Note: This is part four of a multi-part series exploring elite components within the conventional British forces.
The Pathfinder Platoon (PF), also known as the Pathfinder Group, is an elite airborne reconnaissance unit within the 16 Air Assault Brigade. Pathfinders work as the Brigade’s eyes and ears, and operate far forward of the Brigade, behind enemy lines. There, they perform advanced force reconnaissance operations and mark out drop zones and helicopter landing sites.
Pathfinders may insert up to a week before the primary force, and typically deploy in small, six-man teams. The men of the pathfinder platoon are proficient in covert insertion, concealment, and intelligence gathering. A patrol will consist of individuals trained as a medic, a sniper, and a signaller from 18 Signals Regiment.
Pathfinder teams are often inserted into position by helicopter or by parachute. They may also patrol in vehicles such as the heavily armed WMIK Land Rover, Pinzgauers, or more recently, the MWMIK Jackals. A typical Pathfinder mounted patrol team consists of two wagons with three men on each.
Pathfinders are exceptionally proficient in insertion by parachute, including HALO and HAHO techniques. They use a variety of parachute systems, including the BT80 multi-mission parachute and the High-Altitude Parachutist Life Support System, which provides the jumper oxygen when conducting high-altitude jumps.
The Pathfinder Platoon is comprised of approximately 60 men. Many of those in the ranks come from the Parachute Regiment or 16 Air Assault Brigade. Although not technically a special operations unit, the standards of discipline and competence demanded of Pathfinders are similar, if not entirely equal to, those of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF). A stint in the Pathfinders is often a helpful stepping stone for those aspiring to serve in the Special Air Service.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the Pathfinders were issued non-standard personal weapons such as:
- M16A1/A2 assault rifles
- M203 grenade launchers
- M72 LAW rocket launchers
In the 2000s, Pathfinders reverted back to standard U.K.-issue weapons:
- SA80 A2
- UGL 40mm grenade launcher (attached to SA80 A2)
- LMG (light machine gun)
- Browning High Power 9mm pistols (the standard sidearm for the Pathfinders for many years)
In 2007 the following weapons were added to the Pathfinder Platoon’s arsenal:
- C8 SFW Carbine, of the type employed by the SAS and SBS
- UGL 40mm grenade launcher (attached to C8 SFW)
- Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol
Pathfinder Platoon Selection
The Pathfinder Platoon’s selection cadre is one of the most formidable in the world. Some might even say it’s harder than that of the UKSF. It encompasses much of the same demanding requirements as UKSF selection. Actually, many of the platoon’s marches take place on the Brecon Beacons, although they’re compressed into a shorter time scale (five weeks). The Pathfinder selection course consists of the following:
- Week 1: Aptitude/pre-selection. Candidates complete 2 x 8 mile speed marches, a 10 mile speed march, and a two-miler.
- Week 2: Navigation. This phase features four DS-led cross-country marches across the Brecon Beacons and four test marches, culminating in Endurance, a 40-miler.
- Week 3: SOP Phase. Candidates get a grounding in Pathfinders standard operating procedures, such as basic patrol skills and the construction of concealed observation posts.
- Week 4: Range Phase. This live-fire phase takes place in the Sennybridge Training Area (SENTA) and focuses on contact drills, including man-down drills. Candidates also receive a grounding in demolitions.
- Week 5: Final exercise. Here, the candidates, working in four- to six-man teams, plan and execute typical reconnaissance missions. Selection culminates with the candidates being ‘captured’ and put through mock interrogations in order to test their resistance to questioning.
Those who successfully finish Pathfinder selection push on to intensive coursework in weapons, radios, and other patrol techniques. Pathfinders qualify as high-altitude parachutists by completing a HALO/HAHO training course (Military Freefall Course).
- Sierra Leone, 2000
During Operation Palliser the Pathfinder Platoon engaged RUF troops at Lungi Loi, in which several enemy soldiers were killed. It was during the Pathfinder’s engagements in Sierra Leone that shortcomings with the SA80 A1 assault rifles became evident.
- Iraq, 2003
During Operation Telic the Pathfinders drove into southern Iraq on WMIK Land Rovers and carried out reconnaissance and offensive operations ahead of the main invasion force.
- Afghanistan, 2001-2011
The Pathfinder Platoon has carried out a number of tours in Afghanistan. They were in Kabul in 2001, then spearheaded the British deployment into Helmand Province in 2006. They have since deployed as part of 16 Air Assault Brigade to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010/2011.