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Special Operations

For Decades, US Special Operations Units Copied the British, but Now the Tables Are Turning

by SOFREP News Apr 22, 2021
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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In March, the British Ministry of Defense announced a strategic shift and major reorganization of its military forces, emphasizing special operations units.

Like its U.S. counterpart, the British military is evolving to stay relevant in the age of great-power competition.

China and Russia are seen as the most important threats, and although the British military will downsize, it expects to be more competitive against Moscow and Beijing.

A Special Relationship

UK Britain Special Air Service North Africa World War II WWII
A heavily armed patrol of SAS members after a three-month patrol in North Africa during World War II. The crews of the jeeps are all wearing “Arab-style” headdresses, as copied from the Long Range Desert Group. British army/Imperial War Museum

As in other domains, the U.S. and U.K. militaries share a very close relationship. That connection is even closer when it comes to special operations forces since modern U.S. special operations units have drawn inspiration from their U.K. counterparts.

The British are pioneers in special operations. In World War II, the British and their Commonwealth allies created the first modern special operations units, namely the Special Air Service, Special Boat Section, Commandos, and the Long Range Desert Group.

These relatively small British units took the fight to the Nazis and their allies and had an outsize strategic effect on the conflict.

When Col. Charlie Beckwith created Delta Force in the late 1970s, he based it on the British SAS, in which he had served as an exchange officer. The U.S and U.K. militaries regularly exchange enlisted troops and officers, and these secondments are more frequent among special operations forces.

SAS operators will serve in Delta Force and SBS operators in SEAL Team 6 and vice versa. But exchanges happen on the lower special operations tiers. For example, a famous Recon Marine spent a couple of years with the Royal Marines Commando, while a Ranger passed SAS selection and served in an assault squadron for three years.

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