December 4, 2022

The Hex on Special Forces – Part II

Source: Wikipedia

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

On April 22, a presentation in Delhi Cantonment was made by the Para Brigade Commander to Lieutenant General RK Nanavatty, former Northern Army Commander, proposing to convert the entire Parachute Brigade to Special Forces. The Colonel of the Parachute Regiment (who had not served a single day in Special Forces) was present; he had called for the presentation to seek General Nanavatty’s support for moving the case. General Nanavatty had visited and closely studied the British SAS during his posting in Britain. He had helped define Indian Army’s Special Forces requirements as part of a study and later headed the Commando Cell in Military Operations Directorate as a Brigadier.

General Nanavatty responded to the above presentation by saying, “I find the vision blurring in certain quarters on the Issue of Para and Para (SF). I am very clear that a Parachute Battalion is simply an Infantry Battalion in an airborne role and has nothing in common with a Special Forces Battalion. The Special Forces are not a game of numbers and I for one am against their expansion of any sorts. We must consolidate and modernise our existing Special Forces resources. As regards the Parachute Brigade, I view them as a RRF to be used within and outside the country.” Part I of this series has covered why General Deepak Kapoor as the COAS had refused demands to convert the parachute battalions to Special Forces in 2009.

However, no one was aware that a silent coup was being initiated till the recent issue of a government letter renaming all Parachute Battalions as ‘Para (Special Forces) on Modification Airborne’, bringing them at par with Para (Special Forces) battalions through the ‘backdoor’. Apparently, the renaming Trojan went unnoticed in the case for overall restructuring of the Army. The tasks of Special Forces Battalions and Parachute Battalions are completely different but with this government letter, officers from Parachute Battalions will start getting posted to Special Forces Battalions, even to command the latter. As it is, the present GOC of the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) has never served in a Special Forces unit. 

Machinations as above were possible because multiple directorates in Army Headquarters are dealing with issues of Special Forces. This desperate setup leaves scope for mischief and pressures (external included) aiming to keep the Special Forces diluted for understandable reasons. The Navy’s MARCOS and Garud of the IAF being small in number are well equipped. This is not the case in the Army, where the accent has been on expansion of Special Forces, not consolidation. One example is the deficiency in Intruder RA-1 Ram Air Combat Free Fall (CFF) parachutes. Due to the numbers involved, the private sector does not appear interested and the DRDO is afflicted with red tape and quality. In recent months 1,00,00,000 rounds of indigenously produced ammunition for Tavor assault rifles were all found defective; ironically, there is no accountability.

“I find the vision blurring in certain quarters on the Issue of Para and Para (SF). I am very clear that a Parachute Battalion is simply an Infantry Battalion in an airborne role and has nothing in common with a Special Forces Battalion. The Special Forces are not a game of numbers and I for one am against their expansion of any sorts. We must consolidate and modernise our existing Special Forces resources. As regards the Parachute Brigade, I view them as a RRF to be used within and outside the country”

Lt Gen RK Nanavatty, former Northern Army Commander, Indian Army

Special Forces of the Army are allotted to various commands but the Commands delegate these units to Corps mathematically, as is the case in Eastern Command. In the Commands and Corps also, there is lack of integration of Special Forces with other force multipliers at theatre level; like IFSU, EW, long-range artillery, aviation and the like. This results in suboptimal employment of Special Forces. Their command and control must be exercised by the highest headquarters in the theatre.

Similarly, all issues related to Special Forces need to be synergised at the Army Headquarters level, preferably under the Chief of Army Staff. As the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) and Colonel of the Parachute Regiment, Lt Gen HS Lidder had recommended to General Deepak Kapoor, then COAS, that the Deputy Directorate General (DDG) of Special Forces in Military Operations be upgraded to Additional Directorate General and brought directly under the VCOAS, with all issues of manning, equipping, training and postings controlled by the ADG (SF). While the upgrade did take place, everything else remained the same because the DGMO felt that his turf was being encroached upon; this is naïve because in all armies, the Special Forces are directly under the highest military authority?

Above is an essential step required, not only by way of consolidation, training and equipping of Special Forces but also their correct tasking for optimising this valuable asset. Also, the present Doctrine of Sub-Conventional Operations of the Army is archaic and outdated. It does talk of prevention of any external support to the terrorist could entail targeting diplomatic, moral, financial, material or personnel assistance, and mentions that accomplishment of this goal has both internal and external dimensions. However, it goes on to say that “Therefore, while security forces are applied on the internal scene for preventing infiltration and/or exfiltration by terrorists and the smuggling in/out of warlike material, other elements of national power address the external dimension.” Besides, it makes no mention of cyber and information operations by Special Forces leave aside space which is becoming an arena for special operations.

We have yet to define a national security strategy and it is ironic that the Army’s Doctrine of Sub-Conventional Operations shows little scope for external employment of Special Forces. No wonder then that they are being employed mostly within India, aside from an odd short distance cross-border raid – mostly in “response” to Pakistan-backed terrorists or China-backed insurgents inflicting casualties on us. Our policy makers appear paralysed with fear at the thought of transporting Pakistan’s proxy waged on India into the enemy territory, leave aside employing Special Forces against our number one enemy – China.  

In the Commands and Corps also, there is lack of integration of Special Forces with other force multipliers at theatre level; like IFSU, EW, long-range artillery, aviation and the like. This results in suboptimal employment of Special Forces. Their command and control must be exercised by the highest headquarters in the theatre

“I continued to advocate for an aggressive and proactive counter and forward intelligence thrust against Pakistan … The Pakistani establishment is a geopolitical bully. The best response to blunt such a bully is to take the war inside his home…. The sabre rattling of ‘coercive diplomacy’, which is nothing but sterile military power, cannot convince the Islamist Pakistani Establishment that India can take the border skirmishes inside their homes and hit at the very roots of the jaundiced Islamist groups,” wrote Maloy K Dhar, former joint director Intelligence Bureau in his book ‘Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled’. When will we muster the guts to do so?

Today, we have 10 Special Forces battalions in the Army and five Parachute Battalions that have been renamed to Special Forces (Airborne) through Machiavellian manoeuvring. We need to examine whether our airborne capability should be retained as India races towards becoming the third largest economy in the world and a global power. The operational environment demands that we must retain our airborne capability.

For the above reason, the US maintains 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions separate from the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Chinese Special Forces are separate from their Airborne Corps, the British maintain the SAS separate from the British Parachute Regiment, and Germany maintain their Special Forces Command (Kommando Spezialkrafte) separate from the German Parachute Regiment and German Parachute Divisions.

The bottom-line is that airborne units cannot be equated with Special Forces. The airborne unit (s) may or may not be airdropped but once airdropped, their role is akin to an air-landed infantry battalion – holding ground till link up is established. Renaming of Parachute Battalions to Special Forces (Airborne) may be aimed at personnel of these units authorised to wear the ‘Balidan’ badge of Special Forces and the Special Forces Allowance, but it will lead to dilution of both the Special Forces and Airborne capability, nuances of which have been discussed earlier.  

The bottom-line is that airborne units cannot be equated with Special Forces. The airborne unit (s) may or may not be airdropped but once airdropped, their role is akin to an air-landed infantry battalion – holding ground till link up is established. Renaming of Parachute Battalions to Special Forces (Airborne) may be aimed at personnel of these units authorised to wear the ‘Balidan’ badge of Special Forces and the Special Forces Allowance, but it will lead to dilution of both the Special Forces and Airborne capability, nuances of which have been discussed earlier

Finally, something sinister seems to be going on behind the scenes. Despite the Special Forces Battalions being double in number than the Parachute Battalions, indirect hints are being given to senior serving officers of Army’s Special Forces that they should not raise voices against renaming of parachute battalions to Special Forces as this could affect their future promotions, and that the “system” has been sufficiently infiltrated to drown such noises. Whether the hex on Army’s Special Forces is external, internal or both, it needs to be wiped clean.

Part III (concluding) 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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