4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery RA
|4/73 (Sphinx) Special OP Battery RA|
|Active||1980 – date|
|Role||Surveillance and Target Acquisition|
|Part of||5th Regiment Royal Artillery|
4 (Sphinx) Battery Alexandria Day 1 July
4/73 (Sphinx) Special Observation Post Battery Royal Artillery is the British Army's only regular Surveillance and Target Acquisition Patrol unit. It is part of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, based at Marne Barracks in Catterick, North Yorkshire. The Army Reserve STA Patrols come from 1 Sqn of the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC).
4/73 Battery has 6 Officers and 58 other ranks divided between four Patrols Troops and Battery Headquarters. Three troops of a 3 man HQ and two 6-man Patrols provide support to the bridages of 3rd Mechanised Division and others and one troop of a 3 man HQ and one 6-man patrol at high readiness to support 16 Air Assault Brigade.
Working to the ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) group in each of the brigades, the STA Patrols Troop are subject matter experts on Static Covert Surveillance (SCS) and complement the reconnaissance activity conducted by other Ground Manned Reconnaissance (GMR) forces in the Brigade. The patrols' training includes:
- Manned OPs
- Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract (SERE) training
- Terminal control of the full spectrum of joint fires
- Long Range Electro Optical (LREO) systems (covert remote cameras and sensors)
- use of long lens optics, cameras and data transfer systems to provide comprehensive technical surveillance and imagery of evidential quality
- real time transmission of information and imagery
- conduct of battle damage assessment (BDA)
Special observers give the commanders that they support the ability to deploy a specialist force element at range, in proximity to the enemy and in all weathers, to locate and prosecute targets as required.
Formation and Training
Following the Second World War, the emergence and subsequent development of the cold war between the forces of the Warsaw Pact and NATO had its very obvious focus on the Inner German border (IGB) between East and West Germany. This was a heavily fortified "Iron Curtain" almost 1000 miles in length.
From the early 1970s the 1st (British) Corps General Support Artillery Regiment had been based in the foothills of the Harz mountains in the town of Hildersheim close to the IGB. This included 5th Regiment RA whose role as part of the NATO General Development Plan (GDP) in the event of war was to contribute to imposing delay on the advancing Warsaw Pact forces. This was to be done by deploying its M107 self-propelled guns along the border within the 1st (British) Corps boundaries, and firing them at High-value targets (HVT) advancing West. With a gun range of 32 km and no ability to see that far across the front line, most targets could only be predicted based on likely Orbat and intelligence form a variety of sources.
The prevailing view is that the most reliable, flexible and effective form of artillery target indication was then, and still is, provided by the trained OP soldier. Operating deep inside enemy territory, however, required specialist training only then undertaken by the Corps Patrol Unit, consisting of the Territorial Army SAS regiments and the HAC. By 1980 the impending re-equipment program, involving the replacement of the M107 by the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) with an even longer range, served to focus thought on a means of making more effective use of what were likely to be the first Allied land forces to fire in the event of a Third World War. The Commanding Officer of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery, Lt Col (later Major General) ACP Stone, prepared a detailed paper setting out the case that that the Regiment needed its own "special" OP soldiers who could operate in this role and submitted it to the Corps Commander General Sir Nigel Bagnall. He agreed with the proposal, and tasked Lt Col Stone with the formation of such an organisation.
The concept of operations for this new troop was for a number of patrols to dig underground shelters and allow the advancing enemy forces to pass by them. Following this, two pairs of Gunners would emerge from each underground patrol shelter to direct the fire from the Regiment's guns. A great deal of thought went into selection and training. Visits were made to P company at Aldershot, Royal Marines training at CTCRM Lympstone and Hereford, and input sought from Brigadier (later General Sir Michael) Wilkes, the then chief of Staff 3rd Armoured Division, a Royal Artillery Officer who had previously commanded 22 Special Air Service Regiment, this eventually led to a unique selection and training course. Course number 1 was set up and the "Stay Behind Special OP Troop" was born in 1982.
The first selection team included Instructors from the SAS, Royal Marine Commandos and the Parachute Regiment, all seconded to 5th Regiment. The Battery retained permanent SAS representation in the form of a WO2 from the SAS until the start of operations in Afghanistan. Originally the course was confined to soldiers from 5th Regiment but was soon opened to units across the Royal Artillery as a whole and eventually all parts of the British armed forces. Today volunteers must complete the 13-week Surveillance and Target Acquisition Patrols Course (STA PC). The course is run once a year starting at the end of August and begins with 3 weeks fitness and navigation training in the Northumbrian hills. Applicants then progress through Medical and Communications training, Patrol skills, OP Construction, live firing and a final test exercise. Once volunteers have completed the STA Patrols Course they continue with training in advanced photography, learn to call in artillery strikes and complete Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract (SERE) training. They will then join a six-man patrol ready to deploy on operations anywhere in the world.
Special observers from 5 and 32 Special OP Troops, the precursor units to 4/73 Bty, first deployed to Northern Ireland in 1989. Their principal task on this first tour was to provide an area defence around the Golf and Romeo towers in South Armagh. Sited to enable the observation of facilitation routes from Southern Ireland, these towers represented key terrain in the battle to stem the flow of terrorist material support and they were regularly targeted. The redevelopment of the two locations required the Troops to construct and operate from a platoon sized defensive position for the duration of their deployment. During this deployment that two Special Observers were killed when the Land Rover that they were travelling in was destroyed by an IRA roadside bomb as they transited through Londonderry. This was the first loss of Special Observers on operations.
Members of 4/73 Battery subsequently deployed a six-man patrol to the Province in 1993, tasked with running a rooftop OP on Templar House in the New Lodge area of North Belfast. This was one of the four OPs in the city which was created under Op FACTION. The aim of which was to observe and report on terrorist activity in the city in an attempt to restrict their freedom of action. The battery spent the next six months maintaining persistent surveillance of the New Lodge area.
In January 1991 4/73 Battery deployed on Operation Granby as part of the UK contribution to the international coalition of forces which massed in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The battery joined the 16th/5th Queen's Royal Lancers battle group and was organised into two Forward Air Control Parties, a Tactical Air Control Party and five armoured OPs. The battery protected the flank of the advance and engaged positions with artillery, close air support and attack helicopters.
4/73 Battery had personnel permanently deployed in Bosnia from 1995 to 2000. This started as the deployment of single personnel to act as UN Observers, but from 1996 onwards the Battery had a 6-man patrol permanently deployed as part of the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR). During this 4 year period, patrols were deployed as Forward Observation Officer (FOO) parties and supported every level in the chain of command, from division to battlegroup HQ, and worked directly to British, Canadian and Malaysian Commanders.
Tasks included helping the Royal Engineers clear the Livno minefield, one of the biggest ever laid in the former Yugoslavia. They also deployed covert OPs as part an initiative to return all displaced persons back to their homes. Overt OPs were also employed to assist the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers battlegroup with an operation designed to allow displaced persons to return to their homes in the Divichani valley.
During April 1998, the 4/73 patrol in theatre were deployed on a Close Observation task in support of the Canadian BG after rioting in the town of Drvar. The patrol carried out several covert OP misions in the Drvar area and once the tasking was complete they were relocated to Gorni Vakuf and attached to the Recce platoon of 1 RGJ.
The patrol were re-roled along with the Recce Platoon as the Divisional Reconnaisance Unit (DRU) to conduct further surveillance missions throughout the Divisional area.
Prototype microwave link cameras and camera lenses were acquired for gathering video and photographic evidence of illegal activities.
The name of the unit changed to the Dismounted Reconnaisance Capability (DRC)for the next tour. The DRC consisted of a patrol from 4/73 and the Recce Platoon from the Infantry BG.
A course was developed for recce troops deploying in this new role into Bosnia, this course was run by the Infantry Reconnaisance Wing in Warminster.
4/73 patrols were employed in the DRC role upto 2000.
The Battery deployed four STA patrols and a C2 element to Macedonia in February 1999. This was as part of the NATO force preparing to intervene in Kosovo in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Serbian military action in the country. The patrols initially conducted work-up training in Macedonia before deploying to a Forward Operating Base on the KRASTE ranges. From there they deployed a mix of standing patrols and overt OPs to watch for possible Serbian infiltration and to develop understanding of the local area.
On the night of 12 June, whilst attached to the Pathfinder Platoon from 5 Airborne Brigade, 2 patrols from the Battery were part of Chalk Four. This was a helicopter insertion which carried the first regular army personnel into Kosovo. Their task was to insert 25 km across the border and establish OPs overlooking the Northern end of the Kacanik defile. This was a key choke point on the Main Supply Route which the main body of the NATO force would follow into Kosovo. In June 1999, whilst attached to G Para Bty from 7 Para RHA, the patrols deployed an OP matrix in the capital, Pristina, to observe and report on all movement in the city and trigger additional reaction forces to trouble spots. The Bty re-deployed to Kosovo in February 2000. This deployment saw the Special Observers provide the first Divisional Reconnaissance Unit (DRU) capability in Kosovo, drawing on 5 years of regional experience and the ability to operate in unfamiliar territory. The Bty were tasked with this at very short notice in order to provide an interim DRU capability until the fist formally trained force element could deploy. The tour made use of the Bty's specialist photographic and video surveillance capabilities and no two missions were the same. Tasks included rural OPs, urban OPs in cooperation with other KFOR nations, and reactive OPs mounted to trigger arrest Ops of Serbian personnel by members of KFOR.
The Bty provided six 6-man patrols to act as a reconnaissance troop for 40th Regiment RA, who deployed on Op TELIC 2 as part of 19 Mechanised Brigade. The Bty's first task was to recce the Regimental area of operations. This generated a significant amount of operational intelligence which acted as the start point for a number of lines of operation which would endure throughout the tour.
Two patrols were subsequently attached to the Kings Own Scottish Border Regiment Battlegroup in the Al Amara region. The target packs produced by the patrols led to the successful detention of several insurgent commanders. The remaining four patrols were deployed to the South of Iraq and were involved in counter smuggling and hijacking operations with 40th Regiment RA.
The role of the Bty also extended to the direct action Ops to detain low and medium level insurgent commanders. Having achieved much early success, the patrols were re-roled to form the 19 Brigade Surveillance and Reconnaissance Troop. Based in Basra Palace and working directly to Bde HQ, the troop were given an uplift of digital photography equipment and L96A1 Sniper Rifles to give them a long range reactive OP capability. Three patrols remained in theatre for OP TELIC 3 with 20 Armoured Brigade ensuring that this new specialist capability endured. The patrols were employed in discreet OPs as part of a matrix over-watching hotspots in Basrah City centre. As well as providing intelligence, they also triggered infantry operations leading to the capture and arrest of various insurgents. The troop also went on to develop a Manned Aerial Surveillance (MAS) capability, taking pictures of key areas of interest from the air.
The Bty subsequently deployed a troop on OP TELIC 9 in Nov 2006 as part of a multi-capbadge Brigade Surveillance Company. The troop's task was to provide the Bde with a discreet, covert surveillance capability. This included a long term OP task over-watching the offices of the Martyr Mardir where the leader of the Jaish al Mardir militia attended Friday prayers. The OP acted as the start point for a range of additional surveillance assets, cross-cueing them as soon as a Bravo had been positively identified. Every night a Navy Sea King with a MX15 camera accompanied by a patrol member was tasked to monitor Pattern of Life over Basrah and the area around the militia office. The tour came to a successful conclusion with the elimination of the Jaish al Mardir leader in a joint UKSF and Iraqi SF strike. This was the culmination of an enduring 4 month operation by the Bty.
The joint fires skills set of 4/73 Battery was first called upon by the Royal Artillery's Close Support community in October 2005. 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery were unable to force generate the 6 Fire Support Teams (FSTs) they required to provide joint fire support to the 3 Para Battle Group. This would be the first deployment of conventional forces to Helmand Province. The Battery readily agree to re-role an STA Patrol to act as the sixth FST for the Battle Group, and they undertook a four month period of pre-deployment training attached to the 3 Para Patrols Platoon. On 8 April 2006 the team landed at Camp Bastion construction site and this marked the start of enduring FST support to the Gun Regiments of the Royal Artillery.
For over 6 years, FSTs from 4/73 Battery have deployed as part of every Task Force Helmand joint fires group, and have supported Infantry Companies and Formation Reconnaissance Squadrons from virtually every British Army Regiment that has deployed to the Afghanistan theatre of operations. Force Elements (FEs) from the Battery have been directly involved in close combat in every part of Helmand Province, from Kajaki dam in the north to Garmsir in the south. These FEs have controlled the full array of joint fires assets that have deployed to Afghanistan, from the US Airforce AC-130 Spectre gunship to precision Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions. They have also been responsible for the integration of hundreds of task lines of ISTAR to enable their supported commanders to improve their situational awareness and wider understanding of their areas of operation. All of this has demanded a high degree of skill and the ability to make difficult decisions whilst under the most testing of operational conditions.
During Op HERRICK 6 a Troop from the Battery were deployed as part of the 12 Mechanised Brigade BRF to act as a dismounted Reconnaissance Platoon. The Troop were deployed to the town of Garmsir soon after arriving in Theatre, occupying the District Centre which marked Task Force Helmand's most southern flank. As the final point of civilisation before the Pakistan border, Garmsir was a strategically important location for the flow of foreign fighters of lethal aid that streamed north to support the insurgency in Helmand. The presence of the Troop in Garmsir therefore presented a threat to this vital facilitation route and they were targeted by insurgents from their first day in the DC. What followed was a 4-month period of unbroken fighting with the Taliban. Although other units were deployed to support the Troop, no other 12 Bde force element spent more than 2 months in Garmsir such was the ferocity of the battle to hold the DC. The Troop were somehow overlooked in this regard but held their ground as ordered throughout what was one of the most prolonged periods of fighting since troops first deployed to Helmand Province.
Concurrent to the Troop being deployed on Op HERRICK 6, the remainder of the Battery were preparing themselves to provide the BRF for 52 Brigade on Op HERRICK 7. This was the first time a non-infantry subunit had been given this task and it represented a significant challenge as the Battery transitioned from its core static covert surveillance role to a mounted close combat reconnaissance task. The Battery was augmented by specialists from Support Company, 2 YORKS to give the BRF an integral mortar, anti-tank and sniper capability and, after four months of high tempo pre-deployment training the force deployed to Helmand.
Op HERRICK 7 was a highly demanding but extremely successful tour which saw the Battery acting as an intelligence gathering mobile strike force. As well as providing a steady flow of information to inform Commander 52 Brigade's decision-making, the force also conducted numerous direct action operations to destroy identified insurgent positions. These operations varied from vehicle borne raids to dismounted platoon attacks. In addition, the BRF played a key role in facilitating the operation to re-take the town of Musa Qala by conducting an extended mobile surveillance and reconnaissance mission to identify insurgent locations before a US air assault task force attacked the town. The Battery also mounted a 14 day OP task from a mountain that lay to the East of the town of Nowzad, covertly observing the insurgent Command and Control (C2) location which was directing all insurgent activity in the area. This OP established pattern of life, positively identified insurgent locations and subsequently finished them by directing air delivered ordnance onto the objective.
Op HERRICK 7 was a high risk deployment for the Battery which sadly resulted in two soldiers being killed in two separate mine strike incidents, as well as three seriously injured. The Battery broke the record books during the tour by mounting the longest uninterrupted long range desert patrol since the Second World War, living off their WMIK vehicles for 7 weeks without an operational pause. After successfully identifying and engaging a suidide bomber who tried to drive his vehicle into the BRF convoy whilst they were transiting through the town of Gereshk, the Taliban nicknamed the BRF "warriors protected by God".
In May 2012 the Battery deployed a STA Patrol at very short notice to conduct an Operational Capability Demonstrator (OCD) of an Unattended Ground Sensor (UGS) system in the highly dangerous Sangin area of operations. This new system would enable Commanders to receive live full motion video of activity in dead ground around their bases. This represented a significant force multiplier for the ground holding Companies, who were under constant pressure from the insurgents operating in the blind spots around their locations. The patrol quickly set about proving that the system could be deployed covertly in Theatre. Unfortunately, the first task the Patrol undertook ended in tragedy when one Special Observer was killed in an IED blast. The same incident seriously injured two more and reduced the patrol from 7 to 4. The remainder persevered with the OCD and went on to deploy the system in the most dangerous parts of Helmand to prove the utility of UGS in counter insurgency.
As a result of the efforts of the first Patrol, Task Force Helmand approved the formation of the Theatre Surveillance Troop (TST) to deploy UGS in support of joint operations across the battlespace. Led by the Battery and supported by the HAC, the TST emplaced UGS from Op HERRICK 13 to Op HERRICK 18. It was responsible for over 35 successful covert surveillance operations. From Op HERRICK 16, the TST branched out to provide the full range of static covert surveillance tasks. This included manned OPs, evidential quality stills photography, Manned Aerial Surveillance (MAS) and Pre-emplaced Command Actuated Munitions (PCAM), where a remotely detonated M18A1 Claymore is linked to a UGS system.
Whilst most Gunners wear a dark blue beret, since 2008 soldiers of 4/73 Battery have changed to a Khaki beret to mark the close working relationship of the battery with the Honourable Artillery Company. Soldiers within the battery that have passed the STA Patrol Training selection course also wear the Special Observers badge on their arm as displayed above.
The Sun Military Awards
4/73 Battery was the Army nomination for Unit of the Year at the 2013 Sun Military Awards.
- "British Army Website".
- Mines, Heidi. "Life after Harry". Soldier magazine (October 2008).
- "Yorkshire Gunners Honoured For Service In Iraq And Afghanistan". "Earlier in the day, in what marks a historic change in the history of one of the Batteries from the Regiment - 4/73 (Sphinx) Battery, the traditional dark blue beret of the Royal Artillery was replaced with a khaki-coloured beret."
- "Sun's 6th annual Millie awards".
- British Army Website
- The Sun Military Awards 2013 - Nominations
- SOLDIER Magazine Mar 2014 - In Hostile Territory (p32-35)
- Elite Forces
- Recruiting Video - Special Observer
- British Army Rolefinder website
- Armynet Page (Defence Gateway login required)
- 4/73 Battery Defence Intranet Page (Not accessible from the Internet - copy URL into Defence Intranet browser) http://defenceintranet.diif.r.mil.uk/Organisations/Orgs/Army/Organisations/Orgs/clf/Organisations/Orgs/ftc/Organisations/Orgs/1artyx/Pages/473(Sphinx)SpecialOPBatteryRA.aspx