SBS Skills & Techniques – Part 1
As with all UK special operations forces, the men of the Special Boat Service are always training, constantly adding to the skill sets required to carry out special ops. This section of the site looks at the various skills and techniques that the SBS acquire.
SBS special operators are expert divers. Since its formation during World War 2, the unit has used the water as a medium for clandestine movement and attack. The SBS have developed a range of techniques for different applications.
In the procedure known as E&RE (exit and re-entry), SBS divers exit the sub while it’s submerged, bringing their equipment up to the surface before proceeding with the mission. Once the mission is complete, the SBS dive back down to the submarine. This technique, whilst time consuming and dangerous, allows for a highly clandestine mission profile.
The hull of a battleship can reveal a remarkable amount about the onboard sensors and engines. SBS divers are trained to swim into harbors and examine and photograph the underside of enemy vessels when docked or even when underway. This can be a highly dangerous pursuit, as docked warships regularly carry out anti-diver drills such as suddenly turning on underwater lights, starting up the propellers or sending down their own divers.
Before an amphibious assault goes in, it is vital that the beaches and approaches to the landing area have been thoroughly surveyed. SBS divers use a variety of tools to measure the incline of the sea bed and to test its consistency and suitability for landing craft. This task may not be glamorous but it does require high levels of stamina and concentration. Throughout the years, the SBS has clandestinely reconnoitered many potential landing points around the world.
Docked ships are vulnerable to underwater attack by enemy frogmen, as both the Italians and British proved in World War 2. The basic techniques remain the same, with divers sneaking into enemy harbors and attaching explosives to the hulls of berthed vessels. Over the years, the SBS have designed and adapted swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs) to allow for the speedier, stealthier infiltration of demolition teams.
A further application of underwater demolitions is the clearing of beach obstacles such a tank traps from amphibious landing areas. SBS divers are skilled at setting charges while remaining submerged and out of sight.
Close Quarters Battle (CQB)
Whether clearing an enemy stronghold in a war zone or storming a terrorist-held cruise liner, SBS troopers must be experts at fighting in close quarters.
Room Entry & Clearing
Getting into a room containing hostiles and friendlies, engaging the right targets and covering all angles, all in a matter of seconds, is a demanding challenge. Room entry is always done in teams, with each member given a specific arc of fire and path through a room. When room clearing, each operator must not only shoot the terrorist but also avoid hitting hostages or other team members. This requires extreme levels of concentration and discipline which is why the techniques are practiced over and over until they become second nature.
Because the enemy is close in CQB, the SBS operator must be specially trained in close in weapons techniques. This is a discipline that requires the operator to be extremely proficient with his weapons, be it a carbine, sub machine gun or pistol. Operators are taught to fire ‘double taps’ – 2 rounds at the target in quick succession, repeating until the target is neutralized, then moving onto to the next one. The shots need to be placed exactly so as to kill quickly and to avoid hitting hostages.
SBS operators practice various weapons drills until they become instinctive. In training, small SBS teams get through more ammunition than much larger regular units.
SBS operators also have to be ready to deal with weapon malfunctions such as stoppages (jammed or miss-fired rounds) These techniques are practiced over and over again as a part of an SBS operator’s maritime counter terrorism training (MCT), until they become engrained in the operator – so called ‘muscle memory’.
Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes has been used as method of delivering special operation troops since World War 2. Sky diving is coming out of favor these days, due to the proliferation of radar systems that can detect the jumpers and plane, but mostly due to a preference to use helicopters for insertion. The SBS still practice various parachuting techniques, however.
HALO (High Altitude Low Opening), as the name implies, involves jumping from a very high altitude (30,000 ft or higher), only opening the chute at the last moment. The idea is to exit the plane above enemy radar coverage and then open the chutes below the coverage. The jumper has to wear oxygen breathing apparatus as the air is too thin at high altitudes. Keeping a stable freefall posture whilst laden down with a bergen (backpack), oxygen bottles and weapon strapped to one’s back requires great skill.
HAHO (High Altitude High Opening) requires the jumper to open their chute straight away then glide to the landing zone (LZ). Whilst this technique is less stealthy than HALO, it has the advantage that the jumper can glide up to 30 miles from the drop off point. This stand-off capability means that HAHO jumpers can glide across borders, whilst the mother-plane stays in friendly airspace. As with HALO, the jumpers must wear breathing gear for much of the descent. Navigation skills must be sharp to allow the jumper to glide their steerable chutes to the right LZ.
The SBS were the first unit to develop techniques for parachuting men and equipment into the sea. So-called ‘wet jumping’ allows the SBS to drop a large maritime counter terrorism force or raiding party far out to sea, out of site of the enemy. The Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) are dropped first, followed by then the men who quickly swim to RIBs and attach the outboard motors before boarding them to proceed with the mission.
It’s physically demanding techniques such as wet jumping that require SBS operators to maintain incredibly high standards of fitness and stamina. Anything less and the men would be exhausted before the mission proper had even begun!
Men of the Special Boat Service are always training, constantly adding to their skills. This section of the site looks at the various skills and techniques that the SBS acquire.
Whilst developing techniques for their Maritime Counter Terrorism role, the SBS needed a method for rapidly getting a large number of operators from helicopters onto ships or oil platforms. The rational way was to abseil down, but this method requires a stable surface to allow the abseiler to stop the tension on his line, and unhook. The SBS took inspiration from the fireman’s pole and developed ‘fast-roping’, in which men slide down a rope, using their hands, protected by special gloves, to act as brakes. When mastered, this skill allows large teams of SBS assaulters to get their boots down on the target within seconds.
As seen (or not, actually) in the barren landscape of the Falklands and the rolling hills of Northern Ireland, the technique of digging expertly camouflaged hides into the ground allows an SBS recon team to disappear from view whilst keeping a furtive eye on the enemy.
The turf is carefully removed and a hole big enough to hold 2- 4 men and their equipment is excavated. The slabs of turf are then attached to a chicken wire roof which covers and conceals the SBS men beneath. An expertly built hide can keep a recon team hidden for weeks, right under the nose of the enemy. During the Falklands conflict, Argentinean patrols sometime passed within meters of SBS and SAS hides.
The SBS developed their arctic warfare skills partly to meet their cold war role of helping to protect NATO’s northern flank against Russian attack. To that end, the SBS deployed alongside other Royal Marine Commando units to Norway. In the event of attack, the SBS would put in covert watch teams behind enemy lines to report on troop movements and call in artillery and air strikes. SBS men are skilled in skiing and building hides in the snow. Simply surviving in the harsh conditions of a Norwegian winter is a challenge itself and the SBS are highly-skilled in arctic survival techniques.