By Lieutenant General PJS Pannu (r)
India and the world watched the media with great interest when the Indian Army announced that Special Forces have conducted surgical strikes across the international borders to hit terrorist camps, initially in Myanmar in 2015, and later across the Line of Control in 2016. The Indian Special Forces and Paratroopers have had a rich history in contributing to success during War and in Sub-conventional operations. The paradrop at Tangail by 2 Parachute Battalion (now 2 Para SF) contributed significantly towards speedily achieving the victory towards the capture of Dacca in 1971 War and were the first unit to enter Dhaka. A Team from the same unit was used in Operation Khukri in Sierra Leone in 2000 for hostage rescue of UN peacekeepers. Similarly, 6 Parachute Battalion landed in the Maldives in November 1988 under the codename ‘Operation Cactus’ in support of the ruling government to prevent a coup.
Indian Special Forces originated from ‘Meghdoot Force’ raised in 1965 by a maverick Infantry-man Maj Megh Singh. It is indeed interesting the story of the birth of Indian Special Forces and British SAS are somewhat similar as both were brainchild of two maverick officers who somehow managed to convince their bosses, in rather unorthodox manner, to raise a small band of force to operate behind the enemy lines. Meghdoot Force later joined Parachute Regiment and became 9 Para Commando, and later re-christened as 9 Para (SF). The second unit 10 Para (SF) was created drawing men from 9 Para (SF). Most of the Parachute battalions have been gradually converted into Special Forces units meant for different terrains and sectors. Their roles are markedly different from that of the Parachute Battalions.
Special Forces operate in small teams and mostly behind enemy lines in an unconventional manner. The troops in SF units are volunteers who are selected through a very grueling probation cum elimination process with barely 10 to 15 percent of volunteers making the cut. They are highly motivated, superbly trained, skilled, specially equipped and suitable to be employed either in conjunction with conventional forces or used independently in unconventional/sub-conventional operations. Infact, these forces are employable in a whole range of operations contingent upon them bringing strategic dividends. Their operations are highly calibrated and shrouded in secrecy. SF targets are decided at the highest levels of decision making and chosen with great care and deliberation. These forces are used to alter the course of battle and turn the war around to achieve disproportionate gains. These are usually sensitive, high risk strategic operations to be achieved at precise cost.
Indian special Forces are regarded as one of the best in the world for the results that they have produced. These Forces have performed exceedingly well during the Live Situation Training (LST) deployments in the J&K and the Northeast India. Certain SF units have theatre specific roles however, those units who come from outside the Theatre are given tenures in high threat areas to operationally practice their skills. These units have achieved major successes in Counter Insurgency/Counter Terror Operations in the given time and suffered minimum losses. These forces have become more significant in the last few decades because of the hybrid warfare that has emerged as the form of Warfare iIn recent times.
Last year while addressing a conference, Australia’s defence minister Linda Reynolds said that the character of warfare is changing, countries and intelligence have moved on from traditional strategies, instead new modes are being pursued called “grey-zone” tactics or “hybrid war.”
Hybrid warfare is a mix of all types of violence, using all possible means to achieve disruption against the adversary. This is a form of unrestricted warfare beginning from non-contact;non- kinetic operations to highly kinetic application of force. Both State and Non-State actors may be involved directly or indirectly with high level deniability. These operations include employment of orthodox to unorthodox means. These are sometimes referred to as ‘Grey’ operations or ‘Black’ operations depending on how much ownership a state wants to take or deny.
If Special Forces are not used directly to prosecute operations , these would willy nilly get sucked into response operations. The raids conducted across the Line of Control, popularly referred to as Surgical Strikes, post Uri attack by Pakistan was in response to a number of such attacks carried out by Pakistani forces (SSG) alongwith or under the garb of irregulars. Such combat requires Special Warriors to understand the situation and react accordingly, that is where special forces come into action. These Forces remain in a high state of readiness with complete situational awareness round the clock.
In the Indian Armed Forces, all three services maintain a high state of readiness through their respective Special Forces such as Army SF units, Garuds of Indian Air Force and MARCOS (Marine Commandos) of the Indian Navy. The Ministry of Home Affairs also maintains certain Forces such as National Security Guards (NSG), comprising Army Special Action Groups such as 51st and 52nd SAGs and additional units at NSG Regional Hubs in various states. These units are the strike units for Anti-Hijack and Anti-terror operations. The operations conducted to clear the Taj Hotel, Mumbai of terrorists was by an SAG unit composed of Indian Army personnel on deputation. Indian Army SF troops also serve on deputation to highly classified units operating directly under the Central Government.
SF units primary objective is to hit the target or complete what is assigned to them and immediately disappear from ground zero. They work under the motto of “high impact and low visibility.” Special Forces train their warriors on various skill sets. For a layman it would be interesting and easy to relate to Bollywood or Hollywood movies and characters such as ‘Uri’, John Rambo’ and ‘James Bond 007’ thrillers . Though the movies are always a bit of exaggeration, some of the operations conducted by the Special Forces Units are no less or are even more daring. The Operation conducted by the US Seals at Abbottabad to liquidate Osama bin Laden was well covered by various media channels and was a classic example.
Similarly, Raid on the Entebbe Airport in Uganda by the Israeli SF is yet another example. There are many such operations conducted by the Indian Special Forces which are not published or are in the public domain. Typically their Skill sets comprise Martial Arts, use of an array of weapons, explosives, handling high-tech communication and engineering equipment and carrying out stealth missions. They are trained in aerial, water and ground insertion, have a high staying power in small teams/buddy pairs or even as lone warriors. The SF can operate in the dark nights or in full daylight with equal efficiency and ease. They are multi-skilled and are apt at multitasking. The Indian Special Forces are competent to survive in super high altitude and extreme cold climates with relative comfort.
The special Forces are meant to strike high value targets that have strategic and asymmetric impact. The forces are employed to effect disproportionate gains. Most importantly, they work as the most dependable ‘eyes and ears’ of the Commander deep behind the enemy lines.
High value targets are usually in the hinterland of the adversary and located deeper and are heavily guarded. These can be anything like nuclear facilities such as enrichment plants or missile infrastructure , Defence Industrial Complex, high value logistic infrastructure, critical choke points such as bridges, airfields from where adversaries operate their air force. These are those targets that cannot be destroyed by aerial or missile attacks for some reason. These targets need Reconnaissance and Designation even if they are to be destroyed by an aerial platform. Certain targets are assigned to the SF as Direct Action targets. High Value targets would be assigned before the declaration of hostilities or are assigned as they show up in Hybrid war scenarios. Use of technology is increasingly becoming a favourite tool at the hands of Special Forces.
In hybrid scenarios Special Forces are also employed in hostage rescue operations when high profile individuals are kidnapped or taken hostage. These forces have also been used in capture and assassinating leaders either directly or through use high technology such as witnessed in assassination of an Iraninan general in Iraq in 2019 by the US forces.
Apart from British Special Air Service (SAS), US Navy SEAL Team 6 and DELTA Force are arguably the top special operations forces. Created In 1962, the Sea-Air-Land operators go through years of training and especially since 9/11, endure an incredible operations tempo.
The most popular operation led by US Seals (SEAL TEAM 6) in recent times was Operation Neptune Spear which was carried out in a CIA-led operation with Joint Special Operations Command, commonly known as JSOC. It was successfully carried out to eliminate the most wanted global terrorist Osama Bin Laden, hidden in our neighbourhood Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The insignia of coveted British SAS bears the phrase “Who dares wins.” Infact Delta Force of the US was modeled on SAS. They earned their fame in WWII by operating behind German lines and later came into limelight through a widely televised Iranian Embassy seige in 1980 in England and freeing all the hostages. Asked about the importance of the SAS’ role in the fighting that followed the Iraq War, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal said: “Essential”. Could not have done it without them.”
The UK equivalent of the Navy SEALs is the Special Boat Service. The selection process involves a grueling endurance test, jungle training in the rain forests of Belize, and combat survival training, which involves intense interrogation of candidates. And you get only two attempts to pass.
Russia’s Alpha Group is one of the best-known special force units in the world. This elite anti-terrorism unit was created by the KGB in 1974 and remains in service under its modern-day counterpart, the FSB.
Black Stocks, nick name for Pakistan’s Special Services Group In Pakistan is regarded as one of the most disciplined and effective units.. In October 2009, SSG commandos stormed an office building and rescued about 40 people taken hostage by suspected Taliban militants after an attack on their Headquarters. But they are often known or accused of working with terror groups simultaneously and assisting them in providing logistics while carrying on terrorist activities.
At times it is also learned that many terrorists take training and prepare themselves for foul intentions all along with SSG groups in Pakistan. Whereas, SSG is often seen to be sharing intelligence inputs via ISI with terror outfits to carry out their activities across borders.
However, the majority of the Special Forces have similar kind of work but the only thing which differentiates them is their training as per their terrain, adversaries, and geo-political situation.
As far India is concerned, being a peace loving nation, Special Forces usually work with conventional operations. However, forces like NSG are a component of Special Forces, specialized in anti-terror and Anti- hijack operations. The National Security Guards played a vital role, along with Army Special forces, during the 26/11 and Pathankot attacks. Interestingly, NSG was initially raised with troops from Army Special Forces and drew its organisational inspiration from German Counter Terrorist Force ‘GSG 9’.
For the reason that Special Forces work under complicated situations to carry out the most unconventional operation, they are never large in numbers like conventional ground army and other forces. They can’t even be kept at one place and in one operation for as long as they need to be ref-organised, re-equipped and re-establish themselves. So, constant training and skilling is extremely important for Special Fforces.
Interesting aspect of special forces is that SF of different countries train together at times. They often participate in joint exercises to polish their skills and understand the skills and calibre of their counterparts.
India and the US Special Forces hold regular joint exercises “Vajra Prahar” at various places both in India and US alternatively. As Additional DGMO (Special Ops), I was privileged to participate in a Joint Special Forces exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in the US in 2015. Indian SF carries out similar joint exercises with Special Forces of many other countries and train Special Forces of friendly foreign countries regularly. Similar exercise was carried out “Exercise Yudh Abhyas” held at Mahajan Field Firing Range in Rajasthan in February.
Due to prevailing situations in the world like proxy wars and sudden attacks on our region, special forces need to be in a high state of readiness. They can be called for operations at any time and to any extent, such as surgical strike in URI, could have been used in Balakot airstrike if needed on ground and in Manipur when one of the Dogra units was ambushed.
For similar reasons and unpredictability of challenges lies ahead of the forces, they are provided with the finest quality of weapons. Their weapons are not just limited to Indian Army but compatible with Marcos in Indian Navy and Guard Commandos in Indian Air Force.
Even MARCOS are trained rigorously to protect our coastal areas, sea frontiers and islands. They are provided with high valued technologies to keep monitoring the activities under deep sea in the worst of weather. They are extensively used in anti-piracy tasks. They have various carriers, submarines and stay for long under the sea to keep a watch on activities happening beneath the water.
Similar approach is opted by Garud Commandos and they are trained to safeguard strategic aerial assets in airbase and airfields and take on direct strike on any threat to the nation.
Garuds are also trained specifically to carry out recovery of downed pilots and direct Air power on specific enemy targets by using Laser Designation. In situations like natural calamities, Garuds are also used to conduct very difficult rescue operations along with conventional military forces.
Indian ArmedForces have recently raised the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD). I was again privileged to conceptualise and raise the Division as Deputy Chief IDS. It is led by a two star officer from the Army and has elements from Army, Navy and IAF SF units. This shall be able to undertake multi-terrain, multi-dimensional Operational tasks of National and strategic significance. This organisation is set up under IDS and hence benefits greatly from synergized resources and assets from all three services cutting across services hurdles. They richly benefit from combined experiences of the three distinct fields of expertise and will be able to take on multi domain challenges with ease. They have organisational flexibility of creating multi speciality task forces for specific tasks.
Lt Gen PJS Pannu, is the former Deputy Chief of IDS. He has raised the Special Forces Division and has held the appointment of Additional Director General of Military Operations (Special Operations). He was also Director General Infantry, before the General Officer went on to command 14 Corps in Ladakh in 2016-17. As the deputy Chief IDS he also raised the Defence Cyber and Space Agencies. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the United Services Institute.