BRITAIN’S elite special forces are facing an imminent crisis because record numbers of men are asking to leave their units early, lured by high wages on offer in a growing security industry in Iraq.
Defence and special forces sources have told The Scotsman that such is the demand from private military companies in Britain and the United States who are operating in Iraq for former Special Air Service and Special Boat Service soldiers that, between May 2003 and December 2004, between 40 and 60 men are expected to have sought premature voluntary release, or PVR, from the army and Royal Marines.
In operational terms, this could mean that this year, the equivalent of one entire special forces squadron out of a total of six in the SAS and SBS is on its way to seek its fortune in the new Iraq.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, anti-terrorism deployments in Europe, training commitments abroad as well as the need to have one entire SAS squadron of 65 men and one SBS unit of 20 men permanently on anti-terrorism standby in the UK, means that Britain’s special forces are very thinly stretched.
British, US and South African private military companies are all making money in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein last year.
Former elite troops from the SAS and SBS, the US’s Delta Force, Navy SEALs and Green Berets, South Africa’s special forces and police, as well as ex-French Foreign Legionnaires, are queuing up to take up contracts safeguarding oil installations, as bodyguards or training the Iraqi police and army.
In particular demand are former members of Britain’s special forces.
"Security companies want ex-Brit SF [special forces] because they have the most amazing history," said John Davidson, who runs Rubicon International, a British security company with interests in Iraq.
"The SAS are extremely well-trained, low-profile, not waving flags. They go about things in a quiet manner, they are the crme de la crme," added Mr Davidson, an 11-year veteran of Britain’s special forces.
An SAS captain serving in the regular regiment, 22 SAS, can earn up to 40-45,000 per year, with various allowances, while a junior sergeant or senior corporal can earn 30,000 per annum.
Such is the demand for the security skills of former SAS NCOs and officers in Iraq that pre-tax pay can range from 200 to 700 per day.
To leave his unit, any member of the British armed forces can request a PVR from his commanding officer, although the request can be turned down and the move blocked.
In addition to men asking to leave the SAS prematurely, another 24 SAS soldiers trained in amphibious warfare will now be detached each year from the SAS to the SBS.
Combined with the PVR requests, this could leave the Hereford-based 22 Special Air Service Regiment potentially depleted by nearly a quarter of its strength.Special forces soldiers cost up to 2 million each to train, and all must be chosen from men who have already served for several years in their parent units. Less than 20 men a year pass out into the regiment.
This latest development puts pressure on the current commanding officer of 22 SAS, a decorated lieutenant colonel from the Irish Guards, either to lower the standards for entry to the unit or allow younger, less experienced soldiers to apply.
To make up this shortfall, some 60 men from two Territorial Army special forces units, 21 and 23 SAS, are said to have been operating in Afghanistan.The Ministry of Defence said last night that it did not make comments specific to special forces.