Not unlike the concept of joint operations, Special Forces (SF) are themselves a modern development, also dating to the Second World War.
The Soviet Union, followed by the Third Reich (Nazi Germany) , established parachute units in the 1930s; after seeing these troops in action in the Low Countries, Britain, then the US – and even South Africa – formed similar units.
The war also produced the US Rangers, Britain’s Special Air Services, Special Boat Section and Commandos as well as a range of other Special Forces familiar today. Special Forces are troops who have been specially selected, trained and equipped for employment in extraordinary circumstances and undertakings – in comparison to the bulk of troops who have not so been selected, trained or equipped and cannot be so employed.
Special Operations Forces — Those Active and Reserve Component forces of the Military Services
designated by the Secretary of Defence and specifically organised, trained, and equipped to conduct and support special operations.
US Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms definition of what they call Special Operations Forces.
As has been suggested, Special Forces are employed in extraordinary circumstances and for undertakings for which other troops are unsuitable. Based on US definitions, these are typically:
Special Operations: “Operations conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement. These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low visibility capabilities. Special operations are applicable across the range of military operations.
They can be conducted independently or in conjunction with operations of conventional forces or other government agencies and may include operations through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets.”1
Unconventional Warfare: “A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery.”2
Civil Affairs Activities: Activities performed or supported by civil affairs personnel that (1) enhance the relationship between military forces and civil authorities in areas where military forces are present; and (2) involve application of civil affairs functional specialty skills, in areas normally the responsibility of civil government, to enhance conduct of civil-military operations. Civil affairs personnel are designated Active and Reserve component forces and units organised, trained, and equipped specifically to conduct civil affairs activities and to support civil-military
Psychological Operations: Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of foreign governments, organisations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behaviour favourable to the originator’s objectives.4
The South African Special Forces have historically concentrated on strategic missions, mostly reconnaissance and direct action.
Reconnaissance: A mission undertaken to obtain, by visual observation or other detection methods, information about the activities and resources of an enemy or potential enemy, or to secure data concerning the meteorological, hydrographic, or geographic characteristics of a particular area.
Direct Action: Short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and which employ specialised military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets. Direct action differs from conventional offensive actions in the level of physical and political risk, operational techniques, and the degree of discriminate and precise use of force to achieve specific objectives.
US Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms definitions: Reconnaissance and Direct Action.
SA SF mandate and responsibilities
The Special Forces Brigade, as a strategic force, carries out special operations, independently or in co-operation with other State Departments or Services, to achieve national objectives, internally or externally, in peace or war. Comprising landward, airborne and waterborne capabilities, the Special Forces Brigade is an affordable, dynamic and effective force, which boasts specially trained personnel, and is equipped with specialist equipment. International recognition of the Special Forces capabilities makes the Special Forces a credible force that must be reckoned with.5
Why does South Africa have Special Forces?
South Africa established a Special Forces capability in 1968 in line with international military trends.6 “Initial planning and formation occurs, including studies of and visits to foreign Special Forces, formulation of appropriate structures and techniques for an African context, and formation and training of a core group of founder members.”7 The capability realised in 1972 with the establishment of 1 Reconnaissance Commando at the Infantry School at Oudtshoorn.
How are the SF currently organised?
The South African Special Forces’ current structure is the result of a series of reorganisations, as well as rationalisation and integration between 1992 and 19968. The close-knit community is organised as a “brigade”, consisting of a headquarters, a school, two regiments and a logistics unit. Both regiments are airborne qualified, with one specialising on seaward operations and the other landward.
SF Headquarters: The General Officer Commanding (GOC) Special Forces commands, controls and coordinates the activities of the various SF Regiments from a headquarters (HQ) located in the Swartkop Park nature reserve on the southwestern outskirts of Pretoria. Colloquially called “Speskop”9, the headquarters also houses the Special Forces’ operational planning as well as administrative support staffs.
4 SF Regiment, based at Langebaan, Saldanha Bay, along the west coast north of Cape Town, provides South Africa its seaward Special Forces capability. The unit was established at Langebaan in 1978. In 1995 the Regiment consisted of three operational commandos (companies) as well as a Special Forces Amphibious and Urban School.
5 SF Regiment, based at Phalaborwa in the east of the northern Limpopo Province, was established in Durban in 1976. After a sojourn at Duku Duku in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the unit moved into its present lines in 1980. Its post-2002 structure provides for two operational commandos and a training wing.
SF School: The Special Forces School, at Murrayhill, north of Pretoria, hosts the Special Forces pre-selection and selection courses, the basic operators training cycle, and many other Special Forces courses which qualified Operators attend throughout their career.10 The establishment was first formalised in 1976 as the Reconnaissance Commando School, later the Training Wing of 1 Reconnaissance Commando, based in Durban. The name was retained when 1 Reconnaissance Commando grew into 1 Reconnaissance Regiment (1 Special Forces Regiment from 1995). The Training Wing migrated to 5SF Regiment in 1997 when 1 SF Regiment laid down its colours. It became a stand-alone entity in 2002.
SF Supply Unit The SF Supply Unit, now at Wallmansthal, north of Pretoria, was initially part of Special Forces Headquarters. Its role, then and now, was to maintain all SF equipment and material, including those unique to the brigade. Between 1991 and 1995 the organisation was known as 1 Maintenance Unit.
In the SF regiments, leadership positions – especially at team (section) and group (platoon) level – have traditionally been dictated more by ability and experience than rank. This has resulted in Operators more senior in rank being assigned to groups or teams commanded by Operators junior to them in rank but more seasoned in operational experience or actual command.
Does this structure reflect the “boots on the ground”?
All Special Forces have consistently cited quality over quantity. As a result, Special Forces units tend to be smaller than similarly-named regular units. This is accentuated when considering that most Special Forces units include a non-operational supporting element.
In the case of the South African Special Forces, the figure that must be considered as baseline in determining whether the structure is appropriate to the number of “boots on the ground” is the number of operational Operators in each commando of each regiment.
Pic: The SF Operator’s badge in silver.
The SANDF is understandably coy about the numbers; the more so as they appear to be on the lower side of what can be expected from so large a structure.
In 1978, a commando’s table of organisation and equipment (TO&E) provided for 21 officers and 100 other ranks. This included five officers and 29 other ranks in a small support group and equally small training wing.
A further 10 officers and two other ranks served in the headquarters. This left six officers and 69 other ranks organised into three Reconnaissance Groups (with a headquarters element of two officers and three other ranks) and four small teams, each ideally led by a Warrant Officer Class 1, with four operators under command.
That this was not always the case can be inferred from the above – that Operators more senior in rank have been assigned to groups or teams commanded by people junior to them in rank but more seasoned in operational experience.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that around the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (October 2002) there were only about 50 Operators available to support the police Special Task Force in protecting the conference and its dignitaries, including several heads of state and government.
It can be argued about 50 was all that was needed for the event, and more were available elsewhere, but this was the number that trained with the police in hostage release and similar urban tactics.
For training before such a high profile event one would expect the back-up to participate as well, even if they were not needed on the day. The age of some of the participants was also noteworthy: one warrant officer was in his 40s and several others were in their 30s. It is not unusual for Special Forces personnel to be older than their ordinary counterparts, but…
To conclude then, based on available TO&E, there were insufficient Operators for even one commando at that time. But at least five were provided for, in addition to training and headquarters posts that would have to be filled by more mature Operators. Recruiting standards are high and training tough as well as long in duration. Their capabilities and the times considered, more rather than less Special Forces rather than less are required.
During World War Two, the Germans preferred a scarcity of officers to a flood, arguing that it was better for troops to have no doubts about the quality and training of their leaders. This is clearly the route to follow in training more Operators.
The Special Forces has always been small – perhaps too small.
The Special Forces League calculated that by 1988, fewer than 480 applicants out of the more than 100,000 had survived the selection process and training cycle and graduated as qualified Operators. “Out of this number, more than 80 were killed in action during the Angolan war.”11 Five years later, by early 2003, the number of qualified Operators was still less than 900, of whom 200 were already deceased.
As the League observes, more people have successfully climbed Mount Everest. “During the entire Angolan war, the total strength of all the Special Forces Regiments combined was never more than 200 to 250 Operators at any one time, due to their killed in action and wounded in action statistics, retirements and resignations.”12
Following its nadir in 2002, a considerable effort was made in the rest of the decade to build up numbers, with up to two election courses being run in the later years of the decade. By 2009 the General Officer Commanding SF could say at a Joint Operations Division briefing that the formation was near full strength. It must be noted, however, that the SF is as secretive as ever and that the figures cannot be confirmed independently.
1 US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Washington DC, 2005. The US special forces community includes units dedicated to this function. See Tom Clancy’s Special Forces, A Guided Tour of US Army Special Forces, Berkley Books, New York, 2001; and with General Carl Stiner (Retd), Shadow Warriors, Inside the Special Forces, Pan, London, 2003.
2 US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Washington DC, 2005. The US special forces community includes units dedicated to this function.
3 Based on definitions derived from the above. The US Special Forces community includes units dedicated to this function.
4 US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Washington DC, 2005. The US Special Forces community includes units dedicated to this function.
5 DoD, Special Forces, www.careers.mil.za, accessed on September 26, 2005. Special Operations.com, http://www.specialoperations.com/Foreign/South_Africa/SF_Brigade/Mandate.htm, accessed November 30, 2008, South African Special Forces Brigade, The Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_African_Special_Forces_Brigade, accessed November 30, 2008.
8 Special Operations.com, http://www.specialoperations.com/Foreign/South_Africa/SF_Brigade/History.htm, accessed November 30, 2008.
9 Afrikaans: Spes+kop: “Spes” from “Spesiaal” (special) + “kop” (hill), literally Special Forces hill.