SFSG: The UK Special Forces Support Group 

1.0 Introduction

The Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) is a special forces unit of the British Armed Forces and one of the units that form the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF). Its mission is to support the operations of the main UKSF units of the Special Air Service (SAS), the Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR).

The SFSG is a `Tier 2´ tri-service unit comprised of personnel from all three branches of the Armed Forces, Army, Navy and Air Force. It is composed of personnel from the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment (1 PARA), a Commando Company from the Royal Marines and a flight platoon from the Royal Air Force Regiment. 

The SFSG was established in 2006, a year after the creation of the SRR and the 18 (UKSF) Signal Regiment. It is therefore one of the newest British special forces units and reflects the expanding role of special forces in UK defence policy.

In this article, we analyse the history of the unit, its purpose and organisation, and its most relevant operations.

UK Special Forces Support Group member visualised by Charlie Cousens on behalf of Grey Dynamics.
UK Special Forces Support Group member visualised by Charlie Cousens on behalf of Grey Dynamics.

2.0 Symbols and History

2.1 Symbols

The emblem of the SFSG, which is also used as a drop zone (DZ) flash by its operators, consists of a lightning bolt superimposed on a blade inspired by the legendary Excalibur pointing downwards.

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Emblem of the SFSG (source)

Members of the SFSG wear the cap and beret insignia of their parent unit, while the unit’s DZ Flash (SFSG) is worn on the right sleeve.

2.2 History

2.2.1 The UKSF

In 1987, the MoD created the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), when the post of Director of the Special Air Service (SAS) became Director of Special Forces (DFS). The MoD created the UKSF when it assigned the DSF control of both the SAS and the Navy’s Special Boat Squadron, which was renamed the Special Boat Service (SBS). 

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UKSF Emblem (source).

Since then, the directorate has expanded by creating and unifying new units. In 2001, they created the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW) which specialises in covert battlefield insertion and extraction. It consists of the 7th Squadron (RAF) and the 658th Squadron (Army Air Corps). In 2005, the UKSF created the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) to support the SAS, alongside the 18th Signal Regiment. In 2006, they created the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), a quick-reaction force to assist Special Forces missions.  This might include large supporting offensives, blocking enemy counter-attacks or guarding areas of operation (source; source).

For those of you who want to know more about the UKSF, you can have a look here at the article I recently published about them.

2.2.2 The SFSG

Origin

The origin of the unit derives from the need to provide infantry support to UK Special Forces, in particular the SAS and SBS. The battle of Tora Bora, Afghanistan 2001, revealed that these units were being misused for tasks more suited to parachute or commando troops (source; source; source). In December 2004, the MoD announced that it was in the process of creating a unit for this function as part of a future army structure. This was based on the 2003 Defence White Paper, “Delivering Security in a Changing World” (source). Initially, the UKSF conceived it as a battalion of “Rangers“, similar to those of the US Army (source).

Formation

The Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid announced the formation of the SFSG in April 2006 in Parliament (source). Its mission was to support British special forces units in combat overseas and in domestic “counter-terrorism” operations. The SFSG is the newest unit of the UKSF.

The unit is a tri-service unit, consisting of a battalion of soldiers from the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA), a commando company, originally F Coy, from the Royal Marines and a small platoon of gunners from the RAF Regiment. All soldiers selected for the SFSG have passed the P Company (Pegasus) selection course run by the Parachute Regiment, the Royal Marines Commando course or the RAF Regiment’s pre-parachute selection course. The Royal Marines and RAF Regiment draw members from their respective Corps.

(Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

special forces support group - hmt400 - afghanistan
Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) soldiers pictured onboard a Supacat HMT400 4×4 vehicle in Afghanistan. The vehicle is armed with a twin GPMG mounted at the rear weapons station.

3.0 Purpose

The SFSG, along with the other British Special Forces regiments, are designed to help in the “long war” as well as asymmetric war. This responds to the need for special forces of small, well-trained, and well-supported units operating on battlefields where combat lines are poorly defined and enemies mix among friends. These special forces are understood as “force multipliers”, that is, small teams of operators can achieve results comparable to those of larger forces (source; source).

The roles of the SFSG include:

  • Support and Influence
    • Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for SAS/SBS operations
    • Sealing and surveillance of areas of operations
    • Participation in large-scale offensive operations in conjunction with SAS/SBS forces
    • Conducting secondary assaults and diversionary raids
    • Acting as a “blocking force” against counter-attacks
  • Counter-Terrorism (CT)
  • Counter-Insurgency
  • Direct Action (DA)
  • Forward Air Control (FAC)
  • Close Air Support (CAS)
  • Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defence
  • Training, Mentoring and Monitoring

Today, much of the surveillance and reconnaissance function falls to the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), a unit formed, organised, and equipped to carry out this activity. This has freed up 22 SAS, the SBS and the Support Group to focus on offensive action alongside influence and support. 

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

sfsg - photo
SFSG working with SAS Task Force Black, in Iraq, dressed in a variety of camouflage patterns.

3.1 SFSG Doctrine

The SFSG is the special mission unit responsible for providing infantry support to special operations. The SFSG is an elite group whose sole purpose is to support and enable other special mission units (SMUs) within the UKSF. Although not as well known as its Army or Navy counterparts, the SFSG plays an integral role as a support group. 

The modern SFSG, like other special forces, has a unique and highly effective skill set. In this case, this special skill set is the coordination and execution of support to British special units. The unit mostly acts as a quick reaction force (QRF) for SAS and SBS operations. This includes acting as a blocking force, sealing and surveilling areas of operations and conducting secondary and diversionary attacks. Furthermore, unlike its comrades in the SAS and SBS, the SFSG is not solely oriented towards direct combat. The SFSG often acts as forward air control (FAC), and close air support (CAS) to relieve allied forces on the ground. The unit also has additional purposes, which I explain in the following section. These include CBRN defence and the capability to train and mentor other forces.

The SFSG is to a certain extent the equivalent of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron belonging to the US JSOC. However, while the 24th solely focuses on air support, the SFSG mostly focuses on the ground support.

3.2 Specialisations

The role of the SFSG today, and other UKSF units, is especially focused on waging the global war on terrorism (War on Terror). The SFSG is therefore increasingly prepared for irregular and asymmetric combat, to operate on battlefields where battle lines are poorly defined and acting as ‘force multipliers’.

In addition, the SFSG provides specialised training support. SFSG members often perform training tasks, thus freeing up the SAS and SBS for direct combat missions. During the campaign in Afghanistan, the SFSG trained and mentored Afghan special forces and other troops. The SFSG also acts as a “hunter” force during the SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract) phase of UKSF Selection.

The SFSG also has a counter-terrorism (CT) trained rotating company group to support SAS or SBS squadrons on CT rotational duty. The unit also specialises in CBRN defence. This unit, part of the RAF Regiment, provides expertise and capability to military and civilian agencies in the detection and handling of CBRN weapons and materials.

(Source), (source)

4.0 Organisation

The SFSG is part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF), a directorate that manages the assigned joint capabilities of the three-armed services. The SFSG is under the operational command of the Director of Special Forces (DSF), a senior role (Major General or OF-7) within the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The DSF is also the head of the UKSF, which reports to the so-called Strategic Command (StratCom), formerly known as Joint Forces Command (JFC). They are governed by the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) which are located at Northwood Headquarters (source). 

The SFSG headquarters (HQ) is located at Churchill Lines, in MOD St Athan, Wales (source; source). Although the size of the unit is not public, the SFSG has between 600 and 800 operators (source). 

4.1 Components 

The SFSG consists of operators from the following units:

Parachute Regiment

The bulk of the SFSG consists of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA) (source). Paratroopers from the other two regular battalions, the 2nd and 3rd PARA, can apply to join the SFSG after two years of service (source). 

1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, British Army Pin Badge | eBay
Badge of the 1 PARA.

Royal Marines

The SFSG also counts on commandos from the Royal Marines. This is due to their considerable experience in maritime (e.g. amphibious) operations. There is at least a company of Royal Marines integrated into the SFSG. These Marines likely come from the Fleet Protection Group (FPGRM). Initially, the Marines formed their own company (F Coy). However, it is likely that they are now distributed throughout the other companies, that is, in A, B and C (source).

Badge of the Corps of Royal Marines (source)

RAF Regiment

The RAF Regiment has committed at least one flight, equivalent to a platoon (30 men), of RAF gunners from No.2 Squadron to SFSG. This platoon is part of B Company. The RAF Regiment contingent includes Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) in the Joint Strike Cell. These are forward air controllers to direct close air support. The Regiment has also assigned a CBRN unit to provide expertise and capability to military and civilian agencies in the detection and handling of chemical, biological and radiological/nuclear weapons, and materials. This regiment also provides Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) capabilities (source; source).

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RAF Regiment badge (source)

4.2 Order of Battle

There is no public order of battle of the SFSG (ORBAT). However, according to some open-source publications, it consists of:

  • Battalion Headquarters (BHQ)
  • Headquarters (HQ) Company (formerly D Company)
    • Quartermasters
    • Motor Transport Platoon (MT Platoon)
    • Regimental Administration Office (RAO)
    • Regiment Aid Post
    • Catering Platoon
  • Operational Readiness Wing;
    • General Training Cell: runs the ‘Unit Operator Cadre’ which trains new SFSG operatives to ‘SFSG Operator Qualification’ standardsCounter Terrorism (CT) CellCampaigns Training CellContingency Cell
    • Medical Support Detachment: Combat Medical Technicians (CMTs)
  • 3 Rifle (Strike) Companies: each strike company has 4 platoons (30 men each); before the redistribution of “F Coy”, 4 companies with 3 platoons each;
    • A Coy
    • B Coy
    • C Coy
    • (F Coy): old company manned by Royal Marines and now redistributed in the other companies
  • Support Company (S Coy): provides direct and indirect fire support to the SFSG Strike Companies;
    • Mortar Platoon (60 mm/81mm)
    • Direct Fire Platoon (heavy-weapons support): known before as fire support groups (x4) and part of “G Coy”
    • Joint Fire Cell (JFC): Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) tasked with calling in close air support
  • R Company (R Coy): relatively recent (2018) restructuring configured the unit as ISTAR and communications specialists;
    • Sniper Platoon: provides sniper teams to support other SFSG elements (before part of “G Coy”)
    • U Troop: reconnaissance
    • J6 Signals Platoon: signals detachments to other SFSG elements
    • J2 Intelligence Platoon: Intelligence Corps personnel attached to the SFSG provide operational intelligence

The SFSG is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5). The 1 PARA is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4), while companies are commanded by a Major (OF-3). 

(Source), (source)

SFSG parachutists
An SFSG operator free-fall parachute jumps from the rear of a United States MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter during training, c. 2014. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young (U.S. Navy).

4.3 Strike Companies

Similarly to other UKSF units, each of the four SFSG “Strike Companies” rotates in one of four six-month engagements:

Global Engagements (Operations)

The SFSG company assigned to this task consists of different sections or small teams that deploy to operations around the world. 

Extreme High Readiness

The SFSG company assigned to this task is part of the UK Counter Terrorism Task Force and responds to possible terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. SFSG operators undergo extensive close-quarter combat (CQB) training for this role.

Contingency

This SFSG company is on standby, prepared to deploy anywhere in the world in response to a crisis.

Training

It is the only SFSG company that is not in operations or contingency engagements. It undergoes extensive Pre-Deployment Training (PDT) to maintain its capabilities and prepare for its next mission.

(Source), (source)

5.0 Recruitment and Training

The SFSG’s selection process is different from that of other UKSF units. SFSG candidates must pass the entrance examinations for each of their units. On the other hand, the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment follow the UK Special Forces Joint Selection (UKSFJS). 

SAS and SBS personnel undergo selection up to the award of a sand-coloured beret to SAS personnel, after which SBS candidates undergo further selection to qualify as canoe swimmers, and SAS personnel undergo additional specialist training. SRR candidates go through the aptitude phase, before receiving their specialised training in covert surveillance and reconnaissance (source).

Members of the SFSG retain the cap badges of their parent units but also wear the SFSG insignia.

5.1 Selection and Training

The  SFSG counts with personnel from the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment and the RAF Regiment. However, it is also open to all personnel in the UK´s Armed Forces who have passed the following courses:

  • The All-Arms Commando Course (AACC), delivered by the Royal Marines; or
  • The All-Arms Pre-Parachute Selection (AAPPS or P-Company/Pegasus) course, delivered by the Parachute Regiment; or
  • The Royal Air Force Pre-Parachute Selection course, delivered by the No.2 Squadron, RAF Regiment.

Army personnel can apply to join straight from the AAPPS course irrespective of regimental affiliation. Recruits from the Royal Marines undergo a selection process run by the Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines (FPGRM).

Qualified personnel are then equipped and provided with additional training to fit their specific specialist role on joining the SFSG. Members of the SFSG retain the cap badges of their parent units but also wear the SFSG insignia.

(Source; source)

Royal Marines Commando Course

The Royal Marines (RM) has one of the longest recruit infantry courses in the world at 32 weeks. The RM trains at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) in Devon. The RM course consists of three stages:

  • Stage 1: Commando Conditioning Course / Pre-Commando Package (PCP) (4 weeks)
    • Focused on physical fitness and robustness, military skills and Bottom Field Assault Course techniques.
  • Stage 2: Pre-Commando Course (5 weeks)
    • Provides basic skills and ensures that candidates are at an adequate standard of fitness and preparedness to commence the AACC.
  • Stage 3: All Arms Commando Course (AACC) (8 weeks)
    • Phase 1: Infantry Skills (4 weeks)
      • RM Basic Fitness Test
      • Weapon Handling tests (WHT)
      • Multi-Stage Fitness Test (MSFT)
      • 30ft Rope Climb
      • Pass Combat Fitness Test (CFT)
    • Phase 2: Commando Phase (4 weeks)
      • Speed March
      • Endurance Test
      • Assault Course
      • Cross-country March 

Those who complete the course receive the coveted green beret and the distinctive Commando flash. They are also eligible for service within the 3 Commando Brigade and other Commando units. 

(Source)

Parachute Regiment Selection

Pegasus Company (P Company or P Coy) is a training and selection organisation of the British Armed Forces. P Coy runs the “Pre-Parachute Selection” (PPS) course for Parachute Regiment recruits that concludes with the AAPPS. This course consists of two distinct stages, the first one divided into three blocks:

  • Stage 1:
    • Block 1: Strength, Conditioning and Familiarization Course (2.5 weeks)
      • Unit Preparation Course designed to provide aspirants with an insight into life and training with airborne forces.
    • Block 2: Physical and Mental Development Course (2.5 weeks)
      • Prepares candidates for sustained physical training.
    • Block 3: P Coy (Pre-Parachute Selection or AAPPS) Course (3.5 weeks)
      • Phase 1: Screening (Combat Fitness, Trainasium and Basic Fitness Assessment).
      • Phase 2: Build-Up (Physical Development and Military Skills package).
      • Phase 3: Test Week.
  • Stage 2: Basic Parachuting Course (BPC) (2 to 3 weeks).
    • Only for those who have completed the Pre-Parachute Selection, Royal Marines and UKSF Selection courses.

Despite the SFSG drawing personnel from the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA), paratroopers from the other two regular battalions, the 2nd and 3rd PARA, can join after two years of service. This is because the basic skills required to serve in 1 PARA are gained during the initial training and during their time in 2 and 3 PARA. Soldiers receive further training on additional weapons, communications equipment and specialist assault skills.

(Source), (source), (source)

RAF Pre-Parachute Selection

Members of the No.2 Squadron must pass the RAF Pre-Parachute Selection (RAF PPS) course. This is not the same as the AAPPS (P-Coy) delivered by the Parachute Regiment. After candidates complete the RAF PPS course, they attend the Basic Parachute Course (BPC) at RAF Brize Norton. To qualify as a military parachutist, recruits must complete a minimum of eight jumps.

(Source), (source)

SFSG operator armed with a bayonet during the inaugural Special Forces Support Group parade at RAF St Athan, Wales, Thursday 11 May 2006.

6.0 Equipment

Apart from the standard range of weapons used by the British Army, SFSG men have access to a wider selection of firearms and other weapons than the average British soldier. This includes: 

6.1 Weapons

Guns

  • Sig Sauer P226
  • Glock 17(T) /19; local denomination L131A1/L132A1 and L137A1

Rifles

  • C8 Carbine; local denomination L119A1/A2 (source)
  • HK417

Sniper Rifles

  • Accuracy International AWM; local denomination L115A3/A4
  • Accuracy International AX50

Others

  • Arwen 37 (tear gas canister launcher)
  • Flash-Bang (stun grenade)
  • ACOG Sights (rifle scope)
  • AN/PEQ-2 (laser attachment)
  • Laser Target Designators (LTD)
  • Personal Role Radio (PRR)
  • FIST Thermal Sight (FTS)

(Source), (source), (source)

SFSG - Marksman
U.S. military-released photo showing an SFSG marksman disembarking a U.S. Marines CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter following a joint US/UK/Afghani operation in Helmand Province, 2013. The SFSG soldier is wearing a Crye MultiCam uniform and is armed with a HK417 7.62x51mm rifle. 

6.2 Personal Equipment

Not much information is available on the personal equipment of its operators except for photos:

Helmet

UKSF forces use the Ops-Core Future Assault Shell Technology (FAST) helmet, also known as the FAST helmet (source).

Combat body armour

The UKSF likely use the combat ballistic/plate-carrying body armour C2R CBAV (Commando Ballistic Armour Vest), which forms the core of the Modular Commando Assault System (source).

Uniforms

As part of the Future Commando Force program, the standard uniform for the Royal Marines since 2020 is the standard Crye Precision design with a MultiCam camouflage pattern. It replaces the Multi-Terrain Pattern Personal Clothing System uniform, which continues in use by the rest of the British Armed Forces (source).

6.3 Vehicles

The SFSG uses Jackal or MWMIK (Mobility Weapon-Mounted Installation Kit) vehicles from Supacat Ltd. These vehicles are excellent for the unit given their role in reconnaissance, rapid assault, and fire support.

special forces support group - jackal mwmik
A SFSG Jackal (MWMIK) 4×4 vehicle mounted with a .50 HMG and 7.62mm GPMG.

7.0 Notable Operations 

In the last decade, the SFSG and other British special forces have been involved in covert operations in 19 countries. Due to the secret nature of its mission, its activity inside and outside the country is rarely public. The SFSG has been particularly active in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Imagen que contiene Mapa

Iraq

The SFSG deployed in Iraq, with one company integrated into US-led Task Force 145 (TF-145). TF-145, later renamed TF-88, engaged in Iraq and was responsible for tracking and hunting down senior Al Qaeda officials (source).

The British element of TF-88 consisted of 1 SAS Squadron (“Task Force Black”), a company of SFSG (“Task Force Maroon”), plus associated UKSF support units such as the SRR and 18 UKSF Signals. The SFSG operated as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and security screen for SAS operations (source; source). 

The SFSG also supported the SAS operation to free British peace activist Norman Kember. He was kidnapped by the Iraqui criminal organisation “Swords of Righteousness Brigade” (source).

Afghanistan

On 9 September 2009, the Special Boat Service, supported by the SFSG, rescued Stephen Farrell, a journalist captured and held by Taliban insurgents in Char Dara District, Kunduz Province (source).

The SFSG deployed in Afghanistan, with a company supporting SBS and SRR as part of Operation Kindle, the UKSF deployment to Afghanistan (known as Task Force 42). The SFSG also participated alongside the SBS in Operation Medusa in September 2006. This was a joint assault against Taliban forces in Afghanistan’s strategically important Panjwai district. SBS and SFSG played key roles in the organised attacks, acting as both attacking forces (SBS) and cutting groups (SFSG) (source).

In late August 2009, SFSG troops supported an SBS raid on a Taliban bomb factory in Helmand Province. The SFSG conducted diversionary attacks during this operation (source).

Reports indicate that the SFSG trained Afghan troops for several years. In 2013, the SFSG worked with the elite Afghan commando unit, Task Force 444, across Helmand province. SFSG A Company spent six months conducting several raids against the Taliban, including raiding Taliban bomb-makers and targeting insurgent supply lines (source).

8.0 Summary

The SFSG emerged during a period of reform of the British Special Forces. This reflection by British policymakers culminated in the creation of this unit, which was intended to be a small but well-trained and highly mobile assault and reconnaissance force. The SFSG was specifically designed to provide extensive support to other special forces units, both at home and abroad. Its success has led the UK authorities to see it as a useful tool to be deployed rapidly and safely around the globe. In the context of the war on terror, the SFSG is now adept at responding to the threat of terrorism. 

The SFSG is therefore a lethal and flexible force on the battlefield, serving as an indispensable spearhead support to the elite units of the British Armed Forces. Its history, training and weaponry make the unit highly effective and efficient in its tasks. As a result, it is entrusted with the most dangerous and sensitive missions by the British military and political authorities. In an increasingly hostile world, and given the continuing need to respond to threats, the SFSG is more than likely to play an important role wherever British and allied interests lie.

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