It was amusing to watch a recent program on Lok Sabha TV on Army’s Special Forces with not one of the veteran military panelists having served even for a single day in a Special Forces unit. Reminded one of the now infamous Track II recommending withdrawal from Siachen with not one of the nine military members served, visited or taken a briefing on Siachen. While the Track II had their agenda about Siachen, the above TV panelists indulged in perception building that there is no difference between airborne forces and Special Forces.
If there was indeed no difference between the two, why would the US maintain 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions separate from the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM)?
Though this is a game going on for long to somehow get hold of the Special Forces Allowance and the special qualification badge for all airborne forces, the perception building campaign has been accelerated of late perceiving establishment of the Special Operations Command in the near future. So you find views being expressed that the role, tasks and organizations of airborne and Special Forces are by and large the same, and need to be reviewed.
Interestingly, one of the panelists of the above TV discussion has been recommending since December 2013 that the entire Parachute Regiment should be part of the Special Operations Command, as if the Special Operations Command would be some superlative Noah’s Ark that must house everyone.
Special operations are “special” or unconventional and carried out by dedicated Special Forces units using unconventional methods and resources at the operational and strategic levels, performed independently of or in conjunction with conventional military operations. The primary goal is to achieve a political or military objective where a conventional force requirement does not exist or might adversely affect the overall strategic outcome. Such operations are usually conducted in a low-profile manner that aims to achieve the advantages of speed, surprise, and violence of action against an unsuspecting target.
But first let us discuss Airborne and Special Forces. If there was indeed no difference between the two, why would the US maintain 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions separate from the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM)? Why would Chinese have their Special Forces from their Airborne Corps? Why would the British maintain the SAS separate from the British Parachute Regiment? Why would Germany maintain their Special Forces Command (Kommando Spezialkrafte) separate from the German Parachute Regiment and German Parachute Divisions? Why would Pakistan maintain the SSG as a separate force?
…the two cannot be equated. Sure the airborne units are to be airdropped behind enemy lines but once dropped their role is akin to any air-landed infantry battalion – holding ground till link up is established.
The reason is pretty simple – the two cannot be equated. Sure the airborne units are to be airdropped behind enemy lines but once dropped their role is akin to any air-landed infantry battalion – holding ground till link up is established.
During the course of a presentation on 22 April 2002, Lt Gen RK Nanavatty, Northen Army Commander who himself had headed the Commando Cell in Military operations as a Brigadier, had remarked, “I find the vision blurring in certain quarters on the Issue of Para and Para (SF). I am very clear that a Parachute Battalion is simply an Infantry Battalion in airborne role and has nothing in common with a Special Forces Battalion. The Special Forces are not a game of numbers and I for one am against their expansion of any sorts. We must consolidate and modernize our existing Special Forces resources.
As regards the Parachute Brigade, I view them as a RRF to be used within and outside the country.” Interestingly, the presentation was made by the Para Brigade Commander (recommending converting the entire Parachute Regiment to Special Forces role) on behest of the then Colonel of the Parachute Regiment. Again with respect to Army’s Special Forces, a two star General from Army’s Perspective Planning Directorate too had noted way back in 1999, “By their very nomenclature, the Parachute (Special Forces) battalions are unique. Therefore, there is a need to de-link and distinguish them from other similar organizations.
While some of the tasks that they may perform may be similar to those of regular infantry / parachute battalions, the similarity ends here. Unless this uniqueness is accepted and enforced in all aspects of organization, equipment, training and administration of these units, they may not achieve their potential”.
Many would be unaware that General BC Joshi was the first Army Chief who took note of the focus required to alleviate the Special Forces concept and the need for employing Special Forces at operational and strategic levels. Under him the, Army Special Forces Regiment was raised with the then three Parachute Commando Battalions renamed as Special Forces Battalions. The Headquarters Special Forces and a Special Forces Training School (SFTS) too was raised.
The appointment of Chief of Army Staff was designated Honorary Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment and Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi (who eventually retired as Vice Chief of Army Staff) took over as Colonel of the Special Forces Regiment. Unfortunately, Gen Joshi died in harness. His successor, Gen Shankar Roychowdhury was presented the banner of the Army Special Forces Regiment since he became the Honorary Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment in his capacity of COAS – inset picture shows Lieutenant General A Sandhu, then Director General Military Operation and Ex-Officio Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment presenting the Army Special Forces Regiment banner to General Shankar Roychowdhury.
The result was that weapons and equipment meant for Special Forces started getting shared with normal parachute battalions.
But then General Shankar Roychowdhury succumbed to pressures from veteran paratrooper General Officers and disbanded the Army Special Forces Regiment which was fully raised and functional, merging the Parachute Commando Battalions into the Parachute Regiment. He later told Brig (later Major General) Keshav Padha, then Commander Army Special Forces (also in inset photograph) that he could not withstand the pressure from the Burhas (read old Generals). It sure was an act that has no parallel in history – Honorary Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment disbanding his own Regiment but it set back the Army Special Forces by decades.
But more followed: Headquarters Special Forces was gradually broken up and finally disbanded; bulk of being officers posted in Additional Directorate General (Special Forces) in Military Operations Directorate became non-Special Forces officers – which continues to date; all out efforts continue to be made on ‘equating’ the Parachute Battalions with Special Forces battalions – focused on getting for the Parachute Battalions same tasks as Special Forces, similar organization, similar weapons and equipment, similar manpower policies, more or same level of training with foreign Special Forces, same Special Forces insignia and Special Forces allowance by renaming Parachute Battalions as Special Forces (Airborne); US employment of Airborne Divisions in invading Afghanistan were portrayed as 20,000 USSF used in order to expand Army Special Forces and convert as many airborne battalions into Special Forces role; the SFTS who the DGMO in 2002 had ruled should remain exclusive to Special Forces was made applicable to parachute battalion too.
Call it by design or default, Para officers were posted to appointments in various directorates that controlled the training, equipping, manning and postings of Special Forces units. The result was that weapons and equipment meant for Special Forces started getting shared with normal parachute battalions. Foreign Special Forces coming for joint training to India with Special Forces too were largely directed to the Parachute Brigade on pretext of secrecy. In one case troops from parachute units, not Special Forces, went to train with Spetsnaz in Russia – all this to build a case there is no difference between airborne and Special Forces !
Our airborne forces should focus on streamlining their operations rather than concentrating on equating themselves with Special Forces.
The US Special Forces too underwent similar resistance from the airborne forces but were lucky to eventually break away. The equation of airborne forces with Special Forces has not been agreed to any of the Army Chiefs in the past but the Army certainly needs to put a stop to such nonsensical efforts that not only stymie the growth of Special Forces but distract the growth of airborne forces from their own task. Airborne Forces have never been equated with Special Forces, can never be and should never be. They are separate entities with separate well defined tasks. Some Army Chief will have to muster courage to undo the adverse fallout of the action taken by Gen Shankar Roychowdhury on Special Forces.
The British Airborne Forces did a splendid job in Falklands. They are not claiming to be equated with Special Forces.
Our airborne forces should focus on streamlining their operations rather than concentrating on equating themselves with Special Forces. Lt Gen US Lidder as CISC and Colonel of the Parachute Regiment had recommended to General Deepak Kapoor, then COAS, that the Deputy Directorate General of Special Forces in Military Operations be upgraded to Additional Directorate General and brought directly under the VCOAS, with all issues of manning, equipping, training and postings controlled by the ADG (SF). While the upgrade did take place, everything else remained same because the DGMO felt that his turf was being encroached upon, which is highly stupid because in all armies, the Special Forces are directly under the highest military authority?
The Army, in particular the Vice Chief must look at this aspect seriously since we have gone ahead and expanded to nine Special Forces battalions, with the tenth one on the anvil.