The Special Air Service

The SBS’s sister unit, the Special Air Service (SAS) has a much higher public profile in the UK, mostly due to several operations taking place in the public arena. This page takes a look at the Special Air Service, and examines the differences and similarities between the SBS and their SAS colleagues/rivals.

A Brief History Of The SAS

Formed during World War 2, the 22nd Special Air Service regiment was the brainchild of David Stirling, who envisioned a role for small well trained groups of men, operating deep behind enemy lines. Stirling’s fledging unit cut its teeth in the deserts of Northern Africa, raiding Rommel’s airfields, ammo dumps and supply lines. The Special Air Service was so successful that Rommel diverted large amounts of time and manpower to hunting them down. Special Air Service teams also saw action in the European theater, carrying out operations in Italy and France.

Post war – the Special Air Service found work in various trouble spots around the world. They thought guerrillas in Borneo, Oman and Aden.

1970s – The SAS develop anti-terrorist techniques to counter a growing global threat. SAS teams deploy to Northern Ireland to combat the IRA and INLA.

1980 – The SAS burst onto the public stage when they storm the besieged Iranian Embassy in London

1982 – SAS patrols performed reconnaissance and diversionary attacks against Argentinean forces during the Falklands conflict.

1988 – SAS undercover team shoots and kills an IRA active service unit in Gibraltar.

1991 – The SAS insert foot and landrover patrols deep behind Iraqi lines on missions to hunt down Saddam Hussein’s scud launchers.

2000 – SAS, along with the SBS and Paratroopers free british soldiers from Sierra Leone rebels in an audacious rescue mission.

2001 – SAS combat Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

2003 – SAS teams go in ahead of the main allied invasion of Iraq. In post-invasion Iraq, Squadrons from 22 SAS rotate through tours of Task Force Black, a special forces task group set up to battle insurgents. The SBS also contribute to Task Force Black.

2009 – With the British drawn down from Iraq, 22 SAS turns its attention to Afghanistan

Organisation of The SAS

The Special Air Service comprises 1 regular regiment (22 SAS) and 2 reserves regiments (21 SAS & 23 SAS). The 22nd Special Air Service is divided into 4 squadrons : A,B,D & G with around 64 fighting men plus an HQ element in each.

Within each squadron are 4 specialised troops:

  • Air Troop – specialising in parachuting.
  • Mountain Troop – experts in rock climbing
  • Mobility Troop – specialists in the use of vehicles
  • Boot Troop – trained for perform amphibious operations


When considering the SAS and SBS, the question naturally springs to mind : which one is the better unit? A juvenile concern perhaps, but that hasn’t stopped ex-members of both units slagging their opposite numbers off in a series of books. In ex-SAS operator, Ken Conner’s Ghost Force, the author decries the SBS as an under-funded, unprofessional unit. In two books by ex-SBS men, First into Action by Duncan Falconer and Black Water by Don Camsel, the Special Air Service are portrayed as arrogant, gung-ho cowboys who’s attitude leads to several operations in Northern Ireland going awry. This antagonism stems from tight defense budgets and the constant jockeying for a piece of the action – both in terms of funding and operations. Both units also have considerable pride in their own abilities and there’s a natural resentment of the other ‘special’ forces.

Commonly stated pro-SAS arguments include:

  • The Special Air Service are an army force and therefore have better experience on dry land. Some would point to the SBS landrover patrol’s apparent difficulties in the Iraqi desert during Gulf War 2.
  • SAS draw from a wider cross-section of the armed forces meaning their troops include paratroopers, tank drivers, engineers etc. This diversity of skills make the SAS suitable for a wider range of tasks.
  • The SAS is a larger and better funded organisation

Whilst the pro-SBS camp argue:

  • With the SBS (until recently) drawing its ranks from the Royal Marines, it is suggested that an SBS operator has a greater level of experience of soldiering than many of their SAS counterparts.
  • The demands of working in the water demands a higher level of fitness and mental toughness than the SAS.
  • The lower public profile of the SBS allows for more covert operations and it is said that the MOD have problems with the more maverick elements within the SAS.

Such arguments are becoming more and more academic as the two units are becoming less and less distinguishable. They are now part of the same organisation (UKSF) and are often sent on joint missions together. The main difference between them remains in their separate specialties in the counter terrorism role. Some speculate that an eventual merger of the SAS & SBS is inevitable.