The necessity for Special Forces (SF) is not in question. As I have myself written, in the context of Special Operations Forces, elsewhere “these forces can meet unorthodox security needs that conventional military organisations find difficult to accomplish, if at all.” The confusion that prevails, especially in our context, is with regard to role definition. While SF personnel see themselves as a cross between the fictional characters James Bond and Jason Bourne, reality obviously, in terms of training, capability and operational employment is vastly different. This confusion has arisen because we have not differentiated nor laid down guidelines as to what is required of our intelligence operatives, that is what those fictional characters represent, and from our SF units.
After independence and partition of India, the Indian Army drastically reduced its SOF capability…
Over the past two decades, our Special Operations Forces (SOF) and their capabilities have received a substantial boost in terms of numbers and equipment profile apart from the rapid increase in air transport forces especially with the introduction of the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. It is no secret that the Parachute Regiment today consists of nine Special Forces (SF) Battalions and five Airborne (AB) Battalions of which three form a part of the Parachute Brigade at any one time along with the brigades other fire support, assault engineering, air defence, communication and logistics elements. In terms of airlift capabilities, the Indian Air Force probably has sufficient air effort to be able to carry out a complete brigade group simultaneous assault in the airborne and heli-borne role, a capability likely to be matched by very few countries in the world.
Development of Special Operations capabilities in India commenced during the Second World War in 1941 with the raising of No 50 Independent Parachute Brigade which consisted of two Indian and one British Parachute Battalions. During the war years, it was involved in three operations, the first was an airborne assault by approximately two Companies to confront and subdue the Hun tribals in Sindh. The second operation was when the Parachute Brigade was committed as reinforcements for countering the impending Japanese offensive against Imphal. It was at Ukhrul and Sanghshak, that the Brigade hastily occupied defences to delay the Japanese advance on to Imphal. Field Marshal William Slim later described this as, “It was of inestimable value at this critical stage of battle.”1 The final operation of the war was the conduct of a successful airborne assault to capture Elephant Point as a part of the joint amphibious operation to secure Rangoon.
In 1971, the Commando Battalions of the Indian Army were utilised to carry out raids in their respective area of operations…
In the later stages of the war, this capability was subsequently enhanced with the raising of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s Long Range Penetration Force, originally the Chindit Force and later 3rd Indian Division (which only accepted British, African and Gurkha troops) in 1944. They were air-landed behind the Japanese frontlines by gliders and transport aircraft to interdict Japanese lines of communication as well as destruction of logistics and headquarter elements in Burma. The force of approximately two Divisions with its own air effort, was only reasonably successful, especially in its second effort and the operation was called off once General Wingate was tragically killed in an air accident. By the middle of 1944 till early 1945, all SOF were brought together. The Chindit Brigades and 50 (Independent) Parachute Brigade were grouped into 44 Airborne Division with the raising of a second parachute Brigade, the 77th and 114 (British) Air Landing Brigade based on glider-borne troops. It was from this Divison that elements launched Operation Dracula, the capture of Elephant Point by airborne assault.
After independence and partition of India, the Indian Army drastically reduced its SOF capability to just one parachute Brigade of three parachute Battalions and other requisite support and logistics elements, which after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, was enhanced to two Brigades. Subsequently, based on the exploits of the Meghdoot Force in the 1965 Indo-Pak operations, two Para Commando Battalions were raised as a part of the Parachute Regiment. In 1971, the Commando Battalions of the Indian Army were utilised to carry out raids in their respective area of operations, while one Battalion of the Parachute Brigade was employed in an AB drop at Tangail, which certainly caused immense demoralisation among Pakistani troops. More importantly, its higher leadership whose state of morale can well be gauged from the fact that they unconditionally surrendered Dacca without a fight with over 90,000 being taken prisoner.
Similarly, during the Kargil War in 1999, in a move that has not been fully recognised or appreciated, the Parachute Brigade’s employment from the East in Mushkoh threatened the Shaqma Axis, the only axis available to Pakistan to support all operations East of Shingo/ Olthingthang axis that is the Drass, Bimbat, Kaksar and part of Kargil sub-sector. It was a strategic master stroke that forced Pakistan to sue for peace to avoid another disaster.
Acrimonious debates and inadequately thought-through steps have increased rather than narrow the misconceptions about Airborne and Special Forces regiments…
The existing profile of the Regiment, mentioned earlier, has been achieved but not without its own unfortunate consequences, thanks mainly to a debilitating and bitter conflict within the Regiment over differing perceptions of what the role and doctrine of the AB and SF Battalions should be. Acrimonious debates and inadequately thought-through steps over recent years have increased rather than narrow the misconceptions about Airborne and Special Forces regiments. These retrograde steps have been based on personal preferences and mindsets rather than informed debate. These are founded on the assumption that SF and AB battalions have vastly differing roles and tasks, implying that what the SF battalion is meant to do cannot be replicated by an AB battalion, and vice-versa. Such an outlook is a flawed construct that we have imbibed from American and British military doctrine without sufficient analysis of its applicability in our context. It is, therefore, necessary to put both these types of units under the scanner, understand their existing roles/tasks and see if their organisations meet their requirement or is a clearly delineated SF/AB concept of employment and linked issues needed.
The Airborne Conundrum
From the time AB forces came into being, and even to this day, they are seen as specially trained infantry that is transported by air to its objective area, dropped and after reorganisation is required to operate as a regular infantry battalion or formation and carry out the same tasks as they would. It seems like a completely reasonable and logical assumption if one were to completely discount battle winning factors such as surprise, speed and momentum of attack, morale and motivation and the likelihood of the enemy being unprepared to face such an assault given the depth at which it is likely to be effected. Furthermore, the disruptive effect on the enemy’s command and control elements and the subsequent dislocation that is bound to occur is also not taken into consideration.
That they are highly trained light infantry is not in doubt, but historical study worldwide reveals that they were invariably used for the capture of objectives critical to success of the ground offensive. This they primarily achieved by destroying communication and logistics hubs, neutralising key commanders, ambushing reinforcing troops; overall causing mind paralysis and fear in enemy ranks.
Historical study worldwide reveals that AB troops were invariably used for the capture of objectives critical to success of the ground offensive…
What is revealing is that many of these feats were “opportunity feats” created by wide dispersion in landing and executed by AB personnel trained in boldly executed directive command leadership driven by initiative and daring; calculated risk-taking to exploit “fleeting opportunities” more than by linear obedience to hierarchical command This does not in any way imply that they do not hold ground. For example, after the capture of a bridge or an airfield, they do, but that is for a limited period till relieved by ground troops or till the situation demands after which they can disengage and fade away, as was finally resorted to at Arnhem after the ground forces failed to link up at Arnhem Bridge. That they had been launched to capture “A Bridge Too Far” by Field Marshal Montgomery, whose understanding of AB operations was at best sketchy and aversion to risk taking well known, is of course, one of military history’s supreme ironies.
It has only been in rare cases that they have been utilised purely in a defensive ground role; the most striking example being during the Second World War when Stalin ordered the conversion of ten Airborne Divisions into Guards Rifle Divisons to stem the offensive against Stalingrad and in the Baltics.2 There have also been some instances again of the Soviets utilising Airborne troops to reinforce defences in a sector facing enemy attacks but in the post war years, probably the airborne drop by the French at Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China as reinforcements is the only instance of such troops being utilised for a defensive purpose. Closer home, 9 PARA (SF) was used to reinforce defences at Chhamb while 50 Para Brigade was deployed in defence positions after being moved from the Eastern Sector to the Western Sector during the 1971 campaign.
History is replete with examples that from the time small Airborne detachments were first employed operationally by the Soviet Union in 1925 against “Basmachi” or Muslim extremists in the Central Asian Republics3 and by all sides during the Second World War and even in later years, airborne forces have always been employed against numerically superior forces. In this context, it may be worth recalling the German airborne assault on Crete in May 1941, because it truly exemplifies strategic offensive employment of Airborne/air-transported forces with no ground support or link up planned. In this operation, codenamed ‘Operation Merkur’, approximately 22,000 troops, consisting of one airborne divison with an additional airborne Brigade tasked in the airborne/glider borne assault role to capture airfields with a supporting Mountain Infantry Division for follow- on tasks in the air-landed role. These forces were employed against an Allied force of approximately 32,000 troops supported by the remnants of ten Greek Divisions, a total of not less than 45,000 troops deployed across the Island.
There have also been some instances of the Soviets utilising Airborne troops to reinforce defences in a sector facing enemy attacks…
That German assessments of opposing forces were completely off target and heavy casualties ensured that no further airborne operations were undertaken is another matter. The German Airborne Forces were able to capture the major airfields in Crete through a combination of surprise, shock action and decisive numbers at the point of decision. Thereby, the Germans succeeded in their mission and forced an Allied evacuation of the island, but not without over 9,000 Allied troops being taken prisoner. That this was achieved despite the British being fairly clear as to overall German intentions and tactics, thanks to the success of their ‘Ultra’ code-breaking “Enigma” programme.4 This operation, in many ways, can be considered to be the forerunner of the present day employment of airborne forces as advance elements of Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF), around the world.
While this example and others too numerous to detail here, clearly show that numerically inferior airborne forces have time and again succeeded because of superior training, motivation and the element of surprise and shock, it is our flawed perception that they are regular infantry once dropped that has greatly impeded our understanding of their capabilities thereby restricting their use. Because we look at them as purely infantry units carrying out an assault on a defensive position we end up grossly under utilising and even undermining them. Hidebound conventional tactical reasoning demands we use standard force ratios while allocating troops to task which results in earmarking additional resources and preparatory time. We also tend to ignore the fact that in the event they are dropped on the objective or in its vicinity, which will always be the preferred option, they need their initiative driven methods, not standard infantry battle drills and tactics to carry out their attack.
Thus, with our existing operational philosophy, an assault on an objective held by a Company would be undertaken by a Battalion group. If we were to follow historical precedent, this task could possibly be accomplished by either one Company or at best, by half a Battalion. The implication of this and the crux of the issue is that where we should actually be utilising just between six to eight aircraft for this mission, because of our fallacious thinking the task presently requires the use of 24 to 30 aircraft, depending on type of aircraft and distances to be covered. The comparative difficulties involved in organising a mission involving eight aircraft vis-a-vis one involving 30 aircraft in terms of factors such as resources required, complexity of launching and recovery of aircraft, provision of escorts, suppression of air defences and possibility of achieving of surprise, along with a host of interrelated factors are easily comprehensible. For example, in an aircraft stream of approximately 30 aircraft the difference between the first “vic” and the last will be anywhere between 100-150 nautical miles, which clearly explains the magnitude of the problems involved when organising air cover for the protection of the air transport stream.
The prevailing air defence environment will require the IAF to carry out considerable preparatory strikes and air superiority missions…
This vast requirement of resources creates a dichotomy with regard to their employment in the context of the security environment that we are confronted with. Before we can launch such an offensive, the prevailing air defence environment will require the IAF to carry out considerable preparatory strikes and air superiority missions to ensure such a large air transport stream can be safely inserted without losses. This may require anywhere from four to seven days after the hostilities have broken out which, however, is unlikely to be available, given that such a conflict fought under a nuclear shadow will face tremendous international pressures to be quickly terminated. This implies that not only our ground offensive may be restricted in terms of depth, but also that it will probably only has a very limited window in which to be undertaken.
Further elucidation of the strategic dilemmas that we face is given in my article “Divergent Paths: India’s National Security Strategy & Military Doctrine”, (IDR Vol 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015) as space does not permit further amplification here. Thus, if we continue to look at employment of airborne forces as we presently do, then it appears their use in support of such an offensive seems extremely unlikely.
This clearly requires not only a review of the organisation table of our AB forces to make them lighter and more potent, but also reassess employment philosophy. As a rising South Asian power, India needs to protect her growing economic assets and citizens within the Indo-Pacific region. We thus need troops to handle Out Of Area Contingencies (OOAC).
The manner in which the intervention in the Maldives, Operation Cactus, was launched in a matter of hours by the Parachute Brigade in 1988, against terrorists who had deposed the Government, clearly shows the necessity for establishing an adequately strong RDF capable of responding with appropriate force within the required timeframe. That the Parachute Brigade with an additional SF Battalion will have to be the spearhead element of any such RDF is unquestionable and it requires that they be able to operate independently at great distances with sufficient capability till seaborne forces can be inducted in support.
The Special Forces Dilemma
The necessity for Special Forces is not in question. As I have myself written, in the context of Special Operations Forces, elsewhere “these forces can meet unorthodox security needs that conventional military organisations find difficult to accomplish, if at all.” The confusion that prevails, especially in our context, is with regard to role definition. While SF personnel see themselves as a cross between the fictional characters James Bond and Jason Bourne, reality obviously, in terms of training, capability and operational employment, is vastly different. This confusion has arisen because we have not differentiated nor laid down guidelines as to what is required of our intelligence operatives, that is what those fictional characters represent and from our SF units.
Our problems have emerged from our belief that covert and clandestine operations are one and the same…
Our problems have emerged from our belief that covert and clandestine operations are one and the same. Our inability to understand the subtle difference between these terms has in fact led to our misinterpretation of the way in which the West generally differentiates between operations to be undertaken by intelligence agencies and those by SF, though there have been some examples of overlap due to peculiar circumstances. Covert operations require the highest degree of deniability and non-attributability while clandestine operations have lesser need of this. It stands to reason, therefore, that while covert operations fall in the realm of intelligence agencies, clandestine operations are the forte of the Special Forces.
Clearly, in the recent trans-border raid into Myanmar against insurgent camps we could afford to organise a clandestine mission that needed to remain secret only till it was executed as there would be minimal repercussions once the raid was attributed to us. However, in the Indo-Pak situation, we would certainly need to look at complete deniability, to avoid fallout thereby needing to organise covert action. Connected to this is the necessity for nations to ensure that regular armed forces and SF are very much an integral part of that, follow the protocols laid down by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, of which we are signatories as well. Given this clear cut differentiation, it is necessary for Army HQ to specify the role of the SF units so that they can be organised and equipped to build up realistic capabilities that fall within their domain.
Covert operations require the highest degree of deniability and non-attributability while clandestine operations have lesser need of this…
Employment Philosophy and Tasking
At the present time, our SF Battalions are scaled approximately one to two per field army. They are expected to operate in small teams within the theatre with the Battalion Commander located either at the Field Army HQ or with a Corps HQ to advise the commanders on their tasking and coordinate operations of his Battalion. In practical terms with his sub-units spread over large distances, he can have little influence in either planning of sub-unit level operations or in motivating his command through personal leadership. Moreover, given his limited service/age profile, his operational understanding is likely to be superficial and thereby his advice less than wholly credible.
When war commences, they primarily have the task of carrying out Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Designation (RSTAD) and Direct Action (DA) missions. While Human Intelligence (HUMINT) gathering is important and needed advances in technical and electronic capabilities have made them extremely relevant and often better options than dispersed SF HUMINT. A wise combination is obviously needed. Prior to hostilities breaking out they could carry out clandestine trans-border RSTAD, DA and providing liaison or assistance to rebel elements if operating in that country, which implies language skills and knowledge of terrain in the area of operations. It also stands to reason that employment of assets prior to hostilities will certainly lead to degradation of capabilities subsequently due to recovery, rest and recuperation issues.
It, therefore, appears reasonable to deduce that DA will become their primary mission to include interdiction, raids and harassment tasks. RSTAD would become secondary and resources required to be deployed for this would be minimal since they would mainly be used to confirm specific information obtained by other means. However, for conduct of DA missions, the existing team organisation needs serious enhancements in numbers and capability to extricate themselves without reinforcements.
While covert operations fall in the realm of intelligence agencies, clandestine operations are the forte of the Special Forces…
There has been much criticism that by increasing the number of SF Battalions, we have not only hurt their “exclusivity” and diluted standards but also ensured that units are perennially short of weapons and equipment because of sharing “poverty”. The number of units of Special Forces that a country has is based on threat perceptions, military doctrine and operational requirements and “exclusivity” is in that context a needless distraction. Thus, different countries have different numbers. For example, the US has approximately 50,000 personnel in their Special Operations Forces, while Russia probably has over a 100,000, if Spetsnaz from all Departments are considered, and even Pakistan’s SSG now is about a Division strength. As regards training standards and equipment profile, these are matters of bureaucratic organisation, budgetary support and institutional implementation. Moreover, a 10,000-man Special Operations capability for a million plus army, such as ours, is hardly excessive.
Lack of role definition has led to an equipment profile that is not only skewered towards “high technology” imported equipment of limited utility with attendant serviceability issues, but also with regard to its authorisation. The necessity, for example, of maintaining over 500 Combat Free Fallers makes little sense because not only is it not practicable for units to ensure suitable manpower required is available, but more importantly there appear to be no suitable operational mission where they can ever be used in such numbers. All that has been achieved is that such a capability has tied up money which could have been better utilised elsewhere. There are numerous such examples of such excessive and unrealistic capability building which have impacted budgetary provision and need to be reconsidered. In any case, the armed forces as a whole have been suffering from endemic shortages for reasons too well known to bear repetition.
For the past two decades, our SF Battalions have been employed in the Counter Insurgency (CI) role. Command and control of SF units rests either with Army HQ or the Command HQ which means that these units are under hands-off supervision. This isolation certainly helps in ensuring that units can concentrate on training. Unfortunately, focus on training is only one aspect of professional development and aspects such as officer development, focus on unit administration are left only to the Commanding Officer’s discretion and capability. This helps neither the Battalion nor its personnel and the old adage that “which is not inspected is not done” certainly holds true. SF units too require a supervisory hierarchy to excel in their work.
The number of units of Special Forces that a country has is based on threat perceptions, military doctrine and operational requirements…
It would be fair to conclude that both AB and SF Battalions are specialised light infantry units which are required to operate behind enemy lines either in conjunction with ground forces or independently primarily to carry out DA missions aimed at interdiction of the battlefield and degradation of enemy command, control and logistics elements that will assist in the own overall design of battle at the operational level.
In addition, SF battalions would also be required to carry out limited RSTAD missions during the preparatory period and once hostilities commence. They would, however, operate differently in that AB units would operate with the company being the lowest manoeuvre element that would operate independently, while in the case of SF units they would also be required to operate at troop and squad levels as well, though tasks at that level are likely to be fairly restricted.
For OOAC tasks, ideally both these type of units would operate in conjunction as the spearhead element of any RDF. The AB unit would be tasked with establishing and holding the Air Head while the SF element carries out RSTAD and intervention missions in support. Thus, despite existing perceptions both these types of units overlap in the manner in which they operate and require personnel with similar mindsets.
Both AB and SF Battalions are specialised light infantry units which are required to operate behind enemy lines…
We, however, see that given their likely operational employment, the AB battalions are excessively manpower heavy while the SF battalions lack the requisite manpower to be able to carry out the complete range of missions they may be assigned. It may, therefore, be appropriate to consider a combination of both these types of units and have battalions which consist of two to three AB companies/teams and one to two SF companies/teams each depending on terrain specialisation and likely employment.
One can visualise the employment of such a Battalion in a Corps Zone. It would employ one SF company RSTAD task with its AB companies being utilised for SHBO and AB tasks. Such an organisation would not only lead to better coordination but also better utilisation of resources. Air effort required would also be extremely limited and easier to organise and in acceptable time. In the context of a cold start such Battalions can be critical to success.
To strengthen command, control and advisory capabilities, in addition to tailoring the Parachute Brigade specifically for OOAC tasks, there is a need to establish an element under a Brigadier level officer at each of the affected Command HQs, with requisite staff support, who would exercise command and control of all such Battalions operating within the theatre as also provide requisite advice regarding their employment to the theatre and Corps Commanders. He would also be responsible for coordinating all such special operations with Army HQ. Such an organisation will also ensure that these units are also appropriately supervised.
That the Indian armed forces’ Special Operations capability needs serious reassessment is irrefutable…
The existing Pathfinder (PF) Squadron of the Parachute Brigade provided by the President’s Body Guards needs rethought. PFs are needed and the existing system is inadequate. We could consider establishing a PF Squadron to be manned by selected personnel from all Battalions in rotation. It could be the repository of all CFF capability tasked to provide CFF assets wherever required. The same could also be thought of with regard to the Infantry Combat Vehicles presently held within battalions which could be grouped into a Mechanised Infantry Company manned by rotational regimental personnel.
That the Indian armed forces’ Special Operations capability needs serious reassessment is irrefutable. It must be organised; equipped and trained to meet perceived requirements for which we need homegrown not copy-pasted solutions. Similarly, doctrinal aspects must also be thought through. The unified organisation suggested in this paper is worth examining for its gains in inter-operability, unit rotation and manpower/equipment management.
- Slim, FM Sir William G; Defeat into Victory;
- Glantz, David M; The History of Soviet Airborne Forces; Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1994;pg 64
- Sinha Deepak, Beyond the Bayonet: Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century; Gyan Publishing House, 2006 pg 12.
- Antill, Peter D; Crete 1941: Germany’s Lightning Airborne Assault, Osprey Ltd, 2005, pp35-37.