Capabilities of Special Forces

Whatever else that is happening to the elite Special Forces of India one hears a lot about ‘restructuring’ and ‘reorganisation’ even as signs of modernisation are apparent in the acquisition of a specialist aircraft for the kinds of jobs they have to do.

The surgical strike conducted by Indian Special Forces against  facilities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, used as forming up areas  and launch pads for terrorists, has drawn attention to the unique capabilities that are inherent in such an institution.

After the Mumbai terrorist attack the Special Forces, particularly the National Security Guard which protects the political leaders, were allowed to circumvent the acquisition network of the Ministry of Defence and buy whatever they needed by way of weapons and accessories from foreign sources without becoming embroiled in the red tape of the Ministry.

Hopefully now there are no excuses that the Special Forces had, perforce, to fight with “whatever they had” equipment as during the Kargil war of 1999 or complain of absence of communications equipment that could have saved the life of Major Unnikrishnan during the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.

The successful surgical strike across a 120-km wide arc along the Line of Control in September has instilled new confidence in the nation that it no longer needs to suffer silently the many pinpricks that the Pakistan Army inflicts through the use of terrorists as part of its official order of battle. (The figleaf of ‘non-State actors’ has been shed after the Indian attack on the closely situated sanctuaries for terrorists and the Pakistan Army barracks).

Acquisition plans

Hopefully now the Para Commandos have what is required for stealthy operations behind enemy lines-the throat-actuated telephony and the silenced rifles/carbines; the under-barrel grenade launchers and the other weapons required for light-weapon operations like replacements for the bulky Carl Gustav rocket propelled grenade launcher.

The Uri episode has prompted a flurry of reviews and acquisitions to strengthen the static defences to prevent further infiltration through the Line of Control (its sanctity has been officially shed with the surgical strike that penetrated up to three kilometers on the other side). New radars have been added to the list and there is talk of shedding the thermal imagers that detect intruders by the body heat. This particular equipment should never have been bought in the first place given the fact that it is “hand held”-a practice that severely circumscribes the role and ability of an infantryman because it prevents him from using the rifle to kill the intruder which should be the first priority.

Suddenly, a lot of money has been put on the table for acquisition of all and everything that is perceived by the military establishment to curb infiltration and assist in seeking out and destroying those who have managed to penetrate the hinterland. The idea appears to be a repeat of the concept of strengthening static defences so that prospective intruders are detected and dealt with at the Line of Control itself-a promise by the local Corps commanders that has been breached almost daily since it was made several years ago.

The Indian military establishment should by now have learned the lessons from other famous “Lines” that were created with the specific purpose of preventing penetration and ended up being subverted during the World Wars in Europe-the Siegfried Line, the Maginot Line.

For many years I have been pointing out that while static defences have a role to play but gaps in riverine areas have time and again been exploited by the Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence to push in terrorists to attack India. As proven by the Line of Control, static defences tend to induce complacency and negligence and what has come to be known as the Maginot mentality.

The panacea is mobile defences led by military dogs trained to detect and attack intruders. The military is in the habit of displaying the ferocity factor of Army dogs by making a show of a German Shepherd dog being swung around by a well-padded “intruder”. It should use this ferocity factor to create a new kind of military dog who will attack intruders  by operating in pairs and not be tethered to a leash and handler.

As it is, after the successful surgical strike in late September the Government has issued a five-point guideline that is both inane and impractical. “There should be no casualties” is one such dictum. Even the best Special Forces operation ever conducted-the Israeli Entebbe raid to free passengers of an aircraft hijacked to Uganda-had one casualty, its commander (Jonathan Nethanyahu, brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu). One effect of such a commandment will be over-cautiousness that could defeat the very purpose of the surgical strike.

Expanding coverage

As regards the role and character and ethos of Para Commandos/Special Forces is concerned there appears to be a sharp cleavage among even the experts of the Indian Army given that a former Colonel of the Regiment has decried the amalgamation of the airborne Special Forces with the Parachute Regiment. If this is another manifestation of the kinds of turf wars that exist between the different Services of the Indian Armed Forces (and even within each Service), the Government of India had better clear it up before embarking on more, much needed deep-strike operations that will have to be part of its requirements in the future especially now that the accent has shifted to the whole of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

In this broader canvas the role of accurate Intelligence cannot be over-emphasised. The Indian surgical strike was conducted after satellite, drone and other technical and human assets within the National Technical Research Organisation were milked for their tactical content. It took about a week to be absolutely sure of the lay of the land and the intended targets. The Indian foreign espionage service Research and Analyses Wing needs to expand its coverage to handle the ongoing anti-Pakistan and anti-China  sentiment that is prevalent in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Within the suggested reorganization of Special Forces is one that advocates an amalgamation of such units from all the three Services-the Para Commandos of the Army, the Garudas of the Indian Air Force and the MARCOS of the Indian Navy-under a tri-Service Command with organic human Intelligence and signals Intelligence adjuncts.

Language skills and intimate knowledge of the social and cultural milieu of the likely areas of deployment are an absolute must. The tri-Service Command should be headed by a three-star General (Major General).

There is also a suggestion that the anti-hijacking force the NSG be part of the new structure while the Special Rangers Group that protects the VVIPs be a separate entity ostensibly because the close proximity to politicians tends to downgrade their professional skills and discipline.

In the meantime the rest of the security architecture will have to remoulded to ensure that three or four terrorists do not manage, time and again, to hold the security forces at bay by entering military barracks or government buildings.