As the battlefield evolves, a challenge is posed to the rigid and segmented organisation of the defence forces worldwide. Some introduce drastic innovations while others focus on the task at hand. One of the most clinical operators in the Indian defence forces, the Indian Navy’s MARCOS, recently conducted an exercise with the Indian Army’s Thar Raptor Aviation Brigade. The Exercise Rudra Prahar aims to hone joint manship and interoperability of the two.
This development brings one to wonder about the elusive marine commandos, MARCOS. How did India come to establish its own elite naval commando outfit? What exactly does the special operation entail for the Marine Command Force?
Fighting Chance: How MARCOS Evolved Out of Necessity
In 1954, specialists from the Special Boat Service commando outfit of Great Britain selected a group of officers and foremen in the Indian Navy for training in the program of conducting special warfare at sea. The British tried to prepare the Indians so that, having completed the course of study, they could independently train combat swimmers as instructors. In 1955, a light diving school was established as part of the Indian Navy. As specialists were trained, two military units were formed. One of them, acting in the interests of the Western fleet, was based in Bombay, the second – in Visakhapatnam and served in the interests of the Eastern fleet. Both units did not have sabotage missions as their task and were intended to clear the coast from barriers, perform underwater demolition work, salvage at sea, and recover sunken ships. Nevertheless, combat swimmers took part in several dozen acts of sabotage in East Pakistan.
In 1986, the Indian Navy began to create a unit capable of conducting special operations at sea, conducting surveillance in coastal areas and conducting anti-terrorist operations. Some volunteers from among the divers and specialists in underwater demolition work were selected for a small naval unit, created in the image and likeness of the American Navy SEALs, and some of them were sent for training and advanced training at the Navy SEAL’s training base in Coronado (California).
In early February 1987, the Indian Navy announced the creation of the Indian Marine Special Forces (IMSF). In 1991, the name was changed to “sabotage forces of the marines” – Marine Commando Force (MCF), or MARCOS.
Psychosis: Unsurvivable Selection and Training
Volunteers undergo an 11-month selection and training course to qualify as an operator. The first month is training. The most challenging test during this period is a week-long passage through the jungle. Wild animals, poisonous snakes, insects and inhuman fatigue are an incomplete list of what candidates must endure. Not surprisingly, dropouts at this stage sometimes reach 85%.
Then begins a 9-month course at the school of combat swimmers. In the classroom, candidates learn to handle various weapons and work out surveillance methods and options for delivering saboteurs behind enemy lines. Some elements of tactics are practised jointly with ground special forces units. Special attention is paid to interaction issues during training; joint exercises of naval and army special forces are held at the end of the course. At this stage, screening continues, but it is no more than 10% and mainly occurs during the development of light diving training.
Graduates are assigned to one of the operational teams; they are awarded a chevron and a gold cockade, indicating that they belong to the MCF.
By joining the combat units, the training does not end. For another 12 months, they are trained in special intelligence, sabotage tactics, and counterterrorism. Some are trained to conduct combat operations in mountainous and desert areas too.
Personnel sent to the Rapid Response Section undergo additional anti-terror training. Special forces are taught not only to free hostages but also to seize both ships and ground facilities. Training continues under a complex program of airborne training, which provides for landing from aircraft at ultra-low altitudes with forced parachute opening. Soldiers learn landing with diving equipment, as well as movement underwater.
Anyone who has completed training in a combat unit receives a qualification in one of the specialities: scout, demolition officer, medic, etc.
The MARCOS organisation is divided into three operational groups, each of which carries out its activities in the interests of the fleet to which it belongs. These groups number about 2,000 men and are divided into ten companies of 200 men each. Only 120 people are directly involved in special operations in each company, while the rest are included in the support and support group.
Each operational group also includes an anti-terrorist unit, which has the structure of an increased platoon. This unit is called the Rapid Response Section.
In addition to performing the main tasks, the unit is engaged in implementing search and rescue operations at sea. Also, it conducts reconnaissance tasks in the interests of the intelligence services.
Instrument of Sabotage: What MARCOS Carry
Diving equipment includes breathing apparatus, wetsuits, fins, and compasses. Underwater vehicles include two- and four-seat tugs. They can deliver combat swimmers with weapons and cargo to a distance of up to twenty-five nautical miles. The carrier is equipped with a container for transporting small arms and engineering weapons, as well as communications equipment, surveillance and navigation devices. There are light inflatable boats, kayaks and motor boats from surface watercraft. For large-scale actions for the sea withdrawal of groups behind enemy lines, the Indian Navy has a particular unit of small vessels, which includes patrol and landing boats.
Naval commandos of India have a variety of small arms. These are Indian-made FN FAL automatic rifles, American-made M16 rifles and Soviet-made Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, mainly armed with rapid reaction sections. Snipers use MSG and PSG-L rifles. From submachine guns – Indian-made 9-mm Sterling, Israeli Micro-Uzi, as well as various modifications of the German NK MP-5. Pistols – primarily by Glock. In addition, RPG-7 grenade launchers and Soviet-made RPK machine guns are used. Crossbows are often used as silent weapons.
MARCOS were deployed in Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka against the LTTE. MARCOS destroyed many LTTE boats in the Jaffna Jetty even after they were spotted and fired upon. They are also engaged in counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir. They have been deployed in missions abroad and even against China. Not just Sri Lanka, MARCOS were deployed in Mogadishu and participated in the rescue of the Maldives President during Operation cactus. MARCOS was the first respondent in the Mumbai Taj Hotel siege by Pakistani terrorists until the NSG Black Cat commandos arrived.
MARCOS are the unsung heroes of the sea. They are surgical strikes that move in and out without anyone noticing. Popular fiction has often dramatised the likes of the American Marines, which are shown to be invincible creatures at the epitome of human physicality and military applicability. MARCOS take this dramatisation and make it a reality.