their US counterparts, reversing the trend of the US following the UK's lead.

In March, the UK Ministry of Defense announced a strategic shift and major reorganization of its military forces, emphasizing special-operations units.

Like its US counterpart, the British military is evolving to stay relevant in the age of great-power competition.

China and Russia are seen as the most important threats, and although the British military will downsize, it expects to be more competitive against Moscow and Beijing.

A special relationship

UK Britain Special Air Service North Africa World War II WWII
A heavily armed patrol of SAS members after a three-month patrol in North Africa during World War II. The crews of the jeeps are all wearing "Arab-style" headdress, as copied from the Long Range Desert Group.      British army/Imperial War Museum

As in other domains, the US and UK militaries share a very close relationship. That connection is even closer when it comes to special-operations forces, since modern US special-operations units have drawn inspiration from their UK counterparts.

The British are pioneers in special operations. In World War II, the British and their Commonwealth allies created the first modern special-operations units, namely the Special Air Service, Special Boat Section, Commandos, and the Long Range Desert Group.

These relatively small British units took the fight to the Nazis and their allies and had an outsize strategic effect on the conflict.

When Col. Charlie Beckwith created Delta Force in the late 1970s, he based it on the British SAS, in which he had served as an exchange officer. The US and UK militaries regularly exchange enlisted troops and officers, and these secondments are more frequent among special-operations forces.

SAS operators will serve in Delta Force and SBS operators in SEAL Team 6 and vice versa. But exchanges happen on the lower special-operations tiers. For example, a famous Recon Marine spent a couple of years with the Royal Marines Commando, while a Ranger passed SAS selection and served in an assault squadron for three years.

British SAS march Wales Brecon Beacons
Troops take part in the Fan Dance, a 24 km SAS Selection test march staged over Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales, in the Brecon Beacons, January 6, 2018.      Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Currently, British special-operations or special-operations-capable units can be divided into two tiers.

In the first tier are the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which focus on counterterrorism, hostage rescue, intelligence gathering, and direct action.

In the second tier are the Royal Marines Commandos, Parachute Regiment, and the 18 Signals Regiment.

The Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing provides air transportation and support to all of the above units, but its primary customers are the tier-one outfits.

Tier-one units fall under the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), a directorate within the Strategic Command that supervises joint and national mission formations.

The new strategy is set to create new units and shift the focus of existing ones.

Changes for a changing world

British Royal Marines SA-80 rifle
A British Royal Marine holds a smoking SA-80 rifle during the Royal Marine Operational Shooting Competition (RMOSC), hosted by the British Royal Marines at Altrar Training Camp, Hightown, England, September, 2015.      US Marine Corps/Cpl. Timothy Turner

The special-operations modernization scheme mainly affects the British Army and Navy.

The Army is creating the Army Special Operations Brigade, the core of which will be the new Ranger Regiment.

With four battalions drawn from existing infantry units, the Ranger Regiment will undertake missions currently conducted by the tier-one units, such as foreign internal defense and partner force operations. The new unit will receive $165 million in the next four years. It still isn't clear if there be a selection for the British Rangers.

The British Army is also establishing a Security Force Assistance Brigade. Although not a special-operations outfit, this unit will work with and train partner militaries across the world, much like the US Army's recently created Security Force Assistance Brigades.

The Royal Navy is continuing with the Future Commando Force, its plan to convert Royal Marines Commandos from a special-operations-capable unit into a full-fledged special-operations force. That effort has been going for a few years, and Royal Marines have already been issued new gear and weapons to reflect their upgraded role.

British Special Forces Support Group MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter
A member of the British Special Forces Support Group jumps from a MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter in the Middle East, May 15, 2014.      US Navy/MCS2 Daniel M. Young

Tier-one units will still fall under the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), while the new Army special-operations units will fall under regular Army leadership and Royal Marines under the Royal Navy.

"We're definitely learning from the Americans. For the last 20-plus years we've fought and bled alongside them in different places. So there's a bond," a former SBS operator told Insider.

"Don't get me wrong, we've always had a close relationship with them. Even before the 9/11 attacks, it wasn't unusual for guys to leave for two, three years and join their opposite number and operate," the operator added.

With these modernization changes, the British military is essentially trying to establish official tiers for its special-operations units.

The Royal Marines and Rangers will conduct standard special-operations tasks, allowing tier-one units to focus on countering Chinese and Russian influence and operations. Tier-one units will continue to focus on counterterrorism and precision strikes but will also invest more in covert operations.

It remains to be seen how the two tiers will work together in a potential conventional conflict.

"These changes are generally good. For example, the creation of the Rangers will help us as well because we'll end up getting more qualified candidates in our selection, and we're always in need of good operators," the former SBS frogman said.

British Royal Marines SA-80 rifle
A British Royal Marine fires the SA-80 rifle during the Royal Marine Operational Shooting Competition (RMOSC), hosted by the British Royal Marines at Altrar Training Camp, Hightown, England, September 2015.      US Marine Corps/Cpl. Timothy Turner

The US military has two major special-operations commands: US Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Although JSOC officially is part of SOCOM, it's a different command with a completely different mission-set. (Both were established after Operation Eagle Claw, a failed raid in Iran in 1980.)

JSOC contains the US military's tier-one special-operations units, including Delta Force and SEAL Team 6.

As the national mission force, JSOC units are the US's emergency responders. When there's a hostage situation or an opportunity to take down a high-value target arises, the White House and Pentagon turn to JSOC.

Although the modernization of the UK military doesn't create a new special-operations command, it does prove that commanders and policymakers understand the importance of special-operations units, which might lead to further changes in the future.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.