The two most famous Special Forces (SF) actions in WW II were both at a strategic level and had far reaching ramifications on the course of the war. The first was the rescue of a captive Mussolini by elite German SS commandos in 1943, to prevent Italy from capitulating to the Allies. The second was the Allied commando (cdo) attack and destruction of the Norwegian heavy water plant under German control in Telemark in 1944, to prevent the Nazis from producing the atomic bomb. The origins of the Indian Army’s SF can be found in the formation of Indian parachute units during World War II. The personnel of these units gained valuable wartime experience, which proved productive in the creation of the Parachute Regiment after Indian independence. It was not until the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war that India formed an ad hoc cdo detachment composed of volunteers from various infantry units. They executed their wartime duties so effectively that the government decided to establish permanent cdo units. One salient feature of these units was their specialisation on a specific geographic region.
The SF units first saw combat in the 1971 Indo- Pak war and received commendations for their actions during the war. The 80s were a busy period for the Para cdo units. In 1984, Sikh extremists took several moderate Sikh leaders hostage and holed up at the Golden Temple. The failure of the regular army saw the cdos being launched. The situation was restored albeit at a high price of two hostages dead and the cdos suffering 17 fatalities and approximately 60 wounded. During the IPKF operations too, the cdo units did not live up to the expectations deriving from their envisaged roles. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, some of these units were employed as “super-infantry” to launch attacks that were ordained to failure. Later, these SF units were criticised for no fault of theirs for not achieving results.
In our neighbourhood is the Pak Special Service Group. It was employed in the 1950s in the Naga Hills, in 1971 in the erstwhile East Pakistan, in the 1980s in Afghanistan and ever since its inception, in J&K. Pakistan had a few years’ head start in the formation of its first SF unit. In 1953-54, the Pakistani Army created, with assistance from the US Army, the 19th Bn of the Baluch Regiment. In the mid-1950s, this Bn trained Naga rebels in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), to fight the Indian government. In 1964, the US Army’s 10th SF Group (Airborne) sent a Mobile Training Team to assist the Pakistanis in building a new airborne school at Peshawar. This school trained the 19th Bn to become airbornequalified. Also at that time, personnel of the 19th Bn began to refer to themselves as the ‘Special Service Group (SSG)’ of the Baluch Regiment. The Bn consisted of 700 men, divided into 24 specialised companies.
The companies were trained to carry out missions involving desert, mountain, and underwater warfare. The SSG has all along been tasked for objectives which certainly were on a plane much higher than the tactical level. Over the years, four battalions of the SSG appeared to have achieved results quite disproportionate to their strength. In the light of this it is worth to ponder whether our SF have achieved successes in the wars and counter insurgencies since independence and also perhaps, in Sri Lanka subsequently.
The Army has seven Para SF battalions, while the Navy has the equally-well trained marine commandos(MARCOS). The IAF, in turn, has raised a new commando force called Garuds. In India we today have, between the three services, the Home Ministry and Cabinet Secretariat, SFs which are in excess of 10,000 strong. This constitutes a very significant national asset, and the organization of the structures, manpower, equipment & training, of SFs are issues which merit serious consideration .Ideally, SFs should be capable of undertaking special ops at all strategic, operational or tactical levels; a key role being one of providing intelligence to assist decision making at the national, strategic and operational levels.
In India, we tend to treat the SFs as an adjunct to conventional troops, and therefore employ them only at tactical levels to help attain immediate battlefield objectives. Other countries employ SFs to apply calibrated pressure at precisely calculated points to achieve political effect, well beyond mere battlefield successes. While we may have over the years developed our own perceptions and concepts on deployment of SFs, there is a need to open our minds and look closely at the way other nations do things. We must therefore examine the doctrine and philosophy of countries that have highly professional SF units; whether it is the Green Berets, the SEALs, the SAS, or the Russian Spetsnaz.
“Club all our so-called Special Forces units-be it the Army, Navy, Air Force, National Security Guards and the Special Group-and we have more manpower than what the Americans have and yet we don’t even have a tenth of their capabilities” lamented a retired General. The world over, governments and armies have recognised the need for “lean and mean” forces with comprehensive special operations ability. But our policy makers have chosen quantity over quality.
Need for Role Revision
The battlefield scenario has undergone rapid changes in the past few years and combat will now take place between highly mobile and networked forces, operating in a transparent battle space with long-range precision guided munitions in their arsenal. Warfare, as we have known it, may soon be a thing of the past because technology, rather than manpower has now become the determinant of battles. There are already indications that even the conventional battlefield may no longer exist, because conflicts will now, take place on different planes altogether.
If our adversaries of tomorrow, or their proxies are going to be non-state actors; terrorists, insurgents, pirates and hijackers operating at a sub conventional level, then our response too, will have to be at the same level. In such a scenario, SF will play a most significant role. The Para Cdo Bns are capable of carrying out the following missions: counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, counter-insurgency, security for very important people and places, reconnaissance, raids, peacekeeping, and sabotage. One likely current and future mission would be trans – border reconnaissance and raids into the Pakistani held areas of Kashmir. These missions have to be focused against Islamic militants that operate in India but are supplied from and trained in Pakistan. Another role for the SF would be long range reconnaissance and possibly direct action missions against the enemy country’s ballistic missile facilities. The most likely scenario would involve sets of small teams locating such missiles and facilities and reporting their precise coordinates to be used for a pre emptive strike. Yet another possible role for the SF will be to act as target designators for smart munitions.
In due course the armed forces would need to go in for a Special Forces Command (SFC) tasked with planning and executing special warfare deep inside enemy territory. It is therefore, imperative to place our SF in a requisite organisational hierarchy that their employment makes an impact on the affairs of state at the strategic level.It also emerges that there is a need to prepare for such contingencies and the requirement of SF units during conventional war.Our SF units must be augmented to at least 15 or so battalions. Given our emerging threat perceptions along our borders and internally our tri service SFs should be integrated to perform the following roles:-
- Conduct of unconventional warfare in two countries simultaneously.
- Greater capacity to detect, locate and render nuclear weapon sites safe.
- Acquire the ability to locate, and track and neutralise militant leaders ,pirates and militant suicide teams regionally.
- Anti piracy operations on the high seas
- SFs must build up language and cultural skills specific to key nations in the immediate vicinity.
- A SF UAV and aviation squadron and ships for special operation platforms needs to be created to extend the reach of the SFs.
The Indian army’s SF battalions have notched up several impressive achievements during both conventional operations and low intensity conflict (LIC). However, their numbers, capabilities, organisational and ancillary support structures, the quality of their leadership and the training standards of their personnel need to be substantially enhanced for their optimal exploitation in support of current and future national security objectives. Also, the Army’s SF battalions, the Navy’s MARCOS and the Air Force’s Garud, need to be closely integrated in order to achieve synergy of operations. Unless they are equipped with compatible communications equipment, and train to common standards, they will not be able to operate effectively with the degree of synergy cardinal in modern warfare. Only the toughest, the fittest, the most dexterous and the bravest soldiers would meet the exacting demands of operations behind enemy lines.
Those with the right potential must be carefully selected and thoroughly trained for the tasks that are likely to be assigned to them during war. Military commanders world over have been traditionally reluctant to accord to the SF a significant role in their operational plans partly because of a poor understanding of their capabilities and partly because they see SF as “these shadow guys who go off and fight their own war.”
Despite the sparse funding provided to them, the SF of India will continue to fulfill their role as the spearhead for the army. While our SF are highly trained and motivated, experts concede that Pakistan has the edge over India in SF operations capability. USA, UK and various other countries with whom both India and Pakistan have held joint special forces exercises concede that Pakistan has better training, the forces are better led, equipped and more dedicated than the Indian SF.It is for the policy planners to recognise that in many situations when war has not yet commenced and it is not possible to employ ground forces overtly, SF can be launched covertly to achieve important military objectives with inherent deniability.
However, they can act with assurance only if they have been well organized and well trained for the multifarious tasks that they may be called upon to perform. Above all else, it must be accepted that we will have to cultivate the political will necessary to boldly employ SF units to further national interests without getting “cold feet” about world opinion. There are enough lessons from the Cold War. Political will however, can not be a commodity that can be switched on and off. It requires a permanent shift in the mindset from the present concept of belonging to a soft state to one in which national security and interests are never compromised no matter how negative the international political impact may be. We must learn from the examples set by Israel.
–The author is a Colonel from the Regiment of Artillery and an erstwhile member of India’s National Security Guard