Military & Aerospace

Air Elements in Special Ops
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Issue Vol. 34.2 Apr-Jun 2019 | Date : 06 Jun , 2020

Twelve multi-role all-weather Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) supported by SU-30MKI air-superiority fighters and combat enablers like the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA), carried out deep air strikes into Northern Pakistan, including at targets beyond the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the early hours of February 26, 2019. The targets were terrorist training camps and rear staging areas. It was among the latest of aerial surgical strikes in response to Pakistan sponsored terror attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir that killed over 40 Indian security personnel. Prime Minister Modi had publically said that their martyrdom will be avenged. The armed forces were given a free hand to choose the place and time of reprisal. Earlier, the Indian Army Special Forces (SF) units had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) against terrorist launch-pads in PoK on September 29, 2016, to avenge the attack on the Army’s Brigade headquarters in Uri.

The much more publicised aerial SF operation was on May 2, 2011, when a group of special operators from the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) descended on an unassuming compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In an ensuing firefight, members of the SEAL ‘Team Six’ shot and killed the infamous Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Due to an accident during the operation, they had to leave behind the stealthy UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The incident made headlines around the world. While it exposed Pakistan’s duplicity, it once again highlighted the dominating use of air for clandestine operations.

Special Forces and Aerial Operations Evolve

The primary mission of the SF is to conduct unconventional or clandestine guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. These specialised troops could also help defend against hostile guerrillas in a counter-guerrilla role. SF operations have played an important role throughout history. Chinese strategist Jiang Ziya in his ‘Six Secret Teachings’ (475-221 BC) talks about recruiting talented and motivated men into specialised elite units. In the late Roman period, Roman fleets used small, fast, camouflaged ships crewed by selected men for scouting and commando missions. In Japan, Ninja warriors were used for reconnaissance, espionage and as assassins, bodyguards or fortress guards. The British Indian Army created the Corps of Guides in 1846 and the Gurkha Scouts in the 1890s for special roles. In 1940, the British Commandos were formed to unleash a reign of terror down the enemy coast. Most major armies created SFs during WW II and they served in all theatres.

The advent of military aviation facilitated swift insertion of troops behind enemy lines. It also helped extricate SF troops after a mission. SFs are inserted through physical landing at an airstrip with minimal facilities and aids or parachuted behind enemy-lines. The airborne invasion of Crete Island in June 1942 and the Chindit operations of Burma Campaign are taught in military academies. The German army used SFs in many campaigns, including the famous Barbarossa campaign in 1941. The Italians used SFs to sink and damage considerable British tonnage in the Mediterranean and raid Allied airbases and railways in North Africa in 1943. Formally, the SF doctrines of unconventional warfare evolved after the Korean War in 1951. In modern times, the SF troops have seen major action in Vietnam, Kosovo, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. Operation ‘Just Cause’ in late December 1989 involved the air invasion of the Republic of Panama using C-130 variants and MH-60 helicopters. President Manuel Noriege of Panama was captured. SFs have been used in both wartime and peacetime military operations across the world. Nowadays, they undertake airborne operations, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, covert operations, hostage rescue, high-value target hunting or neutralisation among others.

Special Air Operations

Air operations conducted in support of Special Operations and other clandestine, covert and psychological activities are called Special Air Operations (SAO). During the late 1960s, the US was eager to get information on Chinese nuclear tests at Lop Nor. The USAF flew a six-hour low-level night mission from Thailand to para-drop sensor pallets in Gansu province. Since 2004, Pakistan and the US have employed fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters on the Afghan border using airborne sensors to hunt and kill militants. Forward looking infrared systems, night vision capability, all-weather weapon aiming sights, self-protection systems to defend from airborne radars and air/ground fired weapons, are key to Special Operations aircraft. All major Air Forces of the world have Special Operations aircraft. The US, because of global commitments, has a Special Operations Command since 1990, which handles missions ranging from precision application of firepower, infiltration, ex-filtration re-supply and refueling of the Special Force’s operational elements. Its motto ‘Any Time Any Place’ says it all.

Aircraft employed by the US are indicative of the more suited types. These include Hercules C-130 variants, CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and many smaller ones. For special one-off missions, other aircraft including fighters and helicopters are inducted. Other missions include Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), airbase ground defence, air interdiction, special reconnaissance, psychological operations, radar assault, establishing assault airfields and air fire support. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, anti-plane hijacking, and kidnapping are also special missions.

Such operations require specially designed aerial platforms with better capability to penetrate behind enemy lines and special training for aircrew, tactical air control party, para-rescue medical teams, special weather teams for behind-the-lines meteorology and assets protection security teams. Air elements normally lead the way for other forces. Para rescue teams and troop extrication are also air tasks. Air Forces are also responsible the para training including for High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) and High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) parachute operations.

Special Operations Aircraft

Strategic cargo and transport aircraft have given global reach at short notice. Helicopters can deliver troops on rooftops and UAVs undertake a variety of roles. The changing nature of war has given primacy to Special Operations aircraft. Airlift and Special operations aircraft are being designed for short response time, undetected-penetration, greater self-protection and capability to land at short unprepared surfaces. Typically, these aircraft have wide/tall fuselage cross-section, a high-wing to allow the cargo area to sit near the ground, a large number of wheels to allow it to land at unprepared surfaces and a high-mounted tail to allow cargo to be driven directly into and out of the aircraft. Such aircraft generally feature one or more large doors for loading cargo. The most commonly used aircraft the world over id the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and its variants.

The C-130 Hercules Special Operations aircraft family has the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history of over 50 years. Fifteen nations now have 300 of the latest variant, the C-130Js. These are specially configured with electronic warfare suit for deception and self-protection. The C-130 Gunship modified with side-mounted guns can also provide sustained and surgically precise firepower. Short landing and takeoff ability on semi-prepared surfaces allow quicker insertion and exit. In Kosovo, the USAF used C-17 for half of the strategic airlift missions due to its capability to use small airfields and rapid turnaround time. The C-17 has also been used to deliver military cargo and aid during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. On March 26, 2003, 15 USAF C-17s participated in the night-time airdrop of 1,000 paratroopers over Bashur, Iraq. C-17s also ferried M1 Abrams, M2 Bradleys, M113s and artillery. The Bell-Boeing MV-22 Tilt-Rotor had its first offensive combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2009 in Operation Cobra’s Anger. On May 02, 2011, following Operation Neptune’s Spear, MV-22 was used to fly the body of Osama bin Laden to aircraft carrier Carl Vinson for his sea burial. Russian Tu-214 R is a special mission aircraft with ELINT, SIGINT and COMINT loads and has a side looking synthetic aperture radar. The IL-76 is the main aircraft for Russian airborne troops. Special Forces were used extensively during the war in Afghanistan including storming of the palace and killing of President Hafizullah Amin and his guards.

A-440M, IL-76, C-47T Sky Train, C-212 Aviocar and CN-235-100 also have Special Operations roles. Russians use Antonov AN-26. UAVs of MQ-1 Predator class and much smaller other UAVs have different support and combat roles. Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters are extensively used. Boeing Chinook CH-47 is also used. Special navigation and aerial delivery systems are used to locate small drop zones and deliver personnel or equipment with greater accuracy and at higher airspeeds. Terrain Following/Terrain-Avoidance radars, precision-ground-mapping radar, automatic-computed-air-release-point system, electronic and infrared countermeasures, high-speed-low-level aerial-delivery system, container release system, secure HF, UHF, VHF-FM and SATCOM radios, Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), are important equipment. Missions are normally flown at night as during day operations aircraft are more vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons. Enemy territory stretch is normally flown at ultra-low level. Pre-emptive jamming or Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) is required. Missions can also have air defence escorts, combat air patrol for LZ/DZ security and fire support for helicopter operations. Fighters can be part of the package and provide additional strike capability with greater stand-off, hard-target kill capability and larger area suppression weapons.

Major Airborne Special Operations

The first true Special Operations sortie took place on December 24, 1942, when two C-47 transports dropped paratroopers behind German lines to blow up the El Djem Bridge in Tunisia. The famous ‘Carpetbaggers’ used B-24 Liberators to drop agents behind enemy lines. Operation ‘Thunderbolt’ on July 04, 1976, was a classic counter-terror hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue 248 passengers held as hostage by a Palestine liberation group. Four Israeli Air Force C-130s flew low-level at midnight to avoid radar and visual detection.

On April 24, 1980, US President Jimmy Carter ordered Operation ‘Eagle Claw’ during the Iran Hostage crisis to rescue 52 diplomats held captive in Tehran. The eight-helicopter operation encountered many operational and maintenance obstacles and was eventually aborted causing serious embarrassment to President Carter. This led to a complete re-look and the development of Osprey V-22 tilt-rotor. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin laden was killed in Pakistan on May 02, 2011, by US Navy SEALS in Operation Neptune Spear. 79 Commandos and a dog were involved. Two modified stealth Black Hawk helicopters were used. Much larger Chinook helicopters were on hot stand-by. Helicopters were supported by multiple other aircraft, including fixed-wing fighter jets and drones. Since finally one Black Hawk had to make an emergency landing, one of the two Chinooks held in reserve was dispatched to carry part of the team and Bin Laden’s body out of Pakistan. The MV-22 had its first offensive combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2009 in Operation Cobra’s Anger. Ospreys assisted in inserting 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops into the Now Zad Valley in Southern Afghanistan to disrupt Taliban communication and supply lines.

Special Forces in India

Indian Army’s Para (SF) was created in July 1966, when the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (Commando) was raised as the first Special Operations unit. The Indian Army has nine Para Regiments that constitute SFs. They are tasked for direct action, hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defence, counter-proliferation, counter-insurgency, seek and destroy and personnel recovery. They work closely with the Para training units of the IAF. During the 1971 War, Indian SFs carried out first airborne assault operation to capture Poongli Bridge in Mymensingh near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Para (SF) were the first to lead a heli-borne assault on October 11, 1987 in Jaffna, and later Moolai in Sri Lanka during IPKF operations. On November 04, 1988, an Army parachute brigade carried out airborne/air transported Operation Cactus to liberate Maldives during a coup attempt. A fleet of IL-76, An-32 and An-12 transport aircraft were used.

The IAF and 21 Para (SF) carried a cross-border operation along the Indo-Myanmar border and destroyed two militant camps in 2015. Indian SFs have done training with SFs of the US, Bangladesh, Israel, UK, France, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Maldives, Seychelles, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. The IAF ‘Garud’ SFs, a force currently of 1,500 was formed in 2003. Their additional roles include airfield seizure, airborne operations, air assault, radar bursting, capture and operation of an enemy airbase, air base ground defence, air interdiction, close air support, psychological operations, wartime disaster management, mass casualty evacuation, VIP evacuation, nuclear contingencies and CSAR.

After the attack on Pathankot airbase in January 2016, additional numbers have been cleared to make it a 1,780-strong force. Garuds have been deployed to Congo as a part of the UN peace keeping contingent. Formed in 1987, the MARCOS are the SF unit of the Indian Navy. Their additional roles include amphibious warfare and hydrographic reconnaissance. MARCOS stormed the Trident and Taj Hotels in Mumbai during the terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008. The other Indian Special Forces include the Ghatak force, Special Operations capable infantry platoons in every Indian Army battalion, Special Frontier Force and the National Security Guard (NSG), an anti-terrorist unit.

Special Operations Aircraft of the IAF

The IAF’s An-32 fleet of over 100 aircraft also has bombing and special mission roles. On June 04, 1987, five An-32s escorted by four Mirage 2000s undertook food supply drop mission “Poomalai” over the Jaffna peninsula. The IAF has eleven C-130J-30s for Special Operations. One more is on order. The C-130J can accommodate loads up to 33 tonnes three armoured personnel carriers, 92 equipped combat troops or 64 paratroops. The aircraft has an electro-optical missile warning system, a radar warning receiver and a countermeasures system that is capable of dispensing chaff and infra-red flares in addition to the GEN-X active expendable decoys. These allow safe penetration behind enemy lines. The IAF routinely trains all SFs at the Paratroopers Training School at Agra and during exercises.

The helicopter fleet includes three Mil Mi-26 heavy-lift (to be replaced by 15 Boeing CH-47 Chinook, 250 Mi-17 class medium-lift, 65 HAL Dhruv (45 more on order) all of which can be used for some form of Special Operations. The Boeing AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter will also take on Special Operations. The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey has the advantage of a helicopter and long-range, high-speed cruise performance of a turboprop aircraft. The V-22 is replacing the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knights in the US Marine Corps. With the capability to carry up to 32 troops or nine-tonnes of cargo, it is a good Special Operations aircraft. Israel, Japan and UAE are serious customers. This is an aircraft that may interest India one day. India may also procure 15 Japanese amphibious aircraft ‘US-2’. The ShinMaywa Industries developed amphibious flying boat has a short take-off (280m) and landing (330m) performance over water and could land at high sea states. It can also operate from runways as short as 1.3 kilometres.

Escalatory Nature of Special Air Operations

Special air operations are covert in nature. For long, the world has considered peace-time air penetration operations between two major militaries a high-risk escalatory action. Even during the Kargil War, the IAF was restricted so as not to cross the LoC. To launch air strikes across the LoC requires decision at the highest level. For the first time ever since independence, in peacetime, the IAF was given the go-ahead for crossing the LoC to strike Balakot and other terror camps. The Pakistani security establishment was conscious of a possible Indian retribution and was on alert. However, they did not expect an air strike. There was an element of surprise in terms of use of air and the timing. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) did make a failed retaliatory strike. But a beginning has been made. Pakistan’s nuclear bluff and its implied threat have been exposed. Similar surgical air strikes are now a possibility.

SF Personnel Training

On an average, SF personnel are between 29 to 35 years of age, are married with kids. They generally have eight to ten years of experience in the conventional forces. SF have to be strong enough to be able to carry nearly 45 kg gear in their rucksacks and some survival items in their pockets such as maps, GPS device, knives, grenades and a flashlight. They go through rigorous training and continuously maintain fitness. They are taught the language and the cultural aspects of the country they may operate in. SFs have higher than average intelligence. Everyone has a certain level of medical training to help each other if wounded until they reach a proper medical facility. They also provide aid in humanitarian crises when other units are not available. SFs are also trained in hand-to-hand combat and advanced marksmanship.

Preparatory For Aerial Special Operations

Special Operation missions have specific purpose to destroy an objective, to extricate own forces or capture a key enemy leader. Before any air operation, reconnaissance missions are launched to gather intelligence on the enemy through satellite imagery, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) pictures, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Human Intelligence (HUMINT). The targets are studied in great detail. The target location is ascertained to a high accuracy so that laser or GPS bombs can be used to target them without collateral damage. Target-to-weapon matching is then done so as to achieve the desired effect. In case of armed troop insertion, the entry and exit routes are studied. Back-up plans are evolved and rehearsed. The aircraft have planned tactical routing to avoid detection. Typically, SO are undertaken very early in the morning ‘graveyard shift’ time when the enemy radar and weapon systems operators would be at the lowest alert and efficiency. Invariably, very high precision weapons are used to avoid collateral damage. Specially designed transport aircraft and helicopters are used. Fighter aircraft can be used for one of punitive strikes. Every SO requires combat support aircraft for Electronic Counter Measures, Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA), Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft and Decoys to divert enemy attention. Each such mission requires objective destruction assessment.

US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM)

Born of a failed 1980 helicopter raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was established in 1987 and today has nearly 70,000 troops. USA realised early, though they often engaged various military units and personnel from intelligence agencies, these sort of “Black Ops” are best carried out by dedicated forces which train together. Planning demands military operations, which officials in Washington might never admit even occurred. These elements often need very specialised aerial support. So, with help primarily from the US Army and Air Force, the Pentagon formed a permanent and secretive infrastructure to provide aircraft and helicopters for these missions.

The USSOCOM is the unified command overseeing the various SO Component Commands of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. The command is part of the Department of Defence and is the only Unified Combatant Command legislated into being by the US Congress. Since its activation on April 16, 1987, it has participated in several operations from the 1989 invasion of Panama to the ongoing global war on terror. USSOCOM conducts several covert and clandestine missions, such as direct action, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defence, unconventional warfare, psychological warfare and counter narcotics operations.

Aircraft are a mix of traditional military type aircraft like the C-130, Bell-Boeing MV-22, Army UH-1, CH-3 and CH-53 helicopters as also the less common types, including Cessna C-208 Grand Caravans, Pilatus PC-6s, CASA 212s and C-295s, over the years. Even fighter strike aircraft or bombers could be used. Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter are also used. Today, SO Forces are widely viewed as a primary tool in both contemporary and future American foreign and defence policy. There is a US Special Operations university called the Joint Special Operations University located at the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. 85 percent of SOCOM troops are deployed in 20 countries around Middle East and are regularly conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen.

Indian Special Forces Command

For long, the Indian Armed Forces have been building up a case for a tri-service Special Forces Command. In October 2018, it was announced that the three services would have joint cyber, space and Special Forces divisions. This could significantly upgrade India’s abilities to carry out covert operations across borders as it would combine assets of the Marcos, Garuds and Para Special Forces. Initially, it is expected to start as a division led by a two-star Army officer and could later be turned into a larger command. India has also now to move beyond a para school co-located with IAF transport squadrons. There is a need for a tri-service SF college.

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The Way Ahead

India is in one of the most threatened regions and has serious boundary disputes with the two nuclear-armed neighbours. With Pakistan being the epicentre of terrorism, Special Operations may remain the key to India’s defence. The surgical strikes have already captured the imagination of both politicians and the public due to its (usually) shorter duration and more obvious metrics of success (e.g., numbers killed, captured, or objectives seized). But surgical strike is not the sole mission for SOF. The other side of Special Operations is special warfare which focuses on the political-military realm of longer duration rapport building and working “with and through” foreign allies.

The cornerstone missions of this SOF approach are foreign internal defence and unconventional warfare. The logic is that those who know how to foment or assist resistance, rebellions or revolutions should also know how to counter them. Special warfare missions may seem less appealing than surgical strikes. Such operations are normally carried out across much longer timeframes and under ambiguous conditions in environments where complex social, historical and economic contexts are as important as purely military factors. India is rightly building its Special Forces and air transportation capability. The HS-748 Avro replacement EADS CASA C-295 will also have a rear-loading ramp and will have para and partial Special Operations capability. In not too far in the future, India should have its Special Forces Command.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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