They literally leapt to prominence in May 1980 when Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) stormed Iran’s hijacked London embassy. I was watching snooker on the BBC at the time as coverage was interrupted to cover the assault live. It was the dawn of the 24/7 media age in which we live today. I can still remember the mixture of awe and amazement as masked men swooped down from helicopters armed with stun grenades and light machine guns. This was the stuff of James Bond.

Thanks to the now copious (and mainly bad) books about the ultra-secret SAS and their motto – Who Dares Wins – a mystique has been cultivated in the international public mind that sees these superstars of the British Army less the extremely good soldiers they are and more latter day super-heroes; in the mind of friend and foe alike. Thanks to that the SAS are one of the few elements of Britain’s strategic brand to have survived intact London’s headlong retreat from military influence. Therefore, the revelation that a SAS Trooper had built up a detailed war diary of the regiment’s World War Two activities was to say the least a surprise. What the book demonstrates is the vital importance of the thinking soldier – then and now. Could this offer a way forward for all Europe’s soldiery?


The now sterile debate over Europe’s militaries can be characterised thus; not enough invested in what works and too much in what does not. The same by the way goes for the British Army. I still find it hard to understand why an army with a force in excess of 100,000 people finds it so hard to deploy and sustain 10,000 of their number. The SAS turns all of that upside down and has done since their creation back in 1941. It was not mass that mattered to them but rather impact. In a sense they were the ultimate British military caricatures – a Formula One army rather than a mass production army, the latter of which never quite suited the British.

When I cast my eye across the faded glories of many European militaries it is indeed like wandering around one of those fantastic European war museums – hugely impressive and utterly out of date. It is a world in which army divisions made up of tens of thousands formed parts of armies made up of hundreds of thousands and any one country may have had several such armies organised into army groups. Today, what were once armies are now battle groups of several hundred men, whilst the great regiments have become the battalions of which battle groups are made. As we witness the miniaturisation of Europe’s once great armies it is unlikely European armies will ever again deploy a division. And yet never has something so small cost so much.

So, why not make virtue out of necessity? It was the very smallness of SAS units, allied to their intelligence that made them so agile and flexible. They could range far and wide behind enemy lines disrupting and destroying and then vanishing. They had the best equipment and knew how to make best use of it and out-planned, out-moved and out-thought the enemy

Today, most European armed forces are trapped between maintaining a very pale imitation of a force Napoleon, Wellington or Blucher would recognise and an even paler imitation of the SAS. A lack of political leadership, clear military thinking, nostalgia and the political influence of old soldiers has thus turned much of Europe’s armed forces into a series of extremely expensive museums. They have missions defined by a shrinking list of the things they used to be able to do, rather than preparing them for the things we would really like them to be able to do. European defence planning is thus in effect a little bit pregnant – incurring the costs of pregnancy without the prospect of bringing forth something that in time might kick, bite and scream.

Defence strategy demands of a society that it exploits comparative advantage. Military strategy requires its armed forces to be able to do exactly what an enemy least desires. European society is educated and technological. It is also individualistic and yet collaborative. It can think for and of itself but is disciplined and open enough to consider the vital role of others. In other words, Europe’s comparative advantage is its human capital, which is precisely what the SAS exploits.

Whether planned for or not the future European soldier will be first and foremost a thinking soldier, aware of the context of his or her actions, able to undertake a wide range of tasks across the conflict spectrum, and connected by technology to other key partners both civilian and military. This is exactly how David Stirling conceived the SAS back in 1941. But can we Europeans design a system in which our soldiers will be best able to exploit that comparative advantage?

Certainly, a pretty radical re-think would be needed. First, all the many legacy units and platforms weighing our armies down would need to be scrapped. Second, all conscripts would need to go. Third, a much more modular command chain would be required to enable smaller units to integrate, detach and re-form as required. Third, a command culture would be needed that emphasised small unit leadership. Fourth, at least twice (probably more) of today’s average investment per European soldier would be needed. In other words, we CAN afford it without spending more.

Today, only 10% of Europe’s 2 million soldiers are of any real use with the €180 billion or so spent annually representing a criminal waste of European taxpayer’s money. However, spent effectively €180 billion could pay for a force of some 500,000 cutting-edge thinking soldiers. Put simply, it is almost impossible a) to imagine a scenario in which Europeans would need more; and b) any force or circumstance that could defeat it.

At the core of the whole effort there would to be something very new; a defence education system that took the best and the brightest and gave them not only what they needed to know to succeed, but better enabled them to know how to know. Knowledge power and fighting power are the twin barrels of SAS effect and will be so for Europe’s future warriors.

The SAS are a legend. However, there is nothing Arthurian about them. Veiled in an almost impenetrable mask of necessary secrecy the Hereford Men enjoy respect and fear in friend and foe alike. Ultimately, what the diaries reveal is something quintessentially simple; a force that was simply extremely good at soldiering in all its forms, employing something for which armed forces have not always been renowned for – brains.

Who thinks wins – this is a lesson that should be grasped by all Europe’s armed forces.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast. Photo credit: Demotix Images.