Military & Aerospace

India's Special Operations Capability
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Issue Vol. 26.3 July - Sept2011 | Date : 09 Feb , 2014

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.

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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.

Lockheed-Martin-C-130J-SupeSpecial Operations are demanding in nature and require the following:

  • 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.

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Air Marshal Narayan Menon

Air Marshal Narayan Menon

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15 thoughts on “India’s Special Operations Capability

  1. According to a retd captain from 9th battalion special forces indian army, captain Kalpav, he told in a forum that operations happen every month or every few months. Those are just a few out in public database. I suppose we civilians are not aware of such operations. Also what sir has written is correct about outdated weapons. Capt kalpav retd also told the weapons his team used were not upto mark. He retired around 2019 or 2020 i think. He told when Sf goes in ops they can’t fail or die. But mishaps happen. I guess after 2017 things improved including parachute jumping mechanism and its quality. Even current modi govt is not serious about lives of faujis

    • Very rightly said by Capt Kalpav. As his ex CO 9 PARA SF, i know him. He’s a man tough as steel. Never seen such capabilities like he has. He correctly said about outdated weapons & parachute issues and which sometimes malfunctioned in early days.

  2. The author of this article has the typical mindset of the IAF .He thinks whatever the Air Force has done is too great in the face of numerous obstacles posed by the others. Its a typical Air Force mindset which they have to grow out of. They should realize that doing their job and is just that…doing their job, just like the other services are doing. They are paid for it and draw a comfortable salary from the Govt of India at the expense of the taxpayer.
    Neither the Army nor the Navy constatntly boasts about their “achievements” nor expect anyone to be “grateful” in return although their accomplishments on a day to day basis the contribution in the service of the Nation is far greater. Constant whining is another common trait in Air Force personnel.
    One can easily list out and refute what the Air Marshal has written in the above article ,however its not worth the time or effort.
    One thing however can easily be refuted. “Garud phorce” is not special. They are just showmen going around in fancy dress in Airbases and Aero-India shows to impress the public. The primary task of Garud should be CSAR of downed aircrew and /or target designation of high value targets for FGA(fighter ground attack aircraft) behind enemy lines. In recent history of air actions,they were neither present or capable to get WgCdr Abhinandan back,nor were they present to designate any targets at Balakot nor could they do anything worthwile at Pathankot. Showboarding in fancy dress on TV and Airbases is one thing, doing the real thing is quite another.
    The only capable SF in Indias inventory are Army Para SF , Navy MARCOS and the little known Special Group.(NSG are actually anti-terrorist only not to be deployed in conventional ops,though time and again they are misused ).
    The Air Force actually needs a new motto- “just get on with the job”

  3. This so called Operation Geronimo was nothing but pure balderdash. The lid has been blown off it by none other than the celebrated Seymour Hersh. It was the Pakistani walk-in, that pinpointed the whereabouts of Osama to Americans. Even in subsequent stages, Pakistanis were clearly in the know, as to what was coming their way. Since one of their own military brass had ‘sang’, Osama away to the Americans. It is high time the bombast surrounding around this lore be laid to rest.

  4. Special Discussion on Pakistan Army Which They Do. We know that your interior conditions is not suitable but we will all time talk on pak army which they can handle all

  5. Respected Sir,
    The problems you have highlighted are indeed a matter of concern we are not even able to conduct cross border raids to destroy the terror training camps, the main problem is political will “lack of it” and ego clashes between the services, intelligence apparatus and buerocracy with everyone trying to score brownie points over each other but the main thing is political will and leadership ,the USSOCOM was the creation of an american politician Goldman and it was only after that the gradual imrovements took place” ROME was not built in a day “and this special forces capability also requires long term finance funding, leadership commited to the job and continous political support

  6. Alas, the incompetent UPA governance is close to an end. The lack of professionalism is from the Government body rather than the armed forces. Those responsible for India’s security in the defence department are not fit to be sepoys outside the parliament building. It is our good fortune that Pakistan is in a state of disarray. Judging from the current lack of coordination and unpreparedness in India, long after the Mumbai attack, if the enemy wanted they could pull-off a Mumbai-massacre once every three months while the bed-sheet clad ministers of India scurry around to find excuses. The citizens of India now demand an end to this. What is needed is a strong retaliation force to be readied for action should there be another Mumbai-like siege. Targets in the enemy territory must be identified with clear definition of engagement in a lighting strike similar to Israel’s actions against terrorists. The armed forces must also be prepared for a second strike, with much more devastating force should the enemy threaten with field nuclear weapons. Mr. Modi is the best hope for India for implementing such new measures.

  7. What were the chiefs doing when an PM undoubtedly from advise of IAS and MOD closed shop to Indian HUMINT?
    The Chiefs have to be woken up from their slumber of Postman-ship, of passing on un military doctrine thru the ranks. The same postman-ship led Malik and Tipnis to go on with decision of not crossing the LOC though not militarily logical and proved to fatal and not tell the leadership that had no intellectual jurisdiction thru the nil experience of military strategy and warfare in anyone in the political and bureaucratically class, that it was the military’s decision to cross or not cross the LOC and how to fight the war!. The Chief’s main job is to counsel the political leadership towards the right military decision and not to pass on to the armed forces the decisison based on political class.
    The Chiefs just cannot get rid of this responsibility and it is not a burden as made out to be

  8. An Air Marshall wrote this? Really? He mentions when “in 1976, the Israelis demonstrated their capability when four Israeli Air Force C-130J aircraft …”.

    As the C-130J version was not introduced until 1999, it shows what expertise he has (must make the Chinese & Pakistani’s very scared!)

    Another VERY POORLY written article on an Indian defence website!

  9. Absolutely true,there is also a need to setup a common command for all Special Forces, in order to enhance the efficiency.SFs like NSG,(51 SAG),para..etc all are under different department they have to be brought under this command(only one)

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