The Special Air Service, the SAS, the Sass, the Regiment or the 22nd; call them what you will, but the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment of the British Army are the elite of the Armed Forces. The SAS are tasked with various objectives. In war, they are to conduct reconnaissance, deep strike and other secret missions. In peacetime, they are generally tasked with a counter terrorist (CT) role and a Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) role where they liaise with other countries to help with the exchange of ideas. Not only that, they help train the regular armies of the world and do other very classified activities, which none of us hear about until 20 years after the fact.
Why would anybody, want to put themselves through hell to join the SAS or any elite force for that matter? Perhaps it's a determination to be the best or maybe it's a desire to take on the ultimate challenge where a man pushes himself further, harder and faster than he's ever done before. Whatever it is, it's a special quality that leads a man to submit himself to the rigours of Special Air Service selection and training, and it's a quality which not many people possess.
Many elite forces and their supporters tend to boast that their training is the toughest. This is because before the SAS go to train a soldier to become an SAS trooper, they have to pass 'selection'. Selection isn't training; it is sheer torture which everyone must endure before going on to be eventually trained. It saves valuable time and money if you can weed out the people who can't cut it. It is simple, brutal and takes no prisoners.
We don't try to fail you, we try to kill you.
To be considered for selection, you must have at least three months experience in your regiment and at least three years left to serve. You must also be able to pass the Battle Fitness Test (BFT). You must file a Defense Council Instruction (DCI) which certifies that you are prepared to be put forward for arduous duties.
There are two selections a year, one in winter and the other in summer. The general idea is that you either suffer from hypothermia in winter, or suffer from heatstroke in summer. It lasts four weeks (three build-up weeks, one test week). Officers, however, have only two build-up weeks in order to pass the test week.
The recruits first go to Stirling Lines, outside Hereford, to have a medical and pass the BFT. 10% fail here. The rest are issued the equipment that they need for selection. Then they are bussed out to Dering Lines in Beacon where selection will start.
Selection is simple. Get from A to B, from B to C etc, within an allotted time. Sounds simple? It is. The only problem is that A to Z in total is over 10km away. 10km isn't a long distance, but it is when you are carrying a heavy self-loading rifle, webbing, and a Bergen (a standard issue British Army rucksack). Another problem is that the distances the soldier covers increase each day, as do the loads that they bear. Soldiers get up about 4am every morning and are not allowed to use roads. If they do, then they are disqualified. The most difficult part of selection is the Brecon Beacons - anybody who has walked them, will know exactly just how physically exhausting they are.
After a day or so, the old equipment you have been given is starting to cut into you, giving crippling blisters and sores. The best soldiers don't give up because of this - they go to the Medical Officer at night, and then get up with the rest of the recruits, ready for another day's hell the following morning. In selection, you are expected to be fit, but you've also got to be intelligent. Numbed by pain, you'll be given tasks to do at rendezvous points (RVs), such as stripping a foreign weapon and then reassembling it.
This continues for three weeks, with the recruits managing about four hours' sleep a night. The next part of selection is imaginatively called 'Test Week'.
Test week consists basically of six marches, the first five being 17 miles long requiring the soldier to march with a 30k pack on his back while map reading. However, that's not all. Test week culminates in the 'Long Drag'; a 40-mile march which has to be completed in 20 hours.
Selection is carried out alone. There is nobody in selection shouting encouragement - it's just you trying to motivate yourself. This isn't like other forces which have instructors shouting at you to do better, or mates encouraging not to drop out. The only person forcing you to go through hell is you. This is because soldiers working in isolation must have absolute motivation and must not crack up. A good example of this is Chris Ryan's 300km Trek to safety in Iraq, which, for the most part, was done solo.
You ask yourself, why is selection mostly about hill walking and map reading? Well since the SAS' conception, they were deemed to be a strategic resource, not just kick-ass tactical soldiers. Nowadays, in major conflicts, the SAS is mostly tasked with long range reconnaissance, which selection tries to recreate.
Jungle training is carried out immediately after selection. It lasts four weeks and is very physically demanding. Carrying enough to sustain you for 14 days in the jungle in hot, humid conditions is no picnic. You'll be wet all the time, even out of the water, due to sweating continuously. An SAS soldier will receive all the knowledge he needs to fight in the jungle, and this training is so good, that not one SAS patrol to date has ever been killed in this kind of tropical environment.
Everyone receives comprehensive first aid training and most are very skilled, especially the patrol medics. Medics are usually skilled in most parts of the medical field. Why, you ask? Well, it's not just for treating SAS members - trauma training and basic hygiene would be the only requirements for that. However, being a comprehensive medic is an important part of the overall 'Hearts and Minds'(H&M) ethic which the SAS endeavours to promote all over the world. This helps prevent Vietnam- and Afghanistan-type fiascos since the local populous will more be inclined to view these 'foreign soldiers' as friends, people that can protect them.
Escape and Evasion (E&E) and resistance to interrogation is another subject area which a soldier will have to pass. Avoiding capture by swarms of soldiers while surviving off the land for seven days is bad enough; having to fulfil RVs as well is worse still. If you get captured, then you will be interrogated, and if you break, you fail. All soldiers end up being captured.
The final stage is parachute training, which is a holiday for most of the SAS recruits, but you must pass it, or you will fail. It means making eight jumps, in full kit, and one at night. Some fail here, but most pass.
Those who survive the selection and training are badged and are now SAS soldiers. It takes this much to be the best in the world. And it takes much more to remain the best.
It is worth bearing in mind that SAS selection has ruined many a good man's career - broken ankles, crippled knees and other such injuries having pensioned a lot of them out of the Armed Forces for good. The Territorial Army SAS Regiments (21 and 23) undergo the same selection, but due to the part-time nature of the Territorials, the selection process is stretched over a period of one year.