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What do we know about the SBS?

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Lammert Melk/AP</span>
Photograph: Lammert Melk/AP

The secretive Special Boat Service, which stormed a tanker off the coast of the Isle of Wight on Sunday evening and detained seven stowaways suspected of seizing it, is Britain’s elite military unit tasked with tackling terrorist and other localised, violent incidents at sea. Its origins date back to the second world war, and the Ministry of Defence refuses to say how many fighters it comprises or give any detail of its operations.

SBS operatives are trained to seize control of ships, tankers or rigs, typically by fast-roping down from helicopters. A similar operation in December 2018 saw the SBS take control of an Italian tanker that was subject to an attempted hijack by four stowaways near Tilbury in Essex, on the orders of then prime minister Theresa May.

Military sources say the SBS numbers about a couple of hundred, with women as well as men serving in the frontline. Based in Poole, Dorset, only a few miles from the stricken oil tanker off the Isle of Wight, the unit is part of the Royal Navy with members on standby at all times.

Although separate from the better known Special Air Service based in Hereford, the SBS is closely aligned to it as part of the UK’s special forces. SBS and SAS troops are trained to a common standard after a notoriously exacting selection programme to which only members of the armed forces and reservists can apply.

Training begins with endurance exercises in the Brecon Beacons in Wales – where three would-be recruits died from heatstroke after taking part in lengthy marches during one of the hottest days of 2013. Training then moves to the jungles of Belize, where candidates have to demonstrate survival skills over long periods.

It is also not uncommon for SBS members to operate on land if required and the unit was actively engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because its activities are not officially disclosed, they and their special forces counterparts have become an increasingly important part of the armed forces overall, attractive to politicians because they can operate in a “grey zone”, engaging in clandestine operations where the UK may not want to acknowledge it is active.