South Africa’s two Special Forces (SF) Regiments are again at full strength, says the General Officer Commanding the SF Brigade, Brigadier General Rudzani Maphwanya.
Maphwanya yesterday briefed the media at an event arranged by the Joint Operations Division. The brigade is the only force element permanently assigned to the Division that is tasked with conducting all SANDF operations.
It is understood the two regiments, 4 Reconnaissance Regiment (RR) based at Langebaan, north of Cape Town and 5 RR at Phalaborwa, have been understrength for most of the last decade.
The SF has always reserved in their dealings with the media and Maphwanya did not qualify his statement. The authorised strength of the SF is not publicly known. All Special Forces have consistently chosen quality over quantity and as a result SF 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.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that around the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in October 2002 there were only about 50 “Operators” available to support the police Special Task Force in protecting the conference.
The Special Forces League calculated that by 1988, fewer than 480 applicants out of the more than 100 000 had survived the selection process as well as the training cycle and graduated. “Out of this number, more than 80 Operators were killed in action during the Angolan war”, the League said on its website in 2005. The site has since been taken down.
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.” The League did not give an organisation for a RR on its site.
In 1978, a commando`s table of organisation and equipment (TO&E) provided for 21 officers and 100 other ranks. This was before the establishment of the RR and the sole commando at the time included a small support group, an equally small training wing and a headquarters.
The operational element consisted of 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 with four other ranks; totalling 12 small teams with 60 “Operators”.
The structure of a present-day RR is not in the public domain, but again assuming at least three operational commandos, there should be 36 small teams and 180 “Operators”. For the two RR this would be 72 teams and at least 360 “Operators”.
It is known that the SF aggressively stepped up recruitment at the beginning of the current decade and for some years ran two annual selections.
Maphwanya says this is now down to one. The pre-selection phase, SF Individual Phase 1, lasts eight weeks. The League said during this period, potential candidates may at any time leave the course, or be removed from it by instructors if they fail any of the weekly academic and physical tests – “or display indiscipline or any undesirable personality or psychological characteristic while under pressure”.
During this time candidates are again subjected to basic infantry training to ensure that all have received the same training to the same standard. They are also kept under consistent and “extremely stressful physical and mental circumstances for an extended period”.
Only the strongest candidates – mentally and physically – meaning those with the greatest resources of determination and stamina survive. During this time, training continues six-and-a-half day week, up to 20 hours a day. Lectures and practical work are interspersed with continuous physical training sessions, increasingly long route and speed marches with ever-heavier kit and other, similar, challenges – including daily and weekly PT and academic tests that must be passed, the League adds.
Maphwanya says of the 350 who typically volunteer for this phase, about 70 survive.
The selection phase lasts about a week. It “is carefully and specifically designed so as to be impossible for a human being to complete on finite physical resources alone.”
During this week, candidates do not ordinarily sleep, eat, or rest. During this time, candidates are accompanied by a qualified “Operator”, as well as psychologists, who monitor and control them at all times. Psychometric tests are also given to candidates at various stages.
Again, anyone who shows any signs of overt aggression, hostility, inability to work in a team, or other undesirable characteristics will immediately be removed from the course.
“The purpose of the selection is to simulate the most extreme physically and mentally stressful conditions that could ever possibly be experienced by a human being operationally, in order to see how the candidates (cope).”
Maphwanya says on average just between 20 and 25 endure.