Strategic Defence Intelligence explores why, despite avoiding the funding cuts that have affected the rest of the UK military, the Special Air Service (SAS) is experiencing a drop in recruit numbers.

The SAS, a Special Forces regiment of the British Army, is facing a staffing crisis that has left it a third short of its full fighting force.

Founded during the Second World War, the role of the SAS has been pivotal in a number of armed conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and critical civilian action, famously storming the Iranian embassy in London in 1980 following a siege by terrorists, rescuing 19 hostages.

Many areas of the UK armed forces have recently faced making thousands of redundancies in light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, but the SAS escaped the cuts and actually received an increase in funding. Despite this, numbers are still dwindling.

In a letter leaked to the Daily Telegraph, Brigadier Richard Dennis, the British Army’s director of infantry, blamed a lack of recruits on a “high operational tempo” for soldiers and “unrelentingly demanding” Afghan operations. However, he conceded that the infantry community yielded quality volunteers and that active army experience was essential to maintain the quality of recruits.

Dennis added that the SAS risks losing its unique position in the military because “interesting operations are no longer seen as the preserve of special forces.”

Although money has not been a direct restriction for the SAS, cuts elsewhere in the army are bound to have an influence on a recruit throughput. The army has announced that 5,000 posts will be lost, with the first batch of 1,000 due in September 2011.

This risks causing a double whammy effect on Special Forces recruitment. Not only will there be a smaller pool of soldiers to recruit from, but those remaining will be absolutely essential to army operations and are unlikely to have time to devote to considering a move to an SAS career.

In addition, there is a neglected human side to the story. Many soldiers are in their mid-20s, with new families. In a time when the UK military is involved in several armed conflicts worldwide, soldiers already spend much of the year away from home. The extra time they would need to devote to training and potentially more risky engagements is unlikely to encourage a move into the SAS.