It is imperative to empower and equip India’s Special Operation Forces (SOF) to prepare and project them as a force multiplier, a game changer, a rapid deployment force as a net security provider in the region, a threat in being, and a major component of our Comprehensive National Power. However, for many years, not enough had been done. Fortunately, the strategic role of the PARA SF (Special Forces) was recognised and reiterated after the first ever successful surgical strikes post the Uri terrorist attack, in September 2016. Post surgical strikes, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sanctioned Rs 2,000 crore to procure equipment and weapon systems for the SOF which has been perpetually deficient from their inventory. The need to equip the SOF with the requisite state of the art arms and equipment to execute ‘Low Cost High Effect Operations’ is an imperative.
The key question which needs discussion and deliberations is: are the Special Operational Forces optimally structured and equipped to effectively contribute to the changing nature of future warfare and the emerging security challenges in the Indian context? Are we as a nation and the Armed Forces only factoring in the “One time success story” of the surgical strikes or are we preparing our Special Operations Forces (SOF) as a force multiplier, a game changer and a critical component of ensuring ‘Low Cost – High Risk and Effect’ instrument of National security? Indian SOF are one of the most battle hardened and combat rich forces in the world, known for effective and successful conduct of operations whenever and wherever tasked, despite certain suboptimal arms and equipment in their inventory. The SOF should be mandated, structured, organised, equipped, manned, trained and located to be the first and possibly the final responders in emerging situations, impacting national security or national interests and assets.
The arms and equipment needs of the SF are special as in most cases, ‘Success is not a probability and Failure not an option’ for them. The staying power, survivability and success in execution of operations is contingent to not only the best SOF operatives but also the military wherewithal available. The arms and equipment needs of the SOF include enhancing firepower, communications, surveillance, insertion and extraction techniques and capabilities as well battlefield mobility. The SF needs staying power and survivability to ensure success in critical missions. The SOF requirement is of low population, high technology arms and equipment. The procedures to procure equipment for SOF are the same as for all other arms in accordance with the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020.
Indigenous development of high technology equipment is not attractive enough for DRDO and OFB due to the limited quantities required. In any case the inordinate delays in development by DRDO, leave the services with little option other than imports. It has been over two decades since the Army has been trying to procure essential arms and equipment for the SOF, like combat free fall parachutes, small arms, sniper rifles, light strike vehicles, underwater diving equipment, communication equipment, laser target designators, heavy drop equipment and ATGMs. These still remain in various stages of procurement or development. Even low technology equipment like Parachute Jump Boots and Airborne Helmets being indigenously developed continue to be in the development and trial stages for over two decades.
The criticality has been compounded with the raising of additional Parachute and Parachute (SF) units. The envisaged procurements have not kept pace, leading to the existing inventory being rationalised, in effect the poverty has been shared. A proposal to fast track procurements by empowering a special committee, similar to the special clothing and equipment committee for Siachen was considered and shelved. It is difficult to comprehend how the MHA succeeds in procuring state of the art weapons for the CAPF, whereas the MOD succeeds only in delaying all procurements, even of similar weapons which are in service with the CAPF. It is hoped that this will get corrected by the impetus to modernisation and priority in making up critical voids accorded by the Defence Minister.
Fortunately, the priority accorded and impetus given by the Defence Minister and the Army seems to be now resulting in long pending procurements. The special forces are being equipped with new sniper rifles, man-portable anti-tank missiles, VSHORADS (very short range air defence system), and micro unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance.
In brief some of these include 715 Mk 48 Light Machine Guns (LMGs), 1,050 FN Scar (H) 7.62×51 assault rifles, 1,400 FN Scar (L) or HK-416 assault rifles, 110 .50 Cal Browning heavy machine guns (HMG), 400 helmet-mounted night vision systems, 600 combat freefall parachutes, 100 Barretta M107A1 heavy sniping rifles and 20 million rounds of ammunition. The proposals are part of fast-tracking of Para-SF procurements initiated after September 2016 surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). It is the most comprehensive re-equipping of the Para-SF in over two decades. In addition, other equipment in the pipeline is Carl Gustaf Mark-4 lightweight rocket-launchers from Sweden’s Saab. Beretta pistols from Italy equipped with suppressors. Rubberised inflatable boats that can be air-dropped and remotely-operated underwater vehicles that will be used to dispose of explosives. The .50/ 12.7 mm HMGs are meant to be fitted on the Light Strike Vehicle (LSVs) being procured from Pune-based Force Motors. The 7.62 x 51 mm FN Scar, made by a US unit of Belgium’s FN Herstal, is required to upgrade the firepower of SF operators in dense jungles of the Northeast and Myanmar. The case for a new lightweight belt-fed 7.62 x 51 machine gun to replace 50-year old OFB manufactured LMGs was pending since 2005. Some of the equipment is being procured from the US through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, while other equipment is being procured from Sweden, Finland, Italy, Israel, Russia and Germany.
The SF will need continuous and constant upgrades to be present relevant and future ready. The much needed critical equipment under procurement will enhance the effectiveness of the SOF. However, the need is to plan for the long term and tweak the DAP to facilitate the acquisition of state of the art arms and equipment for the SF, in an acceptable time frame as and when required.