The relentless pursuit of Osama Bin Laden ever since 9/11 occurred and his elimination early May by US Special Forces in the spectacular ‘Operation Geronimo’ has been a landmark event in the conduct of counter-terrorism operations. That this dreaded terrorist was found hiding in Abbottabad, a cantonment city of Pakistan that also hosts Pakistan Army’s premier Military Training Academy, did not come as a surprise to India which considers Pakistan as a state that sponsors terrorism.
The clinical precision with which US Navy SEALs carried out this midnight heliborne strike in an area bristling with air defences has rudely dented the credibility of Pakistan’s military, with many in India asking if we have the capability to do the same if circumstances so demand in the future. The short answer is ‘no’.
…when information about the siege was received, IAFs heavy lift Il-76 Sqn at Agra was put on alert as was a collocated para unit of the Indian Army. Intelligence was negligible on the number of terrorists, their weapons and the extent of their operation.
Way back in 1976, the Israelis demonstrated their capability when four Israeli Air Force C-130J aircraft with 100 ‘special force’ personnel, took off from Tel Aviv and rescued 256 out of 260 passengers and crew of an Air France flight held hostage at Entebbe by Palestinian hijackers. All seven hijackers and 45 Ugandan troops were killed in the fire-fight that ensued during this operation carried out nearly 5000 km away from Israel.
Both these operations had clear objectives, were meticulously planned, rehearsed and carried out by highly trained military personnel. Many operational aspects of US SEALs action to eliminate Osama Bin Laden remain unexplained and will not be known for many years till more ‘Geronimos’ are conducted to ‘take out’ more terrorists.
India came closest to carrying out ‘special operations’ in 1985 when a group of terrorists beseiged the island of Male, the capital of Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Maldives is an archipelago with islands strung out along thousands of kilometers, with the island of Gan being south of the equator. Hulule, the island with the runway, is adjacent to the capital Male and at a distance of 800 Km from Thiruvananthapuram (TVM). On the morning of 03 November 1988, when information about the siege was received, IAF’s heavy lift Il-76 Sqn at Agra was put on alert as was a collocated para unit of the Indian Army. Intelligence was negligible on the number of terrorists, their weapons and the extent of their operation. No maps of Maldives Islands were available and planning had to done on tourist maps and guides.
All three services have got their individual Intelligence departments and after the Kargil fiasco, which was a result of poor or non-existent co-ordination among various agencies…
This resulted in many changes in plans but finally after rejecting other options it was decided that two Il-76 aircraft carrying 400 paracommandos would land at Hulule. The plan was to fly from Agra to TVM and then to Hulule. The Il-76 aircrew had to make do with the available tourist maps of Maldives to carry out a dark night landing at a strange 2300m airfield where armed opposition was likely. It is to the credit of the Il-76 aircrew and technicians that the mission was successfully accomplished. The two Il-76 aircraft took off from Agra at 1800 h on 03 Nov and landed at Hulule at 2150 h covering nearly 3000 km. The paracommandos then got into action and secured the island of Hulule. After commandeering boats, the commandos set course for Male which too was secured. Many terrorists were captured and others who were getting away on a ship along with some hostages, were captured by the Indian Navy. Three more Il-76 aircraft landed at Hulule, the last one at first light on 04 Nov . The mission was successful but revealed many weaknesses in our capability to conduct such operations. While piece-meal solutions were found, no holistic review was carried out.
- Clear objectives. The team must know exactly what is required of them.
- An effective and secure C4ISR (command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance) support at the operational level.
- Meticulous planning and execution.
- A force trained, equipped and organised to carry the tasks.
Both the Abbottabad and Entebbe operations score highly when rated against the above requirements. Objectives were crystal clear and both actions were planned and rehearsed with individual tasks, mutual support and fall-back options delineated. C4I support was available.
The US action, taking place 36 years after Entebbe, had the advantage of much improved technological assistance with the President and his staff able to watch the entire exercise in real time. Intelligence had been gathered over many preceding months and it has been stated that there was ‘human intelligence’ (humint) or visual surveillance of the compound housing OBL available to the task force. The US it reported to have about 9000 personnel deployed on the ground in Pakistan in pursuance of its interests. The success of the US and Israeli operations speak for themselves of the planning and execution of task. Both countries had highly trained personnel to carry out the missions.
Each of these bought the UAVs from Israel at different costs. Repair and maintenance facilities too were separately created with large financial implications.
The Maldives operation by India was a project hastily conceptualised and conducted without any hard intelligence available to the personnel involved in it. It was fortunate that the militants also did not plan their actions with any clarity or else the Indian operations could have had disastrous consequences. Another example of sloppy co-ordination was when the NSG action on 26/11 at Mumbai’s Taj Hotel was televised live helping the enemy to take counter-measures and possibly resulting in the death of Indian personnel.
Indian Army has highly trained Para-commandos from the Parachute regiments and MARCOS or marine commandos from the Indian Navy. IAF has the GARUDS trained mainly for assets protection and for specific tasks during conflict situations. The equipment available to these Special Operation Forces (SOF) is often dated compared to the weapons with their likely opponents. External intelligence, vital for any military operation, more so for special operations, has been India’s Achilles heel since Independence. Earlier the Intelligence Bureau (IB) was entrusted with this responsibility, but the 1962 Chinese aggression and the lack of its foreknowledge to India’s decision-makers resulted in the formation of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). R&AW was given the task of external intelligence, but strangely, instead of being put under the Ministry of Defence, it was kept directly under the Prime Minister. Co-ordination of external intelligence with military requirements became problematic and the situation has remained unchanged.
All three services have got their individual Intelligence departments and after the Kargil fiasco, which was a result of poor or non-existent co-ordination among various agencies, a Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was created adding to the confusion. Apart from the lack of co-ordination, turf wars and ego problems result in wasteful expenditure. One example is the purchase of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, first by the IAF, followed by the Army and the Indian Navy. RAW and its technical successor, the National Technology Research Organisation (NTRO-created for strategic monitoring of satellite, terrestrial and internet communications) were not to be left behind and more UAVs were procured. Each of these bought the UAVs from Israel at different costs. Repair and maintenance facilities too were separately created with large financial implications.
The UAVs procured by NTRO at a cost of Rs.450 crores are reportedly lying as junk in some warehouse.
All this was avoidable if a central decision-making body had evaluated the strategic and tactical requirements flowing from national security imperatives, and made collective purchases of UAVs. The need for a CDS becomes apparent in such conditions. There is a strong case for a CDS who will be responsible to the GOI for security and technology environment study, long-term threat analysis and procurement of weapons and equipment based on this analysis. The operational aspects of the armed forces and conduct of wars should remain with the Chiefs of Staff.
The UAVs procured by NTRO at a cost of Rs.450 crores are reportedly lying as junk in some warehouse. The CAG is investigating this issue.
The Abbottabad action resulted from a ‘fusion’ of US military and the CIA at the highest levels. In the Indian context, harmonisation of military power with RAW is unlikely in the near future till a complete reorganisation and restructuring of our intelligence gathering agencies is carried out. Another aspect is the complete absence of ‘humint’ from our neighbouring countries. India had a modicum of ‘humint’ emanating from our western neighbour but an earlier Prime Minister, taking a very short-term view and disregarding national interests, had ordered the disbandment of this capability. The adverse effects have been acutely felt since then.
Development, acquisition and employment of specialised, non-standard equipment (not available to regular forces) is essential for the SOF to carry out its tasks. Special weapons, communication systems, night-vision equipment are some of these essentials. Most of these items are procured from abroad despite India investing vast resources in DRDO-the organisation tasked to develop equipment and weapons for our military.
Some of these procurements, allegedly through the DRDO, have been sub-standard resulting in failures during operations. There is hardly any accountability for failures and time and cost overruns. A hierarchy-conscious, bureaucratic set-up in the DRDO hinders genuine research by young scientists, who feel frustrated after a short stint with the organisation and drift away to the private sector. An ongoing initiative for private sector involvement in defence production will greatly benefit our armed forces.
The IAFs C-130J Super Hercules is a highly integrated and sophisticated configuration primarily designed to support Indias special operations requirements.
Deficiencies in jointness among India’s armed forces have been commented upon on many occasions. Kargil brought out some in stark relief and there was much soul-searching post the Kargil war. A Kargil Review Committee was constituted and its recommendations were found serious enough for the GOI to constitute a high-level ‘Group of Ministers’ on 17 April 2000 to “review the national security system in its entirety and in particular to consider the recommendations of the KRC and formulate specific proposals for implementation.” The GOM comprised the ministers of Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance. The National Security Advisor was included as a ‘special invitee’. The GOM saw in its mandate ‘a historic opportunity to review all aspects of national security, impinging not only on external threats, but also on internal threats.’ As the scope was very large, the GOM in turn set up 4 Task Forces to deal with Intelligence Apparatus, Internal Security, Border Management and Management of Defence, each of these headed by eminent and experienced experts. The Task force Reports came in by 30 September 2000 and the GOM submitted its report in February 2001.
Visibly, very little or no action was initiated in respect of the interrelated subjects of intelligence agencies, border management or internal security after the GOM report. Whatever was done, only had cosmetic value. If any substantive efforts were taken to close known loopholes and weaknesses, as also highlighted by the GOM, then an event as catastrophic as the Mumbai terror attacks of 26 November, 2008 could not have taken place.
Indias capability to conduct Special Operations is severely limited at present.
Jointness among the services remains a chimera. The creation of the Integrated Defence Service, but the non-implementation of the Chief of Defence Staff have left the three services where they were earlier-on their own. For true jointness, planning and acquisition functions must be integrated. Till this day, budget allocation is on time-tested %age basis resulting in wasteful expenditure and lack of inter-operability. Future operations will be time-critical and real-time communications will be a decisive factor in the outcome of operations. Abbottabad is an example of time-criticality where the SEALs had to complete their task and exit before Pakistani forces reacted. That is why the USA has created a single-backbone C4ISR capability. What this means is that the US army, navy air force and the marines use the same communications media during peace and war. A single-backbone C4ISR can simultaneously process inputs from disparate sources like satellites, UAVs AWACS, sigint and humint to present a cohesive and consolidated picture to decision makers without loss of time. In India, however, each service has opted for different communication systems with the facility of interface. No single back-bone C4ISR has yet been planned. The time penalty in such a system could prove fatal, given that we operate in a nuclear environment.
The IAF has opted for the Super Hercules 130J as the preferred platform for Special Operations. The first two C-130Js have arrived flown India early this year and will be followed by the remaining four aircraft deliveries by end-2011.
The long time taken to identify crash sites of helicopters even in our own area in the recent past is indicative of dated equipment, technology and skills in this important aspect.
The IAF’s C-130J Super Hercules is a highly integrated and sophisticated configuration primarily designed to support India’s special operations requirements. Equipped with an Infrared Detection Set (IDS), the aircraft can perform precision low-level flying, airdrops and landing in blackout conditions. Self-protection systems and other features are included to ensure aircraft survivability in hostile air defence environments. The aircraft also is equipped with air-to-air receiver refueling capability for extended range operations. The C-130J is ideally suited to India’s mission environment, which often involves operating out of austere, high-elevation airstrips in hot conditions. The aircraft is powered by four Rolls Royce AE2100 engines and Dowty six-bladed propellors. The Indian government decision not to sign the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), has resulted in the exclusion of high precision GPS and other sensitive equipment. The IAF may add similar equipment to the aircraft after delivery. India has the option to buy six more Super Hercules aircraft. The disadvantage of fixed-wing aircraft is that they require prepared surfaces to take-off and land. This then would rule out these aircraft from Abbottabad-like operations which require forces to be inserted into the area and then extracted. Helicopters are ideal for such situations. Indian Army and IAF have conducted joint training for these contingencies, but without reliable intelligence mission success would be questionable. Another facet that needs honing is our capability to carry out search and rescue of downed aircrew/SOF personnel from hostile territory. The long time taken to identify crash sites of helicopters even in our own area in the recent past is indicative of dated equipment, technology and skills in this important aspect.
India’s capability to conduct Special Operations is severely limited at present. The SOF is with the Army and Navy, while the delivery platforms are with the Air Force. The external intelligence agencies have no coherence. The DRDO is unable to deliver. The scientists control the satellites. Each agency communicates through separate networks. The components that comprise our Special Operations capability are lying around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These pieces have to be picked up, dusted and in some cases repaired before they can be assembled and employed. Who will do that job is unclear at the moment. Till we set the house in order our politicians and senior military leaders should rein in their jingoistic rhetoric. As our Raksha Mantri recently stated, we are in an age of transparency and the public at large should not be told we can do something when those in the know, know that we cannot. And even when the day arrives when we have the political will and the capability, it would be preferable to keep our lips sealed.
Note: Some inputs for this article have been taken from Wikipedia and some from earlier articles by the author.