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Has the SAS Gone Soft?

11/08/2015 15:39 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

Has SAS selection just got softer - or simply less relevant?

The SAS Aptitude Course - better known by its more sinister name "Selection" - hasn't changed much in 40 years. And to the best of my knowledge, about a dozen men have lost their lives in the course of this training process. The most common causes of death have been illnesses brought on by extremes of temperature combined with intense physical exercise. In medical terms, they either died of hypo- or hyperthermia. (Hyper is the hot one.) Others have suffered gunshot wounds in simulated close quarter battle conditions, had parachuting accidents or similar. Is that a lot of deaths for Britain's most demanding military training programme? It's a matter of judgement. 125 British servicemen have lost their lives in training over the past 15 years, suggesting that it may be no more than proportionate.

However, given political pressures, it must come as no surprise to anyone to read in The Times over the week-end that "Selection" is to be modified in the wake of three recent deaths in training. Test marches are to be curbed in extreme weather conditions and more support provided in the form of water stops. But these are just the latest in a series of safety improvements. Since the 1970s SAS trainees have carried emergency equipment including high-viz panels, first aid kits, water and radio beacons - rather than the pile of numbered bricks that used to fill Bergen rucksacks! Winter marches are commenced well before dawn in order to allow helicopters more daylight to rescue wayward trainees if such a situation arises. Back in the 1980s, when I did the final 64 kilometre "Endurance March," it was stopped after twenty hours of blizzard conditions for safety reasons. More modern technology has allowed these measures to be supported by GPS tracking devices. Nonetheless, SAS alumni are now debating whether Selection is going soft and, specifically whether this makes sense in a world in which SF soldiers have spent more than a decade charging around with heavy equipment under a blistering Iraqi or Afghan sun.

Let the old sweats argue the point over a beer at the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge. But perhaps a more useful question is whether it even makes sense that SAS Selection remains so true to its rhythm, after so many years and so much geo-political change. SAS Selection begins with three weeks of basic fitness and navigation training. The ability to map-read was always a key military skill, as much for an infantryman as an SF operator. However, these days the average housewife can pinpoint a teenage party in a barn in the middle of pitch black countryside at two in the morning by simply plugging a postcode into the GPS system in their Volvo. It's a diminishing currency. The infamous fourth 'Test Week' combines map reading with an escalating series of physical challenges, involving traversing mountain ranges at speed and with heavy loads. This certainly plays to the experience of recent campaigns but it does little credit, either to the military-industrial complex or SF tacticians, that soldiers still drag themselves around the battlefield carrying exactly the same amount of clobber as their forbears at the Battle of the Somme a full century ago. Boffins have started to experiment with a load-bearing military exoskeleton but it all seems a long way off. In the meantime, the Taliban will continue to refer to Western soldiers as "plodding donkeys".

After the joys of the Brecon Beacons SAS recruits head to Brunei, on the island of Borneo, to hone their jungle warfare skills. This owes its origins to the post-War recreation of the SAS as the Malayan Scouts during the "Emergency" in the 1950s. Other SAS rainforest campaigns followed; the Borneo "Confrontation" with Indonesia and the Brunei "Revolt". However, these campaigns were successfully resolved before my first birthday. (I'm now 53). Setting aside a smattering of anti-narcotics operations and the odd rumble in the African jungle, it all amounts to a slightly nostalgic take on modern SF soldiering. The main argument for this continued arboreal focus is that the rainforest provides for a good test of basic SF disciplines. Perhaps that's a little post-rational. You would have thought the time might be better spent on cyber and other forms of leading-edge warfare. It seems strange that in a world ruled by technology, sheer physicality is still such a prevalent SF competence.

With Brunei a leech-infested memory, it's back to Wales to learn combat survival, enabling recruits to take their place amongst Bear Grylls, Ray Mears and other TV pundits who show us how to knit a cagoule from an alligator's scrotum and drink your own pee, (even when there is a three star hotel less than a day's march away). There's no question that the ability to think positively and improvise your way out of tricky situations is - and always will be - a critical SF skill. However it would be interesting to document how frequently UK SF members have ever actually subsisted on edible plants, fungi and wild animals in a genuine combat situation. I suspect the answer is almost never. The combat survival phase of training ends with a resistance-to-interrogation programme and this is clearly relevant. The UK seems to make a habit of tackling regimes that go in for whole-scale torture, as experienced by celebrated SAS writer Andy McNab when he was caught by Saddam Hussein's forces. Whether it's actually possible to resist anything when you're being physically dismembered is debatable, but at least you know what to expect.

The penultimate phase of SAS training is the anti-terrorist package and there is no question that this is entirely relevant and will remain so as long as people like ISIS, Al Qaeda even the IRA are at large. The final phase of SAS training involves the standard Army parachute course. I've always enjoyed parachuting and Airborne soldiers the world over like the prestige of wearing a set of embroidered wings on their tunics. However, in a world that now includes helicopters and Ospray fixed-wing, it is a somewhat redundant form of battlefield arrival. Soldiers from my own SAS Troop parachuted into the sea during the Falklands War, rendez-vous-ing with a submarine, and a group from B Squadron used the more exotic HAHO (High Altitude High Opening) glide technique to sneak up on an armed money launderer in Iraq. But in both cases the usefulness of parachuting was debated. The last major UK military parachute drop was in Suez 1956.

So whilst the SAS agonise about whether it makes sense to make "Selection" a little less dangerous, perhaps it would be better off spending time asking the question of "What", exactly, is it selecting its soldiers for? Is it a slightly nostalgic world of colonial wars, steaming jungles full of Iban head-hunters and dare-devil parachute jumps or a fragmented battle field of shape-shifting enemies, mutating objectives, surveillance, drones and technology prevalence? Should it even be necessary for the SAS soldier of the future to be capable of lugging his own body-weight in kit over Penn-y-Fan at a quick jog or are there other competencies that will better ensure his performance and personal survival on the battlefield? Happily, the SAS has always been good at re-inventing itself, whilst other elite units have run their course, and hopefully it will now take this opportunity to think about the attributes it requires, to ensure a further seventy years of success.

Joff Sharpe retired from the SAS in the late 1980s. He is now a businessman and author of the book: "Who Dares Wins in Business" which will soon be featured in a series of lectures hosted by Citywire.