The limits of covert action: SAS operations during ‘Confrontation’, 1964–66

Christopher Tuck*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article evaluates the performance of the Special Air Service (SAS) during secret cross-border raids conducted as part of Britain’s undeclared war against Indonesia from 1963–1966. The analysis reviews the existing debate on the SAS’ performance during this campaign; it looks more closely at how military effectiveness might be defined; and it then examines, using the SAS’ own operations reports, the nature of their activities and their success or failure. This article concludes that critics of the SAS’ effectiveness during Confrontation are right; but for the wrong reasons. SAS operations did indeed have less effect than orthodox accounts would have it. But the reasons for this lay not in their misuse but in the exigencies of British strategy. This article demonstrates an enduring truth – no matter how ‘special’ a military force might be, tactical excellence cannot compensate reliably for problems in strategy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)996-1018
Number of pages23
JournalSmall Wars and Insurgencies
Issue number6
Early online date23 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016


  • Borneo
  • Confrontation
  • Military effectiveness
  • SAS
  • Special Forces
  • Strategy


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