Sunday, April 30, 2006

Paul Buchanan: What makes special forces soldiers so special?

Special forces travel light, far, often out of uniform, and operate in small units using deception, stealth, speed and surprise to their tactical advantage. They can stay in the field for weeks and, being self-sufficient, can deliver surgical blows to an unsuspecting enemy at a time and place of their choosing - then escape to fight another day.

These forces are considered the best weapons in counter-insurgency campaigns.

To accomplish such missions takes a special type of soldier. They are drawn from the most intelligent and physically fit military men, undergo months of gruelling physical training and psychological stress tests. They face regular, rigorous tactical tests in the classroom and the field, and are constantly refreshed, reviewed and updated on their combat skills.

They are required to demonstrate expertise in several combat and non-combat disciplines, such as medics and foreign language intelligence gathering. They must also be complete team players.

Should they make the grade and gain entrance into Special Forces units, these troops are rotated frequently into a varied array of combat zones and spend more time in them in order to harden their mental resolve and hone combat skills.

These are soldiers whose headlights are always set on high beam. Due to their special skills, Special Forces troops like the New Zealand Special Air Services or US Green Berets and Navy SEALs take three times as long and cost 10 times as much to train and equip than the average soldier. In return, in most countries they tend to be better paid and receive bonuses and hazardous duty pay.

Because of their long-term and frequent deployments, there are often special benefits for their immediate families.

Their unique qualifications make special ops troops prized assets in the growing field of private security contracting. Demand for them is great precisely because they are not mercenaries but supreme professionals, dealing death while protecting lives.

The going rate for ex-special forces serving as private security contractors in Iraq is between US$800-1000 ($1200-1500) per day, plus expenses and large bonuses.

Faced by private sector competition, the US military is offering its special forces troops re-enlistment bonuses of up to US$150,000 ($235,000) to keep them in uniform.

All of this should factor into the Government's approach to the 200-300 SAS troops in New Zealand. They are among the world's best and shoulder a disproportionate amount of the combat burden of the country's foreign military commitments.

It is imperative that the Government ensure their retention and recruitment. Deployment of these troops sends powerful political messages to friend and foe alike. And that alone is worth the price.

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