Crack troops retake captured tanker by storm

Elite: the Special Boat Service is trained to carry out surprise attacks © The Sun

Are special operations the future of war? Some argue that small and deadly forces are uniquely equipped to fight modern threats, but others think they can often simply make wars worse.

At just after 9am on Sunday, police on the Isle of Wight picked up a mayday call. The captain and crew of a vast oil tanker, the Nave Andromeda, had discovered a group of seven Nigerian stowaways on board. When they threatened to hand the men over to border police, violence broke out, and the crew was forced to retreat to a secure part of the ship.

For ten hours, everything stood still. Then, in the darkening night, four navy helicopters, painted pitch black, flew softly overhead. Sixteen men quickly scaled down ropes onto the ship, catching the stowaways by surprise. In just nine minutes, Nave Andromeda was secured.

The men who recaptured the ship were members of the Special Boat Service, or SBS. The SBS is a special operations force (SOF) – a small group of crack troops trained to carry out small-scale, targeted missions. It played a key role in the Falklands War, retaking South Georgia and Port Stanley from Argentinian forces.

The SBS only sustained two casualties during the war, both of whom were shot by members of the SAS who mistook them for Argentinian soldiers.

Special operations forces have a very long history. Possibly the first recorded example is in the story of David and Goliath. In Japan, ninjas were a kind of SOF, trained to carry out assassinations and sabotages and to act as bodyguards.

More recently, the USA and the UK have made increasing use of SOF troops in the war on terror. Since they are trained to infiltrate fortified positions and carry out hostage rescues and assassinations, they are perfectly placed to combat the guerrilla warfare favoured by most terrorist groups. It was an SOF group, Seal Team Six, that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

However, some claim that the importance of SOF in the war on terror has been exaggerated. They point out that the USA and the UK are dependent on local proxies to do their fighting for them. During the war with ISIS, it was militias in Iraq and Syria, with US funding, that drove the terrorists out of their strongholds. These alliances with local forces, critics argue, are more strategically important than flashy special operations.

Special operations are often carried out without regard for national sovereignty. After the killing of bin Laden, the Pakistani government criticised the USA for not informing them in advance of the raid, insisting that it did not have the right to carry out military operations on Pakistani soil.

SOF groups undergo a punishing training regime which forges bonds of loyalty between members of the group. However, this can result in teams hiding incriminating evidence to protect their comrades. In 2017, Seal Team Six was accused of carrying out and then covering up war crimes in Afghanistan.

Colonel Joel Babbit of the US Army states that SOF is also reliant on technology, especially drones. The role of such technology is predicted to grow in coming years. In his view, the future of warfare is actually software.

So, are special operations the future of warfare?

SOFar, so good

Yes, say some. They argue that the nature of warfare has changed in recent decades: in future all threats will be from guerrilla forces, which launch attacks from fortified positions and then melt away into the countryside, and take hostages to make political demands. SOF, which can locate and infiltrate their bases and are trained in hostage rescue, are ideally placed to face this kind of threat.

Not at all, say others. They argue that local proxies have shouldered the burden of the war on terror, with SOF playing a relatively minor – but much higher-profile – role. They claim that the work of SOF is dependent on technology that will soon be sophisticated enough to replace human soldiers entirely. Moreover, SOF can also spark new conflicts by failing to respect national borders.

You Decide

  1. Imagine that we could replace all soldiers with robots. Would this be better than fighting with human soldiers?
  2. When, if ever, is it right for a military force to assassinate someone?


  1. Taking the perspective of one of the seven stowaways on board Nave Andromeda, write a short story about yesterday’s SBS operation.
  2. Should one country be able to carry out covert operations within another country’s borders without informing them? Decide on an answer, and then write a short speech making your case.

Some People Say...

“It is forbidden to kill; every murderer is punished, unless he kills in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

Voltaire (1694-1778), French philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that military groups work best when there is a strong sense of loyalty between their members. Often referred to as “esprit de corps”, military leaders try to foster this loyalty by subjecting teams of soldiers to collective punishment regimes and offering them collective rewards. One of the more unusual experiments in cultivating this group loyalty was found in the Sacred Band of ancient Thebes, which was composed entirely of pairs of lovers fighting side by side.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not modern warfare can really be called war at all. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that what defines modern warfare for western nations is overwhelming airpower, which allows them to minimise casualties on their own side. Since their casualties are so low, and there is very little media coverage of the many deaths on the opposing side, Baudrillard argued, the devastation of war ceases to be real for Western people.

Word Watch

An internationally-recognised distress signal. It is a corruption of the French “venez m’aider”, meaning “come and help me”.
Falklands War
A short conflict fought between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982. It was triggered when Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, a territory in the South Atlantic sea with a population of about 3,000, that both countries claim as their own.
The Special Air Service, a special ops group made up of the very best soldiers in the British Armed Forces.
David and Goliath
According to the Hebrew Bible, Goliath was a giant who fought the Israelites on the side of the Philistines. David, a young Israelite shepherd, killed Goliath with his slingshot. With their champion dead, the Philistines were routed.
A type of warfare in which small groups use their mobility and knowledge of the terrain to harass much larger forces, attacking their supply lines and reconnaissance missions. The term means “little war” in Spanish.
Osama bin Laden
A Saudi Arabian terrorist who masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed 3,000 people. Before this, he was a US ally who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
In warfare, a proxy is a smaller military power that fights or otherwise acts on behalf of a larger one.
A terrorist group that captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and established their own state, which they called the Caliphate. They inflicted terrible atrocities on local people, especially religious minorities like the Yazidis.
A militia is an informal armed group operating independently of the state. In Syria and Iraq, various militias are funded by both the USA and Iran. In recent years, Iraqis have become increasingly frustrated with the power of these militias.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.