Editorial: SAS fast track for recruits deeply flawed

SAS soldiers need to be intelligent, motivated, willing to learn and determined to serve. Photo / Thinkstock
SAS soldiers need to be intelligent, motivated, willing to learn and determined to serve. Photo / Thinkstock

The well-publicised exploits of New Zealand's Special Air Service in Afghanistan, not least the awarding of the Victoria Cross to Corporal Willie Apiata, have elevated the unit in the public consciousness.

This represents something of a coming out for the elite troops, who, in recognition of the clandestine nature of much of their work, previously kept out of the limelight. One consequence has been a leap in public esteem. Another has surely been an increasing number of young men keen to join this most celebrated unit.

At least partly in response to this, the army has decided to make it easier to achieve that goal by shortening the recruitment timetable.

Rather than people having to spend a number of years in the regular army before going through the SAS selection process, recruits can signal their interest from the start and be placed on a fast track. The first group to have this option are those who apply before early next month, with the first SAS selection in January next year.

This process will appeal to those who have little interest in joining the regular army and taking part in the peacekeeping operations that have become its bread and butter. Instead, they want the glamour of being part of an elite force that is often at the sharp end of military engagements.

To succeed in their ambition, they will have to survive a gruelling physical examination. They should also have to pass the sternest of character tests, one that establishes their motives for wanting to join the unit.

That is now particularly essential because there was good reason for people having to spend several years in the regular army before they could apply for the SAS. That period teaches discipline and dedication, and weeds out those without the required temperament and ability. Now, those fast-tracked into the SAS will simply have to attend basic army training before rejoining the unit. That hardly seems sufficient.

The army says its new approach will provide a "wider range of people and backgrounds to choose from". This smacks of the flawed thinking that has led also to ambassadorial appointments being opened to men and women from the private sector.

No longer will the art of diplomacy have to be learned through a career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Instead, it can be picked up, apparently, at the drop of a hat. Now, it seems people will be selected for the SAS without having anything much in the way of military knowledge or experience.

The army suggests this approach will strengthen the high levels of achievement of the unit, and "there is no intention that the NZSAS will be lowering its very high entry standards".

That statement does not withstand even a cursory examination. The very fact that people will enter the unit with only a brief experience of the regular army means the entry standard will be lower. At the very least, it will take the SAS far longer to mould them into soldiers capable of upholding its reputation.

It is also worth considering what this process will do for regular army recruitment. And what its impact will be on troops who have slogged away in that force for a lengthy period with the eventual aim of joining the SAS. It cannot be conducive to morale, and it cannot make it any easier to attract people willing to undertake relatively mundane peacekeeping work.

A phenomenon which asserts that Joe Citizen can quite easily walk into a highly specialised job seems to be taking root. If only it were that simple. In the SAS, the potential for serious consequences, both for the unit and the country, is particularly high.

All possible care must be taken to ensure recruits have the right character, background and training. The fast-tracking of recruitment makes that far less likely.

- NZ Herald

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