The number of elite troops in Britain’s military is potentially too low to combat the threat posed by Russia, China and terrorism, defense experts have warned.
Commanders fear regiments such as the SAS may be unable to participate in future covert operations, with one former military officer blaming Government cuts for leaving Special Forces – which are ‘vital to the security of the nation’ – short of personnel.
The concerns come amid renewed fears about the level of investment in defence and claims that the Armed Forces have been hollowed out. Although a funding increase of £11 billion over the next five years was announced in last week’s Budget, the figure is still short of Government targets to spend three per cent of the GDP on the sector by 2030.
The SAS, SBS and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, which make up the main units of the UK Special Forces Group (UKSF), are currently believed to be only about 65 to 70 per cent staffed.
Lieutenant Colonel Philip Ingram, a former military intelligence officer and Nato planner, urged Whitehall not to ignore commanders’ fears.
He said: ‘The Special Forces are vital to the security of the nation, so the fact that they are short of personnel should be very worrying.
‘With a smaller military, it makes it much harder to find sufficient personnel with the right skills and mentality to attempt Special Forces Selection.
‘Recruiting and training enough people for Special Forces has always been a challenge, made worse by the intense operational tempo which has a detrimental effect on retention.’
The SAS and SBS have been on continuous operations since the first Gulf War. They also took part in the Balkans conflict and Kosovo campaign and have been deployed in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan.
But such operations take a huge physical and mental toll, and at least 12 personnel are known to have died in recent conflicts.
Members of the UKSF have supported MI6 officers on operations around the world, most recently in Syria, where they helped British spies establish agent networks.
The Special Forces run selection courses twice a year with about 100 hopefuls attending each six-month course. The pass rate is usually lower than ten per cent, but there have been times when no one has made the grade.
Another senior officer said: ‘The Special Forces play a direct role in counter-terrorism. They assist both MI6 and MI5 officers in the field and they have to undertake their own training – the workload is huge.’
A Defence spokesman said: ‘It is the long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment on Special Forces.’
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