The Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) is a Special Forces regiment modeled on the original British SAS and also drawing on the traditions of the Australian World War II ‘Z’ Special Force commando unit, as well as the Independent Companies which were active in the South Pacific during the same period. It is based at Campbell Barracks, Swan Bourne, Perth, Western Australia and is a unit of the Royal Australian Corps of Infantry, part of the Australian Defense Force. They have been widely regarded as one of the better special forces units in the world.
The regimental motto is Who Dares Wins.
The SAS Regiment currently has two primary roles, reconnaissance and Counter-Terrorism
In the reconnaissance role the SASR typically operates in small patrols which have the task of infiltrating enemy-held territory and providing intelligence on enemy troop movements. In this role the SASR generally seeks to avoid directly engaging enemy units, though SAS Soldiers will call in air and other support to destroy enemy units whenever possible. SASR reconnaissance patrols can be inserted by air, land or sea (including by submarine) and have proven capable of covering large distances in jungle and desert terrain.
In the Counterterrorism role the SASR specializes in tasks such as hostage rescue (including boarding moving ships). In contrast with the SASR’s reconnaissance role, when operating in the counter terrorism role SASR units appear to be trained to use maximum force to overcome their opponents. The SASR provides Tactical Assault Group (West), with the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (Commando) providing Tactical Assault Group (East).
The SASR’s three ‘sabre squadrons’ rotate between the reconnaissance and Counter-Terrorism roles. Two squadrons are maintained in the reconnaissance role with the remaining squadron filling the Counter-Terrorism role. Rotations occur every 12 months, so each squadron fulfills the Counter-Terrorism role and configuration every three years. Reports that the squadron filling the Counter-Terrorism role is always designated 1 Squadron are incorrect.
The Australian Special Air Service was established on 25 July 1957 as the 1st Special Air Service Company, Royal Australian Regiment. The SAS was expanded to three ‘sabre squadrons and gained Regimental status on 20 August 1964 when the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) was established.
The SASR first saw action in 1965 as part of the British Commonwealth force stationed in north Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation. The Australian SAS troopers operated alongside their British and New Zealand counterparts in operations aimed at stopping Indonesian infiltration into Malaya.
The SASR’s participation in the Vietnam War began when 3 Squadron deployed as part of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) in April 1966. The SASR’s role in Vietnam was to act as the ‘eyes and the ears’ of the Australian Task Force through conducting reconnaissance patrols throughout 1 ATF’s area of responsibility. As in Borneo the SASR operated closely with the New Zealand SAS, with a New Zealand SAS troop being attached to each Australian Squadron.
SASR Squadrons rotated through Vietnam on one year long deployments until the last Squadron was withdrawn in October 1971. During its time in Vietnam the Regiment was extremely successful in the reconnaissance role. It is claimed that the Regiment achieved a 500 to 1 kill ratio against Vietnamese Communist forces. Members of the Regiment became known as ‘Phantoms of the Jungle’ to Vietnamese Communist forces, attributed to their cunning and field craft.
Australia’s SASR also worked with US SEAL Teams and US Army Special Forces. Some members also served with the highly secret MACV-SOG Units.
The Australian withdrawal from Vietnam brought to an end the doctrine of ‘forward defense’ through involvement in South East Asian wars. Instead, the Australian military’s new focus was on the defense of continental Australia against external attack. In line with this change, the SASR took the lead in developing the Australian Army’s capability to conduct patrol operations in Northern Australia. This role is now filled by the Army’s three Regional Force Surveillance Units.
Following the outbreak of terrorist attacks around the world in the 1970s the SASR was given responsibility for providing Australia’s elite counter-terrorism force. In addition to being able to respond to terrorist attacks in Australian cities, the SASR counter-terrorism unit was also required to be capable of boarding ships and oil platforms.
The SASR has been at the front of numerous peacekeeping missions in recent years. The first SASR units to deploy on active service after the Vietnam War did so as part of Australian peacekeeping deployments. Small SASR units were attached to Australian forces in Somalia to provide an elite response and security force. Contrary to some reports, SASR did not provide a security team for service in Cambodia although several SAS signalers were deployed as part of the Australian military contribution to the force. In addition, individual members of the SASR have been attached to a wide range of Australian peacekeeping deployments where their high levels of technical skills have proven invaluable.
Tragedy and broader horizons
Deaths during training accidents make up the majority of the SASR’s fatalities. The worst accident in the Regiment’s history occurred on 12 June 1996 when two S-70A Blackhawks from the 5th Aviation Regiment carrying SAS troopers collided during a counter-terrorism exercise near Townsville. This accident resulted in the deaths of 15 SASR troopers and three Army airmen.
In 1998 the SASR’s made its first squadron strength deployment since Vietnam when 1 Squadron, with an attached New Zealand SAS troop, was deployed to Kuwait as part of the American-led Operation Desert Thunder. While this crisis was resolved peacefully, if military action had been taken the SASR’s role would have been that of rescuing the crews of aircraft shot down by Iraqi air de fences.
The SASR played a key role in the Australian-lead international peacekeeping force in East Timor between September 1999 and February 2000. 3 Squadron spearheaded most operations conducted by the international force during the early days of the intervention in East Timor and, as in Vietnam, served as the eyes and ears of the force. 1 Squadron replaced 3 Squadron in December 1999 and was subsequently replaced by 2 Squadron
Domestic security and controversy
The SASR formed a key element of the security force in place for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. During the Games two SASR squadrons were available for Counter-Terrorist operations. The SASR’s Counter-Terrorist role has increased in prominence since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the SASR has since formed part of the security force for events such as the 2003 Rugby World Cup. The SASR currently provides one of Australia’s two elite Tactical Assault Groups (designated TAG(West)), with the other TAG being provided by the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (Commando).
The boarding of the MV Tampa in August 2001 is the most controversial incident in the SASR’s history. In late August 2001 the Australian government ordered the then Counter-Terrorist squadron to deploy to Christmas Island and board the Tampa once it entered Australian waters. While the members of the SASR involved did what they could to improve conditions on the Tampa, the use of an elite military unit to prevent refugees landing in Australia was and remains controversial. Less controversial, however, was the SASR’s involvement in the boarding of the North Korean freighter MV Pong Su in 2003
Afghanistan and Iraq
In October 2001 the Australian government announced that it was sending a Special Forces Task Group built around a SASR Squadron to participate in the campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan (designated Operation Slipper). After staging through Kuwait, 1 Squadron arrived in Afghanistan in November 2001 with the other SAS squadrons rotating in at approximately 6 monthly intervals. Once again, a troop from the New Zealand SAS was attached to each Australian SAS squadron. The SASR’s main role in Afghanistan was to conduct surveillance of al Qaeda and Taliban positions, though SASR Troopers also conducted a number of offensive operations. The SASR initially operated in southern Afghanistan with the US Marines before moving to eastern Afghanistan where it played an important role in Operation Anaconda. The SASR withdrew from Afghanistan in November 2002 after all three SASR squadrons had served in the country.
The SASR provided the majority of the ground force element of the Australian contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Australian Special Forces Task Group was built around 1 Squadron, with a platoon from the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and a troop from the Incident Response Regiment available to support the SASR. 1 Squadron operated in western Iraq where it was successful in securing its area of operations. 1 Squadron was withdrawn from Iraq without replacement shortly after the end of the war, though recent media reports have claimed that elements of the SASR have subsequently conducted counter-insurgency operations in Iraq.
The SASR was re-deployed to Afghanistan in August or September 2005. The Australian Special Forces Task Group in Afghanistan currently consists of elements from the SASR, 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (Commando), the Incident Response Regiment and logistic support personnel.
The SAS’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq led President George W. Bush to describe them as being amongst the best soldiers in the world.
Uniform and Equipment
The uniform of the regiment is Australian issue camouflage and a sand-colored beret with metal gold and silver flaming Excalibur badge (often wrongly described as a winged dagger) on a black shield. This differs from the British 22 SAS, who have a woven cap badge of the same design. SAS ‘Ibis’ style parachute wings (rounded at the bottom and straight on top) are worn on the right shoulder only on formal ceremonial dress. On operations, dress can be a mixture of the Australian green or desert camouflage pattern depending on the environment. Rank, qualification and name badges are not worn. Operators may also wear assorted coalition military dress.
Around barracks, SASR soldiers conform to normal Australian army dress standards, although some latitude is given in the wide array of boots that are issued to the unit. When attending courses run by the general army, operators from SASR are careful to dress appropriately and correctly, including short haircuts.
Formal ceremonial dress is the normal Australian Army ‘polys’ with medals, rank and qualification badges worn. Gold ‘SAS’ bars are worn on shoulder tabs and SAS ‘Ibis’ style parachute wings are worn on the right sleeve.
Marching, saluting and drill is not generally carried out by SASR soldiers whilst at their Perth barracks.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, SASR operators were distinguished by their long hair and beards. Generally, shaving is not carried out whilst on patrol.
Basic patrol weapons are the M4 Carbine with M203 40mm grenade launcher and F89 Minimi light machine gun. A popular patrol weapon is the 7.62mm SR-25 rifle. The main pistol used is the Heckler & Koch 9mm USP. Many other weapon systems are used as the mission dictates. Up to a third of SASR operators are qualified snipers. Operators are multi-skilled and all are parachute-qualified, but they specialize in either Air, Water or Vehicle-mounted insertion methods.
The Regiment is organized into three ‘sabre’ squadrons, each of up to 80 ‘beret qualified’ operators, and a signal squadron (152 Signal squadron), logistic support squadron, and Operational Support Squadron, which conducts the selection and training courses. Only a small percentage of the Regiment are ‘beret qualified’ operators. The majority of the regiment personnel are highly trained specialist staff who are posted to the unit to provide support for all operations. These include signalers, mechanics and technicians, medical staff, store men, and various specialists.
‘Beret qualified’ SASR members are known as ‘Operators’ and support staff are affectionately known as ‘Blackhats’, due to the dark blue berets they wear. Infantry soldiers who are posted to the unit as store men, drivers, clerks etc wear the dark ‘rifle’ green Infantry Corps beret.
There are also a number of support personnel who are qualified to wear the sandy beret but have chosen or been directed to remain serving in their particular specialist field. There are also beret qualified members who have been injured and subsequently moved into a support related area.
Personnel from 152 Signal Squadron are encouraged to attempt selection, but as a rule, if successful they remain in the signal squadron and do not transfer into a ‘Sabre’ squadron. However, in being ‘Beret’ qualified, they receive a significant pay rise and increased posting longevity to SASR. Members of 152 Signal Squadron are affectionately known as ‘Chooks’ and are often fully integrated into the 5 man SAS patrols.
Selection and Training
Selection is from serving Australian military personnel and involves a grueling 3 week selection course which assesses both individual attributes and the ability to work effectively in a small team. This is followed up to 18 months of further courses before the candidate joins a squadron as a junior trooper or troop commander (Captain). Officers only complete the necessary basic courses to qualify them for service in the unit. Their expertise is in planning and administration. In general, they do not get the opportunity to complete all the specialist courses required of the ORs. Addition training is completed once being selected for special forces units.
A new troop commander is carefully mentored by both his troop sergeant and patrol commanders. Generally, a troop commander will only serve in the unit for two or three years but may come back as a Major if he has performed well. Soldiers may serve in the Regiment for their entire career, but this will usually include one or more two year external postings to instructional positions on the east coast. On average, only 5-10% will make it to the end of 18 months of reinforcement courses. During the training, if a soldier fails any subject they will be RTU (returned to unit).
Throughout his career, an SASR soldier is under constant assessment. Promotion for soldiers is quite slow in the unit. On receiving their coveted SAS sandy beret, all soldiers are given the rank of Trooper, which may involve a reduction from their previous rank. They usually also change corps if they are not already members of the Infantry Corps.
Promotion up through the ranks is very slow and often SASR soldiers will find themselves wearing a much lower rank than their peers in their former unit. Officers are not reduced in rank when posted to the unit. Despite a reduction in rank, SASR soldiers receive significant allowances, which make them among the highest paid soldiers in the Australian Defence Force.
Since their beginnings in 1954, the SASR has lost more men in training than on combat operations, due to the nature of their training regime.
Australian Special Air Service Regiment
- Training Squadron
- Base Squadron
- 152 Signal Squadron
- Vehicle Mounted