The invisible army

March 30th, 2006  

Topic: The invisible army

The rescue of Norman Kember highlighted the role of the Special Services in Iraq - soldiers the public rarely sees, but who are key to the UK's military might, says military historian Peter Caddick-Adams.

We've had a steady drip-feed of bad news from Iraq.

On 31 January the 100th British serviceman, Corporal Gordon Pritchard, 31, died in a blast in Umm Qasr, Basra province, and then there was the video of UK troops appearing to bully and abuse Iraqi civilians, released in February.

Other service personnel - reassuringly few for the more than 90,000 who served there - have been found guilty of prisoner abuse and there are more cases pending.

Hostages have been taken and in the case of Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan, ruthlessly and brutally murdered in October and November 2004.

So the release of 74-year-old Norman Kember by Coalition Special Forces in the early hours of last Thursday morning was very welcome indeed.

Cutting edge

Although their American colleague Tom Fox, 54, had been murdered earlier, Kember and his two Canadian friends - James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, from a Christian Peacemaker Team - were rescued alive, bringing to an end their 117 days of captivity.

They were found after a lucky break in the shadow war that is conducted 24/7 throughout Iraq by Coalition troops, intelligence operatives and analysts. The release of Kember and his colleagues provides us with a rare glimpse of the way the British military conducts much of its business in the 21st Century.

There was a time when British military might or capability was measured in terms of battleships. This practice was triggered exactly 100 years ago, with the launch of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought.

Everything about Dreadnought was new: the steam turbines which gave her an unprecedented 21 knots; the 12-inch guns twin-mounted in revolving turrets; even the speed with which she was completed.

Launched by Edward VII in February 1906 and ready for trials that October, Dreadnought represented the cutting edge in naval technology, so much so that every nation wanted several and a dreadnought race began.

Earlier vessels became known as pre-dreadnoughts and decades later, the American big-gun battleships that operated in the first Gulf War in 1991 were still known as dreadnoughts.

Today, military might is not measured in battleships or submarines, carriers, tanks, aircraft or missiles, although silhouettes of all of these have featured at some time in books comparing the world's armed forces.


We have moved on to measuring strength in terms of capability. The key capability that Britain possesses at the dawn of the 21st Century, and which absorbs a huge proportion of the annual military budget, is the UK's Special Forces.

Best known are the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) Regiments, who the Guardian newspaper estimates at about 1,000 in total. Others include specialist combat troops from the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment, SAS-trained support troops, Intelligence Corps personnel and the civilian security service community who work with the military, for example, MI6 and GCHQ.

This relatively new intermingling of the civilian and military Special Forces is called the multi-agency approach in military circles. All are highly skilled and supported by some of the best equipment and technology that money can buy.

Reading American war memoirs from the recent Gulf War - there are no British ones out yet - it is apparent that the front line in Baghdad, and presumably Basra, was awash with these figures during 2003. These books tell us that Americans call these civilians serving alongside military units Other Government Agencies (OGAs).

Although some former SAS men like Andy McNab have argued for more openness, the Ministry of Defence are routinely tight-lipped about anything to do with Special Forces and never comment on their day-to-day activities.

The recent public resignation of former SAS trooper, Ben Griffin, 28, who refused to return to Iraq and has now joined the anti-war lobby, reminds us of their presence in the Gulf.

Shadowy figures

Nevertheless, Kember's release gives us a rare glimpse into their current role in Baghdad and helps us to assess whether they are value for money or a secret and unaccountable growing menace to civil liberty.

Figures are hard to come by, but currently Special Forces spending may be as high as 2m per soldier invested in the SAS and SBS, according to the Scotsman newspaper. The Single Intelligence Vote (SIV), which is the budget provision for all three security and intelligence agencies, is over 1bn - we know that in 1997/8 it totalled 701 million - though this includes all the domestic services, such as MI5, as well.

For all the millions spent on them, the UK's Special Forces and their intelligence colleagues are what experts call a great "force-multiplier". A Challenger 2 tank costs 3.7m, a Royal Air Force Harrier GR7 jet 12.5m and a Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer 314m.

Critics will have their own view of how these sums could be otherwise employed, but defence analysts argue that the Special Forces offer cost-effective strategic solutions for a tactical price.

Although we spend lots on these shadowy figures, their story can never be told for real and understandable reasons of operational secrecy, but they are in many ways unsung heroes. Recognition and medals rarely come to them, so what do they actually do?

Apparently, Kember's release came partly through the chance arrest of a suspect, a quick and very skilled interrogation and - using already-known intelligence data - the launch of a long planned and finely honed hostage-busting mission just three hours later. Not a series of events usually associated with battle group infantry soldiers. This was the fusion of the best counter-terrorist expertise in the world.

Some, with their exceptional language skills, often working in pairs and in great danger, will have mingled on the streets, picking up information that analysts turn into intelligence. Back at base, linguists question the suspects brought in.


Only they can piece together what they learn and fit seemingly innocent facts into an overall picture. Often the suspects are released without realising they have divulged anything at all. Others mount long surveillance missions from squalid hides, hardly moving for weeks on end, watching suspects and those they meet.

There are those at the sharp end of Special Forces combat, bursting in on hostages like Kember or attacking terrorists before they can explode a device. They are superbly fit and operate by instinct - we are told that Kember's release took just two minutes.

Elsewhere, working in a variety of languages - but rarely English - colleagues listen over the airwaves for significant broadcasts, monitor mobile phone conversations or e-mail chat rooms for hours on end. The most mind-numbing of tasks, often sustained by sheer will-power, caffeine and tobacco, yet a vital contribution and a rare skill. How many of us can understand a technical discussion on bomb making at four in the morning, delivered in an obscure Arab dialect?

Together, they amount to under 5% of the 8,000-strong total British force in Iraq, according to the US analysts Rand, yet this is how the real war is being won. Yes, the visible side of Britain's military effort are those soldiers in their desert camouflage uniforms, patrolling the streets - if possible in berets and without sunglasses hiding their eyes (a vital sign of trust in the Arab world), chatting to the locals as much as possible.

In some provinces there's real trust, in Basra, for example. Yet in other British-run areas trouble persists. There isn't a shooting or explosion every day in the British sectors and in some ways 100 lives in an extraordinarily low figure - none the less regrettable - for three years of military operations in a hostile environment.

Yet in the shadow world, this war is relentless. Their success is difficult to measure for it involves preventing enemy activity, which by definition is impossible to quantify. Only rarely is there a triumph that hits the headlines, like Norman Kember's release.

It reminds us that there this another persistent war being fought far away from the media's scrutiny and one that will ensure victory or defeat, not just in Iraq but in every conflict the 21st Century has to throw at us.