Role of Special Forces

The Indian Army’s surgical strikes along the Line of Control (LoC) recently has once again highlighted the significance of having specialised forces in the military to handle critical combat missions.

After the terrorists attacked Uri army base of India, a team of special commandos of Indian Army carried out surgical strike in PoK along LoC. In its surgical strike in the month of October 2016, India destroyed seven terror launch pads and it was carried out by 70-80 commandos from two separate battalions of Para Special Forces (SF) with IAF attack helicopters kept ready at four bases in J&K to address any contingency.

Travelling a distance of between 1-3 km, the Para commandos reached their designated targets by foot, and by 2 am, started destroying the launch pads using shoulder-fired Carl Gustav 84mm rocket launchers and automatic grenade launchers. All the para commando teams had returned to the Indian side of the LoC by 4.30 am.

This incident reflects how an elite specialised force can carry out a risky mission using unconventional tactics, techniques, and mode of employment.

Trained to fight behind the scenes-in tropical jungles, deserts and ocean- special operations forces often are called upon to diffuse crises quietly and expeditiously.

But as the militaries around the world are increasingly getting involved in non-conventional warfare and low-intensity military operations, it is likely that special operations units will take on a much more visible role in the next century.

Special operations forces, essentially, are charged with “numerous challenges that are not easily overcome through traditional military means. In addition to combat assignments worldwide, Special Forces (SF) units conduct peacekeeping actions, humanitarian assistance such as demining operations, counterterrorism, drug-interdiction and monitoring of enemy arsenals.

The armies and security forces world over are focusing on Special Forces modernization in view of the emergence of more powerful state and non-state actors and private militias posing bigger challenges to them.

The police forces engaged in normal law and order duties are not equipped to deal with these new non state actors.

With the emergence of various criminal gangs engaged in narcotics trade, maritime piracy, extremist and terrorist outfits armed with modern weapon systems and gadgets, only a well trained professional force can tackle them with full reciprocal force.

Since the mid-90s of last century Special Forces have been used more often to carry out various “non traditional” military tasks. It went beyond current range of military operations and was related with support of the broader national security policy objectives and international efforts to maintain peace.

Undoubtedly, the reason for increased use of Special Forces was their high readiness and wide range of activities as opposed to a conventional unit. In the world Special Forces have begun to develop unique capabilities within national forces and maintain a high level of training required for conduct of activities with minimal risk.

Specialized force

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are highly specialised military forces that are deployed in combat at the strategic and operational level and in non-combat military operations which require unique modes of force deployment. Such forces are especially equipped and trained to utilise unique tactical techniques in hostile, denied and politically sensitive environments. SOF could be deployed both within a state’s own borders, in its immediate neighbourhood over which the state has a considerable degree of familiarity, or in non-familiar ‘out of area’ territories where the intervening state may have far less knowledge of the language, terrain and strategic environment.

At the edge of the twentieth century, most armed forces have begun to build up an elite combat unit, which in most cases were included in army structure. States with higher amount of forces also possess Navy and Air Force special units.

Though the post–9/11 world has brought US military special operations into the limelight as never before, perhaps the SF operation which has garnered maximum worldwide attention till date has been the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.

Osama bin Laden, the founder and head of the Islamist group Al-Qaeda, was killed in Pakistan in 2011 by United States Navy SEALs. They came in choppers, armed with the latest ammunition, broke through the ceiling of Osama’s palatial mansion and shot dead the world’s top most terrorist. In about 40 minutes, the SEAL team accomplished what the whole world was trying to achieve for over a decade.

Generally the main task of Special Forces was to support the achievement of operational and strategic objectives and complementing of the conventional forces operations. However, over the last decade there was a distinct turn in development of Special Forces that have become an important, well functioning and separate component of modern armed forces, with its own structures and doctrines. Increasingly, Special Forces acquire joint character, proving their immense usefulness across whole spectrum of contemporary conflicts, and thus have direct impact on operational art, strategy development and the conduct of military operations.

Modern Special Forces are required to maintain an extremely wide range of tasks in a highly complex global security environment. To achieve these tasks they must have a completely new and innovative ability. These new tasks include: conducting operations in a global framework within pre-emptive action including so called Global War on Terrorism, role in shaping national security, national fight against terrorism, several key tasks outside the scope of combat operations, including fight against narcotic traffic and tasks in area of crisis response. Special Forces are increasingly being used to conduct operations on a global scale in different regions of the world in the context of pre-emptive action-expeditionary operations

Operational utility

From the art of war theory perspective the most significant aspect of the Special Forces is the recognition of their operational utility. The concept of the operational usefulness endeavours to assess the effectiveness of certain types of military operations, taking into account the course and outcome of the conflict. Experts suggest that Special Forces may influence the outcome of the conflict at the tactical level in a direct manner while at the operational level, both indirect and direct.

Direct action complements other components capabilities by attacking specific, well defined targets of strategic and operational significance. In the conduct of direct action operations, units may employ raid, ambush, or direct assault tactics; place munitions and other devices; conduct stand-off attacks by fire from maritime, ground or air platforms; provide terminal guidance for precision-guided munitions, and conduct independent sabotage.

Direct action operations are normally limited in scope and duration. SOF may conduct these tasks unilaterally or in support of conventional operations; and such operations frequently occur beyond the reach of tactical weapon systems and strike capabilities of conventional forces.

The indirect approach is characterised by the long-term commitments of the SF to help enable and aid other nations to improve their own military forces and security.

SOF activities contain military assistance, too. This means training, advising and assisting allied and/or other friendly forces. MA is a broad spectrum of measures in support of friendly or allied forces in peace, crisis and conflict. Military assistance can be conducted by, with, or through indigenous or surrogate forces that are trained, equipped, supported, or employed in varying degrees by SOF. The range of MA is thus considerable, and may vary from providing low-level military training or material assistance to the active employment of indigenous force in the conduct of combat operations. United States has always engaged its SFs in various combat missions around the world in the last decade. In addition to the visible actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, US Special Forces were engaged in an offensive combat terrorism operations  in the Philippines, Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Colombia. It is estimated that from 11 September 2001, United States Special Forces have likely performed more than 4,000 different kinds of operations in more than 100 countries.

The United States will likely continue to need special operations forces for direct action, unconventional warfare, and partner capacity missions in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and possibly Syria, where there are significant threats. Over the long run, the United States needs to devote sufficient special operations resources-from signals collection capabilities to human intelligence collectors-to understand and counter jihadist threats in these areas.

In addition, the United States also utilizes special operations forces to help build partner capacity and conduct foreign internal defense with a limited set of countries in Africa  and the Middle East. In these countries, terrorist groups may not be plotting attacks against the US homeland, but they may be involved in attacks against US structures (such as embassies), citizens, and other interests overseas.


Humans are more important than hardware. People-not equipment-make the critical difference in the success or failure of a mission. The right people, highly trained and working as a team, will accomplish the mission with the equipment available. On the other hand, the best equipment in the world cannot compensate for a lack of the right people.

Special operations forces use an attraction strategy to get access to the best raw talent in the military. Their elite status is a magnetic draw for young men who want to prove themselves and be among the best. The average education level of special operations recruits is above that for conventional forces, and it is not uncommon to find individuals with advanced degrees from top colleges or managerial experience in a corporation.

Another important element contributing to Special Forces transformation is their organizational structure and way of training as well as new approaches to operations.

Nature of special operations since end of World War II required combination of land and air assets operating simultaneously in a multidimensional way.

Today’s Special Forces are at forefront of many coalition and joint operations conducted within the framework of the global war on terror and international peacekeeping. In turn, analysis of ways of conducting operations by special forces show a steady growth, high specialization and wide diversity of tactical procedures for operations in high-risk environments.

Noteworthy are two new concepts in which Special Forces operate at tactical level. One of them relates to the combination of efforts land force special elements with Air Force. Second concerns use of network-centric in special operations. Both concepts point out growing role of information sharing and increasing use of advanced technology at an individual level.

The digital age is altering the  battle space and SOF is not immune from the wave of digitisation that is sweeping the military landscape. Armed forces which are designed to operate in the industrial age need to step up to  the digital age to engage in ‘network-centric warfare’. Emerging strategic technologies like Artificial Intelligence, robotics and miniaturisation are likely to play an increasingly important role in future warfare. In today’s world, drone technology could provide a lot more information for reconnaissance and intelligence than boots on the ground. Network technology has evolved rapidly over the past few years that some of the SOF tasks such as reconnaissance and surveillance can be performed by using drones and satellites, without giving away intentions or loss of manpower.

Special operations forces are trained to work “by, with, and through” partner forces, which generally makes them the provider of choice for building partner capacity. They are also trained to understand local culture, society, language, economy, history, and politics. For counterterrorism purposes, building partner capacity can involve deploying Special Forces and other units to train, advise, and assist local security forces and build the capacity of local governments to provide services, secure their populations, and deal with the causes of terrorism in their countries.

Besides showing their capabilities in combat missions Special Forces soldiers are among the best-trained and most respected medics in the military. They’re trained to treat battlefield injuries, but they’re equally capable of walking into a village and establishing a medical clinic. They can perform physical exams, diagnose the textbook of diseases found in the Third World, and prescribe medicine for treatment. They can vaccinate villagers. They can perform minor surgery, deliver babies, treat infants and children, bandage wounds, and set broken bones. They’re trained in parasitology to identify nasty bacteria found in water wells. They can even perform dentistry.

If that weren’t enough, these guys are trained veterinarians, which makes sense when you consider the importance of livestock in far-flung lands. Taken together, medics from a Special Forces team can make a real difference in the lives of a lot of people, and that goes a long way toward establishing a common bond.

SOF competently operate a great deal of highly advanced military equipment and are also proficient with the equipment of other services and countries. They are valued for their out-of-the-box thinking, imagination, and initiative. SOF can and do operate with a small footprint and can survive and thrive with a very light support tail.

Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced. It takes years to train operational units to the level of proficiency needed to accomplish difficult and specialized SOF missions. Intense training, both in SOF schools and in units, is required to integrate competent individuals into fully capable units. This process cannot be hastened without degrading ultimate capability.

Strategic asset

The Special Operations Forces (SOF) are strategic assets for strategic effect. They are playing an increasingly important role in the asymmetric environment and are highly appropriate forces to help tackle diffuse threats such as the multiple forms of Terrorism. Recent combat operations have demonstrated the synergetic effects of integrated conventional and Special Operations at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels across the operational continuum. Combating terrorism (CBT) is a highly specialized, resource-intensive mission. Certain SOF units maintain a high state of readiness to conduct counter-terrorist operations and possess a full range of CBT capabilities. CBT activities include: anti-terrorism (AT), counterterrorism (CT), recovery of hostages or sensitive material from terrorist organizations, attack of terrorist infrastructure, and the reduction of vulnerability to terrorism.

Special operations forces can also be critical in precision targeting of terrorist groups and their financial, logistical, and political support networks. They can orchestrate covert raids to capture or otherwise target terrorists, seize their supplies, and undermine their finances; conduct air strikes from drones, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters; oversee psychological operations to undermine terrorist support; collect and analyse intelligence about terrorist groups, their networks, locations, capabilities, and intentions; and engage with tribal and other local actors.

From reconnaissance and assault missions to counter-terrorism and hostage rescue, Special Forces take on some of the hardest missions and live some of the most secret lives in the military world.

Though United States is known for having the best and most advanced Special Forces, but other countries too have trained their military forces to be a specialised force for carrying out secret and difficult missions.

Israeli Defence Forces now consist of elite commando, counter-terrorist, anti-terrorist and reconnaissance units. Amongst these are the Shayetet-13, Sayeret Matkal and Shaldag. Shayetet-13 is the Israeli naval commando unit, comparable to the US Navy SEALS. An extremely secretive unit, it is used for both land and sea operations, long-range missions and hostage rescue situations both in and outside the borders of Israel. Sayeret Matkal or the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269 is primarily dedicated to hostage rescue and is also tasked with the most risky intelligence gathering operations. Shaldag-officially the Special-Surface Air Designation Team (Unit 5101)-is the elite commando unit of the Israeli Air Force.

Similarly, the SAS (Special Air Service) Regiment is a corps of the British Army and a part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF). The SAS is one of the world’s most renowned and respected Special Forces regiments whose role includes counter-terrorism and reconnaissance.

The SAS Regiment actually refers to three regiments known as the 21st SAS Regiment, 22nd SAS Regiment and 23rd SAS Regiment. The 22nd SAS Regiment is a part of the regular Army, while the 22nd and 23rd SAS Regiments are a part of the reserve Territorial Army. From its formal formation in 1952, the 22nd SAS Regiment has carried out a number of operations and private security in many parts of the world.

India’s elite Special Forces are among some of the most formidable military units in the world. Rigorously trained and equipped to handle, support and conduct special operations, these units can handle pretty much any dangerous situation and are an integral part of India’s armed forces.

India’s response to theatres where SOF was required has always been reactive. In the future, India’s SOF need pre-emptive and proactive capabilities to better anticipate and plan for contingencies.

SF missions may also be politically sensitive, wherein failure may lead to loss of national prestige. As such, only the best equipped and most proficient forces are employed to avoid detection and possible mission failure.

India’s forces

India’s most lethal special force, the MARCOS (Marine Commandos) unit was created by the Indian Navy in 1987 in order to conduct special amphibious operations. Experts in maritime warfare, MARCOS commandos are trained to engage in battle on all terrains. MARCOS commandos specialise in underwater operations.

More than 80% of the applicants for MARCOS drop out in the first stage of enrollment itself, a three-day long physical fitness test that is one of the toughest in the world. Those that make it through are then subjected to a five-week-long process called ‘hell’s week’, which includes extreme sleep deprivation and incredibly tough physical tasks.  The final stages of the training include an 800 meter long thigh-high mud crawl (called the ‘death crawl’) that is concluded with shooting a target 25 meters away with a man standing next to it.

At the end of this formidable training, these commandos are capable of firing while lying down, running in full sprint, or looking into a mirror. MARCOS are also among the handful of special forces from around the world that are capable of being para-dropped into the sea with the full combat load.

According to one estimate, in India about 400 to 500 soldiers apply every year to join the special force, but only a few ultimately make it to the elite group that carry out a mission like surgical strike.

When a person joins the Indian army, he/she is given an option to join the special force as well. If the new recruits show interest, the army examines the individual’s strength and takes a final call.

Soldiers willing to join the SFse are kept on a probation period of two months. They are put to toughest training and examined if the individual is capable to carry out surgical strikes as part of the elite commando team. The soldiers undergo a training regime that spreads over 20-22 hours every day. The training involves walking on one’s fists on the concrete road and rolling for 3-4 kilometres on road among other tasks.

The trainees are also subjected to mental torture to ensure that the commando is not only strong physically but is mentally tough as well.

During the probation period, the soldiers are tasked to eat glass shard among other things to survive. They can’t expect regular food while they are on a mission. They are also trained to catch snakes with their hands.

The soldiers have to run for over 40 kilometres carrying a load of 25 kilograms and finish the race in stipulated time.

During this training, they are trained broadly under four categories of skill sets- in driving, demolition, battle-field nursing assistance and communication methods.

Before the end of probation period, navigation skills of the soldiers are tested. Every soldier is left 40 kilometres deep inside the forest and they are tasked to locate their target and complete the mission.

They are not provided with any compass or GPS device to find their respective routes. They are expected to carry out this task using their common sense and tips learnt during the training. They also have to make sure that they are not found out by anyone.

If any soldier failed to accomplish the mission, he would be put back into the deep forest and asked to do the same exercise all over again.

When training is complete, separate teams of special commandos are formed, each comprising 12-15 soldiers. The Special Forces are divided into three categories. One category specialises in fighting in hilly and mountainous terrain. Similarly, other teams specialise in accomplishing their missions in desert and plains.

The commanding officers decide as to which team is to be sent for a surgical strike.

Commando unit

India has got many specialized commando forces. Other than MARCOS, COBRA or the Commando Battalion For Resolute Action is an integral part of CRPF that came into action in order to tackle insurgent groups engaging in guerrilla warfare in India. Highly proficient in guerrilla tactics and jungle warfare, these commandos are masters of camouflage, precision strikes, parachute jumps, and ambushes.

Ranked among India’s most experienced and successful law enforcement units, COBRA is also the best equipped Central Armed Police unit. Their high- end weapons include the INSAS rifles, the AK rifles, and the X95, an extremely compact stand-alone weapon specifically designed for Special Forces units. Their sniper units are also one of the best among the armed forces of India.

The commando unit of the Indian Air Force is called GARUD. This elite unit specialises in airfield seizure, special reconnaissance, airborne operations, air assault and search and rescue missions, including those behind enemy lines. It is also tasked with the protection of critical Air Force bases as well as rapid response to terror attacks on such installations.

A part of elite IAF exercises like the Iron Fist and the Live Wire, Garud commandos also train at the diving school of the Indian Navy and the Army’s Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School.

Ghatak Platoon, or Ghatak Commandos, is a special operations platoon present in every infantry battalion in the Indian Army. The first wave of Indian Army’s counter forces, the Ghatak Platoon usually consists of 20 soldiers whose mission is to launch a quick attack on a particular target and annihilate it so that the forward movement of the company or battalion is not slowed down or stopped. Only the most physically fit and motivated soldiers make it into the Ghatak Platoon.

They usually operate without support from the rest of the battalion and are  trained to conduct raids on enemy artillery positions, airfields, supply dumps and tactical headquarters. Another of their key tasks is to collect battlefield intelligence and observe enemy movements by going very close to enemy formations. Ghatak platoons were extensively used in the 1999 Kargil conflict. These shock and assault troops would climb up the cliffs from the rear and create a safe area for the rest of battalion to launch an attack.

Another group called the Special Frontier Force, created in the wake of India-China war, specialises in unconventional warfare and covert operations behind enemy lines during events like wars. Keeping this in mind, the commandos are trained for extreme conditions, with special attention paid to guerrilla tactics, mountain and jungle warfare, parachute jumps, special reconnaissance, and hostage rescue.

India has also got an elite counter-terrorist squad called National Security Guards (NSG). They provide security to VIPs, conduct anti-sabotage checks and are responsible for neutralising terrorist threats to India’s vital installations. Some of the important missions they have played a pivotal role in are Operation Black Thunder, Operation Ashwamedh, Operation Black Tornado, and Operation Cyclone.

Led by the Director General of the Indian Police Service, Black Cats are neither a part of the Central Armed Police Forces nor do they come under the Paramilitary Forces of India. A mix of commandos from both the police and the army, NSG has two units-the Special Action Group (SAG) and the Special Ranger Group (SRG). Equipped with some of the most advanced weapons in the world, NSG commandos  are trained to tackle terrorism in all its manifestations.

After the Mumbai terror attacks, the Maharashtra government raised a special squad that could combat urban terror and assembled the youngest Indian special force unit called Force One. The sole motive of Force One is to protect Mumbai when under threat. Force One is one of the fastest response teams in the world-it can ready an armed unit and leave for a hostage situation in less than 15 minutes.

From over 3000 applications from both the army and the police, the best 216 were selected and then trained under close guidance from the Israeli Special Forces. Their curriculum is designed on the lines of German Police’s GSG 9 and focuses primarily on first-response intervention and firing. They also undergo regular drills to prepare for possible attack scenarios around sensitive installations, with special emphasis laid on intelligence gathering and tactical formations.

Special operations forces of modern armed forces will likely to play an important role in the future in the solution of various conflicts.