General Dalbir Singh, PVSM. UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retired) the former Army Chief delivered the keynote address at the ISOC Seminar organized by Salute at the IIC, New Delhi on 05 July 2023. At the beginning of his address he stated that he has deliberately avoided speaking at Seminars or participating in discussions at think tanks but agreed to be the keynote Speaker due to his old association with Maroof Raza as both of them had served together in the Indian Military Academy in the mid 1980’s.
He said that he never gave an interview to the media during his tenure as the Army Chief and when asked about it on his last day in service after his handing over ceremony, he stated that he believed that “actions speak louder than words’. He was no doubt privileged to head one of the finest institutions in the country and said he would talk about two issues in keeping with the theme of the Seminar one was the Special Frontier Force (SFF) and the other being surgical strikes.
Having spent two years as IG SFF before he took over as GOC 3 Corps, he gave an insight into some aspects of the SFF. The Force was raised by Major General SS Uban on 14 November 1962 soon after the conflict with China and was called Establishment 22 as 22 was the numerical number of the Regiment General Uban had commanded. It initially comprised Tibetan refugees living in India. Two battalions of this were deployed in Ladakh and were located beyond the third stage of acclimatisation. There was also a Special Group which later formed the nucleus for the raising of the NSG.
The SFF comes under the Cabinet Secretary hence procurement of weapons and equipment is easier. He said that the Tibetan soldiers owe their allegiance to the Dalai Lama and most of them have given his name as their NoK.
These troops are highly trained, motivated and experienced to undertake operations in every kind of environment and have been employed in Ladakh, the Siachen Glacier, NE and have carried out CI Operations in J&K. Their notable achievement recently was in Galwan during the standoff with the Chinese.
He also went on to state how some of these troops had been under him when he was a Divisional Commander and being aware of their conditions of service, he was able to resolve matters of their pensions, allowances and medical facilities when he was the IG SFF which he was able to do because of the support of the Cabinet Secretary and other concerned Secretaries in the Government of India.
Surgical strikes in Myanmar
On 04 June 2015, militants ambushed and killed Indian Army soldiers in Manipur. It was immediately decided that retaliatory action needed to be taken. Having been the Corps Commander in that area for more than three years, he had worked with the Special Forces Teams and knew their Team Leaders personally. He knew who could operate in which area and was well aware of the terrain. The Teams had detailed knowledge of area, ground, sources and guides and he knew who could deliver the results.
He mentioned that during a high-level meeting, everyone stressed that action should be taken in 24 hours. But he asked, “What is more important? Time or success?” Everyone said success is paramount. He then asked that the time specifics to be left to the Army. Surprise is critical for the success of such operations. If the element of surprise is lost, there would be casualties and only failure. The Teams had to move into rebel areas in Myanmar over two-three nights.
The cross-border strikes against the rebels in Myanmar were carried out on the night of 08 and 09 June by Teams some of whom had been inducted from other Commands including one which was scheduled to go on a UN Mission but had operated in this area. The operation was a complete success without a single casualty among our troops. He was full of praise for the Special Forces and their professional competence and the perfect manner in which they executed the operations.
He said on that day, the then Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif made a statement that “Pakistan is not Myanmar”. He said that nobody can cross their borders, and if anyone does so, they will make sure the trespassers don’t go back. This statement stayed in my mind.
Preparation by northern command
Two weeks after the Myanmar operation, he visited Northern Command and told the Army and Corps Commander that our government and people would expect similar action by us against Pakistan if there was any incident on the Western borders. He then directed them to start preparing immediately as the next incident could never be predicted. It could take place in ten days, two months, tomorrow or longer.
Troops were earmarked and suitably equipped, targets were studied and training began in earnest. There were a number of targets spread across a wide frontage to ensure paralysis of reaction as and when such a strike was undertaken and troops were earmarked for each target. Intelligence of the target areas was obtained, the training areas and launchpad identified and these were upgraded. He stated that we even went to the extent of getting photos of the targets through our sources. And accordingly, mock-up targets were created, and training was carried out. No one could have been more prepared than what our Teams were.
The terror attack on the Brigade Headquarters Uri took place on 18 September 2016 killing nineteen soldiers. By now the Army had been preparing for fifteen months, were confident of executing the surgical strikes and had been waiting for a green signal. He said he received the call about the incident at 0500 hours and left for Uri within half an hour. He visited the site and told the Army and Corps Commander that the time to hit Pakistan had come and they would execute the strike as soon as they got government approval.
As there was a United Nations Meeting scheduled from 22 September in which a Pakistani Minister was to give his speech on 24 September and our Foreign Minister was to speak on 25 September it was decided to carry out the strikes after the meeting, but they needed to be executed at the earliest.
The Army was also aware of the fact that the Pakistani Army was on high alert. As they were expecting a counter action after the incident. Hence it was decided to wait till they lowered their guard and the decision was taken to hit them after ten days, on the night of 28/29 September.
The aim was to hit more targets, cause more casualties, and more impact. In one-night, multiple targets were hit over a frontage of almost 250-300 km. The Pakistani Army was taken by surprise and didn’t know what was coming next. Paralysis of reaction had been one of the aims. That was required to extricate our troops after the strike. This is the most difficult part in a strike operation and we were successful in that. This again displays the skills and confidence of our Special Forces and their training, that they returned safely without a single casualty for us.
There were a number of options to react after the Uri terror attack. One was we could hit the targets that were within range of air. The ground option was the most difficult because posts are eyeball to eyeball in one of the most densely mined regions and going through them is immensely challenging, particularly returning after the operation.
But the ground option needed to be taken because the Pakistani Army Chief Sharif’s statement ‘that no one can cross the Line of Control and come back alive’. He said he wanted to tell them that we can go across, hit them, and come back at a time and place of our own choosing. This way, we would be creating a sense of insecurity in their minds that they are not safe in their own country, that they should fear being hit by us at any time. This was the main reason the ground option was chosen.
India’s Special Forces are one of the best. They have proven it not once but again and again, within the country and outside the country. And these two operations were successfully executed without a single casualty on our side.
In fact, when the surgical strikes were concluded sans any casualty, he said some people doubted if we had actually done it. They asked for evidence. He said he stated ‘that no one should have any doubts against our Armed Forces. When we say something, we mean it. But in case anyone has doubt, I said they should come to Army headquarters at South Block and he will show them the evidence’.
Releasing the evidence, however, was not possible because the ISI and Pakistani Army would be fishing for information about how we did it. This operation may have been the first of its kind but it is not the last time, and we can do it again hence evidence could not be shared. Secondly, if the Special Force soldiers’ faces are revealed, their security would be compromised. Thirdly, if the soldiers know they are being recorded and they might be on TV, it would affect their actions and the mission could fail.
In 2018, he said while he was transiting to the US through the UK, he got a call from Arnab Goswami who mentioned that the video of the surgical strikes had been release and wanted to ask him a few questions. He was however unaware that he had been put live on TV.
He was asked if giving video cameras to the Teams to record the strikes meant that we had anticipated that people might doubt the Army and ask for evidence. He clarified that not a single video camera was sent with any Team as there was no question of giving a video camera to a soldier on an operation. We had other sources that had the facility to assist our operations and the source we used had the camera. And that is how we got these recordings.
In the end he reiterated that Indian Special Forces are the best in the world, comparable to any forces and have demonstrated their capability to deliver. He has no doubt that they will do even better in the future.
(Extracted from the former Army Chief’s Key Note Address at the Indian Special Operations Conference in New Delhi).