Military & Aerospace

Helicopters in Special Operations
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 26 Nov , 2012

The first flight by the Illyushins were followed by more An-12s carrying paratroopers and equipment (courtesy: bharat-rakshak)

Command, Control and ‘Jointmanship’

There is occasionally a bogey raised about how Para Commandos would be able to execute Special Operations better if the helicopters required for such operations were to be under the command and control of the Army. The reasons cited are better training, quicker reaction, better coordination and congruence of perceptions on the conduct of operations. There is some merit in the argument but then, other Special Operations forces across the world also have overcome inter-service differences in perception to achieve results which often are spectacular. Perhaps the answer lies, not in the direction of the Army becoming self-sufficient for heli-borne Special Operations, but in finding organisational and training solutions to the problem of ‘jointmanship’ in Special Operations.

After Operation Geronimo, a hostile response by Pakistan was out of the question…

The idea of a Special Forces Command has occasionally been mooted but has not gathered momentum. One reason is the small numbers involved both in terms of manpower and equipment for Special Operations. The equipment would include helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The other issue is that all forces and assets would have to be drawn from existing holdings of the services. In contrast, the US military has a Special Operations Command comprising US Army Special Operations Forces, Naval Special Warfare Units, US Marine Corps Special Operations Forces, US Air Force Special Forces, Coast Guard Special Operations Group, CIA Special Forces, Military Law Enforcement Teams and Civilian Law Enforcement Teams. In India, true ‘jointness’ has proved to be elusive despite debate within the defence forces, strategic think tanks and public forums.

The Naresh Chandra Committee had also recommended the bringing together of the Indian Special Forces such as Para Commandos (Army), Marine Commandos (Navy), Garuds (IAF), Special Frontier Force (Cabinet Secretariat) and National Security Guards (Home Ministry) and other agencies under a unified command and control structure in order to execute strategic or politico-military operations in tune with national security objectives so as to strengthen its clandestine and ‘unconventional’ warfare capabilities to effectively tackle the challenges. The Committee had recommended the setting up of a Special Operations Command. This recommendation is on the lines of the 2001 Group of Ministers’ Report after the Kargil conflict, which had also recommended a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to provide single-point military advice to the government and manage the country’s nuclear arsenal as well as bring ‘jointness’ amongst the Army, the Navy and the Air Force by resolving inter-service doctrinal, planning, procurement and operational issues including the conduct of Special Operations.

Therefore, hopes of a combined organisation for the conduct of Special Operations should be nurtured only after a joint organisation has been put into place. It is worth revisiting Kargil to reiterate some points of note. At the onset, the Army was keen to deploy the most offensive of the IAF’s helicopters, the Mi-25. It took some time for their unsuitability for operations at that altitude to become apparent. Thereafter, the Mi-17 was utilised offensive missions, casualty evacuation and logistic support. However, in the absence of precision-guided weapons, its efficacy was limited. Its employment in the offensive role with rockets, guns and bombs proved to be effective.

The success of Special Operations depends on painstaking coordination of intelligence from various sources…

However, its vulnerability to enemy action was high as the operations were conducted visually and that had the disadvantage of the enemy also being able to see the helicopters. After losing one Mi-17 to a Stinger, it was decided that their uses in offensive roles was not prudent. Through the Kargil operation and to some extent even today, views and counter-views can be heard on the utilisation of helicopters. The Army has maintained that precious time was lost from May 05 to May 26 when the IAF was not deployed, a charge refuted by the Air Force. There was also the question of a political decision as there existed an agreement between India and Pakistan prohibiting armed aircraft from flying within ten kilometres of the border of the LoC.

The mutual finger pointing between the Army and the IAF highlighted the lack of ‘jointness’ that the services lament the deficiency of, but cannot reach an agreement on. The Kargil Review Committee was followed by the constitution of a Group of Ministers to review the national security system and consider the recommendations of the Committee. Despite the high level of representation from Ministers of Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance, as also the National Security Advisor, there has not been much to inspire confidence that joint operations in the Indian context would be any better in a future Kargil-type scenario.

It is reasonable to hope that the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff and not just the creation of Integrated Defence Service organisation, would make for true ‘jointness’ and overcome the divergence in perception amongst the services. However, it will take more than Kargil for our services to get around to the idea of compromising on traditional and accepted single service tenets in favour of a combined Defence Doctrine. The idea is evolving but at a pace that is excruciatingly tardy.

For a triumphant heli-borne Special Operation, the critical factor may be political will to intrude into enemy airspace…

The Army and the Navy have elite forces for Special Operations while the IAF owns the helicopters. The lack of ‘jointness’ has meant that even the communications between the delivery platform and the Special Forces is inadequate. Intelligence also remains a weak area. Each service has its own intelligence set up; so do non-military agencies. There is no joint enterprise to share coherently modulated streams of relevant intelligence. There is a need for an efficacious C4ISR policy and a joint organisation through which this policy runs as a common strand. The examples of US ‘jointness’ and C4ISR come to one’s mind again in this context. The results are manifest in the success of US Special Operations across the globe. Of course, it took the US years to get the ‘jointness’ of thought, doctrine, equipment, organisation and training into place. Considering the strategic environment that besieges India, the nation ought to have begun moving in that direction a long while ago.

The Task Ahead

Pakistan has been and is likely to remain in the foreseeable future a possible arena for Special Operations. China is becoming more and more assertive and aggressive. As the IAF seeks solutions to the Chinese challenge on India’s North East frontiers, it is almost certain that it would be, as a part of its appreciation, dwelling on the possibility of Special Operations at the rarefied elevations of Tibet et al. The Mi-17 family, with service ceiling of close to 20,000 feet, would be operating at the upper limit of its performance envelope if employed for Special Operations. This would leave little margin for extraction as hover performance at those elevations would be severely restricted in terms of the payload it can take-off with. Indian defence forces are professional and highly motivated.

Inter-service differences of perception remain but like in Kargil, once the battle had been joined, the Army and the IAF functioned “jointly” at the tactical level and the desired results were achieved. In Special Operations involving the use of helicopters, there may not be the luxury of time available to “readjust”. Proper planning, coordination and training would contribute to mission success. This has been demonstrated in the past notwithstanding the absence of a CDS to provide direction. However, for a triumphant heli-borne Special Operation, the critical factor may be political will to intrude into enemy airspace. A decisive attack on an ISI-sponsored LeT training camp in POK remains a dream for the Indian armed forces.

1 2
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left