Military & Aerospace

Special Operations Forces: Transforming Command Structures
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 May , 2016

Stie from the Sky

America is the world’s sole super power with immense economic clout and unbridled diplomatic access and influence over nearly all governments across the world. This enables them to conduct what are “supposedly” clandestine or covert operations world-wide by their SOF with the tacit approval of the host country, thereby allowing both sides to maintain deniability to avoid political fallout, both international and domestic. Secondly, America spends US$10 Billion (not accounting for manpower or equipment costs) on 66000 SOF operatives whereas we spend US $ 48 Billion on the equipping and paying of our 1.3 million strong defence forces and are yet to be able to break free of our regional straight jacket. 

…there are some within our military establishment, self-professed experts on special operations, who have made their careers promoting these capabilities in the fond hope that our Special Forces would soon emulate their American counterparts…

One of the major fall-outs of America’s aggressive pursuit of radical Islamic terror groups worldwide in its “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), following the tragic events of 9/11, has been the iconic status that their Special Operations Forces (SOF) enjoy today. True, sufficient documentary evidence exists in public domain that clearly points to the fact that the SOF supplanted the CIA as the lead agency for countering terrorism. That however, is no reason to be taken in by the dominant narrative that the SOF, a bunch of expertly trained and highly motivated killing machines, much like those depicted in Hollywood movies that have somehow, with their indomitable will and untiring efforts, made America a safer place.

As a matter of fact there are some within our military establishment, self-professed experts on special operations, who have made their careers promoting these capabilities in the fond hope that our Special Forces would soon emulate their American counterparts, once sufficient monies had been expended equipping them with state of the art gizmos and gadgets. That it has only resulted in unwarranted and utterly unnecessary friction and bad blood, to the detriment of the Parachute Regiment, is a story best left unsaid. Alas, they appear to have forgotten two simple, but unalterable facts, which set our two nations apart.

Firstly, America is the world’s sole super power with immense economic clout and unbridled diplomatic access and influence over nearly all governments across the world. This enables them to conduct what are “supposedly” clandestine or covert operations world-wide by their SOF with the tacit approval of the host country, thereby allowing both sides to maintain deniability to avoid political fallout, both international and domestic. Secondly, America spends US$10 Billion (not accounting for manpower or equipment costs) on 66000 SOF operatives whereas we spend US $ 48 Billion on the equipping and paying of our 1.3 million strong defence forces and are yet to be able to break free of our regional straight jacket. Regardless, aspirations and ambitions are not to be frowned at lightly, especially if they result in an enhancement of our professional capabilities.

Over the past couple of years, authors like Jeremy Scahill have written with remarkable clarity and indisputable proof that the United States’ uninhibited and aggressive reliance on Special Forces has actually worsened the security situation in places like Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. Even the rise of Baghdadi, the Daesh supremo, can be attributed to the manner in which he and his cohorts were treated in the SOF run prison in Iraq. The innocent lives lost thanks to errors of judgment, poor intelligence or of them just being at the wrong place at the wrong time, such as the tragic bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières Trauma Center at Kunduz that resulted in   42 deaths and 30 wounded, for example, have only further compounded the problem. Yet, the Special Forces have continued to be seen in positive light for the spectacular actions that have led to the neutralization of high profile leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The latter operation, especially, has been seen as the elixir that our Special Operations Forces must aspire for, regardless of the fact that special heli-borne operations have been the bread and butter of the Parachute Regiment for decades.

… it was the CIA that independently located him (Osama Bin Laden) being kept as a “guest” of Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence at Abbottabad. Once he had been located, the Pakistanis had little choice but to play along with the Americans.

However, the US Special Forces reputation for dare-devilry and derring-do has now taken a hit because of the counter narrative of the Bin Laden Raid put out by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Seymour Hersh. It may be worth remembering that he has been responsible for some of journalisms biggest expose’s including the Mai Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, the US tilt towards Pakistan in 1971 and more recently the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. About a year back he wrote a lengthy piece in the London Review of Books in which he challenged the official US version of the Bin Laden Raid and asserted that it had been conducted with the concurrence of the Pakistani military on the condition that Osama Bin Laden would not be taken alive and his body would not be left behind.  He does make the point that it was the CIA that independently located him being kept as a “guest” of Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence at Abbottabad. Once he had been located, the Pakistanis had little choice but to play along with the Americans.

As was to be expected his article was severely trashed by the establishment and its supporters including much of the media as he hadn’t revealed his sources. Unsurprisingly, the story received little coverage in India, probably because we instinctively knew that Bin Laden’s survival till then was only feasible if he was being protected by Pakistan’s military establishment and there were no doubts that they would feed him to the wolves if his location were discovered or such a course was to Pakistan’s advantage.

Another aspect to be kept in mind is that Abbottabad is less than 30 mins by air from Rawalpindi and yet four helicopters, including those in reserve, flew for more than three hours within Pakistani airspace without being detected or intercepted. That truly is beyond belief. Also, one must admit that it is highly unlikely that the SOF operatives involved would have known the bigger picture which clearly shows their high standard of skills and combat experience. All of this clearly shows that we would be foolish to follow the US example blindly. Having said that, there is certainly much that we can learn from the professionalism of the US Special Forces, not least the way they are organized. It was after the disaster of Operation “Eagle Claw”, the rescue attempt to free American diplomats being held hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran in 1980.

…a joint military command structure is the only way forward if we are to be able to use are military assets efficiently and optimally.

Subsequent investigations revealed lack of inter-services coordination and command and control as the primary cause for the botched operation. Members of Congress realized that the military hierarchy was too entrenched to carry out any meaning full reorganizations either of the military or the SOF. It required an Act of Congress, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, despite determined opposition from the military hierarchy, to reorganize the US Military command structure ensuring that the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff was designated the principal military adviser to the President, National Security Council and Secretary of Defense.  More importantly all operational responsibilities of respective Service Chiefs was taken away and given to the Commander-in Chiefs of each of the Unified Theatre Commands who also reported to the President and Defence Secretary. In conjunction, the Nunn-Cohen Bill attached as an amendment legislated the establishment of the US Special Operations Command as a unified combatant command with responsibility over all SOF elements.

Common sense tells us that a joint military command structure is the only way forward if we are to be able to use are military assets efficiently and optimally. This requires the establishment of unified theatre and other combatant commands, including the Special Operations Command, and an effective Chief of Defence Staff. However, we should be under no illusion that our Service Chiefs and bureaucrats in the Ministry will oppose any attempts to curtail their powers, by every means at their disposal, as they have for so long. The only way forward in this matter is for the present political dispensation to take the bull by the horns, as the Americans did and what Xi Jinping has now implemented in China. Rest assured if politicians fail to show leadership we will once again bear witness to another “Nam Ka Chu”, that ill-fated  battle in Arunachal, where the Chinese PLA destroyed the ill-fated 7 Infantry Brigade in a two hour carnage, that reverberates even to this day.

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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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9 thoughts on “Special Operations Forces: Transforming Command Structures

  1. Issues raised regarding command structure of Special Forces Operations by the author are pertinent. There is a crying need for reforms, which several committees in past have recommended including integration of Headquarters and Ministry but nothing has actually moved on ground and have been talked about for last several decades but have fallen deaf years. MOD babus have vested interest in continuation of the existing system and unfortunately even some service offrs in senior hierarchy want to maintain status quo, as nobody ever likes to share or shed power. CDS , unified command and integration of logistics and joint ops will pay handsome dividends reduce size and overall expenses. Even today jointness in ops continues to be talked about only on paper with hardly anything translating on ground. It is also being too presumptuous to even think US system can be replicated for various reasons. It is unlikely that political leaders even with best intentions can get anything done on ground as even with seasoned and experienced ministers it is an uphill task managing bureaucrats; who have great nuisance value to embarrass Govt and most of them are so deeply entrenched with their own self interests and see no utility in collaborative and positive approach to resolve any issue. In case of inexperienced ministers, bureaucrats hold their hands and teach them baby walk, dependency being total and complete. Do not expect any path-breaking reform at least in MOD as this word does not exist in their lexicon.

  2. Comparing amount spent by US on Special Forces with India is plain stupid. They have the money India does not. Also US has worldwide commitments, India does not. But your point is well taken that there is an urgent need to reform the training, organization and command structure of Indian Special Forces.

  3. Our Army runs in WW II mode. There can be no salvation as we are governed by people who cant differentiate between the Butt and the Barrel end of a weapon. The Bureaucracy is intent on keep the Army out of circulation by spinning the bogey of a coup. Our Generals meekly accept what is thrown at them, they are a laughing stock with the MOD. So where’s the cat and where’s the bell and the Bell Boy .

    • First of all change your attitude towards the Govt.. Army officer are very weak in war strategy. They do not know management.. Kindly read my comment before giving reply. You people still thinking about world War II and 1971 wars.

      • Mr Govindan my perceptions about the Government are very correct. I stand by what I say. Its not that the Army officers are “weak in war strategy” as you say. Nobody wants to listen to what the Army says about strategic issues. It trickles down from top when nobody listens to you – you stop giving a damn shit about things – that’s our problem. We are more educated and aware about strategic issues than you think.

        • Majority of the old Army officers are arrogant. and developed some fixed ideas and style of living. Their attitude will never change.and cannot think beyond what they learnt. They never try to learn the latest development in their field. So there is no point in writing to them any more .Nobody wants to listen to you because you do not know how to behave.. You use slang words against them. You people do not know management. In any organization the officers should have Management capacity rather than fighting capacity.

  4. I have read many article about Chief of Defense staff. It is easy to write articles without giving solution. First of all three service chiefs are not keeping good relations. Under this scenario the Chief of defense staff should be a person acceptable to three service chiefs. So how to select a suitable person? Moreover the future war will be far different from 20th century wars. Sitting at Delhi in a safe place.the three Chiefs and MoD can see what is happening in the war front and take Immediate action without any delay.

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