Military & Aerospace

Special Operations and Intelligence Agencies: India’s Incapability
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 27 Sep , 2017

Wikipedia defines Special Operations as “military operations that are ‘special’ or unconventional and carried out by dedicated special-force units using unconventional methods and resources. Special operations may be 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. Special 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. Special operations are typically carried out with limited numbers of highly trained personnel that are adaptable, self-reliant and able to operate in all environments, and able to use unconventional combat skills and equipment. Special operations are usually implemented through specific, tailored intelligence.”

Special operations are nothing unique to modern times. Indian history is replete with tales of subversive missions carried out by individuals or a team, from the times of the Cholas to the Mauryas, from Shivaji to Maharana Pratap to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In recent times, after the 1962 debacle, a Special Frontier Force (SFF) was raised, whose activities were highly publicised in the media during the 1971 and 1999 wars with Pakistan. Over the years, many units of special forces, generally uniformed, have been raised in India; mention of their activities is usually made for their participation in counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist operations. The ‘Entebbe Operation’ by the Israelis in Uganda, and ‘Operation Geronimo’ by the US Special Forces (US SF), in which Osama bin Laden was killed, are some known examples of special operations elsewhere. Unfortunately, in pursuance of national security objectives in India, little has been done to get the most out of these forces.


‘Special Forces’ (SF) and ‘Commandos’ are often confused with each other and, hence, used synonymously; a thin line separates the two, but there is a difference. Both in theory and in practice, there are some ‘specialties’ of the various SF, but there are some overlaps too. The word ‘Special’ should be sufficient for anyone to comprehend the employment of this Force for strategic tasks, well behind enemy lines, or elsewhere too. What deters the political, and at times, the military executive in India from deploying these forces across international borders is the lack of understanding of their employment beyond direct attacks, raids, and ambushes, and a fixation on the tactical aspects of their deployment, rather than strategic aspects (ask any SF veteran!).

Reportedly, there are some 30-plus organisations, nominated as Special Forces in India. Most of these are police forces, but what can be really termed as SF are the para forces of the Army, the Marine Commandos of the Navy, and the Garud Commandos of the AF, though some of the forces under the Cabinet Secretariat, NSG and ARC, are also termed as SF. The strength may be around 20000, much more than the US SF, which holds about 15000, but which is ten-times more capable. The US Special Operations Command (US SOCOM), also includes non-uniformed personnel as Psy-Ops and Civil Affairs teams with deployment in almost 200 countries around the world, including India. SF tasks, which may not include physical conflict at all, tend to be forgotten for insufficient understanding of the capabilities of the Force, and hence, there is no concept in India of them being used beyond conventional war.


The SF of any nation, as a concept, is not to engage in direct contact with the enemy in a unit, or sub-unit basis, to achieve battlefield victories. The SF should be central to an initiation or a response to any asymmetric attack, which does not automatically equate with physical contact. This, thence, translates that the SF does not create resistance movements, but instead advises, trains, and assists insurgent movements, already in existence.

Conceptually, thus, SF should have a continuous employment to ‘shape the outcome of war’, either strategically, or on some occasions even tactically; this could vary from conventional wars with a nuclear background to asymmetric and fourth generation warfare. In asymmetric settings, SF has limitless proactive employment possibilities to exploit the environment through encouraging disorder via psy-ops, info warfare, and even economic, technical, and financial warfare.

Our country, though having some of the best-qualified forces, fights shy of deploying SF in such cross-border missions, except in conventional deployment as a part of UN Peacekeeping Forces. An exception is the deployment of the SF as a part of IPKF; in the UN missions, however, SF units were despatched as a whole, a practice normally no country follows. As mentioned earlier, this is because of a lack of understanding of the role of SF. Continuing irregular threats and crises evoke knee-jerk political responses, which do not go beyond raising ever more new units of SF, primarily in the police or para-military forces, thus adding to the ill-equipped many. This has led to glaring gaps in strategic intelligence, even in areas of our immediate neighbourhood, so essential for the success of any special operation.

Intelligence Agencies – An Analysis

Special operations are an important source of intelligence, but such operations without initial accurate intelligence inputs, are doomed to failure. Hence, both intelligence and special operations complement each other. Intelligence gathering can be defined as the collection, collation, analysis, and assessment of information, pertaining to national security or having a bearing on formulation of national strategies. India reportedly has 14 intelligence agencies with different, and sometimes, overlapping mandates. A majority of these intelligence agencies were formed as a response to the changing geo-strategic environment, and the perceived shortcomings in the then intelligence framework, following the fiasco of 1962; the Directorate General of Security (DGS) was established within the Intelligence Bureau (IB), with its operational unit, the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), tasked to gather intelligence on China. Following the failure of IB in the 1965 war against Pakistan, the GoI decided to hive off external intelligence under a yet another new agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) and linked the DGS with it!

Various measures of internal reorganisation and restructuring of the intelligence agencies continued over the years after 1965; the next wave of radical reforms came after the 1999 Kargil War, when there was, yet again, a massive intelligence failure in detecting Pakistan Army incursions across the Line of Control (LOC). The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was set up in 2002 and tasked to collect, collate and evaluate intelligence from the three Service directorates and other agencies. The DIA was also to control inter-service technical intelligence (TECHINT) assets principally in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). In 2004, the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) was established as the premier TECHINT agency of the country with the mandate to collect communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), IMINT and cyber intelligence. The NTRO’s mandate created quite a storm, since the tasks overlapped those of other intelligence agencies, resulting in extended inter-agency turf battles, and further affecting the smooth function of collecting, analysing, and disseminating intelligence.

Like the lack of understanding the concept of operations for the SF, the understanding of intelligence agencies too, leaves much to be desired. The biggest hindrance is the lack of co-ordination within the community, with each agency guarding its home turf zealously. The excessive secrecy within the working of intelligence organisations and processes is more part of a systemic flaw, where authority and accountability do not go together.

The question of accountability in this context is no less important. Hardly anyone, if at all, has been held accountable for the serious intelligence failures that compromised national security. The inability to assess Chinese intentions during the 1959-1962 period,  or to pinpoint Pakistan’s additional armoured division in 1965, or the plans for ‘Operation Gibraltar’, or the LTTE’s reaction to the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, or the Kargil incursion in 1999, or the Mumbai attacks of 2008, are some of the known failures. The many setbacks caused by lack of timely intelligence, or the lack of sharing, have had no agency held accountable, which prompts the agencies to continue their shoddy work with impunity.

Amongst democracies, India is probably the lone nation that lacks any oversight of its intelligence agencies. While problems with oversight and accountability are many, these agencies too, are reluctant to submit to any external supervision. Successive governments in addition, have historically been reluctant to create an oversight mechanism for intelligence agencies; a reason could be the manner in which the incumbent governments use some of these agencies for parochial political gains.

There are instances of intelligence failures of such magnitude in the developed world as well.  In USA, studies on intelligence failures have existed since the Pearl Harbour attack; however, the interest significantly increased in the aftermath of 9/11, for investigations revealed that it could have been prevented had the intelligence been shared. Controversial reforms that followed were not just because of the intensity of the attack, but also because of the over-zealous secrecy of the intelligence agencies. All failures were thoroughly enquired into, responsibilities fixed, and remedial measures adopted. However, this has not happened in India and the impression persists that on most occasions the dirt is merely pushed under the carpet. Even after strong recommendations for reforms after the Kargil conflict by the Subrahmanyam Review Committee of 1999, the Group of Ministers (GoM) Report of 2001, and the more recent Naresh Chandra Committee, not much progress has been made, making a mockery of the numerous studies on the subject.

The Way Ahead

In such a scenario, where planners and policy makers fail to offer much, identifying a method to measure the value of intelligence and the SFs, becomes extremely complicated. So, what is the way ahead?

The Naresh Chandra Committee that submitted its report on a variety of issues regarding the Armed Forces, had also recommended changes in the intelligence and special forces set up. The GoI, while approving some of the recommendations, conveniently ignored the others. Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, the CAS and Chairman COSC, in 2012, had convinced the then Government for major restructuring of these two arms – special forces and intelligence. It was recommended and agreed to form three joint commands, namely Cyber Command, Space Command, and Special Forces Command; for some reason, as always, the proposal fell through with the retirement of the then Chiefs who constituted the COSC during that period.

A tri-Services structure was recommended for the Special Forces Command with a Lt Gen of the Army at the helm, and reporting to the COSC/CDS. The SF Command would have had control over the special forces elements of the three Services and also have a dedicated air element from the IAF with C-130 aircraft and Mi5-1V helicopters. This Command would have liaised with the intelligence agencies, not just of the military, but the others too, including those of friendly nations. Unfortunately the proposal did not see the light of day as the MoD was worried about finances more, than strengthening the security structure of the nation! If the proposal had gone through, in every likelihood Uri would not have occurred, and the ‘surgical strikes’ would have had a much stronger effect conveying a strong message of deterrence. It is still not too late for the initial spade-work has been completed and the cost could be spread over 05-10 years.

Increasing the transparency of intelligence agencies through sharing of information will not put an end to this problem. In order to help the professionals and intelligence analysts, identifying a trend in intelligence failures or successes is the initial step. Undoubtedly, legal or parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies can provide the most appropriate mechanisms for measuring their performance. A golden mean between secrecy and sharing, therefore, seems to be the answer.

It is imperative that intelligence agencies and the SF develop the capacity to deal with unpredictable threats. This calls for urgent and comprehensive reform and restructuring of the intelligence and special operations apparatus. The initiative must come from the political leadership committed to secure the country’s strategic interests in the face of out of the ordinary, and often unanticipated, challenges.

The special operations command is an idea that has been taken out of the successful Western nations’ armed forces experience. Nearer home, China too, has a separate division-sized force in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for carrying out both offensive and defensive cyber operations, which is also a part-and-parcel of special operations. There are, of course, the sceptics who question the need for a unified tri-Services Command. To them the answer would be that SF have a specific role to play; worldwide such forces have been placed under unified command to optimise resources and achieve operational synergy, not just amongst themselves, but with the intelligence agencies. In the Indian context, there is, even more, an imperative need for a similar command structure, with effective coordination with the nominated intelligence agencies. Changed geo-political and strategic environment in Indian sub-continent is likely to witness an even wider canvass of roles for India’s SF, some of which are listed below.

  • Unconventional and sub-conventional warfare (Counter Insurgency and proxy wars)
  • Strategic reconnaissance
  • Intelligence gathering
  • Special covert operations in peace and overt operations in war
  • Counter terrorist (CT) and hostage rescue operations
  • Combat search and rescue (CSAR)
  • Protection of important vulnerable areas/points

The planners and policy makers may wish to expedite the process. It is time that Chanakya’s advice is followed, who had said, “Do not be too upright in your dealings, for you can see by going to the forest that it is the straight trees that are cut down, while the supple are left standing”.

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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 Dhiraj Kukreja

former Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Training Command.

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