Military & Aerospace

Airborne and Special Forces: Reassessing Role, Tasks and Organisations
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Issue Vol. 30.3 Jul-Sep 2015 | Date : 20 Feb , 2016

The necessity for Special Forces (SF) is not in question. As I have myself written, in the context of Special Operations Forces, elsewhere “these forces can meet unorthodox security needs that conventional military organisations find difficult to accomplish, if at all.” The confusion that prevails, especially in our context, is with regard to role definition. While SF personnel see themselves as a cross between the fictional characters James Bond and Jason Bourne, reality obviously, in terms of training, capability and operational employment is vastly different. This confusion has arisen because we have not differentiated nor laid down guidelines as to what is required of our intelligence operatives, that is what those fictional characters represent, and from our SF units.

After independence and partition of India, the Indian Army drastically reduced its SOF capability…

Over the past two decades, our Special Operations Forces (SOF) and their capabilities have received a substantial boost in terms of numbers and equipment profile apart from the rapid increase in air transport forces especially with the introduction of the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. It is no secret that the Parachute Regiment today consists of nine Special Forces (SF) Battalions and five Airborne (AB) Battalions of which three form a part of the Parachute Brigade at any one time along with the brigades other fire support, assault engineering, air defence, communication and logistics elements. In terms of airlift capabilities, the Indian Air Force probably has sufficient air effort to be able to carry out a complete brigade group simultaneous assault in the airborne and heli-borne role, a capability likely to be matched by very few countries in the world.

Development of Special Operations capabilities in India commenced during the Second World War in 1941 with the raising of No 50 Independent Parachute Brigade which consisted of two Indian and one British Parachute Battalions. During the war years, it was involved in three operations, the first was an airborne assault by approximately two Companies to confront and subdue the Hun tribals in Sindh. The second operation was when the Parachute Brigade was committed as reinforcements for countering the impending Japanese offensive against Imphal. It was at Ukhrul and Sanghshak, that the Brigade hastily occupied defences to delay the Japanese advance on to Imphal. Field Marshal William Slim later described this as, “It was of inestimable value at this critical stage of battle.”1 The final operation of the war was the conduct of a successful airborne assault to capture Elephant Point as a part of the joint amphibious operation to secure Rangoon.

In 1971, the Commando Battalions of the Indian Army were utilised to carry out raids in their respective area of operations…

In the later stages of the war, this capability was subsequently enhanced with the raising of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s Long Range Penetration Force, originally the Chindit Force and later 3rd Indian Division (which only accepted British, African and Gurkha troops) in 1944. They were air-landed behind the Japanese frontlines by gliders and transport aircraft to interdict Japanese lines of communication as well as destruction of logistics and headquarter elements in Burma. The force of approximately two Divisions with its own air effort, was only reasonably successful, especially in its second effort and the operation was called off once General Wingate was tragically killed in an air accident. By the middle of 1944 till early 1945, all SOF were brought together. The Chindit Brigades and 50 (Independent) Parachute Brigade were grouped into 44 Airborne Division with the raising of a second parachute Brigade, the 77th and 114 (British) Air Landing Brigade based on glider-borne troops. It was from this Divison that elements launched Operation Dracula, the capture of Elephant Point by airborne assault.

After independence and partition of India, the Indian Army drastically reduced its SOF capability to just one parachute Brigade of three parachute Battalions and other requisite support and logistics elements, which after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, was enhanced to two Brigades. Subsequently, based on the exploits of the Meghdoot Force in the 1965 Indo-Pak operations, two Para Commando Battalions were raised as a part of the Parachute Regiment. In 1971, the Commando Battalions of the Indian Army were utilised to carry out raids in their respective area of operations, while one Battalion of the Parachute Brigade was employed in an AB drop at Tangail, which certainly caused immense demoralisation among Pakistani troops. More importantly, its higher leadership whose state of morale can well be gauged from the fact that they unconditionally surrendered Dacca without a fight with over 90,000 being taken prisoner.

Similarly, during the Kargil War in 1999, in a move that has not been fully recognised or appreciated, the Parachute Brigade’s employment from the East in Mushkoh threatened the Shaqma Axis, the only axis available to Pakistan to support all operations East of Shingo/ Olthingthang axis that is the Drass, Bimbat, Kaksar and part of Kargil sub-sector. It was a strategic master stroke that forced Pakistan to sue for peace to avoid another disaster.

Acrimonious debates and inadequately thought-through steps have increased rather than narrow the misconceptions about Airborne and Special Forces regiments…

The existing profile of the Regiment, mentioned earlier, has been achieved but not without its own unfortunate consequences, thanks mainly to a debilitating and bitter conflict within the Regiment over differing perceptions of what the role and doctrine of the AB and SF Battalions should be. Acrimonious debates and inadequately thought-through steps over recent years have increased rather than narrow the misconceptions about Airborne and Special Forces regiments. These retrograde steps have been based on personal preferences and mindsets rather than informed debate. These are founded on the assumption that SF and AB battalions have vastly differing roles and tasks, implying that what the SF battalion is meant to do cannot be replicated by an AB battalion, and vice-versa. Such an outlook is a flawed construct that we have imbibed from American and British military doctrine without sufficient analysis of its applicability in our context. It is, therefore, necessary to put both these types of units under the scanner, understand their existing roles/tasks and see if their organisations meet their requirement or is a clearly delineated SF/AB concept of employment and linked issues needed.

The Airborne Conundrum

Perceptions

From the time AB forces came into being, and even to this day, they are seen as specially trained infantry that is transported by air to its objective area, dropped and after reorganisation is required to operate as a regular infantry battalion or formation and carry out the same tasks as they would. It seems like a completely reasonable and logical assumption if one were to completely discount battle winning factors such as surprise, speed and momentum of attack, morale and motivation and the likelihood of the enemy being unprepared to face such an assault given the depth at which it is likely to be effected. Furthermore, the disruptive effect on the enemy’s command and control elements and the subsequent dislocation that is bound to occur is also not taken into consideration.

That they are highly trained light infantry is not in doubt, but historical study worldwide reveals that they were invariably used for the capture of objectives critical to success of the ground offensive. This they primarily achieved by destroying communication and logistics hubs, neutralising key commanders, ambushing reinforcing troops; overall causing mind paralysis and fear in enemy ranks.

Historical study worldwide reveals that AB troops were invariably used for the capture of objectives critical to success of the ground offensive…

What is revealing is that many of these feats were “opportunity feats” created by wide dispersion in landing and executed by AB personnel trained in boldly executed directive command leadership driven by initiative and daring; calculated risk-taking to exploit “fleeting opportunities” more than by linear obedience to hierarchical command This does not in any way imply that they do not hold ground. For example, after the capture of a bridge or an airfield, they do, but that is for a limited period till relieved by ground troops or till the situation demands after which they can disengage and fade away, as was finally resorted to at Arnhem after the ground forces failed to link up at Arnhem Bridge. That they had been launched to capture “A Bridge Too Far” by Field Marshal Montgomery, whose understanding of AB operations was at best sketchy and aversion to risk taking well known, is of course, one of military history’s supreme ironies.

It has only been in rare cases that they have been utilised purely in a defensive ground role; the most striking example being during the Second World War when Stalin ordered the conversion of ten Airborne Divisions into Guards Rifle Divisons to stem the offensive against Stalingrad and in the Baltics.2 There have also been some instances again of the Soviets utilising Airborne troops to reinforce defences in a sector facing enemy attacks but in the post war years, probably the airborne drop by the French at Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China as reinforcements is the only instance of such troops being utilised for a defensive purpose. Closer home, 9 PARA (SF) was used to reinforce defences at Chhamb while 50 Para Brigade was deployed in defence positions after being moved from the Eastern Sector to the Western Sector during the 1971 campaign.

Employment Philosophy

History is replete with examples that from the time small Airborne detachments were first employed operationally by the Soviet Union in 1925 against “Basmachi” or Muslim extremists in the Central Asian Republics3 and by all sides during the Second World War and even in later years, airborne forces have always been employed against numerically superior forces. In this context, it may be worth recalling the German airborne assault on Crete in May 1941, because it truly exemplifies strategic offensive employment of Airborne/air-transported forces with no ground support or link up planned. In this operation, codenamed ‘Operation Merkur’, approximately 22,000 troops, consisting of one airborne divison with an additional airborne Brigade tasked in the airborne/glider borne assault role to capture airfields with a supporting Mountain Infantry Division for follow- on tasks in the air-landed role. These forces were employed against an Allied force of approximately 32,000 troops supported by the remnants of ten Greek Divisions, a total of not less than 45,000 troops deployed across the Island.

There have also been some instances of the Soviets utilising Airborne troops to reinforce defences in a sector facing enemy attacks…

That German assessments of opposing forces were completely off target and heavy casualties ensured that no further airborne operations were undertaken is another matter. The German Airborne Forces were able to capture the major airfields in Crete through a combination of surprise, shock action and decisive numbers at the point of decision. Thereby, the Germans succeeded in their mission and forced an Allied evacuation of the island, but not without over 9,000 Allied troops being taken prisoner. That this was achieved despite the British being fairly clear as to overall German intentions and tactics, thanks to the success of their ‘Ultra’ code-breaking “Enigma” programme.4 This operation, in many ways, can be considered to be the forerunner of the present day employment of airborne forces as advance elements of Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF), around the world.

While this example and others too numerous to detail here, clearly show that numerically inferior airborne forces have time and again succeeded because of superior training, motivation and the element of surprise and shock, it is our flawed perception that they are regular infantry once dropped that has greatly impeded our understanding of their capabilities thereby restricting their use. Because we look at them as purely infantry units carrying out an assault on a defensive position we end up grossly under utilising and even undermining them. Hidebound conventional tactical reasoning demands we use standard force ratios while allocating troops to task which results in earmarking additional resources and preparatory time. We also tend to ignore the fact that in the event they are dropped on the objective or in its vicinity, which will always be the preferred option, they need their initiative driven methods, not standard infantry battle drills and tactics to carry out their attack.

Thus, with our existing operational philosophy, an assault on an objective held by a Company would be undertaken by a Battalion group. If we were to follow historical precedent, this task could possibly be accomplished by either one Company or at best, by half a Battalion. The implication of this and the crux of the issue is that where we should actually be utilising just between six to eight aircraft for this mission, because of our fallacious thinking the task presently requires the use of 24 to 30 aircraft, depending on type of aircraft and distances to be covered. The comparative difficulties involved in organising a mission involving eight aircraft vis-a-vis one involving 30 aircraft in terms of factors such as resources required, complexity of launching and recovery of aircraft, provision of escorts, suppression of air defences and possibility of achieving of surprise, along with a host of interrelated factors are easily comprehensible. For example, in an aircraft stream of approximately 30 aircraft the difference between the first “vic” and the last will be anywhere between 100-150 nautical miles, which clearly explains the magnitude of the problems involved when organising air cover for the protection of the air transport stream.

The prevailing air defence environment will require the IAF to carry out considerable preparatory strikes and air superiority missions…

This vast requirement of resources creates a dichotomy with regard to their employment in the context of the security environment that we are confronted with. Before we can launch such an offensive, the prevailing air defence environment will require the IAF to carry out considerable preparatory strikes and air superiority missions to ensure such a large air transport stream can be safely inserted without losses. This may require anywhere from four to seven days after the hostilities have broken out which, however, is unlikely to be available, given that such a conflict fought under a nuclear shadow will face tremendous international pressures to be quickly terminated. This implies that not only our ground offensive may be restricted in terms of depth, but also that it will probably only has a very limited window in which to be undertaken.

Further elucidation of the strategic dilemmas that we face is given in my article “Divergent Paths: India’s National Security Strategy & Military Doctrine”, (IDR Vol 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015) as space does not permit further amplification here. Thus, if we continue to look at employment of airborne forces as we presently do, then it appears their use in support of such an offensive seems extremely unlikely.

This clearly requires not only a review of the organisation table of our AB forces to make them lighter and more potent, but also reassess employment philosophy. As a rising South Asian power, India needs to protect her growing economic assets and citizens within the Indo-Pacific region. We thus need troops to handle Out Of Area Contingencies (OOAC).

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The manner in which the intervention in the Maldives, Operation Cactus, was launched in a matter of hours by the Parachute Brigade in 1988, against terrorists who had deposed the Government, clearly shows the necessity for establishing an adequately strong RDF capable of responding with appropriate force within the required timeframe. That the Parachute Brigade with an additional SF Battalion will have to be the spearhead element of any such RDF is unquestionable and it requires that they be able to operate independently at great distances with sufficient capability till seaborne forces can be inducted in support.

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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

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a second generation para trooper and author of “Beyond the Bayonet: Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century.” He is currently a consultant with the Observer Research Foundation.

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3 thoughts on “Airborne and Special Forces: Reassessing Role, Tasks and Organisations

  1. Apparent from this article, that the author has a deep insight and knowledge of the subject. The halcyon days of grand airborne / pra-drop ops ala Chindits or European theatre during Second World War are over. In today’s dense ant-air weapon system deployed on ground with high accuracy and lethality, employment of paratroopers / airborne troops have limited scope of success. USA in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan and Israel in Palestine or Lebanon enjoyed air-superiority and so could successfully conduct operations, but it cannot be replicated in our context for obvious reasons. If Special Forces are just utilised like commando platoons of infantry units then it is gross misuse. Author has correctly suggested re-think, to evolve home-grown doctrine best suited for Indian environment. They can play stupendous role in Mountains, where capturing peaks with tactical significance or manoueuvres to cut off enemy’s supplies are always critical and daunting. In India, heli borne troops have been sub-optimally utilized and Special Forces used like infantry in Internal Security ops. Heliborne Special Forces with UAVs have tremendous potential in asymmetric warfare and undertaking targeted ops. A thought provoking article!

  2. The other day my son in Singapore was all praise for special forces (i am a retired infantry Officer of 1971 war vintage ) I just painted a picture for him which is equally applicable to all who are reading AND WRITING — i told him what special forces face Small arms like machine guns,assault rifles and rocket launchers in limited numbers WHEREAS the conventional Infantry man in addition to above IN LARGE NUMBERS face 100 to 125 mm main Tank guns, 75 mm to 200 mm artillery guns, rockets and missile, being strafed by 30 mm cannons and not to miss the wrath of 1000 or 2000 pounder bombing and attack by 200 to 2000 men at a time I asked for his comments ( WHICH HE IS YET TO REPLY) like wise I await your comments — IF SPECIAL FORCES ACTIONS LOOK SO GLORIFIED THEN HOW WOULD ONE JUDGE AND QUANTIFY THE CONVENTIONAL iNFANTRY MAN BRAVERY — THE OTHER ARMS ARE MILES BEHIND OR BEHIND 300 MM OF ARMOUR — WHILE HE DOES NOT EVEN HAVE BASIC CLOTHING OR FLIMSY PERSONAL ARMOUR

  3. The other day my son in Singapore was all praise for special forces (i am a retired infantry Officer of 1971 war vintage ) I just painted a picture for him which is equally applicable to all who are reading AND WRITING — i told him what special forces face Small arms like machine guns,assault rifles and rocket launchers in limited numbers WHEREAS the conventional Infantry man in addition to above IN LARGE NUMBERS face 100 to 125 mm main Tank guns, 75 mm to 200 mm artillery guns, rockets and missile, being strafed by 30 mm cannons and not to miss the wrath of 1000 or 2000 pounder bombing and attack by 200 to 2000 men at a time I asked for his comments ( WHICH HE IS YET TO REPLY) like wise I await your comments — IF SPECIAL FORCES ACTIONS LOOK SO GLORIFIED THEN HOW WOULD ONE JUDGE AND QUANTIFY THE CONVENTIONAL iNFANTRY MAN BRAVERY — THE OTHER ARMS ARE MILES BEHIND OR BEHIND 300 MM OF ARMOUR — WHILE HE DOES NOT EVEN HAVEE BASIC CLOTHING OR FLIMSY PERSONAL ARMOUR

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