By: Warren Gray
Editor’s Note: This article is the first part in a three-part series.
“He’s used to life in the fast lane, travels all over the world,
already risks his life racing at over 300 kilometers per hour,
and seems to be handy with a gun.”
— “Mata Hari” (Margaretha Zelle), Dutch spy and
double agent, executed by the French in 1917.
On April 6, 2005, with the Global War on Terror raging simultaneously in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British government established the new, exceptionally secret Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) of the British Army as part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) at Stirling Lines barracks in Credenhill, Herefordshire, England.
The SRR serves directly alongside the famous Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), under the command of the Director Special Forces (DSF), an army major general.
This newest Special Forces regiment was formed from a core cadre of pre-existing assets, most notably the Joint Communications Unit (Northern Ireland), or JCU (NI), also known as the Special Reconnaissance Unit, or 14 Intelligence Company (14 Int., or internally, “the Det”). The JCU had previously maintained a covert (“black ops”), surveillance-and-reconnaissance role against Irish Republican and loyalist terrorism, particularly the Provisional IRA, in Northern Ireland (which is sovereign, U.K. territory) since the 1970s, conducting a wide range of classified activities. Other applicants came from the Parachute Regiment, the Royal Marine Commandos, the Signals Regiment, and some from the SAS and SBS.
The SRR was created to meet an increasing demand for special reconnaissance capability, as identified in the Strategic Defence Review of 2002, and to relieve the SAS and SBS of their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) duties, in order for them to focus more on counterterrorism and direct action.
In many aspects, the SRR concept was similar to that of 30 Assault Unit (30 AU, also known as 30 Commando) in World War II, an intelligence-gathering commando force of 120 men, initially known as the Special Intelligence Unit, under the auspices of the Director of Naval Intelligence. Interestingly enough, one of the key figures in its founding was Commander Ian Fleming, later the author of the James Bond series of spy novels. Some of 30 AU’s bold missions into Germany in 1945, especially targeting military scientists, remain highly classified, even today.
By modern standards, the SRR is Britain’s direct counterpart to the U.S. Army’s super-secret, covert, Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), created in 1981 to support America’s top counterterrorist units. It has since changed names several times to avoid media publicity, having been alternately known as the Tactical Concept Activity, the Tactical Coordination Detachment, the Tactical Support Team, and the Studies and Analysis Activity (SAA), among other designations. Michael Smith’s excellent, 2007 book, “Killer Elite,” describes this very special unit in great detail.
All current members of the United Kingdom Armed Forces, from any branch, including men or women, may apply for the SRR, but the vast majority already have an Airborne forces or Commando background, and they never recruit directly from the general public.
There is a grueling, five-week-long, U.K. Special Forces selection process, reported to be among the most demanding in the world, held twice per year and encompassing the arduous, SAS selection criteria in most aspects. Candidates are first tested as commandos on timed marches (known as “beasts”), and typically only 10 percent complete the initial Aptitude Phase at Sennybridge Training Camp and the Brecon Beacons hills of southeastern Wales.
Those who remain, usually about 20 candidates, will then undertake nine weeks of jungle training in Belize, Special Forces tactics, and training with various British and foreign weapons.
Next comes 14 weeks of Employment Training, including the Army Combat Survival Instructor Course (ACSIC), and for some, the Special Forces Parachute Course at RAF Brize Norton. The SAS, SBS, and 18 Signals Regiment each have their own distinctive parachute badges awarded upon completion of jump training, but the SRR apparently wears the standard, British parachutist badge on their right shoulders, and not all SRR members are parachute trained.
There is also initial surveillance-and-reconnaissance training, counterterrorism training, signals training, and patrol training. The final phase includes four weeks of survival, evasion, resistance, and extraction (SERE) training, with 36 hours of resistance to interrogation.
Upon successful completion of all required training, usually lasting about six months, Special Forces applicants are “badged” and awarded the “emerald-gray” (also described as Lovat-green) SRR beret and cap badge, which depicts the legendary sword, Excalibur, behind a Corinthian (or Argus) helmet, surmounting a scroll bearing the inscription, “Reconnaissance.” Although the tri-service unit is technically administered by the British Army, SRR personnel continue to wear the service uniforms of their parent organizations, whether army (mostly), Royal Navy (about 40 percent), or Royal Air Force (very few), with a midnight-blue, stable belt, and SRR shoulder rank and lapel insignia. SRR members typically operate in civilian clothes, and wear uniforms only in their barracks, or for formal parades.
Unit strength has been estimated at between 150 and 500 members, but one clear giveaway was the number of limited-edition, stainless-steel, Rolex Submariner and Rolex SRR Explorer II watches specifically ordered by the regiment in 2006 for individual members, each engraved on the back with the SRR badge. A total of 306 very expensive Rolex watches of both types were requested, and were apparently produced from 2008 to 2010, each costing at least $6,000 to $8,000 at the time, presumably as a reward for completing SRR selection and becoming a founding member of the élite (French spelling) unit. Each timepiece was allocated to a specific soldier, with a signed agreement not to sell the watch for a specified period of time. Several examples have since come up for auction for collectors, at up to three times their original value. Current unit strength is therefore conservatively estimated at 340 to 400 men and women.
Interestingly enough, SRR operators are also provided with special wristwatches that can be used as tracking devices in the event that they are captured, according to a former JCU (NI) member.
After official assignment to the SRR, all members are further instructed in what the military informally terms the “dark arts” of surveillance, photography, man-hunting, close-quarters battle (CQB), and advanced driving techniques, specializing in direct, counterterrorism (CT) support to the SAS and SBS.
The SRR provides close target reconnaissance, surveillance, and “eyes-on” intelligence, employing state-of-the-art, electronic-surveillance gear to eavesdrop on their targets, and many SRR operators have become quite proficient in Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto. Essentially, the mission of the SRR is to locate and identify human targets for subsequent raids by the SAS or SBS, whether in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Europe, Africa, or any other location worldwide. It is the only British Special Forces unit to actively include women in its ranks, and although females are now allowed to apply for the SAS since October 2018, none have yet passed the difficult selection course and integration into the unit.
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.