The Indian Army and the Indian Navy have elite forces for Special Operations while the Indian Air Force owns a majority of the platforms to deliver them. The lack of ‘jointness’ has meant that even communication between the delivery platform and the Special Forces is a weak area. Intelligence also remains a weak area. Each defence service has its own intelligence set up; so do non-military agencies. There is no joint enterprise to share coherently modulated streams of relevant intelligence information. There is a need for an efficacious C4ISR policy and a joint organisation through which this policy runs as a common strand. The example of US ‘jointness’ and C4ISR come to one’s mind again in this context. The results are manifest in the success of US Special Operations across the globe. Of course, it took the US years to get the ‘jointness’ of thought, doctrine, equipment, organisation and training in place. Once we start, we will also take a long time to reach that level of integration.
The voices that declare conventional warfare to be extinct are as loud as those that contest this declaration and call it premature and preemptive. Inarguably, conventional warfare has been brushed into the background by more recent additions to military lexicon; some of the prominent ones are Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), Low Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO), Irregular Warfare (IW), Hybrid Warfare, Asymmetric Warfare, Small Wars, Little Green Men1, and Political Warfare. As far as Special Forces are concerned, these new and emerging trends are increasingly being termed as the “Grey Zone” – implicit with little green men, ghost protocols, ambiguities on the character of conflict, and validity of the claims at stake, for example, the alleged presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq.
Special Forces, aside from stand-alone operations, have always occupied a high podium position in conventional warfare. In Sand Model exercises, they have always represented a notional 1.5X to 2X force multiplication dynamic in the perception of the players, irrespective of their arm band colour – red, blue or white! On the ground too, their effect is usually spectacular and out of proportion with the manpower and resources assigned. While conventional ground forces perform operations employing tactical units to achieve tactical level objectives, Special Forces represent an option to conduct tactical operations using direct or indirect methods to achieve strategic and operational level objectives which may be military or designed to buttress diplomatic, informational or economic ends. Special Operations have never been alternatives to conventional war, but rather complementary or supplementary especially in situations where the environment is hostile, inaccessible by conventional forces or politically sensitive. By their very nature, they are often conducted at large distances from operating bases, are predicated to complex methods of injection and extraction, are critically dependent on detailed, real-time intelligence and need accurate fire support. To meet all these requirements, elements of air power serve as splendid instruments; indeed, some Special Operations would not be conceivable without the employment of air power. This article looks at air power for operations by Special Forces.
Undoubtedly, the US leads the world in doctrinal, technological and experience level refinement…
Special Operations and Air Power
A distinction may be made between Special Operations where an air or heli-lift or drop is the basic building block and those which are centred around land or naval Special Forces supported by elements of air power. Arguably, the Doolittle Raid or the Tokyo Raid in April 1942, falls into the first category. Using B-25 B Mitchell bombers in retaliation to the Pearl Harbour attack, it was a demonstration of American will and capability to bomb Japanese mainland. Although it did not achieve notable material damage, it was special inasmuch as it raised the morale of American troops and served the strategic purpose of Japanese decision to attack Midway Island in the Central Pacific leading to a decisive and strategic defeat of the Japanese Navy by the US Navy. The Doolittle Raid meets the doctrinal definition of Special Operations as it was a tactical operation to achieve strategic level objectives. It was accomplished by a small number of specially trained volunteer forces using modified and unconventional tactics, was carried out far from friendly bases or support, had a high level of physical risk to the aircraft and crew, and the recovery phase of the operation was completely independent of friendly support relying totally on Chinese civil and military assistance.
Another example of this category of special operations is Operation Entebbe (or Operation Thunderbolt), the successful counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by Israeli commandos at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Operation Neptune Star, a CIA-led operation with US Joint Special Operations Command coordinating the Special Mission Units involved in the raid to eliminate Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil, was another Special Operation based on stealth helicopters travelling illegally over Pakistani territory to reach Abbottabad. Closer home, Operation Cactus used Indian Air Force IL 76 aircraft to move and land Indian Army Special Forces in Maldives thus leading to the squelching of an attempted coup d’état by a group of Maldivians assisted by People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), a Tamil group from Sri Lanka.
All operations are not guaranteed with success. The ignominious Operation Eagle Claw, ordered by US President Jimmy Carter to attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis by rescuing 52 embassy staff held captive at the American Embassy in Tehran failed most humiliatingly. To this list could be added many more operations which employed fixed or rotary-wing aircraft to transport Special Forces at or in close proximity of their objective area.
The other category of Special Operations includes stand-alone Special Operations as also those in conjunction with conventional tactical operations wherein air power may play a vital role at specific phases of the operation because of its characteristics of flexibility, concentration of force, precision firepower, long reach and responsiveness. These roles could be firepower, Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR), airlift (including landing and dropping by various means) and combat support. Operation Enduring Freedom saw a successful combination of precision firepower delivered by aircraft and Special Forces on the ground in Afghanistan with some new terminology for air power roles being spawned like Bomber Close Air Support (CAS) and Ground-Aided Precision Strike (GAPS) to describe heavy bombers (B-1, B-2, B-52) working with Special Forces on the ground. Ongoing Special Operations are throwing up new lessons as far as use of air power is concerned. As can be expected, the US is at the leading edge of the use of air power for operations by Special Forces.
US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are currently deployed in 149 countries around the world…
The US Exemplar
Few Special Operations make news of interest to all nations. It would be a startling bit of statistic to many readers of this article that US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are currently deployed in 149 countries around the world according to TomDispatch, a project of US Nation Institute, a non-profit media centre. Considering the fact that the total number of countries in the world is 195, that is a staggering 76.4 per cent of the world’s nations. Under George W Bush the figure stood at around 100 and during Obama’s tenure the figure had swollen to 138. The current astonishing number of deployments is largely on account of confrontation with a large number of terror groups in almost every corner of the world. US SOF are thus constantly learning new lessons about the deployment of Special Forces as well as about the employment of air power in support of operations by Special Forces.
Undoubtedly, the US leads the world in doctrinal, technological and experience level refinement. The SOF are technically components of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), formed in 1987, charged with overseeing the various Special Operations Commands of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force components of the US Armed Forces. The USSOCOM is a part of the Department of Defence (DOD). Operation Eagle Claw alluded to earlier, was the trigger for the idea of a unified Special Operations command as the investigation into the botched up mission cited lack of command and control and inter-service coordination as significant factors in the failure of the mission. Each branch has a Special Operations Command (SOC) that is capable of running its own operations, but when the different Special Operations forces need to work together for an operation, USSOCOM becomes the joint component command of the operation, instead of a SOC of a specific branch. As far as air power is concerned, the US Air Force has the main aircraft for Special Operations, but the other SOCs also have some air capability, for example, the US Army has 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) as a Special Operations force that provides helicopter support for general purpose forces and Special Operations forces. Its missions have included attack, assault, and reconnaissance, by day and night.
Possibly, the sudden emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, caught the US by surprise. However, faced with an ignominious exit from Iraq as a result of ISIS onslaught, US directed the full might of 480 ISR Wing against the ISIS. Air power sprang to support US ground forces; MQ-1(predator) and MQ-9 (Reaper) Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft and P-8 surveillance aircraft flew increasingly intense ISR missions over Iraq and Syria. The benefits of these operations to SOF were so enormous that a new establishment – 363 ISR Wing – was established for the express purpose of targeting.
In an article entitled ‘Airpower May Not Win Wars, But It Sure Doesn’t Lose Them’, Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken conclude that, “In the irregular wars, America has actually fought, and remains likely to fight, a combined effort of airpower, Special Operations forces and the intelligence community is simply a better instrument for American policymakers than conventional land power. The record of the last half-century shows clearly that resorting to US ground forces as a military option has frequently produced costly failures that we should not be eager to repeat. In a time of limited resources for the Department of Defense, those resources should be applied where they will do the most good and provide the widest range of policy options.” Whether one agrees with their thesis or not, the synergistic effects of Special Operations and air power usage are easy to visualise and accept.
We are not organised as a cohesive force capable of Special Operations using airlift by fixed wing or helicopters…
Special Forces Against Terror
Regular and Special Forces are constantly being called upon to engage terrorists, especially Special Forces of the US which declared a global war on terror after the 9/11 episode. A majority of these modern-day engagements tend to be in the nature of urban warfare as cities have strategic value and the built-up environment provides man-made protection to the terrorist on the run. From the point of view of the Special Forces, it makes more sense to fire laser-guided bombs and smart missiles from an airborne vehicle at a stand-off distance than risking a valuable special force soldiers on the ground. Special Forces could move in after the aerial attacks and endeavour to achieve their objective.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was planned with necessary integration of special and conventional forces to execute fights in cities en route to Baghdad and then in Baghdad itself. The lessons drawn from US experience in Mogadishu, Somalia, Vietnam made them look at the “urban battleground” as a complex environment made up of sub-systems including military camps, civic amenities, political and religious establishments, which constantly interact with each other. The idea is to follow a course of action that brings about good results with minimum civilian and military casualties. However, this was a big challenge as close quarter battle was the key to successful urban operations. Precision munitions helped in reducing the collateral damage, the bane of using air power in urban warfare. Special Forces operating on the ground would any day prefer smart weapons released by airborne platforms to artillery support, especially as most situations demand high levels of first shot accuracy.
Air power is often accused of being just a blunt instrument in an urban environment because the accuracy of air-launched precision weapons is often negated by moving targets in built-up areas, confounding the attackers. However, the Pentagon’s rules of engagement stipulate that force protection has priority over minimising civilian casualties and collateral damage. This is a fundamental part of ‘effects-based’ bombing. A corollary is that air effort needs to be focussed on as much ‘direct fire’ as possible, which means firing directly at a specific target with precision munitions, although the use of less accurate high level bombing is not ruled out altogether.
Needless to say, the air situation would dictate what air support can be provided to Special Forces. During the Battle for Fallujah, for example, there was no threat from enemy aircraft as US air power had complete air superiority; thus the priority was force protection and close air support to the troops on the ground. This support was enhanced by providing expanded situational awareness directly from air reconnaissance and surveillance vehicles to the tactical level on the ground, rapid reaction precision air strikes, armed escorts for troops moving on the ground and airlift support of troops and supplies. Fallujah was a demonstration of air power in support of Special Forces.
The operation was an abject failure due to incorrect intelligence on deployment around the University campus…
Aircraft for Su pport for Operations by Special Forces
As an exemplar, the main fixed-wing attack aircraft employed in the battle of Fallujah included US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18 fighters, US Navy F/A-18 and F-14 fighters operating from the carrier USS John Kennedy, US Air Force AC-130 gunships and F-15 and F-16 fighters. In addition, US Navy EA-6B ‘Prowler’ aircraft were used to collect signals intelligence and jam enemy communications rendering them ineffective.
Increasingly, there is a demand for retro-fitment of aircraft for Special Operations missions especially for the conduct of infiltration and ex-filtration, ISR, and refuelling missions. At the last Paris Air Show, many defence contractors and OEMs proffered Special Operations aircraft. Lockheed Martin unveiled a new variant of its C-130 Hercules, the C-130J-SOF Super Hercules, which it said can be used for a variety of missions such as the gathering of ISR data, Search and Rescue and low-level infiltration and ex-filtration of troops. Armed mission capability and aerial refuelling role can be added on. Gulfstream, known for its business aircraft like G550 and G650, has also been modifying its Business Jets for special missions since 1967 for roles such as ISR collection, early warning, maritime and surveillance applications. Gulfstream feels that the future outlook for special operations aircraft is bright. As airborne equipment gets more compact, lighter and less power hungry, the advantage offered by small aircraft is on the ascendant, particularly in the ISR role.
The US has been using expensive aircraft such as the F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18 and F-22, as well as the A-10 Warthog and the AC-130 gunship against the Taliban, ISIS and other insurgent groups in Iraq and Syria in the face of nil or negligible opposition. The unit costs of aircraft and the expense of operation of these aircraft are prohibitive and there is a thought process on to replace them with a ‘light attack aircraft’ fleet that would achieve similar effects in support of Special Forces. Thus where the threat is low, light attack aircraft could be employed as a cost-effective platform thus leaving the more expensive, advanced and heavier fleets to be pitted in a more hostile environment. Textron Aviation’s AT-6 Wolverine and Embraer A-29 Super Tucano are in the running as far as US is concerned. A decision in favour of either may change the offensive face of air power in support of operations by Special Forces, rendering it much cheaper and easier to mount.
The idea of an Indian SOC has been mooted from time to time, but has not found fruition…
Recent events in Maldives have refreshed memories of Operation Cactus, a classic Special Operation with 400-odd Para Commandos being airlifted 3,500km to land on an unlit runway. The operation undoubtedly saved a nation. However, a repeat of that operation is not on the cards as this time, a government is in place and the opposition needs help unlike the last time when the elected government needed our assistance to counter a coup. India has no Special Forces Command, but the important Indian Special Forces may be enumerated as Para Commandos, Ghatak Force, Marine Commandos, Garud Commando Force, Special Frontier Force, National Security Guards, Special Protection Group and the COBRA force. The first three listed above have the potential to be used in a trans-border Special Operation using helicopters.
As far as counter terrorism operations are concerned, helicopters are in constant use to airlift para military and police forces to locate or relocate them in reaction to local intelligence. Although the success of Special Operations Commands the world over is there to emulate, ongoing attempts by the Indian military to get such a command into place have been thwarted by bureaucratic impediments. Another inhibiting factor has been the fact that some of the Special Forces are not military, but paramilitary. This was again a politico-bureaucratic ploy initiated in the hazy past to prevent the possibility of a military take-over. The result is that we are not organised as a cohesive force capable of Special Operations using, if the scenario required it, airlift by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.
Of course, when required, these single service Special Forces and helicopter elements have been able to come together for short periods of brilliant tactical action. The strike into Myanmar last June was a typical ‘Special Operation’ using helicopters where an international border was violated deliberately albeit not into enemy territory, in pursuit of an operational objective. Indian Army para-commandos, heli-lifted by IAF Mi-17 helicopters, struck two camps across the Indo-Myanmar border in a retaliatory attack after 18 Indian soldiers were killed by a militant ambush in Chandel district of Manipur. However, the episode served to underscore the significance of helicopters in support of Special Operations as also to highlight our hazy approach to Special Operations.
In contrast to the success of Operation Neptune Star is our own botched up helicopter operation at Jaffna University in October 1987 to rescue Prabhakaran and others of LTTE cadre. The operation was an abject failure due to incorrect intelligence on deployment around the University campus. So would raising a unified Special Operations Command help in better utilisation of air power for Special Operations? Perhaps the answer lies in finding organisational and training solutions to the problem of ‘jointmanship’ in Special Operations.
The Indian Army and the Indian Navy have elite forces for Special Operations while the Indian Air Force owns a majority of the platforms to deliver them. The lack of ‘jointness’ has meant that even communication between the delivery platform and the Special Forces is a weak area. Intelligence also remains a weak area. Each defence service has its own intelligence set up; so do non-military agencies. There is no joint enterprise to share coherently modulated streams of relevant intelligence information. There is a need for an efficacious C4ISR policy and a joint organisation through which this policy runs as a common strand. The example of US ‘jointness’ and C4ISR come to one’s mind again in this context. The results are manifest in the success of US Special Operations across the globe. Of course, it took the US years to get the ‘jointness’ of thought, doctrine, equipment, organisation and training into place. Once we start, we will also take a long time to reach that level of integration.
The establishment of an Indian SOC with command and control of air assets is unlikely until a true CDS is in place…
The idea of an Indian SOC has been mooted from time to time, but has not found fruition. The numbers involved of manpower trained and equipped for Special Operations as well as helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for transporting them to their target areas are small and sorely needed by their single-service owners for many tasks. All forces and air assets for SOC would have to come from existing holdings of the services. The Naresh Chandra Committee had recommended the bringing together of Special Forces of the Indian Special Forces like Para Commandos (Army), Marine Commandos (Navy), Garuds (IAF), Special Frontier Force (Cabinet Secretariat) and National Security Guards (Home Ministry) and other agencies under a unified SOC in order to execute strategic or politico-military Special Operations.
This recommendation is in consonance with the 2001 Group of Ministers’ report after the Kargil conflict, which had also recommended a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to provide single-point military advice to the government as well as bring ‘jointness’ among the Army, Navy and IAF by resolving inter-Service doctrinal, planning, procurement and operational issues. The implication for use of air power for operations by Special Forces is quite clear in both these proposals. However, it is also quite evident that the establishment of an Indian SOC with command and control of air assets is unlikely until a true CDS and not just the creation of Integrated Defence Service organisation, is in place.
- Masked soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms and carrying Russian military weapons and equipment that appeared during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and consummated the annexation of Crimea.