The Pathfinder Platoon is an elite unit within the British Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade and is a part of the Parachute Regiment. The Pathfinders specialise in airborne (Helicopter, low-level parachute, H.A.L.O. and H.A.H.O.) insertion behind enemy lines and then conduct various long-range, intelligence-gathering tasks including marking D.Z./L.Z.'s (Drop Zones/Landing Zones) prior to the arrival of the main force. Secondary taskings can include providing light role defence for the incoming assault force, co-ordination and control of air defence assets and conduct high priority direct action tasks.
The unit is seen as an elite, second only to SAS which is to be expected due to the similar training, procedures and equipment used. The platoon was, originally split into an Air and Mountain troops but since the War on Terror came to the fore all troops are cross trained in Air and Mobile skills and to a much lesser extent Mountain.
3 Insertion Skills
5 Moving on
6 Training with Foreign Units
The original Pathfinder unit was formed during World War II. It's main role was to jump ahead of the main force and secure a DZ (or Drop Zone) for allied Paratroopers. In September of 1944 Pathfinders of the 21st Independent Company dropped into Arnhem in Netherlands to clear and secure a DZ. The operations went off with out a hitch. After the war the pathfinder unit was disbanded and all members were sent to other units.
In 1981, 2 Para again saw the need for a pathfinder platoon. Although it was officially called C Company, its strength was only that of a platoon. 16 soldiers took part in the first Selection process for the new Pathfinder Platoon. It had the same role as the original pathfinders of WWII. They were tasked with dropping in and securing a DZ, they would then dig in and perform reconnaissance duties. They became the Regiment's "eyes and ears".
In 1982, 2 Para's C (Patrols)Company was broken up into two platoons (it was now at Company strength): the Patrol Platoon and the Recce Platoon. Both units were trained the same and held much of the same duty as they did as Pathfinders and used in the Falklands War to direct troops towards the 'Start lines' of Goose Green.
In 1985, it was deemed that the 5th Airborne Brigade (Now 16 Air Assault Brigade) needed it's own independent, intelligence gathering troops and so they formed the current Pathfinder Platoon from troops from 1, 2 and 3 PARA's Patrol Platoons. Again it would reach Company level but still retain the title of "platoon".
The unofficial motto of the pathfinders is "First In, Last Out".
The Pathinder Platoon is a tri-service unit (although no recruits have ever passed the selection process from either the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy including also the Royal Marines), however the core is taken from units in 16 Air Assault Brigade especially the Parachute Regiment, 9 (PARA) Squadron RE and 216 (PARA) Signals Squadron. 'The Cadre', as the selection process is called, currently last for 5 weeks. The Cadre takes place in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales.
Fitness and Navigation
Phase 1 begins with the standard British Army fitness tests including 8 C.F.T. and swimming proficiency. Also included are '2 Miler', '8 Miler' '10 Miler' speed marches (carrying SA-80 rifle and Bergen) similer to those carried on the Parachute Regiment's selection course 'P' Company but at faster speeds and carrying more weight. In between the physical tests, recruits will be taught navigation and signals(V.H.F./U.H.F./H.F.) skills which will enable them to proceed onto the next phase
Phase 2 consists of a series of long solo marches over the Brecon Beacons and Elan Valley carrying heavy weights. This phase is based on that carried out but the SAS and the SBS during UKSF Selection. As one goes higher in the Brecons, the colder it becomes. Rain is common place with occasional bursts of hail and snow. The inclement conditions often increases losses during training as they hamper navigation while travelling at the minimum speed of 4 km/h. Soldiers often patrol for about 29 km with a 60 pound bergen and of course their ever present rifle. The heavy slogs often cause huge blisters and increasing amounts of pain for the recruits. The final TAB is 40 mile march taking in all over the highest peaks in the region.
Phase 3 sees the recruits moving into the soldiering section of the course, starting at revision of basic fieldcraft and tatics before progressing onto reconnaissance training. It is during the latter section that soldiers will be introduced into the operation of a 4-6 man team, moving with stealth through enemy lines and manning an observation point (O.P.). This phase also includes introduction into contact drills, basic demolition, helicopter procedures, ambush and direct action tasks.
Phase 4 see the troops move onto the live firing period where all the skills taught in the previous weeks are put into practice but using live ammunition. Starting 1-2 man drills, moving then to 4-6 man contact drills and finally a platoon-sized, live assault.
Resistance to Interrogation
The students finally move onto the Combat Survival package which introduces them to survival skills, living off the land and using escape and evasion (E & E) tactics. There are lessons and lectures in interrogation techniques from people who have been Prisoners of War (POWs). The last few days is the E & E stage. In groups the soldiers are dressed in greatcoats to slow them down and have to evade capture from the Hunter Force, which is usually comprised of Parachute Regiment or Gurkha soldiers. When captured, or on giving themselves up in the unlikely event that they make it to the scheduled end of the exercise, every soldier has to withstand tactical questioning (TQ). The soldiers are blindfolded, put in stress positions, subjected to white noise, dehydrated and given no food. Common phobias are exploited, as in one stress position they put their captive in a cage no bigger than a dog's kennel, and lay iron over the top of the cage. The captors then repeatedly beat the iron with chains, to create a claustrophobic feeling. The soldiers are only allowed to respond to questions with:
Name Rank Number Date of birth "I'm sorry I cannot answer that question" If they break during TQ then they are returned to their original unit.
Upon successful completion of the Cadre, the troops are presented with their PF DZ flash and maroon beret but retain the parent unit capbadge as the Pathfinder's are still a part of the Parachute Regiment. Although short, the Cadre is mearly a starting block prior to a hectic year+ of training and courses for the new Pathfinder. His first year is probationary and can be RTU'ed (Returned to Unit) if it is felt at any time that he is not achieving the grade.
Upon completion of the Cadre, non-Parachute trained troops are sent to RAF Brize Norton to complete the All Arms Basic Parachute course, jumping with the Irvin GQ L.L.P. (Low Level Parachute) at between 800 and 1,000ft both day and night. Once completed, troops are awarded their Basic Parachute Wings Badge.
The troops are now eligible to attend the Military Freefall (M.F.F.) course along with RAF jumpmasters and S.A.S. Air Troop soldiers. This 6 week course takes place in the UK, South Africa or the USA and starts with an introduction into basic skydiving at 12,000 ft, before progressing onto the H.A.L.O. phase where troops are dispatched out of a C-130 Hercules transport plane at an altitude of up to 25,000 ft, using a Irvin BT-80 multi-mission parachute carrying 80+ pounds of equipment. Due to the high altitudes, all the soldiers and the aircrew are fitted onto an Oxygen system once they pass above 10,000 ft with the troops moving onto their own bottled system prior to jumping. As the course advances, the troops master the ability of landing in tight groups at both day and night, in all weathers.
H.A.H.O. parachuting was introduced into the military as a way of inserting airborne troops into a location where there was a possibility that enemy air defence assets were in place. The H.A.H.O. method of insertion allows troops to be dispatched from an aircraft at an altitude in excess of 30,000ft and glide via GPS to a pre-designated position at distances of up to 40+ miles (dependant on wind speeds).
Pathfinder troops are issued with the British Army, Land Rover 110 WMIK. These were introduced into the order of battle (ORBAT) so as to keep up to speed with the fast-flowing, modern battlefield. These gunships are armed with 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG), MILAN Anti-Tank missiles and .50 Inch calibre Heavy Machine Guns; which enables the teams to defend against an aggressor or be used as a fighting platform in an assault. Training is carried out in a number of theatres including Egypt, Jordan, Oman and Kuwait. All members of the Pathfinders have to be proficient in cross-country driving and maintenance of the vehicles.
Due to the versatility of the platoon, many skills must be honed to perfection including medical, demolitions and signals. Medics reach the highest level of proficiency as they can be used in many roles; from hearts and minds tasks to trauma management. These skills are also put into practice in hospital placements around the UK. Sniping has become another recent additional skill and used in DZ/LZ defence and high priority stikes. The learning process is ongoing and new methods and skills are constantly being learned. Pathfinders, especially in the early years, are constantly attending courses throughout the world and spend little time in the UK.
In June 1999, the platoon were the first troops to deploy into Kosovo (aside from the SAS). Acting as the "eyes and ears", the troops deployed onto the flanks along the Kacanik defile to provide early warning incase of any Serbian military counter attacks towards the NATO forces heading towards the capital, Pristina. Troops were then re-roled so as to hold and seize Pristina Airfield prior to the arrival of the pro-Serbian, Russian forces.
The Pathfinder Platoon deployed into Operation Pallister in 2000 and gained notoriety for the gun battle that took place at Lungi Loi village 40 miles from the main British base at Lungi Airport. RUF rebels, approached the village on the night of May 17th, with the intent of killing the British troops based there. The large RUF mob approached unaware of the number of Pathfinders (along with a team from 2 PARA's Mortar platoon providing illumination and a Brigade Patrol Troop, Royal Marines officer) located in defensive positions in and aaround the village. Using their Night vision goggles (NVG's) the Pathfinders unleashed a wall of fire at the enemy, killing 4. The platoon swept the area at day break following the large number of blood trails but to no avail. Intelligence reports found that the number of dead was far greater than initially thought and numbers in excess of 30 dead RUF were reported. There were no British casualties although one villager was hit by RUF fire but whose life was saved by a PF medic. A member of the platoon was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his actions in the gun battle.
Most Pathfinders don't stay in the platoon for more then 3-4 years. It is at this time when most attempt UKSF selection. The Platoon has the highest pass rate of any unit in the British Army mainly due to the similarities between the two units inluding the selection process and tactics. In days gone by many of the soldiers within the Air Troops through out the SAS were made up of ex-Pathfinders. This was the case as it enabled newly badgade Troopers to be augmented into an AIr Troop and bring all the knowledge he had gleaned in his previous PF life. Other troops have become members of the The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) formally 14 Intelligence Company as well as helicopter pilots in the Army Air Corps.
Training with Foreign Units
The Pathfinders have forged special ties with many foreign units throughout the years. Cross training between many of the NATO armies is commonplace. The platoon has worked closely with the Danish Jægerkorpset, Swedish Rangers, German Pathfinders, the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment and the Pathfinders (or LRS) of the 82nd Airborne Division. Another close tie is with the GCP (formerly CRAP; yes that is its real name) of the 2nd REP, of the French Foreign Legion.