The New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) is proof that elite Special operations units exist beyond the ones commonly associated with that designator. DEVGRU, Delta Force, SAC, British Special Air Service (SAS): the usual suspects that often come to mind, that the public assumes handle the most sensitive unconventional missions around the world.
The New Zealand Special Air Service stays relatively under the radar as far as media attention goes, which isn’t the worst thing for that line of work. Behind the shadows of the NZSAS lies a fascinating origin story, and a rather unknown legacy shaped by participation in international special operations.
Long Range Desert Group
World War II was a breeding ground for the prototypes of modern-day special operations units. That includes the New Zealand Special Air Service, along with its close relative, the British SAS. North Africa was contested in WW2, with Italy the predominant Axis occupier, and the British as their primary belligerent. The relentless open desert and scorching dry heat posed new challenges to military personnel. This is particularly true for intelligence gathering and the undetected deep infiltration of enemy lines.
Special circumstances called for the raising of a new unit to tackle that problem, and thus the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) birthed in June 1940. The unit was inititally under the command of British Maj. Ralph Bagnold. Bagnold had experience navigating through the desert in the 1920s and 1930s, during the gap between the two Great Wars. His experience and personal character made him a prime candidate to spearhead the LRDG, which shaped into a unique force.
The unit specialised in “long-range reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, direct action, and infiltration and exfiltration of other special-operations units.” The LRDG would therefore form the basis of the modern New Zealand Special Air Service.
In the post-war era, 1955, the New Zealand Army used the experienced soldiers from the LRDG and similar operations to form what would eventually become the New Zealand Special Air Service to model their commonwealth partners in the British SAS.
The service conducted operations in Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Malaya, East Timor, and Vietnam, as well as Kuwait, Papua New Guinea, and most recently Afghanistan.
The process of selection for the modern New Zealand Special Air Service does not digress from its high tier counterparts. Therefore, attrition rates in selection are astronomically low; between 2013-2017, 243 candidates attempted selection. However, only 31 made it to the next stage.
The selection process include rigorous physical and mental exercises, all with minimal sleep and nutrition, and conducted in various terrains. Being in prime physical shape is a requirement, but possessing a sound mind that shows a genuine desire to be a part of the NZSAS is the ultimate deciding factor for candidates. The ability to work on a team is a requirement, and peer evaluations help identity those who miss the mark.
Candidates who make it past selection have only just begun the long training pipeline. Following completion, new operators receive the prestigious title and uniform designators possessed by all NZASA operators. Initial training takes a minimum of four months, with further specialised training courses taken depending on placement. The pipeline itself is, like many other aspects of the branch, a mirrored version of similar units. It includes:
- Any other skills required to conduct special operations missions
Units within the New Zealand Special Air Service have diversity in skill sets yet operate underneath the umbrella of a few specific core tasks.
- Special Reconnaissance – like their origins with the LRDG, special reconnaissance tasks require units to conduct operations deep behind enemy lines, with minimal support and facing austere and potentially volatile conditions.
- Direct Action – direct action tasks are some of the more straightforward types of special operations, such as conducting raids on maritime vessels, or search and rescue operations.
- Combating Terrorism – counterterrorism for NZSAS personnel means partnering with other national government forces, especially in the light of a active terrorist threat
- Support and Influence – support and influence operations are like the work conducted by United States Green Berets. They can task NZSAS personnel with the support and training of host nation defence forces and developing their internal security programs.
The force is small, which is reflected in their basic unit breakdown.
- A&B Squadron – these are the two primary special forces squadrons underneath the NZSAS organizational structure. Personnel within the units are the primary operators, who assist in the planning and execution of missions within the core task fields.
- D Squadron (Commando Squadron) – counterterrorism is the bread and butter of D squadron – specifically within New Zealand and its surrounding territories. Commandos go through a specialized selection catered to their unit mission, followed by a four-month long training pipeline that focuses on cultivating skills, including:
- close quarters combat
- tactical insertion over multiple types of terrain
- intelligence/reconnaissance gathering.
- E Squadron (Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squadron) – Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) operators in E Squadron are not required to complete the same rigorous selection process as the other tactical personnel, but still must complete a highly shortened version called Special Operations Forces Induction Course (SOFIC). The course teaches basic skills to mesh EOD techs with their counterparts. The core tasks of E Squadron mirror other EOD units across the world.
- Support Squadron – special operations cannot be completed without logistical, administrative, and other forms of support. That is where Support Squadron comes in. Personnel in this Squadron must complete SOFIC, and deploy with the other units, albeit in their own specialized support capacity.
Female Engagement Team
The Female Engagement Team (FEM) was established in 2017 to support Special Operations Force Objectives. The unit works closely with the NZSAS to provide operational support where it would be culturally more appropriate for female rather than male operatives to work. As a result, the operatives in this unit receive much of the similar training to other units, as well as training in regional culture, communication skills, and reconnaissance.
2021 Afghanistan Evacuation
The New Zealand Special Air Service’s most recent activity was in the 2021 extraction of NATO forces from Kabul, Afghanistan. According to a press release from the New Zealand defence department,
“The safe passage of hundreds of evacuees from Afghanistan was made possible by an elite group of New Zealand soldiers who used code words and tactical landmarks to assist their efforts in an attempt to avoid chaotic and dangerous scenes… The turbulent and dangerous environment saw Special Forces troops, including the Female Engagement Team, move deep into the security area designated around HKIA, at times utilising a canal, to reach those they had been sent to help, guiding them through the crowds to points on the perimeter where they could be brought into the airport, secured, and safely evacuated.”
Afghanistan was once the home to a selection of NATO nations, as part of the US-led war campaign. New Zealand had a presence there, and the NZSAS conducted operations to support the overarching global mission. For example, Operation Burnham was one of such.
A detachment of Kiwi operators conducted a planned night raid in the Tirgiran Valley, in October 2010. In the aftermath, around seven Afghan nationals and one girl were killed. The caveat is that they did not confirm the Afghan KIA to have been insurgents, and then later covered up the results of the raid, including the death of the young girl. Subsequently, a cover-up from the command and other details led to an eventual investigation and report.
Owing to its success as a Special Forces Unit, the NZSAS and its operatives are highly decorated. The unit has received numerous honours. Notably, the Governor-General of New Zealand awarded Corporal Willie Apiata with the Victoria Cross for New Zealand in 2007. Similarly, the unit received a Presidential Unit Citation for its contribution to Task Force K-BAR as part of the War in Afghanistan from 2001.
The NZSAS is an experienced Special Forces unit that has experience in unconventional warfare and all manner of intelligence tradecraft. The unit continues to work closely with other international Special Forces to achieve its strategic objectives.
This artcile was written by Abbi Clarck and Michael Ellmer