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Roles Of The SBS - The UK's Naval Special Operations Unit

The end of the cold war and the beginning of the global war on terror, have redefined the roles of special forces, including both the SAS and SBS. A new special unit, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) has been created to perform covert surveillance operations, freeing the SAS & the SBS up for more direct combat actions. This, along with the formation of the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), consisting of Paratroopers, Royal Marine Commandos & RAF Regiment Troops specially trained to support the SAS/SBS, indicates the emphasis the UK armed forces is now putting on special operations. The so-called 'asymmetric warfare' of the 21st century means that UK special forces are busier than ever.

The Special Boat Service has the following roles:

Maritime Counter-Terrorism

As the UK's naval special operations unit, the Special Boat Service has the responsibility of responding to the threat of terrorism against any of the UK's maritime interests. Over the years, the SBS has developed methods of rescuing hostages on oil rigs, cruise ships and cross-channel ferries. When one considers the prospect of mounting a rescue operation against a North Sea oil rig from the freezing cold seas below, one can speculate that the SBS sometimes has a more challenging task on their hands than their SAS colleagues!

The SBS regularly practice assaults on all kinds of vessels and installations. MCT operations usually involve simultaneous assaults from the air and sea. Chinooks from 7 Squadron Royal Air Force and/or Merlin helicopters from the Commando Helicopter Force are used to deliver SBS MCT teams onto target. SBS snipers aboard Royal Navy Wildcat HMA.2 helicopters will often be used to cover maritime assaults. A selection of rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) are used to assault ships and oil rigs from the water.

The SBS also practices with the SAS for large-scale operations for which the one UKSF squadron on national anti-terrorist alert would not be sufficient. Such scenarios include a terrorist takeover of a Nuclear Power station or the simultaneous takeover of multiple sites.

The SBS wear special assault clothing including :

  • flame-retardent nomex suits
  • flame-retardent balaclavas / face masks
  • inflatable life jackets
  • opscore helmets

Assault gear / weapons include :

Drug Interdiction

The capabilities and methods they have developed for the MCT role make the SBS uniquely suited to boarding potentially hostile drug-running cargo ships on the high seas. On such missions they have worked side by side with HMS customs officials and, on at least one occasion, assisted S019, the Met Police firearms team.

The SBS employ the same techniques and wear the same gear as they do for the Maritime Counter-terrorism role when intercepting drug-runners. To date, wisely, apon finding their vessels swarming with heavily-armed, black-clad SBS operators, smugglers have all given up without resistance.

related link:
SBS anti-drug smuggling operations

Anti-Shipping Tasks

A specialty of the SBS involves sabotaging ships and harbor installations. Canoeists, swimmers or divers infiltrate the target areas, sometimes with the assistance of mini-subs and swimmer delivery vehicles. Once on target, the operators attach magnetic limpet mines to the ship's hulls. The fuses on the mines are time delayed to enable the SBS saboteurs to withdraw to a safe distance.

One such mission was planned against a merchant ship docked in a foreign port during the Falklands war (1982). It was believed that the ship was carrying French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles, bound for Argentina. The mission was scrubbed at the very last minute.

The SBS can also be used to attack ships at sea, boarding hostile ships either from fast rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) or 'fast-roping' down from helicopters.

Such attacks are less likely in these days of the global war on terror although the various clandestine methods of infiltrating harbours may still be used to plant tracking devices to suspect vessels.


Special Boat Service commandos are trained to infiltrate deep behind enemy lines and carry out sabotage missions against vital enemy installations such as ammo dumps, bridges and communications installations.

Movement into the target area could be by boat, submarine, Klepper canoe, helicopter or by HALO/HAHO parachute drop. Their expertise with waterborne infiltration makes the SBS well suited for attacking coastal installations such as enemy ports and radar stations.

SBS operators have carried out sabotage missions right from the start of their inception during World War 2 and as recently as the 1st Gulf War.

Covert Operations

Perhaps more so than the higher profile SAS, the shadowy SBS are well suited for so called 'black ops' : deniable operations that would be too controversial for official recognition. Britain's Secret Intelligence Services (SIS), such as MI6, may occasionally have a use for men with the qualities of an SBS operator. Such men might temporarily 'leave' the military to work for a front company of the SIS. Whilst precise details of the activities that an SBS man 'on holiday' may perform are unknown, one can speculate that they include:

  • Inciting unrest and revolution amongst the populations of hostile countries
  • Assisting foreign 'freedom fighters'
  • Terminating 'undesirables' or 'dangerous' individuals (anyone from national leaders, to nuclear scientists, to enemy agents)
  • Secretly training foreign militaries
  • Ferrying secret agents or sensitive materials in and out of countries
For some time now there has been speculation that the SIS draws, on demand, the cream of UK Special Forces operators away from their regiments to form a unit known as 'The Increment', or 'E Squadron'. This ultra-secret unit is supposedly specially trained for black operations and acts as the SIS's secret army. Naturally, no official recognition of such a unit has been given.

related info:

  • E Squadron
    report on E Squadron / The Increment

SBS Roles - Beach & Shore Reconnaissance

One of the main roles of the SBS is to survey and recon the beaches and shoreline prior to amphibious landings by main forces (usually Royal Marines). Not only must they report on the numbers and disposition of any nearby enemy, they must also survey the approaches to the beaches to ensure they are suitable for a landing. Special devices are used to measure the gradient of the beaches. The consistancy of the sand is examined to ensure it can support the weight of the various landing craft and vehicles that will transverse the beach.

The most recent example of this was when SBS teams secured the beach-heads of the AL Faw Peninsula at the start of Gulf War II. The SBS also carried out beach surverys prior to the main landings at San Carlos during the 182 Falklands Conflict.

SBS divers are also highly trained in explosives and demolitions which gives them the capability to clear any mines and obstructions from the shorelines and beaches.

note: Another unit with a similar beach reconnaissance role is 3 Commando Brigade's Squadron Reconnaissance Team (SRT).

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RM Green Team
Green Team
Royal Marines Boarding Team
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42 Commando Vikings
SFSG Marksman
SFSG soldier armed with HK417 rifle
view: SFSG Marksman
Squadron Reconnaissance Team (SRT)
view: 539 ASRM SRT


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