By: Warren Gray
In 2005, the new SRR unit was immediately involved in the Iraq War as part of Task Force Black (renamed Task Force Knight in September, after its original name was leaked to the press), working closely with the SAS and U.S. Army Delta Force operators, especially in the Baghdad area.
According to journalist Sean Rayment for the Telegraph, Task Force Black/Knight removed or killed 3,500 terrorists in the capital city prior to 2008, and these killings “reduced bombings in Baghdad from about 150 a month to just two.” The UKSF finally departed from Iraq in May 2009, and Lieutenant General Rob Fry described the role of British Special Forces in defeating al-Qa’ida terrorists as being of “an absolutely historic scale.”
After the July 7, 2005, London bombings, SRR personnel were attached to the Metropolitan Police Department’s (SO12 Special Branch) overworked surveillance teams in an effort to curb domestic terrorism. A Brazilian immigrant and electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, mistakenly believed to be connected to the bombings, was shot 11 times at point-blank range by police at the Stockwell underground tube station, generating immediate controversy for the fledgling SRR unit.
That same September, two SRR members (later reported to be plainclothes SAS troopers) were arrested by police in Basra, Iraq and held in custody. When diplomatic efforts to obtain their release failed, they were rescued by the SAS with armored personnel carriers in a diversionary raid on the Iraqi police station, creating yet more controversy at home in the U.K.
From 2006 onward, the SRR was involved in the War in Afghanistan, targeting Taliban insurgent leaders for either killing or capture. In one particularly dramatic mission on June 27, 2006, a 16-man unit from the SBS and SRR secretly captured four Taliban leaders in Helmand Province. An extended gunfight of one to three hours ensured, with the UKSF unit aided by a Gurkha quick-reaction force, three U.S. and British jet fighters, and Apache attack helicopters, and two of the Taliban leaders were killed in the blazing firefight, while the other two escaped amid the chaos of battle. An SBS sergeant and an SRR captain (David Patton) were killed in action during this operation.
Three years later, in June 2009, defense correspondent Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph reported that,
“Special Forces (SAS) made a series of night jumps on the outskirts of Baghdad in a campaign against insurgent leaders and bomb-making factories...On at least a dozen occasions, SAS soldiers using highly-maneuverable (BT80 ram-air, parabolic) parachutes jumped from the back of a Hercules (C3) aircraft at medium altitude (12,000 feet.) After steering for several miles, they landed close to insurgent strongholds.
“Dressed in the SAS’s latest (camouflaged) combat uniforms, with some carrying the powerful, Heckler and Koch (HK)417 rifle mounted with silencers, the men also assisted SAS (and probable SRR) helicopter-borne troops or mounted raids themselves. ‘It was the surprise factor that we were after,’ said a Special Forces soldier involved in the action. ‘These jumps took place all over the city, but particularly Sadr City, on the eastern edge of Baghdad...It gives you the ability of surprise for a hard knock (assault operation), or to get them to that point where you have eyes on target without anyone having a clue that you’re there.’”
In March 2009, the SRR was deployed to Northern Ireland to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) gather intelligence on dissident, Republican paramilitary groups. The troops were reportedly withdrawn in 2011, after maintaining surveillance on splinter groups who had split from the Real IRA terrorist organization.
By late July 2011, SRR experts were sent to Libya during the Libyan Civil War to be embedded with a 24-man team from 22 SAS Regiment to train and mentor rebels fighting against the notorious, Muammar Gadhafi regime, as well as acting as forward air controllers for NATO airstrikes. These units linked up with the French Special Operations Command southwest of Benghazi and trained more Libyan rebels in the western mountains.
During the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, it was reported that some SRR members, particularly female SRR operators, may have acted as bodyguards for British Olympic athletes and officials, but there was no additional information to confirm this.
The NATO coalition war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists in September 2014 led to SAS and SRR deployments to the affected countries at the time, and British journalist Neil Chandler of the Mail Online wrote in late October about SAS troopers and U.S. Delta Force operators preventing the Kurdish-held, Syrian, border city of Kobani from being overrun by bloodthirsty ISIS insurgents by directing airstrikes from the ground, hailed as “the heroes of Kobani.” They also trained at least 200 Kurdish fighters to join in the defense of the besieged city.
In late November 2014, Mark Nicol of The Mail on Sunday in London detailed a new series of nocturnal SAS ambushes of ISIS terrorists in Iraq, using Chinook HC4 helicopters to forward-deploy KTM 350 motorcycles, and Yamaha Grizzly 450 ATVs with L82A1 heavy machine guns and sniper rifles, into the desert to attack enemy targets, which were identified either by drones, or by soldiers (presumably SRR) on the ground, stating that the “SAS was operating in a reconnaissance role” (which is certainly the SRR’s primary function.) “An SAS source said...‘They don’t know where we’re going to strike next, and there’s frankly nothing they can do to stop us...They can’t see or hear us...They just see their colleagues lying dead in the sand.’”
SRR personnel were sent back to Northern Ireland in late 2014 and early 2015 to help detect and prevent attempted attacks by the Real Irish Republican Army and Continuity Irish Republish Army terrorist groups. It was reported in late 2015 that there were approximately 60 plainclothes, SRR operators and unarmed surveillance troops in Northern Ireland, using unmarked vehicles. At the time, a senior source told the Daily Star in early March 2015 that, “The SRR is the best counterterrorist surveillance unit in the world. Their specialty is close, aggressive surveillance.”
An Eclectic Variety of Firearms
For possible diversionary action against these IRA factions, the SRR also had access to weapons previously captured from the Provisional IRA by the SAS and police during The Troubles (of 1969 to 1997.) This included an eclectic variety of firearms, channeled mostly through gun-running networks in the United States and Libya during the 1980s. Extremely useful for concealment operations were MP5, Uzi, Ingram MAC-10, and Beretta M12 submachine guns, Beretta 92, Browning Hi-Power, Colt M1911A1, Glock-17, and Luger P-08 pistols, and Webley .455 revolvers.
Particularly compact and deadly, however, was the Armalite AR-18S “Widowmaker” (an IRA nickname) assault carbine in 5.56mm, with a stubby, ten-inch barrel, possibly still available for undercover, SRR use even today. This very handy weapon, as well as the tiny, MAC-10 machine pistol, was ironically featured in the 1981 James Bond spy film, “For Your Eyes Only,” in the hands of the two villains’ henchmen.
The Daily Star reported on January 24, 2016, that,
“Two British, women soldiers of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), fighting alongside the Special Air Service (SAS)...in Iraq, were involved in a shootout with terrorists...recently ‘compromised’ at a checkpoint while engaged in clandestine operations with anti-ISIS sympathizers. The pair of élite, women soldiers of the SRR are fluent in Arabic...and run agents in Iraq and Syria...The women, armed with pistols and (MP5K) submachine guns, had to shoot their way out of trouble alongside the SAS. They are believed to have shot dead a number of gunmen...A defence source said. ‘These women are probably the most deadly in the armed forces.’”
In early 2016, SAS snipers began wreaking havoc against ISIS terrorists with the new Israeli-manufactured, long-range, DAN .338 rifle in .338 Lapua Magnum. The lightweight, foreign weapon employed an innovative, 10-power, Meprolight MESLAS high-precision, daylight scope, which incorporated a single-pulse, laser rangefinder, compact fire-control system, and exacting measurements of air temperature, humidity, weapon elevation angle, target distance, and other sensors for ballistic calculations. The MESLAS was deadly accurate out as far as two thousand meters, which far-exceeded the DAN’s recommended, effective firing range of twelve hundred meters.
SAS snipers in February 2016 were killing ISIS leaders and executioners in northern Syria with dramatic and instantaneous, head shots from well over one kilometer away. SRR involvement in these incidents was never mentioned, but their primary function is to provide intelligence data, locating and identifying human targets, so it’s logical to conclude that SRR operators were likely instrumental in the targeting process.
In April 2016, it was revealed that undercover SRR members in Yemen were seconded to MI6 teams training Yemeni forces fighting al-Qa’ida guerillas, as well as identifying targets for drone strikes. They had apparently been engaged in a similar role in Somalia. This wartime practice generated concerns with human-rights groups, because normal, military rules of engagement do not apply to the MI6 intelligence service, or anyone working for them, so it technically exploited a legal loophole in Britain’s human-rights obligations during drone strikes, allowing British soldiers to provide intelligence used in assassinations of rebel leaders without accountability.
According to The Sun in October 2017, the UKSF (including the SRR) would soon receive a £300-million (about $400 million) funding boost, to help bring the understaffed units to full strength in the war against ISIS terrorists by recruiting 100 more Special Forces soldiers, and to provide existing troops with the latest weapons and vehicles “as they help smash terror groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Central America, and parts of Africa.”
Martin Evans wrote for The Telegraph on December 3, 2017, that, “The SAS (meaning all UKSF units) is considering adapting its gruelling, selection test to give women a better chance of succeeding, according to reports…easier for female candidates to complete…considering allowing female recruits to carry lighter loads and giving them more time to complete the test…But there is concern among current members...that any changes…could lead to a lowering of standards across the unit…The Ministry of Defence refused to comment.”
On the day after Christmas 2017, James Clark of the Daily Star reported that,
“A female sergeant with the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment is being lauded as the U.K.’s ‘G.I. Jane’ after reportedly killing at least three Islamic State (ISIS) militants in a town near the Syria-Iraq border after an intelligence mission went awry in September…The woman, who was not identified…was on a team with Special Air Service (SAS) troops, SRR personnel, and an MI6 officer…they came under attack by Islamic State militants…and returned fire with small arms.
“The female sergeant took up a position as a rear guard to cover the vehicles, armed with a Heckler and Koch MP5K, a submachine gun (now being replaced by the more-powerful, M6A2 UCIW)…‘Every time a terrorist appeared, she dropped them,’ one source told the Daily Star, adding that she kept her teammates apprised of what was happening in the rear with a ‘running commentary’…‘I’m up, he sees me…okay, all good, he’s down.’ ‘She took down at least three terrorists who were very close to overrunning her position…She reacted the way the Special Forces are trained to do when they are involved in close-quarter battle…and no doubt saved lives.’”
Not for Everyone
By April 2018, political pressure was mounting in Parliament for the UKSF to become subject to parliamentary oversight for the first time, bringing them in line with the rest of the armed forces and intelligence services. The United States, Canada, and most NATO nations subject their forces to democratic, civilian scrutiny. Britain stands alone among its allies in not permitting any discussion of the use of its Special Forces, which are usually deployed on sensitive, covert operations. Some members of parliament (MPs) suspected that the government’s practice of using U.K. Special Forces was a way of avoiding parliamentary oversight, especially if there were to be a large-scale deployment of conventional forces in a major conflict.
The swashbuckling Special Forces lifestyle isn’t for everyone, however, and The Mirror reported in February 2019 that, “British élite, Special Forces...are 200 soldiers short after recruitment plunged 20 percent. The lack of ‘good-quality’ soldiers has hit the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), and SRR...The SRR needs 60 (people)...Each unit normally has 340 to 400 operators...the SBS and SRR are now classified as being ‘over-stretched,’ with troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Baltic States, and Africa.
“‘The talent pool is shrinking...there are fewer quality people coming through...everybody has to work harder to get the job done’...selection courses are tough, and an average pass rate of 10 percent has led to as few as eight recruits...One serving member of the SAS said, ‘Life is tough. You spend a lot of time on operations, overseas exercises, and on courses. It’s unrelenting.’”
What about those who leave or retire from the SAS and SRR, though? Matt Kennard of the Centre for Investigative Journalism wrote in January 2017 and May 2018 that, “At least 46 companies (throughout the U.K.) employ former members of the U.K. Special Forces,” and the city of Hereford, near SAS/SRR headquarters in Credenhill, “is home to at least 14 (actually 15) private, military-and-security companies (with far fewer rules and regulations than the army. For example, growing light beards in while garrison is now officially prohibited, although it had previously been extremely useful for blending in during no-notice deployments to the Middle East)…There is a mysterious feel to Hereford, the picture-book, English cathedral city on the border with Wales…‘it’s kept very hush-hush.’
“One man who won’t give his name says…‘Hereford has become a private, military centre because of the SAS. There’s other units, too (the SRR), and a lot of them tend to settle here after they’ve finished their time, so they go into that sort of field.’ The world’s private, military-security industry is always controversial, with critics arguing that it operates in a lawless, regulatory climate and undermines the very fundamentals of democracy,” yet the Global War on Terror had given rise to literally hundreds of such companies worldwide, and the U.K. was considered the “mercenary kingpin” of them all.
In mid-May 2019, two teams of Special Boat Service (SBS) naval commandos allegedly joined U.K.-registered oil tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran mounted in the volatile region. Together with SRR operators, they monitored Iranian military activity around the island of Qesham, which is home to Iranian gunboats of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC.) The SBS/SRR teams then joined the massive, U.S. air-and-naval strike force that was forming to counter regional threats after the Iranians had planted limpet mines on four civilian oil tankers, and shot down an unarmed, U.S. Navy reconnaissance drone.
The ‘Special Operations Concept’
As of June 22, 2019, it was announced that Britain’s Director Special Forces (DSF) had developed a new plan, called “Special Operations Concept,” which, according to the BBC, “would take UKSF units in a less-‘kinetic’ or violent direction, after almost 20 years of man-hunting, strike missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and into closer cooperation with allied intelligence agencies and MI6…For example…an operation might be mounted in a Baltic republic or African country in order to uncover and pinpoint Russian, covert activities.”
The intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) role of the SRR would clearly expand under the new plan, giving UKSF a new mandate to counter Russian-style, “hybrid-warfare” strategy, which uses more-subtle means of conflict, such as special operations forces operating incognito in unmarked uniforms (the “little green men” in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea), cyberwarfare, and political manipulation to achieve specific objectives. Russia has thus far done this quite effectively in Ukraine, Syria, and Africa, initiating nebulous, “gray wars” with proxy troops, hackers, bogus, political referendums, and manipulating social media. The United States and Great Britain have struggled with how to respond.
The British government openly recognizes that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (the GRU) was behind the March 4, 2018, Salisbury attack, in which Sergei Skripal, age 66, a former, Russian military officer and double agent for MI6 from 1995 to 2004, and his daughter, Yulia, age 33, were poisoned on British soil with the prohibited, military-grade, nerve agent Novichok, known as A-234. Fortunately, they both survived, and were eventually discharged from the hospital. This flagrant use of a Russian, chemical weapon against a British citizen (Sergei holds dual Russian and British citizenship) was a political outrage, prompting the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain and the United States, and increased sanctions against Russia by both countries.
So, the British DSF clearly recognized that these plausibly-deniable, “gray wars” were the unfortunate wave of the future, and had to be dealt with accordingly. Thus, the UKSF will be tasked with fighting fire with fire by employing its own Special Forces. “Right now, you do nothing, or you escalate,” a senior officer told BBC. “We want to expand that competitive space.” Experts are seeking the appropriate responses to hostile acts that fall short of all-out warfare, while possibly stepping up a shadow war against proxy forces with the deployment of British Special Forces, especially the SRR.
While the élite SBS and SAS were the world’s first permanent, Special Forces units, founded in July 1940 and July 1941 respectively, and the SAS is still universally regarded as the finest counterterrorism force in existence, it is the daring, undercover, shadow warriors of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment who are Britain’s true, military, “secret agents,” serving with honor, distinction, and courage wherever they are needed, against all enemies of the United Kingdom.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, eight more military qualification badges, two command badges, 19 U.S. military medals, and three foreign medals. He also earned four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.
Photo Credit: By Prnrm - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18393377