Indian Special Forces – Doctrinal and Conceptual Issues

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is a Journalist with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Co-Author of the book 'The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing the Voyage' and the Co-Founder of Mission Victory India (MVI), a new-age military reforms think-tank. He has been a columnist writing on defence and strategic affairs for national and international publications in both print and digital media.

Information on the Indian special forces had been scarce until Lt General P C Katoch (Retd) along with journalist Saikat Datta wrote the book ‘India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces’. A highly decorated officer, Lt General P C Katoch (PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC) is from the 1 PARA Special Forces of the Indian Army. A Special Forces officer, he has participated in the 1971 Indo- Pak War. He has commanded an independent commando company in counter-insurgency operations in northeast India, a Special Forces Battalion in Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), a Brigade on Siachen Glacier, a Division in Ladakh, and a Strike Corps in South Western Theatre.

The book covers an entire gamut of doctrine, structure, and employment issues with the Indian Special forces. Chapter 4 of Section III (The Future): Doctrinal and Conceptual Issues is published below with his consent.

The debate on Special Forces in India hitherto has been caught in the maize of Special Forces, Commando Forces and Airborne Forces and their employment within India that naturally overlap their tasks. By and large strategic tasking has not crossed the realm of the theoretical. Globally, Special Forces have always been synonymous with national strategic interests.  What has happened in India is that in absence of a national Security Strategy and national security objectives clearly defined, the Special Forces have actually landed up being ‘commando troops’ although we already have commando platoons in the hundreds of Infantry and Rashtriya Rifles battalions that have really not been optimized as commando troops because the former are available in every theatre. In a whole set of seminars held over the years the need, necessity, imperatives,  quantum and control of Special Forces required has actually not been addressed holistically, particularly the quantum and control of not the existing commando type of forces but the actual Special Forces that are meant for Strategic employment. Resultantly, a clear cut policy for employment of Special Forces at the national level has not been evolved, partly because of lack of strategic forethought and partly because the controlling masters of the various Special Forces entities are cozy in respective turfs and cocooned environment. 

In October 2008, HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) released a Joint Doctrine for Special Forces that were widely covered by Indian media. The Doctrine was in recognition of global acknowledgement that all future wars and conflicts will require the Special Forces to play an increasingly important role at all levels of war; strategic, operational or tactical. The doctrine covered the military Special Forces, the operational environment in which the Special Forces are likely to operate, organizational set-up and special characteristics of the Special Forces and charting out the ideal command and control organization and joint planning at theatre level.  The doctrine emphasized the need for accurate intelligence, aerial fire support, naval gunfire, artillery, precision-guided munitions and rockets for the successful conduct of special operations. It also highlights the importance of various aspects of joint training to achieve greater cohesion and understanding necessary for joint special operations. Since then, there has been quantum increase in joint training with foreign Special Forces but not much follow up on the doctrine per se though Special Forces from the Army and the Navy had been extensively employed in operations in Sri Lanka in the past.

The Army Special Forces in war have the tasks of Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Designation (RSTAD) and Special Operations. In counter insurgency and counter terrorism their tasks are Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Covert Operations, Pre-emptive / Retaliatory Trans-Border Operations and Hostage Rescue of armed forces personnel. During peace time they are tasked for Special Missions and Out of Area Contingencies. Special Operations, Covert Operations and Special Missions provide the leeway to undertake virtually any strategic task. However, this has really not taken off for lack of politico-military will. A serving Special Forces officer has this to say, “Apart from very few instances when tasked for trans border operations, actual employment at present is limited to those infantry tasks that are beyond them due to lack of training, mindset and operational capability. Raids and ‘Search and Destroy’ are the two main ways the Special Forces are actually tasked. If the Special Forces carry out special operations beyond these, it is usually on their own initiative without the blessings of the command structure.” Another Colonel adds, “The Army cannot graduate to the next level of evolution till such time the concept of Special Forces comes to force. But so far it remains just that ‘a concept’. It is unlikely to come about in force till such time the Services shed their ‘turf protective’ attitude and allow a joint command and control structure. In reference to Army in specific, within the service itself, we have not yet been able to integrate Special Forces with the Aviation or Military Intelligence – thanks to the turf wars between various directorates”.  

Indian Special Forces, India's Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces by Lt Gen PC Katoch and Saikat Datta
India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces by Lt Gen PC Katoch and Saikat Datta

Notwithstanding the above, major doctrinal change in a country like the US too did not come about overnight. In fact, inter-service integration virtually had to be forced down upon the military because of a series of incidents over the years like the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt, the terrorist attack on Beirut resulting in large number of American casualties and similarly the problems of interoperability and yet again many casualties suffered during the US operations in Grenada. The operation in Grenada brought home the utter lack of cohesion between the Services. Lessons from these led to the establishment of strategic command and eventually US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Learning from global development of Special Forces and analyses of operations undertaken by them, it is possible to evolve a doctrine and concept of employment of Special Forces suited to Indian requirements. We do not really have to go through the same evolution process for organizing integrated Special Forces but the urgency for achieving synergy is very much continuing. The fact remains that our Ministry of Defence (MoD) has no uniformed permanently absorbed or posted on deputation, the HQ integrated Defence Staff (IDS) has come up akin to a separate Service HQ, the Services lack jointness and as such the Military is out of the strategic thought process.

Fault-lines occur for various reasons, however, one of them is lack of governance or faulty-governance that generates dissent and dissatisfaction, which left unaddressed, can turn into individuals / groups taking up arms. This is a shade different from ‘perceived injustice’ that the faulty or corrupt administration would like to convey to outsiders. A government’s inability or unwillingness to meet the legitimate needs of its people may result in popular frustration and dissatisfaction. People may lose their faith and confidence because the government lacks legitimacy. Propaganda apart, this is one of the fundamental problems. You can find numerous examples of this, especially in developing countries. 

Dissent again has many connotations, for example, curbs on personal independence and banning social networking in China has resulted in large segments of simmering population. Because of such phobia, China had even banned a simple set of exercises like Falun Gong fearing this would give opportunity to large bodies of population to come together with collective thinking going at tangent to what the CCCP wants the population to adhere to. But the internet has negated such bans with software even available that can access blocked sites. It is the fault-lines or rather the dissent that the adversaries cash upon. Special Forces do not create resistance movements but advice, train and assist resistance movements already in existence. They are ideally suited to control fault lines of the adversaries without any signatures or with ambiguous signatures. This is precisely what China and Pakistan are doing as part of asymmetric war on India, using proxies. Understandably, it is no easy task as it has considerable gestation period involving building rapport with and adapting to the ways of an indigenous resistance outfit, and eventually take control and direct actions for maximum effect. There is urgent need to optimize our Special Forces potential to correct this asymmetry.

According to Stephen Cohen, “The task of Special Forces is the proxy application of force at low and precisely calculated levels, the objective being to achieve some political effect, not a battlefield victory.” While Special Forces should be central to asymmetric response including against irregular forces, asymmetric warfare does not automatically equate to a physical attack. A physical attack is only the extreme and potentially most dangerous expression of asymmetric warfare. The key lies in achieving strategic objectives through application of modest resources with the essential psychological element. They are ideally suited to control fault lines of the adversaries without any signatures or with ambiguous signatures. In asymmetric settings, Special Forces have limitless pro-active employment possibilities to exploit dissidence; employ asymmetric approaches from the NBC sphere to psychological operations, information war, economic / technical / financial war. In counter terrorism and counter insurgency, Special Forces can be used for Intelligence, surveillance and psychological operations, rival / pseudo gang operations, infiltrating tanzeems, neutralizing terrorist leaders, organizations, support groups, infrastructure, selective raids, ambushes, snatch operations and incident response operations. In out of area contingencies, they can assist airborne / conventional forces or may be called upon to perform politico-military missions like assistance to third world nations, surgical strikes, recovery missions, prevent terrorist use of WMDs, humanitarian assistance etc.

Special Forces have a covert role not only in irregular combat but also through psychological operations, perception management and other noncombat activities including economic, social and cultural, all of which require focused planning including cross-cultural communications, and preparation before the mission is launched. It goes without saying that Special Forces operatives in the field must have access to all time situational awareness, real time / near real time operational picture and regularly fed assessments and forecasts. The product must enable commanders to see and understand the operational environment in sufficient time and detail to employ their forces effectively. They must have the locations of friendly forces as well. Automation of the group’s intelligence data base will provide near-real-time intelligence products to support both situation and target development.

Because their operational environment allows little margin for error, Special Forces teams must have detailed information about the operational area before they deploy.  Special Forces mission success will directly depend on access to accurate, actionable intelligence in real time across the spectrum of intelligence agencies CIA and DIA. This should include real time satellite imagery and e-intelligence. For example, British SAS field commanders have direct access to MI 5 and MI 6 and Delta Force can pull down satellite images of latest and live enemy movements when actually in the process of executing missions. Additionally, the Special Forces commander can make an operation more effective if he determines its probable psychological impact in advance and then exploits it during the operation. If not analyzed in advance, the particular operation may even produce a negative psychological impact on the population. 

Peter Bergen in his book Manhunt describing the 10 year search for Osama bin Laden and Mark Owen giving the firsthand account of the Navy Seal mission that killed Osama bin Laden, have both described the intricacies, particularly intelligence gathering and its piecing together, of a modern day Special Forces mission. In the Indian context, the intelligence of the concerned area / location, contacts, communication, insertion, merging into surroundings, safe houses, execution of the mission, and extraction, all need meticulous intelligence, planning and execution. Conceptually, Special Forces should be employed to continuously ‘shape the battlefield’ from conventional wars in nuclear backdrop to asymmetric and fourth generation wars. Their employment should be theatre specific and including as force multipliers to complement tasks performed by conventional forces, entailing high risk, high gain missions having min visibility with desired effect. Their strategic tasking should be synchronized with national security objectives. Indian Special Forces would be required to undertake variety of tasks: information support operations; surveillance and target designation in areas of strategic interest; shaping asymmetric and conventional battlefield to India’s advantage; deter opponents exploiting our fault lines; controlling fault lines of adversaries; undertake psychological operations, perception management and unconventional warfare; anti hijack; building partner capabilities with friendly countries; and providing cutting edge for strategic force projection.

The rank and file of Special Forces need not be rigid like the military. The British SAS has no formal rank structure and operates in civvies. Similarly, individual qualities required need not be uniform albeit basic qualities of being volunteer, physical and mentally toughness, initiative and innovativeness, understanding of technology and mission intent, abilities of split decision making, operating independently, blending with surroundings, optimizing local resources, and proficiency in handling mission related arms, equipment, explosives will be assets.

The buzzword eventually has to be mission specific training. Azam Gill, former Pakistani Army-ISI Officer, later Brigadier in French Foreign Legion and lecturer with French Navy, when interviewed by Geopolitics in March 2012 said this, “French Foreign Legion recruits bring different talents and experience to the Legion – beggars, doctors, army officers, racing car drivers, princes, bandits, locksmiths etc. when the Legion needs to put together a team for a special operation, all this prior talent come into play. …… outperforms all French Army Units and is first to be launched in combat situation. The Legion has never claimed to be the best, says it is against the best, probably the best, recognizes equals but knows no superiors. It does not acknowledge all operations.” His book, ‘Blood Money’ gives an insight into mercenary soldiering in the backdrop of a scenario strikingly close to that which may have led up to the attack on the Twin Towers.

Due to the hi-tech nature of the war against terrorism, there will be a need to attract highly skilled and technically qualified young civilians directly from IITs and computer institutes since the new war will be fought in the electronic and cyber dimension as well. Accordingly, there is a requirement to adapt and change recruitment policies with appropriate incentives so that fresh talent from outside the three services can be attracted. Young men who have special flair, creative and innovative minds or have unusual technical skills including in cyber warfare, e-warfare, cryptography, NBC,  offshore drilling technology, specialists in the field of psychological operations, e-communications or language skills etc. Street-smart young men (and women), who can out-think others on their feet, conceptualize imaginatively and think out of the box. People who can do unexpected and unorthodox things with flair and élan should be encouraged to come on board for short duration or on deputation.

Appropriately, specific Special Forces units/sub-units would need to develop specialist expertise and combat skills in specific core competencies, some of them being: counter-terrorism; counter-insurgency; unconventional warfare; counter-hijack; hostage rescue; cyber terrorism including e-warfare/propaganda, e-finance; electronic warfare; psychological operations and civil affairs; NBC warfare; special aviation quick reaction and counter- terrorism tasks specific to aviation environment; special marine and boat section quick reaction and counter terrorism tasks specific to a marine environment; special high altitude and snow warfare insurgency tasks; demolitions, explosives, industrial sabotage, offshore and land based oil installations and NBC disaster management; and snatch operations and pseudo gang warfare.

Though threats have been discussed in an earlier chapter, it is prudent to review them here as they help shape what our doctrine and concept of employment for Special Forces should be. The emergent threat as it has unfolded during the last two decades is external and internal; latter mainly Maoist and sundry other insurgencies that are well known. It is characterized by a combination of low-level urban and rural insurgency of a non-conventional and asymmetrical nature, embedded with random but high profile acts of terrorism, hijackings, car-bombings, kidnappings and Maoist-style killings that are dispersed in time and space. The external threat is essentially from so called non-state actors mostly Pakistan sponsored including jihadi groups such as Al Qaeda, LeT, JeM et al, acting alone or in cahoots with Pak Army-ISI and Pak Taliban and backed by its regular forces. Add to this the threat from NBC proliferation and the gravity of the emerging threat can be readily assessed. As for the conventional, though the conventional threat from Pakistan across our Western front appears to be muted and can be dealt with, the newly emerging military nexus between Pakistan and China in the sensitive areas of The Northern Territories along the Baltistan – Gilgit – Skardu Axis and then onwards into Muzafarnagar – POK is alarming. This development has serious implications for India’s defense posture not only for J&K but for entire North-Western India as well. To the East, the Chinese designs extend beyond the illegally occupied Aksai Chin to her designs on the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan and onwards to her claim of entire Arunachal Pradesh.

Counter measures need to be put in place on the diplomatic front by drawing attention of the UN, the US and other friendly Central Asian countries. With Siachen as a pivot, the area and the passes to its North would need to be brought under close observation and surveillance from space, air and ground. In this regard, long range Special Forces patrols appear to be the best option to keep a close watch on developments and intelligence gathering. Consequently, our Special Forces should initiate / intensify joint training to improve interoperability with countries of the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, US and Australia. We must also work out a road map to increase our foot prints in Taiwan by formulating a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Mutual Cooperation in the event of continued Chinese belligerence, territorial claims to more Indian Territory and support and arming of Indian insurgents in northeast and Maoists continues unabated. Taiwan is a reality and there is no reason for us not to expand relations with that country especially considering Chinese intransigence to the terrorism being perpetrated by Pakistan in India.

Unless we take into account the vulnerabilities of China in shaping our policy and in sowing the seeds of the architecture of our strategic co-operation with the US, Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam we may end up with a policy which is over-focused on traditional military aspects and under-focused on non-traditional aspects of internal frictions and fragilities in China. China’s increasing vulnerabilities should be a matter of core interest.

The nature of the new war is hi-tech with diverse technological dimensions. These cover the use of satellite phones and thermal imagery, cyber-warfare, cyber-terrorism, e- warfare, e-propaganda and e-finance (money laundering) to list just a few. For instance, it is well known that it was Pakistani born Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who masterminded the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 and laundered money electronically from banks in Karachi to the hijackers in the US. He was also involved in the David Pearl assassination case. Interestingly, Khalid Sheikh was one of the four hardcore jehadi leaders released from Jammu prison in the aftermath of IA flight IC 814 fiasco in December 1999 together with Salha-uddin, Hafiz Saeed, and Omar Sheikh of Al Qaida who, on release, went on to plot other terrorist attacks on India starting from the Parliament attack. This dramatically highlights the type of linkages and synergy that exists between various jihadi groups worldwide. They were released because the party in power was risk averse to take bold decisions thereby unleashing a chain of terrorist attacks that are still rampant.

Glaringly, this also underscores the utter incompetence and lack of coordination of our intelligence and security establishment. It should, therefore, be self-evident that the sine qua non for countering the above type of asymmetrical, non- conventional threat, employing hi-tech methods, requires audacious risk taking and political decisions in real time. It requires joint planning, joint coordination and joint synergy of a very high order from the Services hierarchy and the political apex. Moreover, it also requires fresh thinking out of the box by exploring new approaches and by applying unorthodox means. Experience in US, UK and Israel has shown that this is possible by raising a customized ‘lean and mean’ type of Special Forces imbued with exceptional leadership qualities, specialized combat skills and robust aggressive spirit. A force that is small, light-footed and nimble enough to execute quick surgical strikes yet apply deadly force with pinpoint precision. It is in this context that the restructuring of our Special Forces needs to be undertaken in focused manner, as recommended in the succeeding chapter.      


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