- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The war against Iraq did not begin last week with bunker-busting ordnance dropped from F-117 stealth fighters, nor with cruise missiles fired from warships in the Red Sea.
Operation Iraqi Freedom began on dark winter nights weeks before that as British commandos crept in the desert with silenced weapons to gather intelligence, carry out sabotage and mark targets throughout the country. Their activity focused on the city of Basra Iraq's gateway to the Persian Gulf and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers leading to Baghdad.
When the United States and Britain go to war, naval special-warfare operations are divided among the U.S. Navy SEAL teams and Britain's Special Boat Service (SBS) a unit of the Royal Marines whose motto is "Not By Strength, By Guile."
Even in Britain, few have heard of the SBS. Better known at home is 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment.
Yet from counterterrorist assignments in the Middle East to intercepting boats carrying cocaine on the river Thames near London, to operations alongside the SAS and the SEALs in Afghanistan, the SBS is on the front lines or in the case of the war against Saddam Hussein, miles behind enemy lines.
Today's SBS is the descendent of the famed swimmer canoeists of the Royal Marines Boom Detachment who participated in the famous "Cockleshell Heroes" raid on German shipping in Bordeaux harbor in 1942.
During World War II, the SBS served in many parts of the globe, from the Greek islands to Java and the coast of Burma against the Japanese. They participated in Britain's campaigns in Malaya and Borneo, as well as in Muscat and Oman in the Persian Gulf.
In the Falklands war, SBS squadrons were instrumental in recapturing South Georgia, and were the first British forces to land on the Argentine-occupied Falkland Islands, where they carried out intelligence-related operations. They were inserted by Gazelle reconnaissance helicopters, frigates and trawlers, and Royal Navy submarines, emerging underwater to land in small teams near the Argentine defenses.
The SBS spent much of the war reconnoitering the beaches and assessing enemy troop strengths at potential landing sites. During the first Persian Gulf war, SBS teams fired the first shots of Operation Desert Storm while sabotaging Iraqi air-defense communications along the Euphrates.
The SBS has been deployed on covert assignments to Northern Ireland as well as to locations in Bosnia and Kosovo. They were among the first allied special forces deployed to Afghanistan to help the United States fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The trademark of the Special Boat Service is the Klepper canoe a two-man folding kayak with full upwind sailing capabilities. The SBS is among the most exclusive combat units in the world, and the road to becoming an SBS "operator" is arduous and rife with pain and sacrifice.
Just as the Parachute Regiment is the primary "feeder force" for those joining the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, the Royal Marines is the sole feeder for the SBS. Headhunters for the unit follow the progress of exceptional marines who show special-ops potential during basic training at Lympstone, the Royal Marines equivalent of Parris Island.
Throughout the Royal Marines' 30-week training and beyond, from winter warfare exercises in Norway to operational tours in Northern Ireland, SBS officers monitor those candidates they hope will volunteer into "the unit." Marines can volunteer for the SBS only after two years of exemplary service.
SBS training lasts about 12 months a year of intense "slogging." Much of it is, naturally, classified top-secret by the Defense Ministry, but it is known to include advanced training in signals, explosives, driving (high-speed and evasive), weapons, sniping, parachuting, swimming, scuba diving, boating intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance.
The first phase of SBS training is a two-week canoeing course, designed to begin the attrition process that will slowly whittle down the number of volunteers. Attrition is the course's trademark.
Training on the Kleppers is incessant, grueling, and demands not only intelligence and physical stamina, but the ability to function in a two-man system. There are numerous long paddles, including a 30-mile race in choppy waters, and a 10-mile portage over difficult terrain.
Volunteers also do intensive classroom study.
If, say, 60 volunteers begin the SBS course, it is hoped that only 40 will remain once the canoeing phase is complete. This is because 60 volunteers are too many for the second phase jungle training and there must come a point when the numbers initially worn on the camouflage fatigues can be replaced by the candidates' names.
The jungle phase of the training is considered by many to be the most physically grueling. To make sure the marine volunteers are up to it, they are sent to toughen up by doing basic survival training with the SAS, whose motto is "Who dares, wins." They do not coddle Royal Marines in the next phase of training in Brunei a rain-forest training ground considered by senior SBS officers to be a "good, clean jungle."
A full week is usually dedicated to each skill set reconnaissance, communications, surveillance, photography, sabotage (blowing up bridges and fortifications), and other basics of special forces. Then comes "OP Week" to learn how to camouflage and use an intelligence-gathering observation post.
Following the jungle training, the volunteers return to the SAS at Credenhill near Hereford for a more intense and serious training in survival, escape and evasion.
For about 10 days, the SBS volunteers are run along through an obstacle course in some of the most difficult terrain to be found in Britain. It is a demanding period where the candidate is constantly on the run, constantly evading "enemy" patrols, and living off the land. The SAS patrols are relentless, and the SBS hopefuls are captured they are always captured and interrogated in sometimes brutal fashion.
They must not disclose any information other than their name, rank and serial number, but they are subjected to, in the words of Lt. M., "soft-core torture." Beatings are administered the kind that don't leave marks and burlap bags are tightly noosed around the heads of captives. Naturally, the longer one holds out, the better his grades.
The entire process is carefully monitored by both SAS and SBS medical officers and psychiatrists. The aim of the exercise is to determine if, under true interrogation conditions, the prisoner can hold out for two days. It is the SBS's belief that information older than 48 hours is no longer useful to the enemy.
It is also during this period that military intelligence and other investigate services conduct a thorough security check on the candidates who have not been eliminated.
The next phases of training include a two-week boating phase (using Zodiacs and Rigid Raiders, and deployment and extraction from submarines) in the frigid waters off Scotland, followed by advanced combat courses with a variety of weapons everything from the old silenced L34A1 Sterling 9-mm submachine gun, to Parker Hale and Accuracy International sniping rifles and other exotic, top-secret, and James Bond-like killing instruments, and explosives SBS "operators" are considered among the world's most capable saboteurs.
Then come advanced underwater and tactical swimming, and intelligence instruction. Throughout the SBS training, the emphasis is to hone the volunteer's mental strength so he can absorb the instructional material, as well as persevere through the trying physical tests.
Professionalism, in every aspect of the training and subsequent operational service, is stressed all as the most important aspect of being an SBS operator. Instructors like to tell stories from the Falklands conflict, and stress the ability of training and conditioning to allow a mere man to endure ice water, sub-freezing temperatures, and lonely reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines.
The final phase of training is a four-week parachutist course featuring jumps from C-130s, run by the Royal Air Force at Brize Norton. Following the hellish torments of jungle, deserts and frigid waters, the RAF Jump Course is considered "R&R.;" Nevertheless, jump school is serious business, and jump wings are coveted.
It is here that the operators learn how to jump into water, jump with their canoes, and function in a truly airborne manner. Even though the marine has already been in the course for over a year at this point, he may still be dropped.
Less than 20 percent who start the course at Poole are eventually designated "operator." SBS operators must sign on an additional 30 six months of service; most stay in for many more. Few naval special-warfare forces can boast such long-term commitment from their covert warriors, and very few can boast such a professional combat cadre.
Even U.S. Navy SEALs admit that the SBS is unique for its professionalism and combat ability. They should know: SEALs regularly train with the SBS; a SEAL officer is permanently assigned to the Special Boat Service, and an SBS operator is permanently assigned to the headquarters of Naval Special Warfare Group Two at Little Creek, Va.
Once a British marine becomes an SBS operator, he undergoes more specialist training to join an SBS operational squadron.
According to published sources, swimmer canoeists are usually incorporated into C Squadron, where the underwater and Klepper canoe talents are maximized. Those expert in small craft, minisubs and delivery vehicles, and long-range insertion craft (speedboats, for example) are assigned to S Squadron.
Those to be trained specifically in anti-terrorism duties mainly the rescue of hostages aboard ships and oil platforms are assigned to the Gold or Purple troops of M Squadron. M Squadron is similar to SEAL Team Six in function and training; both specialize in maritime rescue. Unlike other commandos who burst through doors to rescue hostages, they must blow their way through several feet of steel on an oil rig or inside a secured ship compartment.
Acceptance into these operational SBS squadrons involves passing a demanding selection that matches each SBS operator into the specialty he is most qualified to fulfill.
Now, somewhere in Basra or along the river banks leading to Baghdad, small teams of SBS operators are engaging targets inside Iraq.
Operating with their Kleppers in the darkness they call home, armed with explosives, M4 carbines and sniper rifles, their missions along the rivers are classified but the desperate game of cat-and-mouse they play with the Republican Guard is an essential piece in the puzzle that will bring the conflict to an end.

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