Note: This is part three of a multi-part series exploring the various units within the U.K. Special Forces (UKSF).
The Special Boat Service (SBS), one of the oldest Special Forces regiments, is the U.K.’s premier naval counter-terrorism unit (CT). The unit is tasked with addressing assaults on U.K.’s maritime interests. Over the years the SBS has established techniques for rescuing hostages on oil rigs, cruise ships, and cross-channel ferries. In the event of a rescue operation on an oil rig in the North Sea, for example, the SBS would be the unit to answer this challenging task.
UKSF keeps at least one squadron on standby for counterterrorism (CT) operations in the U.K. The SBS works alongside the SAS for any scenarios in which one squadron would not be adequate. Such scenarios could include a terrorist attack of a nuclear power station or the simultaneous occupations of numerous nuclear sites.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the SBS worked with U.S. Navy SEALs to secure and scout the beaches of the Al-Faw Peninsula to prepare for amphibious landings. SBS teams were also sent ahead to secure the southern oil fields against Iraqi forces.
Since 9/11, SBS operators have regularly worked side by side with their SAS counterparts in the Global War on Terror. In Afghanistan, the SBS got drawn into one of the bloodiest battles in the unit’s history. They helped squash an uprising of captured Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners in the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi. The SBS has been heavily engaged in Afghanistan since targeting Taliban leadership in a series of successful operations.
SBS Skill Set
- Submarine infiltration
- Underwater reconnaissance
- Beach reconnaissance
- Underwater demolitions
- Close-quarters battle (CQB)
- Wet jumping
- Arctic warfare
The Special Boat Service Operator
SBS candidates go through a rigorous selection and training process, just like SAS candidates do. Of an average intake of 125 candidates, the grueling selection process will weed out all but 10.
There is now a joint selection process for both the SAS and SBS.
Selection Phase One – Endurance
The hills stage lasts three weeks and takes place in the Brecon Beacons and Black Hills of South Wales. Candidates have to carry an increasingly heavy rucksack during a sequence of long, timed hikes, navigating between checkpoints. The directing staff offers no support or judgment at the checkpoints. The endurance phase concludes with “the long drag,” a 40-mile trek made while carrying a 55-pound Bergen (rucksack). It must be completed within 24 hours.
Selection Phase Two – Jungle Training
Those who have passed stage one have to pass jungle training. This takes place in the deep jungles of Belize. Candidates learn the essentials of surviving and patrolling in harsh conditions. Operators on UKSF jungle patrols may have to endure for weeks behind enemy lines in four-man patrols, surviving on rations. There is a mental component being tested here — not just physical fitness or toughness. SBS teams need men who can work under relentless pressure in horrendous environments.
Selection Phase Three – Escape & Evasion and Tactical Questioning (TQ)
During the escape and evasion (E&E) element, candidates are given brief instructions on techniques to be used during E&E situations. Candidates are then let loose in the countryside wearing World War II-style coats. They have to make their way to a series of waypoints without being captured by a hunter force. This lasts for three days, after which candidates report for the tactical questioning portion of the assessment.
TQ tests the prospective UKSF operators’ ability to endure interrogation. Their interrogators will treat them roughly and force them to stand in stress positions while disorientating noise is blasted at them. When their time for questioning comes, they must answer with the so-called “Big Four” (name, rank, serial number, and date of birth). They must answer all other challenges with, “I’m sorry, but I cannot answer that question.”
Female interrogators are used in order to belittle candidates. They may laugh at the size of their subject’s manhood and shout at them for hours. Days of interrogations, constant noise, and suffering in stress positions can break down a person’s comprehension of time and reality.
The small number of men who make it through selection are not out of the woods yet, as they are now effectively on probation. As brand new members of the regiment, the drill sergeants will examine them closely as they enter continuation training. Many UKSF soldiers are RTU’d (returned to unit) during this time.
In the video above, Special Boat Service (SBS) and U.S. Special Forces return to the scene of an uprising of captured Taliban at a fort in Afghanistan in 2001.
The History of the Special Boat Service (SBS)
The story of the SBS spans more than six decades, during which time the unit has undergone many transformations: from an army commando unit in World War II to an elite sub-unit of the Royal Marines, to its present-day incarnation as an extremely specialized element of the UKSF.
The SBS began service during World War II as the Special Boat Section, an army commando unit tasked with amphibious operations. The men of this young unit weren’t exceptionally well-equipped or qualified, but they were enthusiastic, resourceful, and cunning. Operators usually worked in pairs, paddling ashore in canoes launched from submarines to sabotage high-value targets such as railways and communications systems. The original raids took place along the coasts of Italy and the Mediterranean islands.
The new special operations force also developed anti-shipping skills, using canoes to creep into harbors and plant mines on the hulls of enemy ships. In November 1942, one group of Royal Marines, who came to be known as the Cockleshell Heroes, carried out a courageous raid on German shipping that took them far up the Gironde estuary where they sank four enemy ships. Expertise in clandestine infiltration made the SBS the ideal choice for inserting and extracting secret agents in the European theater, a task they carried out many times throughout the course of the war.
In 1987, the Special Boat Section was renamed to the Special Boat Service and moved under the supervision of the UKSF — an organization that today includes the SAS, SBS, and the SRR. All three services serve under the management of the Director Special Forces (DSF).
The SBS has been involved in every British military campaign since WWII, as well as in a number of counterterrorism operations, counternarcotics missions, and hostage rescue operations. With deployments in all of the U.K.’s current theaters of operation, the SBS maintains a high operations tempo and has been forced to rely on its reserve element to backfill troops.