The Special Duties Unit (SDU): The Flying Tigers of Hong Kong

1.0 Introduction

The Special Duties Unit (SDU) nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’ is the most elite unit of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF). In the absence of a military, the SDU is tasked with tackling the most dangerous threats facing the special administrative region. Founded in 1974 and trained alongside the British SAS, SBS, German GSG9 and US Navy SEALs. The unit was created in response to the rise of international terrorism (Source) (Source). As a tactical intervention unit, their duties include responses to terror attacks, hostage situations, armed criminal activity (Source), VIP protection and reconnaissance (Source). They have also been seen engaging in public order policing and maritime security. The unit operates across Hong Kong via land, sea, and air.

Special Duties Unit Assault Team operators in shoot house, likely taken in the 1970’s.

2.0 Context, History, Motto, and Emblems

2.1 Context

A major concern at the time of the Special Duties Unit creation was international terrorism. In 1971 a Philippine airline was hijacked on its way to Hong Kong. Although the situation was resolved without violence, the lack of capability to deal with such a threat concerned the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (Source). The next year, 1972 saw the Munich Massacre and the Israeli Bangkok Embassy hostage crisis. The Hong Kong government then understood the likelihood of a similar attack on the territory and adopted a policy of ensuring that all efforts would be made to bring terrorists to trial. However, deadly force would be applied where necessary. This led the RHKPF to start the development of their own counter-terrorist capability in the form of the Special Duties Unit (Source).

As a British overseas territory at the time, the threat of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) attack was a possibility (Source). Potentially similar to the events that unfolded in Gibraltar in 1988. After the handover, threats later included possible attacks from Xinjiang separatists (Source).

Today, Hong Kong is a major logistical hub for Asia Pacific. The International Airport is the 2nd busiest cargo facility in the region and the Hong Kong container port is the 8th busiest in the world (Source). It is also the world’s 4th largest financial centre (Source). Terrorist disruption of these sectors could cause major economic implications in the region.

2.2 History

The Special Duties Unit (SDU) was formed in 1974. The unit’s nickname is the ‘Flying Tigers’, which refers to their aerial techniques like fast roping and abseiling which the SDU is synonymous (Source). Originally called the ‘Sharpshooter Team’ (Source), SAS trainers were impressed but observed that it functioned similarly to a military field unit. In 1978 they undertook anti-terror training from the SAS to give them the same scalpel approach. (Source). From there, the unit’s skill set has only expanded, training alongside some of the world’s most elite forces.

2.3 Motto

The SDU motto is ‘Strength, Discipline, Unity’, mirroring the unit’s acronym.

2.4 Emblems

The current emblem used by the SDU depicts a tiger’s head accompanied by two wings in reference to the unit’s nickname (Source). Tigers in Chinese culture symbolise power, bravery and are the subject of awe and fear (Source).

The previous emblem shows an operator in identical equipment to that used by the SAS during the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege. Early SDU equipment and doctrine were very similar to the SAS due to being modelled after the unit. The emblem was likely changed after the handover to minimise association with the UK.

The SDU, now disbanded Water Team patch.

3.0 Missions, Structure, Selection and Pop Culture

3.1 Missions

3.1.1 Counter-Terrorism and Hostage Rescue

The SDU was primarily built as a response  to  counter-terrorism. However, this now heavily overlaps with the Counter Terrorism Response Unit (CTRU). Established in 2009, the CTRU focuses more on the protection of critical infrastructure, sensitive premises, patrols, CBRN and preparedness workshops (Source) (Source). Many of these responsibilities were previously held by the SDU (Source).

Today, the SDU’s specific counter-terrorism responsibilities appear to be on alert 24/7 to prevent and respond to high-level threats anywhere across Hong Kong, such as hijackings, hostage scenarios and organised attacks (Source). Similar to the SAS when on counter-terrorism duties (Source). Hostage-takings were a particular focus in the early days of SDU training as such acts were common during the rise of international terrorism (Source).

3.1.2 Organised Crime

Hong Kong has a long history of organised crime. Triads have a large presence and include groups such as 14K, Sun Yee On and The Big Circle Gang.

Hong Kong along with Macau serve as primary transit points for human trafficking in China, and is one of the most pressing issues mainland law enforcement faces (Source). Hong Kong is currently listed as a tier 2 country on the matter in the US 2023 report on ‘Trafficking in Persons’ (Source).

As a financial hub in the region, Hong Kong is also at relatively high risk of money laundering generated by fraud, drug trafficking, corruption and tax evasion (Source). The SDU may participate in operations against organised crime threats in support of investigative units in the HKPF.

Violent crime involving firearms is rare in Hong Kong but still a possibility (Source). When the SDU raided Hong Kong’s previously most wanted, Kwai Ping-hung in 2003, they made one of the HKPF’s largest arms seizures (Source).

3.1.3 Public Order Policing and Major Event Security

Being a part of the HKPF Police Tactical Unit, the SDU can be tasked with public order policing and security during major events or incidents (Source). These events have included the 2006 World Trade Organisation Sixth Ministerial Conference (Source), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2018 Handover 20th Anniversary visit (Source), and the 2019-2020 anti-extradition protests.

3.1.4 VIP Protection

As well as providing protection for Chinese mainland state figures during visits, the SDU also takes note of ‘key people’. Hong Kong is host to a large community of diplomats (Source). Further, it is also the home of a high number of wealthy individuals. With 66 billionaires (Source) and at least 434,000 multimillionaires (Source), who could be targets of extortion and kidnappings.

The SDU trains alongside the VIP Protection Unit (VIPPU) (Source). The VIPPU was also present at the 2006 WTO conference with the SDU (Source).

3.1.5 Reconnaissance

In Jack Humphreys’ book “Bomban”, he discusses how during his SDU training, candidates were given solo reconnaissance missions. This included recce of various sites, infiltrating sensitive locations and interviewing a high-profile individual (Source). This appears to test candidates’ abilities to improvise, gather intelligence and operate undercover. It is unlikely the SDU would further acknowledge this aspect of their operations.

3.1.6 Maritime Activities

In 1982, the British Special Boat Service’s (SBS) Counter-Terrorism M Squadron trained the SDU in maritime security capabilities (Source). The SDU has since been seen conducting patrols, underwater searches and demonstrating visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) capabilities via boat and helicopter on exercises and in HKPF promotional films (Source).

Also, the SDU has assisted in the rescue of civilians from regions that experienced severe flooding in 2001 (Source).

Special Duties Unit operators conducting underwater search, 2017.

3.2 Structure

The Special Duties Unit is based within the Police Tactical Unit (PTU), of the HKPF A Department, also known as the Operations Wing (Source). The PTU functions as a readiness unit and is also in charge of training the HKPF to deal with a variety of situations.

Operations Section:

– Assault Teams A & B
– Sniper Team

Training and Support Section:

– Training Group
– Counter-Terrorism Boat Team
– Medical Support Team

Administrative Section

– Administration and intelligence analysis centre
– Armoury
– Land Transportation Team

3.3 Recruitment and Selection

3.3.1 Eligibility

As of 2014, the unit had only ever had 380 operators with 100 of them active at the time (Source).

SDU candidates are volunteers and apply directly for a role within the unit. Applications are open to both men and women, but so far there have been no known female operators (Source). Applicants must have been in the HKPF for at least 3 years with a good service record, have received PTU training at their current rank, have a high level of fitness, have good eyesight (contact lenses allowed) and not smoke (Source).

Under the previous administration, citizens of British territories and commonwealth nations could apply for roles in the SDU. This also includes Gurkhas, similar to the current UK armed forces nationality requirements (Source). Inspectorate Team Leaders were often British expats in the unit’s early days (Source). After the handover, it can be assumed that applications are now only open to Hong Kong citizens and those with the right of abode.

3.3.2 Hell Week

After passing basic selection, candidates undergo a week-long advanced selection, often referred to as “Hell Week”. Like UK special forces selection, very little is actually known about the activities involved. Nothing is announced in advance, meaning candidates cannot prepare. Candidates may only get 20 hours of sleep over the course of the week. An instructor of the SDU described getting hypothermia during his 2003 advanced selection while participating in a long-distance swimming test in the sea (Source).

Special Duties Unit operator takes on assault course and range exercise in full kit, 2022.

3.3.3 SDU Training and Counter-Terrorism Course

The top 25% highest performing candidates will then go on to begin Special Duties Unit basic training (Source). Basic training is 3 months long and then followed up by an additional 6-month advanced counter-terrorism training course (Source). Candidates at one point had to sign a disclaimer, agreeing to participate while acknowledging that casualty rates during training could reach 20% (Source). Severe injuries and death have been recorded through accidents relating to firearms, health conditions and advanced training exercises (Source) (Source).

3.3.4 Final Selection

Once training is complete, only candidates with “outstanding performance” are eligible to join the SDU (Source). Unsuccessful candidates may go on to join other units such as the Counter-Terrorism Response Unit (CTRU), Airport Security Unit (ASU) or Railway Response Unit (RRU).

Special Duties Unit operator and instructor at the Police Tactical Unit Headquarters, 2022.

4.0 Weapons, Equipment and Vehicles

4.1 Small Arms

  • Assault Rifle – SIG Sauer 516
  • Submachine Gun – H&K MP5
  • Sidearm – Glock 19
  • Sniper Rifle – Accuracy International AS5

4.2 Equipment

  • Uniform – Crye Precision Multicam Tropic G3 Combat Shirt and Pants
  • Helmet – Gentex Ops-Core Future Assault Shell Technology (FAST)
  • Night Vision – DTNVG-14
  • Ear Protection – 3M Peltor COMTAC XPI
  • Eye Protection – Pyramex I-Force Slim
  • Gas Mask – Scott First Responder Respirator (FRR)
  • Plate Carrier – Crye Precision Jumpable Plate Carrier 2.0
  • Holster – Safariland 6004
  • Dogs – Belgian Shepards (Source)

4.3 Vehicles

  • Airbus H175 Cheetah Helicopter, operated by the Government Flying Service (Source) 
  • Mercedes-Benz – G 350 (W463) (Source)
  • Mercedes-Benz – Armoured UNIMOG U5000 (Source)
  • Jankel – Guardian Tactical Intervention Vehicle (Source)
  • Huakai Vehicles – Saber-Toothed Tiger (Source)
  • RIB 55 Interceptor (Source)
Special Duties Unit operators apprehending suspect during counter-terrorism demonstration at the Hong Kong International Airport, 2021.

5.0 Notable Operations

Special Duties Unit operations are highly secretive, with nearly none of them having been acknowledged publicly (Source). As of 2014 the unit had participated in 162 operations and conducted 335 underwater searches (Source). Some of their most public operations are as follows.

5.2 1990’s Crime Wave

The SDU were deployed to combat a number of organised robberies of banks and jewellery stores. Suspects wielded AK47s in multiple shootouts with police (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source).

5.3 Arrest of Kwai Ping-hung 2003

Kwai Ping-hung, at the time Hong Kong’s most wanted, was arrested on Christmas Eve of 2003. SDU operators did not fire a single shot during the raid and caught Ping-hung sleeping. The raid resulted in the biggest seizure of firearms in 30 years, this included shotguns, pistols, grenades and nearly 900 rounds of ammunition (Source)

5.4 Kai Ching Estate Standoff 2014

Li Deren, 51, a resident of the Kai Ching estate had a history of violent behaviour towards his neighbours. On the 31st of May, 2014, Deren shot one of his neighbours three times and killing him. After police cordoned off the area and located the suspect, they were fired upon twice by Deren. He then proceeded to climb out of the building’s window and hold a gun to his head before returning inside (Source). The SDU was then deployed to apprehend Deren. SDU operators were seen abseiling down the side of the building to his apartment (Source). After officers made entry to the apartment, Deren was found to have committed suicide. A search of his apartment resulted in the seizure of 3 firearms and ammunition. This is likely the most high profile appearance the SDU has made with the event unfolding on live news coverage.

5.5 2019 – 2020 Anti-Extradition Protests / Operation TIDERIDER

The SDU was most visible during Operation ‘TIDERIDER’ (Source), when they were deployed as part of the Special Tactical Contingent (STC) (Source) (Source). Nicknamed ‘Raptors’ by the public, they are identifiable by:  

  • Dark blue uniforms
  • Black tactical gear 
  • Ops-Core FAST Bump Helmets 
  • Live ammunition weapons 

(Source) (Source)

Some images show SDU members operating within the STC wearing the SDU tiger and wings patch (Source)

Parts of the press also alleged that members of the SDU were operating undercover in plain clothes, as protestors (Source).

Special Duties Unit operators during maritime exercise, 2022.

6.0 The Future of the Special Duties Unit

6.1 One Country Two Systems

After the process of “one country, two systems” is complete in 2047, Hong Kong may be fully absorbed into the political system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the PRC is open to extending the special status of Hong Kong and Macau (Source). This is likely due to the economic benefits the current system allows (Source). China could also implement it again in Taiwan if the PRC is eventually successful in taking control of the island (Source).

In the case that “one country, two systems” does come to an end in Hong Kong, it is likely the HKPF would be absorbed into the PRC People’s Police. The SDU would also likely become a People’s Armed Police, Local Special Police Unit (SPU). Similar to Beijing’s “Snow Leopard Commando Unit” (Source). Beijing’s SWAT (formed in the 1980s) helicopter unit has even been nicknamed the “Flying Tigers” (Source), possibly showing how influential the Special Duties Unit’s advanced tactics and training have been in the region.

6.2 The National Security Law and the PLA Hong Kong Garrison

From a security perspective, there seems to be little reason to change the arrangements in Hong Kong. The special administrative region is largely unaffected by national threats to the PRC. The implementation of Hong Kong’s “National Security Law” has only strengthened the government’s ability to crack down on political dissent against the PRC (Source). Further, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a garrison in Hong Kong since the handover. Currently led by the previous chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police Corps in Xinjiang (Source). Which can be deployed under the authority of the PRC National People’s Congress if a situation is deemed beyond the Hong Kong government’s control (Source).

6.3 Conclusion

Overall, it appears Hong Kong’s security apparatus is unlikely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future. The Special Duties Unit will likely remain in its current form. The HKPF has cultivated a highly capable tactical intervention unit that is well-equipped and maintains a high level of readiness.

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