While discussing a monogram on Special Forces at a prominent Think Tank in New Delhi last month (December 2013), one of the discussants (a former Brigadier) opined that the “entire Parachute Regiment should form part of the proposed Special Forces Command.” It is not the stupidity and absurdity of the proposal alone but the dogged pusillanimous pursuit with which this idea of converting all Parachute Battalions to Special Forces has been followed over the years – stymieing the Special Forces; pulling them down any which way so that the Parachute Battalions can wear the Special Forces badge and more importantly, get the Special Forces allowance in the process. That this Brigadier was a former paratrooper requires no guesses. But it so happened, that he was a last minute substitute to the two-star officer in Military Operations Directorate of the Army. The latter’s name had already been mentioned in the program for the said event circulated to all concerned by the Think Tank. Why the two-star ducked was obviously to avoid uncomfortable questions since he has not served for a single day in a Special Forces unit and was probably advised to stay away by the Director General of Military Operations who happens to be Colonel of the Parachute Regiment and has never served with Special Forces either. So the Brigadier was commandeered all the way from Kolkata to do their bidding.
At such an international seminar hosted by the United Services Institution (USI) of India, New Delhi during 2005, the Deputy Defence Attaché of the US Embassy in India expressed surprise about suggestions by some veteran paratroopers that Special Forces operations should be limited to about five kilometers across the borders.
In the past, the military has been regularly participating in Special Forces seminars in both national and international levels. At such an international seminar hosted by the United Services Institution (USI) of India, New Delhi during 2005, the Deputy Defence Attaché of the US Embassy in India expressed surprise about suggestions by some veteran paratroopers that Special Forces operations should be limited to about five kilometers across the borders. In fact, he drew the attention of the audience that the Defence Minister speaking at the inaugural session stating that India’s areas of strategic interest included the Straits of Malacca, the Cape of Good Hope, the Middle-East and beyond. Later, in 2013, the USI planned a Special Forces seminar for exclusive participation by the military Special Forces, as prelude to a larger seminar at international level. However, this had to be called off because the Army refused to participate. The reason was very much obvious; the two-star officers heading the Additional Directorate General (Special Forces) under Military Operations (MO) Directorate, right from its establishment in 2006, and even the one-star deputy have continued to be those who have not served one single day in Special Forces. Naturally, answering questions in seminars implies exposure. The façade of secrecy just does not hold because nothing classified is ever discussed in Special Forces seminars at national or international levels.
General BC Joshi was the first Army Chief who took note of the focus required to alleviate the Special Forces concept – in line with the transnational threats and need for employing Special Forces at strategic level. Under him the, Army Special Forces Regiment was raised. The then three Parachute (Commando) units were renamed 1 Special Forces, 9 Special Forces and 10 Special Forces and a Headquarters Special Forces was raised. The appointment of Chief of Army Staff was designated the Honorary Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment; General BC Joshi donning the mantle of the first Honorary Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment. Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (who eventually retired as Vice Chief of Army Staff) was named the Colonel of the Special Forces Regiment. But then tragedy stuck and General BC Joshi died while in office. His successor, General Shankar Roychowdhury, in a moment of utter weakness, succumbed to pressures from retired Paratrooper Generals and disbanded the Special Forces Regiment. At that time, not only had General Shankar Roychowdhury accepted and become the Honorary Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment, he had also been presented the Special Forces Regiment Banner an official ceremony by Lieutenant General A Sandhu, an outstanding Armoured Corps officer who was then Director General Military Operation and Ex-Officio Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment. Nowhere else in history can one find an Honorary Colonel of any Regiment disbanding his own Regiment.
That the Army is averse to changes is no secret. The birth of Army Air Defence (AAD) had terrible labour pains since this required separation from the Regiment of Artillery, latter vehemently opposing the split and orchestrating delaying the execution for as long as possible even once the decision to raise AAD was approved. As part of this maneuvering, the Colonel level appointment in Military Operations Directorate (MO-7) was quietly reduced to a major level post in the same section so that he cannot make much noise. However, in the case of Army’s Special Forces Regiment, it was much worse as this Regiment had already been raised and was functional.
The total effort post disbandment of HQ Special Forces was focused on ‘equating’ the Parachute Battalions with Special Forces battalions though the former are infantry battalions that are trained in airborne induction.
In a single stroke, Gen Shankar Roy Chowdhury as the Army Chief set back the Army’s Special Forces by several decades. But what followed were measures quietly put in place to ensure such an eventuality would not surface again. Headquarters Special Forces was gradually broken up and finally disbanded. The appointment of Deputy Director General (Special Forces) in Military Operations Directorate started getting manned by non-Special Forces officers and at one stage was held by an infantry officer because he was from the same unit as the then Army Chief. Being an upright officer, he frankly admitted he had no idea about Special Forces and special operations. The HQ Special Forces, if raised in Delhi was to oversee all issues pertaining to Special Forces including manning, equipping and training but this was not allowed. The total effort post disbandment of HQ Special Forces was focused on ‘equating’ the Parachute Battalions with Special Forces battalions though the former are infantry battalions that are trained in airborne induction. Once on ground, they resume the role of holding ground like any other infantry unit. Yet efforts were focused on getting for the Parachute Battalions: same tasks as Special Forces; similar organization; same 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); bringing whole / part probation of volunteers for Special Forces / Parachute Battalions under the Parachute Regimental Centre; equal course vacancies and instructors at the Special Forces Training School (SFTS) despite a separate Army Airborne Training School in existence; post officers from Parachute Battalions (not having served in Special Forces at any point of time) to command Special Forces units; converting more and more Parachute Battalions to Special Forces role; placing severe restrictions and quotas on Commanding Officers of Special Forces Battalions for rejecting volunteers who do not make it in probation or whose performance has dropped etc.
Some of the above measures succeeded in part and some did not. Success in varying degrees was achieved through paratrooper officers posted in appointments that controlled manpower, manpower policies, weapons and equipment, training and in the Military Secretary’s Branch controlling officer postings. In fact, after years when a Special Forces officer took up the appointment of Colonel MS 1 in Military Secretary’s Branch, he volunteered out within weeks due to excessive pressure to do things his conscious did not permit. He was posted out as a Base Commander on Siachen Glacier. The move to designate Parachute Battalions as Special Forces (Airborne) led to jokes circulating that the ‘Ghatak Platoons’ of Infantry Battalions and Scouts Battalions be renamed Special Forces (Footborne) and elements within the Army trained in underwater operations be designated Special Forces (Waterborne). In two successive Pay Commissions, the then Army Chiefs rightfully rejected the projections for Parachute units to be authorized the same allowances as Special Forces, though efforts continue. Here the intent was to somehow get the same Special Forces allowance authorized, following which wearing the Special Forces insignia would meet no resistance. As to the conversion to Special Forces role, when the requirement of a fourth Special Forces battalion was felt, the Army Special Forces Regiment had been established. Therefore, the Parachute Regiment refused to provide a battalion and so an infantry battalion was converted to Special Forces. However, when the Special Forces Regiment was disbanded, the clamour to convert Parachute units to Special Forces was resumed with full force.
The US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was used as an opportunity by the then Colonel of the Parachute who was heading the Perspective Planning in Army Headquarters to convert three Parachute Battalions in quick succession to Special Forces. This unprecedented expansion was resorted to by deliberately feeding the hierarchy that 20,000 US Special Forces (SF) were operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was untrue since this included 82 and 101 AB Divisions of the US. Actually even in the peak period of USSF deployment only 90 x Operation Detachments Alpha (ODAs) were used (each ODA being 10-12 strong), as confirmed by then Commander US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
…our Army Special Forces went in for an unprecedented 120 percent increase in period 2001-2004 alone in complete disregard to global norms relating to Special Forces and the common sense that ‘quality is better than quality’.
As a result, our Army Special Forces went in for an unprecedented 120 percent increase in period 2001-2004 alone in complete disregard to global norms relating to Special Forces and the common sense that ‘quality is better than quality’. Significantly, the annual increase of US SF then stood at 1.8 percent with subsequent bids going up to 2.5 percent annually because of global commitments. Conversion of two out of these Parachute battalions to Special Forces was ironically undertaken after a comprehensive study on modernization had been approved by the Vice Chief of Army Staff endorsing that no more expansion of Special Forces be undertaken; only consolidation and review after the current Army Plan was over. What reversed this decision was the carrot of saving manpower through these conversions as the strength of a Special Forces battalion is much less than a Parachute battalion and the Army was looking for more manpower for new raisings. The result of such rapid conversions was not only dilution in manpower, arms and equipment, and training etc in Special Forces battalions, but it reduced the number of Parachute battalions to just four. The turnover of Parachute Battalions from the Parachute Brigade got severely affected with just one loose battalion outside. As a result you had individual Parachute Battalions sitting in Agra for six years at a stretch and some going to Ladakh thereafter for turnover. So while infantry battalions and Special Forces slogged it out in counter insurgency, some Parachute Battalions were out of CI areas for years on end. This forced Army Headquarters to stop this nonsensical business of converting Parachute Battalions to Special Forces and undertaking raising of more Parachute units. At the same time, the ninth Special Forces battalion is already under raising, after which a tenth such unit is planned be raised.
As mentioned above, the two-star and one-star appointments heading the Additional Directorate of Special Forces in MO Directorate continue to be held by officers who have never served in Special Forces ever since this Additional Directorate was established. The two-star has always been a paratrooper. The one-star is always from the same unit or the regiment as the Army Chief so that this Brigadier can earn a stamp of having served in this appointment in MO Directorate, which would help him further his career – specialization be damned. The same arrangement is continuing since 2006, effectively throttling any voice of Special Forces. Efforts to somehow ‘equate’ Parachute Battalions with Special Forces Battalions continue, using every opportunity to push through the same measures as mentioned above. In the same wane, there is a move now to bring the Special Forces Battalions directly under Corps Headquarters instead of the current arrangement under Command Headquarters – very stupid and not liked by any of the Special Forces Battalions but who cares. Incidentally, the same General Officer who spoofed the hierarchy with the 20,000 USSF deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan had later done a study recommending that all our then existing 13 Corps should have a Special Forces Battalion each – a study that the Special Forces members of the study refused to sign.
The US SF too underwent similar resistance from the airborne forces but were lucky to eventually break away, however, the manner in which our Special Forces are being dealt with by the Army hierarchy has broken all records. Query the hierarchy in uniform and they will deny this entirely but the ground reality is as described above. The Defence Minister will say our Special Forces are armed to the teeth with state-of-the-art weapons and equipment but that is another story and has been reported aplenty elsewhere. Being in uniform the Army Chief’s recent statement denying any capability gap between the PLA and the Indian Army comes in the same category. The way the concept of Special Forces has been dealt with over the years, the entire Parachute Regiment may not be part of the proposed Special Forces Command, as recommended by the veteran paratrooper Brigadier. However, given the current dispensation, it is very much possible that the Special Forces of the three Services are brought together under a similar non-specialist hierarchy, even a three star paratrooper army commander, akin to what the army has been doing for past several years. That will make China and Pakistan really, really happy. Not without reason some time back when a question was asked what China thinks about India’s nuclear forces, the response was what to talk of nuclear forces, India does not even know how to use its conventional forces!