The Special Forces Dilemma
The necessity for Special Forces 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.
Our problems have emerged from our belief that covert and clandestine operations are one and the same…
Our problems have emerged from our belief that covert and clandestine operations are one and the same. Our inability to understand the subtle difference between these terms has in fact led to our misinterpretation of the way in which the West generally differentiates between operations to be undertaken by intelligence agencies and those by SF, though there have been some examples of overlap due to peculiar circumstances. Covert operations require the highest degree of deniability and non-attributability while clandestine operations have lesser need of this. It stands to reason, therefore, that while covert operations fall in the realm of intelligence agencies, clandestine operations are the forte of the Special Forces.
Clearly, in the recent trans-border raid into Myanmar against insurgent camps we could afford to organise a clandestine mission that needed to remain secret only till it was executed as there would be minimal repercussions once the raid was attributed to us. However, in the Indo-Pak situation, we would certainly need to look at complete deniability, to avoid fallout thereby needing to organise covert action. Connected to this is the necessity for nations to ensure that regular armed forces and SF are very much an integral part of that, follow the protocols laid down by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, of which we are signatories as well. Given this clear cut differentiation, it is necessary for Army HQ to specify the role of the SF units so that they can be organised and equipped to build up realistic capabilities that fall within their domain.
Covert operations require the highest degree of deniability and non-attributability while clandestine operations have lesser need of this…
Employment Philosophy and Tasking
At the present time, our SF Battalions are scaled approximately one to two per field army. They are expected to operate in small teams within the theatre with the Battalion Commander located either at the Field Army HQ or with a Corps HQ to advise the commanders on their tasking and coordinate operations of his Battalion. In practical terms with his sub-units spread over large distances, he can have little influence in either planning of sub-unit level operations or in motivating his command through personal leadership. Moreover, given his limited service/age profile, his operational understanding is likely to be superficial and thereby his advice less than wholly credible.
When war commences, they primarily have the task of carrying out Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Designation (RSTAD) and Direct Action (DA) missions. While Human Intelligence (HUMINT) gathering is important and needed advances in technical and electronic capabilities have made them extremely relevant and often better options than dispersed SF HUMINT. A wise combination is obviously needed. Prior to hostilities breaking out they could carry out clandestine trans-border RSTAD, DA and providing liaison or assistance to rebel elements if operating in that country, which implies language skills and knowledge of terrain in the area of operations. It also stands to reason that employment of assets prior to hostilities will certainly lead to degradation of capabilities subsequently due to recovery, rest and recuperation issues.
It, therefore, appears reasonable to deduce that DA will become their primary mission to include interdiction, raids and harassment tasks. RSTAD would become secondary and resources required to be deployed for this would be minimal since they would mainly be used to confirm specific information obtained by other means. However, for conduct of DA missions, the existing team organisation needs serious enhancements in numbers and capability to extricate themselves without reinforcements.
While covert operations fall in the realm of intelligence agencies, clandestine operations are the forte of the Special Forces…
There has been much criticism that by increasing the number of SF Battalions, we have not only hurt their “exclusivity” and diluted standards but also ensured that units are perennially short of weapons and equipment because of sharing “poverty”. The number of units of Special Forces that a country has is based on threat perceptions, military doctrine and operational requirements and “exclusivity” is in that context a needless distraction. Thus, different countries have different numbers. For example, the US has approximately 50,000 personnel in their Special Operations Forces, while Russia probably has over a 100,000, if Spetsnaz from all Departments are considered, and even Pakistan’s SSG now is about a Division strength. As regards training standards and equipment profile, these are matters of bureaucratic organisation, budgetary support and institutional implementation. Moreover, a 10,000-man Special Operations capability for a million plus army, such as ours, is hardly excessive.
Lack of role definition has led to an equipment profile that is not only skewered towards “high technology” imported equipment of limited utility with attendant serviceability issues, but also with regard to its authorisation. The necessity, for example, of maintaining over 500 Combat Free Fallers makes little sense because not only is it not practicable for units to ensure suitable manpower required is available, but more importantly there appear to be no suitable operational mission where they can ever be used in such numbers. All that has been achieved is that such a capability has tied up money which could have been better utilised elsewhere. There are numerous such examples of such excessive and unrealistic capability building which have impacted budgetary provision and need to be reconsidered. In any case, the armed forces as a whole have been suffering from endemic shortages for reasons too well known to bear repetition.
For the past two decades, our SF Battalions have been employed in the Counter Insurgency (CI) role. Command and control of SF units rests either with Army HQ or the Command HQ which means that these units are under hands-off supervision. This isolation certainly helps in ensuring that units can concentrate on training. Unfortunately, focus on training is only one aspect of professional development and aspects such as officer development, focus on unit administration are left only to the Commanding Officer’s discretion and capability. This helps neither the Battalion nor its personnel and the old adage that “which is not inspected is not done” certainly holds true. SF units too require a supervisory hierarchy to excel in their work.
The number of units of Special Forces that a country has is based on threat perceptions, military doctrine and operational requirements…
It would be fair to conclude that both AB and SF Battalions are specialised light infantry units which are required to operate behind enemy lines either in conjunction with ground forces or independently primarily to carry out DA missions aimed at interdiction of the battlefield and degradation of enemy command, control and logistics elements that will assist in the own overall design of battle at the operational level.
In addition, SF battalions would also be required to carry out limited RSTAD missions during the preparatory period and once hostilities commence. They would, however, operate differently in that AB units would operate with the company being the lowest manoeuvre element that would operate independently, while in the case of SF units they would also be required to operate at troop and squad levels as well, though tasks at that level are likely to be fairly restricted.
For OOAC tasks, ideally both these type of units would operate in conjunction as the spearhead element of any RDF. The AB unit would be tasked with establishing and holding the Air Head while the SF element carries out RSTAD and intervention missions in support. Thus, despite existing perceptions both these types of units overlap in the manner in which they operate and require personnel with similar mindsets.
Both AB and SF Battalions are specialised light infantry units which are required to operate behind enemy lines…
We, however, see that given their likely operational employment, the AB battalions are excessively manpower heavy while the SF battalions lack the requisite manpower to be able to carry out the complete range of missions they may be assigned. It may, therefore, be appropriate to consider a combination of both these types of units and have battalions which consist of two to three AB companies/teams and one to two SF companies/teams each depending on terrain specialisation and likely employment.
One can visualise the employment of such a Battalion in a Corps Zone. It would employ one SF company RSTAD task with its AB companies being utilised for SHBO and AB tasks. Such an organisation would not only lead to better coordination but also better utilisation of resources. Air effort required would also be extremely limited and easier to organise and in acceptable time. In the context of a cold start such Battalions can be critical to success.
To strengthen command, control and advisory capabilities, in addition to tailoring the Parachute Brigade specifically for OOAC tasks, there is a need to establish an element under a Brigadier level officer at each of the affected Command HQs, with requisite staff support, who would exercise command and control of all such Battalions operating within the theatre as also provide requisite advice regarding their employment to the theatre and Corps Commanders. He would also be responsible for coordinating all such special operations with Army HQ. Such an organisation will also ensure that these units are also appropriately supervised.
That the Indian armed forces’ Special Operations capability needs serious reassessment is irrefutable…
The existing Pathfinder (PF) Squadron of the Parachute Brigade provided by the President’s Body Guards needs rethought. PFs are needed and the existing system is inadequate. We could consider establishing a PF Squadron to be manned by selected personnel from all Battalions in rotation. It could be the repository of all CFF capability tasked to provide CFF assets wherever required. The same could also be thought of with regard to the Infantry Combat Vehicles presently held within battalions which could be grouped into a Mechanised Infantry Company manned by rotational regimental personnel.
That the Indian armed forces’ Special Operations capability needs serious reassessment is irrefutable. It must be organised; equipped and trained to meet perceived requirements for which we need homegrown not copy-pasted solutions. Similarly, doctrinal aspects must also be thought through. The unified organisation suggested in this paper is worth examining for its gains in inter-operability, unit rotation and manpower/equipment management.
- Slim, FM Sir William G; Defeat into Victory;
- Glantz, David M; The History of Soviet Airborne Forces; Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1994;pg 64
- Sinha Deepak, Beyond the Bayonet: Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century; Gyan Publishing House, 2006 pg 12.
- Antill, Peter D; Crete 1941: Germany’s Lightning Airborne Assault, Osprey Ltd, 2005, pp35-37.