An attack on a military camp in September 2016 shocked Indians and their government. Militants from Pakistan infiltrated across the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir between the two nations, and attacked a brigade camp in the Uri sector.
India promptly retaliated with cross-border raids attacking “terrorist launch pads” at five places. The Narendra Modi government proudly described the responses as “surgical strikes” by Indian Special Forces.
But the efforts unintentionally highlighted the limited nature of Special Forces capabilities – and especially the fact that Special Forces units are divided under various service heads, ensuring that there is very little coordination among units attached to the army, navy and air force. This forced the Prime Minister’s Office to initiate urgent discussions with India’s top military commanders.
Some changes were made, and by now enough time has elapsed for some tentative professional opinions to emerge about their efficacy. Unfortunately, the consensus verdict so far appears to be: Same old same old.
History: Kennedy and Nehru
India’s military was largely structured as the British created it during its colonial rule. In more recent decades, however, British special forces have seen a significant restructuring with a major general appointed as “director general (special forces)” who is also part of the prime minister’s crisis management committee. This allows a single point of professional advice from the Special Forces to the highest political authorities in the UK.
Independent India’s special forces were born in the the aftermath of the humiliating defeat in the border war with China in 1962. The US had already started arming Tibetan militias to try and stem the Chinese influence in the region.
Discussions between President John F Kennedy and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru led to cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and India’s Intelligence Bureau. This led to the birth of a secret force, made up of Tibetans with Indian Army officers, called the Special Frontier Force or 2-2 Special Forces (2-2 SF).
However, while the 2-2 SF focused solely on China, there was a need for a dedicated special forces unit following the 1965 war with Pakistan. The first unit, raised as the 9th battalion of the Parachute Regiment as a “para-commando” unit, was set up in 1967. By 1968, a second unit was raised and christened as 10 Para-Commando.
Both these units would perform exceedingly well in the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the birth of Bangladesh. By 1980, an existing parachute battalion, 1 Para, was also converted to a special forces role. In 1990 all the existing “para-commando” battalions were re-christened “Special Forces.”
In 1987, as India ventured into the Sri Lankan civil war, the navy decided to create its special forces capability. It sent off two officers to attend the US Navy SEALs basic course. Lieutenant Arvind Singh aced the course and returned to India to create the Indian Marine Special Forces. In a few years this was renamed the Marine Commando Force (MARCOS).
By 2003, the Indian Air Force had started plans to raise its special forces. Named after a mythical bird, the Garuds were primarily for search and rescue missions.
Alas, by the middle of 2006, India’s multiple special forces were disjointed, expanding rapidly and competing for limited resources, while responding to multiple commands.
Restructuring special forces
Just weeks before the results of India’s general elections were announced, the Modi government announced that Major General A K Dhingra would be the first commander of a newly created Special Operations Division. The SOD is India’s version of the United States Special Operations Command, based at McDill Air Force Base in Florida.
The SOD is the outcome of one of the “reform” efforts initiated soon after the Kashmir attack. Lieutenant General Hardev Singh Lidder, commissioned into the first army special forces unit that was set up in 1967-68, rose through the service and retired as an army commander. He was tasked to prepare a paper on setting up a special forces command.
However, Lidder’s proposal met with resistance in the Ministry of Defense with civilian bureaucrats raising doubts about the concept. The civilians object to giving that much power to the military. “Frankly, I am not sure if they are interested in getting the kind of capabilities that we need,” Lidder told Asia Times.
Faced with resistance to the idea of creating a US-style command structure, everyone settled for a compromise called the Special Forces Division. While a normal division has about 9000 fighting troops, this one is supposed to be significantly smaller.
“This creates some very real problems,” said Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, a former special forces veteran who wrote three key papers on restructuring India’s special operations capabilities. “Basically we should have started with two or three battalions, and that would form part of the core special operations capability,” he said.
SOD is also being placed under the chief of integrated defense staff (CIDS), a stop-gap arrangement that was created after the Kargil war, but has continued since then because a proposal regarding a chief of defense staff was never cleared.
Politicians don’t want a post called chief of defense staff, which would be filled by the most senior military officer, because they fear the post would assume too much power, so they’ve stuck with CIDS, a post held by a junior general.
The result of the “reforms”: Each current Special Forces unit remains part of its respective service and the units have no cross-functional capability. They procure weapons separately, don’t operate together and respond to particular needs of their individual services rather than to national objectives. All planning, training, tasking and equipping is done separately.
While India’s military planners primarily focus on traditional rival Pakistan, they fail to appreciate that China poses a much bigger threat with a rapidly modernizing military. “We know that the Chinese have significant special operations capabilities that are integrated with their cyber and intelligence apparatus. We have not even started integrating our three services and the division has not been envisaged as one,” Katoch said.
In 2003, when US General Stanley McChrystal took over the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq, he realized that the National Security Agency (NSA) was barely 500 meters away from his JSOC teams, but they never worked together. In his book Team of Teams he details how they created joint teams to start inflicting heavy losses on Iraqi insurgents.
“The future of warfare has changed and we will need more special forces for sub-conventional capabilities. Unless we look at a holistic structure, what we are creating is unlikely to be useful, even though it will address some issues of coordinating the three services better,” Katoch said.
Sources in the Ministry of Defense are also skeptical of the move on other grounds. “The government couldn’t have picked a better man to head the Division than Major General Dhingra,” a senior military official said. “However, he is likely to retire next year. This will create a problem of continuity.”
“They have also decided to set up the headquarters in Agra, while they should have been in Delhi,” the senior official said. “Special Forces work best when they have access to the highest political and military hierarchy. By shifting them to Agra, they will become impotent as a force.”
So far, then, India’s attempt at re-organizing its military capabilities seems to have brought more of the same.