Indian Special Forces

Recent events need to be analyzed before deciding on how to modernize the Indian Special Forces. The most recent is the raid into Myanmar to eliminate the insurgents who had struck the Indian Army convoy in Chandel in Manipur in June this year.

It needs to be underscored that it was a half-baked operation which failed to achieve the unqualified success that a hit against the very perpetrators of Chandel should have sent an unambiguous message that one cannot mess with the Indian Army. That is what Special Forces are all about. That that did not happen is obvious from the request of the Commanding Officer of the battalion that was attacked in Chandel for permission to extend its tenure in Manipur in the hope of being able to inflict retribution on the actual perpetrators from the NSCN (Khaplang) group of Naga insurgents who are apparently still at large.

The other incident was the 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008. The internal security version of the Special Forces, the National Security Guard was flown in to help stabilize the situation. Soon one of the commanders of the strike force was shot and killed because he had to raise his voice to check the position of an injured colleague. Why did he need to raise his voice-an act that gave away his position to the Pakistani terrorists holding out in the hotel complex? The answer is that he did not have the communications equipment that could have helped him locate his colleague just by whispering.

It needs to be clearly understood that the role and employment of Special Forces has wider geopolitical implications than the immediate location of the act. The Osama bin Laden assassination by US Navy SEALs for instance. In India’s case in the foray into Myanmar the issue became acrimonious between the two governments. Suspicions were raised whether someone in the Myanmar military establishment had forewarned the NSCN Khaplang group that a strike was imminent and helped the perpetrators of the attack on the Indian convoy to escape. That is why the battalion that was attacked feels that the chapter can only be closed when the Khaplang group of Naga insurgents are made to pay a higher price.

Immediately after the US Navy SEALs team struck the Abbottabad hideout of Osama bin Laden, expectations were expressed in India of the need for similar helicopters for its Special Forces. The helicopters (one of which crashed in the compound in Abbottabad) were touted to be extremely quiet so that they cannot be detected from the ground. Whether it was this quality of quietness that played a major part in the undetected entry into the airspace of one of Pakistan’s vital points has only now been contradicted by the assertion that the Pakistani political and military leadership was privy to the plan to kill Osama bin Laden and had switched off the radar that could have warned of the air intrusion. The moral of this story is that Indian military planners must not jump to unsubstantiated conclusions when drawing up plans for acquisitions for its Special Forces.

Outlining the requirements

How quiet is the helicopter should have first been ascertained by those in authority because it does appear to be a legitimate requirement given that NSG commandos were flown above the Jewish Chabad House in Mumbai in 2008 and commandos slithered down ropes to attack the Pakistani terrorists. The noise of the helicopter could be heard several kilometers away. Stealth was not required in this instance because the operation was conducted in broad daylight. Apparently the terrorists did not have the resources to guard the roof or things would have been very different.

Among the very first things that needs to be ascertained before deciding on the kind of equipment that would be required by Indian Special Forces is how many troops are required to deal with the extant dangers of a two-front war with Pakistan and China and a growing  Fifth Column of enemies operating within Indian lines.

The US has placed a requirement of 22,000 plus troops, about 3 per cent for additional responsibilities in Afghanistan and the Middle East within the expansion plans of the US Special Forces Command. India appears to be looking at the same numbers. There is thus an element of constant recruitment which affects cohesion.

The Indian Ministry of Defence needs to revisit the raising of Special Forces because allegations have been made that the whole Parachute Regiment is being sought to be converted to Special Forces so as to allow everyone to avail of the Special Forces Allowance. The issue appears to have become one of ‘pay and perks’ instead of one of national security.

In 2001 a study had recommended that the existing manpower of the Special Forces be consolidated and their fighting prowess improved. A later recommendation that every Army Corps must include its own Special Forces has seen the raising of nine such units in the Army alone (the IAF and Navy have their own-Garuda and MARCOS respectively) and a tenth is in the raising.

The collateral effect on existing units has not been catered for. Every raising requires a core group of officers and Junior Commissioned Officers, and Non-Commissioned Officers-the repositories of military expertise who mould the new recruits to the special missions they would be required to undertake. This core group has, perforce, to be extracted from existing Special Forces units thereby reducing their intended efficiency.

Weapon needs

As for the requisite weapons for Special Forces, the decision made in the first flush of improvement in Indo-Israeli relations to place orders for the Tavor assault rifle appears to have boomeranged. Problems are reported to have arisen over maintenance and munitions supplies.

Also, the initial decision to equip one in every four weapons with night vision devices tends to leave the larger number of the members of a five-man team with severe targeting issues. Fortunately this mistake was rectified before too much damage was done to national security. Because of a shortage of the Tavor the five-member teams have had to induct one AK-47 rifle per group. Clearly the very basic concept of standardization of equipment even with such a small group as the five-member team has gone for a toss. Absent equipment include the “corner shot” gun which allows the shooter to stay hidden behind a bend and still fire at the target and the laser target designator cleared for induction about ten years ago is still to come.  

The list of absent equipment is quite long. It includes the hallmark rappelling ropes, by which commandos are seen in movies jumping down from the roof, and communications equipment needed to either call in air strikes or a UAV surveillance check or, most importantly, to evacuate a Special Forces team after it has completed its mission in a linkup that is a basic requirement in any operation.

The shortened list includes: Anti-tank rocket launchers (which can also be used against static fortifications); heavy machineguns; 40mm under barrel grenade launchers; underwater rifles; satellite phones and airborne search and rescue equipment; radio controlled detonators; freefall parachutes with oxygen bottles; underwater propulsion vehicles-the chariots that marine commandos use to enter enemy ports and harbors for sabotage.

A leaf from the Chinese manual of Special Forces indicates that in peacetime the Chinese Special Forces are deployed for covert information gathering and strategic surveillance  which explains why they are so easily able to identify points along the Line of Actual Control where the Indian security forces are absent. This helps in their frequent intrusions that are intended to show up India as a paper tiger. Worse, much of their “peacetime” activities include training, arming and advising terrorist and insurgent groups against India. The Pakistanis coordinate their activities with the Chinese.