December 5, 2022

The Hex on Special Forces – Part I

Lt Gen A. Sandhu, DGMO presenting the Special Forces Banner to General Shankar Roychowdhury, COAS and Honorary Colonel of the Special Forces Regiment. Brigadier Keshav Padha, Commander HQ Special Forces looks on.

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

It had taken 29 years to establish the Special Forces Regiment and HQ Special Forces since the ‘Meghdoot Force’ operated behind Pakistani army lines in the 1965 Indo-Pak War and was later formalised as 9 Parachute (Commando).

In an interview to propagate his new book “Contested Lands: India, China, and the Boundary Dispute”, Maroof Raza, a well-known commentator on global and national security issues, said that Nehru had no option other than depending on BN Mullik, Director IB, which resulted in the 1962 debacle. This raises the question whether Mullik was influenced by Chinese intelligence, considering China’s penetration of ‘target’ countries had begun from the Mao Zedong era, which has risen to incredible levels today.  

One recent example is losing control of over 1000 sq km of territory to China in Eastern Ladakh since 2020. A second example is the Rs. 5,552 crore Vizhinjam International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, completion of which was already delayed by two years as of May 2022 and further development is now blocked by China-backed agitations, according to intelligence sources quoted in media. Being a nation in Beijing’s crosshairs, obviously China has penetrated both our policy making and defence establishments. In fact, Subramanian Swamy, former Member of Rajya Sabha, tweeted three years back that some officials of our Ministry of Defence (MoD) have been honey-trapped by Pakistan’s ISI.  

General BC Joshi (Army Chief from July 1993 to November 1994) was the first General Officer who in his earlier army career had served as DGMO immediately after heading the Perspective Planning Directorate. As the COAS, General Joshi understood the importance of Special Forces in future conflicts especially in conditions of grey zone and the sub-conventional; given that they provide multiple low cost high gain options to governments for achieving military, political, economic and psychological objectives. Besides, special operations at the strategic level would help shape the environment in India’s favour.

As the COAS, General Joshi established the Special Forces Regiment, as well as Headquarters Special Forces headed by a Brigadier. The then three Parachute (Commando) Battalions (1, 9 and 10), were renamed as 1 SF, 9 SF and 10 SF in accordance with an official government letter directing these changes. Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, the DGMO (later Vice Chief) was appointed Colonel of the Special Forces Regiment. A decision was taken that serving Army Chiefs, by virtue of their appointment, would be Honorary Colonel of the Special Forces Regiment. These developments were bad news for both Islamabad and Beijing knowing that priority for external employment of Special Forces would be against Pakistan and China.

Ironically, General Roychowdhury disbanded the Special Forces Regiment within a few months of becoming the Chief; setting back by several decades Army’s Special Forces by this single stroke. This would be registered by posterity as a “black mark” in the history of Special Forces

Ironically, General Joshi suffered a fatal heart attack while in harness just after completing one year and 114 days as the COAS. General Shankar Roychowdhury became the COAS and Honorary Colonel of the Special Forces Regiment, who otherwise would have gone home as Army Commander. The Special Forces Banner was formally presented to him by Lt Gen A Sandhu, DGMO, accompanied by Brigadier Keshav Padha, Commander of Headquarters Special Forces and Colonel Anil Verma, Director of the Special Forces Cell in the Military Operations Directorate.

It had taken 29 years to establish the Special Forces Regiment and HQ Special Forces since the ‘Meghdoot Force’ operated behind Pakistani army lines in the 1965 Indo-Pak War and was later formalised as 9 Parachute (Commando). Ironically, General Roychowdhury disbanded the Special Forces Regiment within a few months of becoming the Chief; setting back by several decades Army’s Special Forces by this single stroke. This would be registered by posterity as a “black mark” in the history of Special Forces.

No other Service Chief anywhere in the world has disbanded any Regiment; leave aside a Special Forces Regiment, of which he himself was the Honorary Colonel. In disbanding the Special Forces Regiment, Roychowdhury also conveyed that his predecessor, General BC Joshi, was a brainless eccentric who acted on impulse rather than logic.

The reason mentioned by Roychowdhury later was that he was “pressured” by veteran paratroopers. Is an Army Chief made of papier-mâché to crumble so quickly without thinking as a COAS what is required strategically? The government was not even informed but the news would have gladdened hearts in Beijing, Islamabad and India’s deep state in league with them. When the fence begins to eat the crop, why do we need enemies?

Headquarters Special Forces was also disbanded and its manpower “distributed” in the Infantry Directorate and Military Operations Directorate – akin to a murderer disposing of body parts in different locations. The fear was that keeping the manpower together at one place could facilitate resurrecting the same organisation at a future date

Headquarters Special Forces was also disbanded and its manpower “distributed” in the Infantry Directorate and Military Operations Directorate – akin to a murderer disposing of body parts in different locations. The fear was that keeping the manpower together at one place could facilitate resurrecting the same organisation at a future date. 

General Shankar Roychowdhury also proposed to raise scores of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) battalions; in that he envisaged 85 per cent of the manpower comprising Army veterans and balance made up with army regulars on deputation. But to expect veterans to volunteer for serving in RR units deployed in counter-insurgency was stupid considering that they are posted periodically to field, counter-insurgency and high altitude areas while serving in the Army.

Naturally, there were no veteran volunteers to serve in RR units which resulted in 100 per cent manning of RR by regular Army personnel. Many a times Army personnel went on deputation to RR battalions while their unit was moving from field to peace and by the time their deputation with RR was over, their unit was moving back from peace to field. The original concept or RR (with 85 per cent re-employed veterans), was to provide relief to infantry soldiers; but it ended up taxing most of them.   

The propaganda then began that the parachute battalions should be converted to Special Forces. During the visit of General Deepak Kapoor, the then COAS, to Agra in 2009, he was accosted by veteran and serving officers of parachute battalions to convert all parachute battalions to Special Forces. He replied that India needs to retain ‘Airborne Capability’ and all parachute battalions cannot be converted to Special Forces. The demand then was to raise “more” parachute battalions for retaining airborne capability. But the Chief responded by saying that the moment new parachute battalions are raised they also would demand to be converted to Special Forces. This shut them up. Compare this response to General Shankar Roychowdhury’s abject surrender in the face of veteran pressure – or was there more to what meets the eye?

The sole aim all along has been for personnel of parachute units to be permitted to wear the coveted ‘Balidan’ badge depicting the winged dagger and also be admitted the Special Forces allowance. In fact, cases for Special Forces allowance to be authorised to parachute units were taken up with the Pay Commission Cell, which were duly rejected

The sole aim all along has been for personnel of parachute units to be permitted to wear the coveted ‘Balidan’ badge depicting the winged dagger and also be admitted the Special Forces allowance. In fact, cases for Special Forces allowance to be authorised to parachute units were taken up with the Pay Commission Cell, which were duly rejected. Similarly, the case for parachute battalions to be renamed Parachute (Airborne) was also rejected because a parachute battalion assumes the role of an infantry battalion after it is airdropped. The question that kept coming up was that if parachute units are renamed Special Forces (Airborne), Infantry battalions trained in helicopter operations would want to be named Special Forces (Heliborne) and ‘Ghatak’ platoons of  infantry battalions would assert claim to be called Special Forces (Footborne)? 

Nevertheless, machinations continued to ‘dilute’ the Army Special Forces – in concert with foreign intelligence/pressure? The six-month probation period for entry into Special Forces was arbitrarily reduced to three-months; conforming to the three-month probation applicable to parachute battalions. Also, probation for Special Forces kept fluctuating or split between the unit concerned, the Parachute Regiment Training Centre (PRTC) and the Special Forces Training School (SFTS).

Globally, the norms for probation and selection of personnel for Special Forces are very strict. However, at one stage, the Commandant SFTS was “instructed” by the then Colonel of The Regiment, who had never served in Special Forces, to “relax” the criteria and pass most or all probationers to avoid manpower deficiencies in Special Forces units. That was not all. 9 and 10 Para (Special Forces) battalions, despite being mountain and desert specialists respectively and equipped accordingly, were moved out from their locations. Mercifully, the folly was realised later and they were reverted to their original locations a few years later.

Part II follows.

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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