The uncoordinated nature of the response to the Pathankot attacks and the meddling by the Central Government in an operation that should have been left to ground forces operating in the base was cited as a case of further complicating and adding multiple layers of complexity to special operations by speakers at a workshop on “Employment of Special Forces” organised at Observer Research Foundation on January 29, 2016.
They opined that India’s responses to theatres where Special Forces are required have always been reactive. In future, Indian special forces need pre-emptive and proactive capabilities to better anticipate and plan for such contingencies, they suggested.
The wide ranging discussion touched upon various aspects of the strategic rationale, constitution and deployment of India’s Special Forces to address special security challenges. The speakers included Dr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, who chaired the workshop, Mr. Saikat Datta, former National Security Correspondent of the Hindustan Times, security analyst Brig. (Rtd.) Deepak Sinha, Colonel Mohan, a former Indian Special Forces Officer, and Mr Vikram Sood, Advisor, ORF and a former chief of the R&AW.
The speakers pointed out that the digital age is substantially altering the battelespace and so Special Forces are not immune from the wave of digitisation that is sweeping the military landscape.
They said India needed a national security doctrine and strategy which should clearly spell out the tasks of Indian special forces. Most armed forces are, however, designed to operate in the industrial age and need to quickly step up to the digital age. Emerging strategic technologies like Artificial Intelligence, robotics and miniaturised wars are likely to play an increasingly important role in future warfare, they said.
The discussion began by defining the concept of Special Forces. Special Forces (or Special Operations Forces) are highly trained military forces operating in unique modes of deployment with a high degree of tactical expertise and with the equipment and support to operate in hostile and politically sensitive environments. These operations are often characterised by their clandestine and time sensitive nature are highly risky with low visibility and are conducted with or in support of indigenous forces who have a high degree of regional expertise.
The political direction for India’s Special Forces should emerge from the deliberations within the Government. At a seminar held at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in 2005/06, former Indian Defence Minister (and currently President of India) Pranab Mukherjee presented a remit for Indian Special Forces that covered a wide ‘arc’ of the global terrain extending from the Cape of Good Hope to the Malacca straits, Central Asia and China. However, in reality, Indian Special Forces operations have been confined to its own neighbourhood.
A history of Indian Special Forces and their evolution since the formative years of the Indian state was presented at the workshop. In fact, both the Indian and Pakistani special forces were established with the active involvement of the CIA in the mid 50’s and 60s. In 1962, the CIA under the Kennedy Administration worked with Prime Minister Nehru for the creation of a Special Forces unit in the Indian military. The Frontier force, the ‘Meghdoot force’ and the 9 and 10 para Special Forces were among the initial Special Forces units that were conceived and established in the Indian army. The ‘Chindits’ operations during the Second World War have impacted the Indian army’s understanding of special operations, sometimes in deleterious ways due to the manner in which military history can sometimes be manipulated. In 1980, 1 para was created as a strategic unit for special operations. Special Forces need to be constituted keeping in mind the larger objective of bolstering so called ‘Comprehensive National Power’. Increasingly, Indian Special Forces would be called upon to play a role in ensuring energy security as more than 93% of India’s hydrocarbon and energy resources would have to be imported by 2030, often from conflict prone regions of the world. The Mumbai attacks of 26/11 have demonstrated the need for investing in deterrence to thwart terrorism emanating from Pakistan. In short, India would have to define the influence, reach and capabilities of its Special Forces.
The need for tasking of Special Forces, crafting national security doctrines, a well articulated strategy for deployment of the forces in the ‘outer circles’ of West Asia and Central Asia and the ‘inner circles’ within Indian immediate neighbourhood was discussed. With minimal cost, India could assume the task of small scale training of foreign forces in the ‘outer circle’. By doing so, India could begin to exert some influence in shaping the security environment. Though Indian special forces have been deployed in various mobilizations and wars, the operational roles of the special forces have not really changed in many years. In today’s dynamic environment, Special forces not only need a good understanding of the strategic milieu, but they need the language, cultural and social skills to be able to favourably shape the environment to their advantage. We could also learn from Multi-national corporations (MNCs) who know how to safeguard their critical assets including people and other resources in conflict zones.
In 1995, when the Special Forces regiment was disbanded, it was done purely because of manpower constraints. Regiments expect service rules that include unit quotas, accommodation of the needs of their families and have a mindset that rejects new tenure based service rules that are provided for special action group of the National Security Guard (NSG).
Special operations could be classified into ‘clandestine’ and ‘covert’ operations. Covert operations cannot be positively attributed and we may never know who was involved in a particular operation, but ‘clandestine’ operations may be secretive at the time of the operation, but could be publicized after the event’s occurrence. The army’s Special Forces are not responsible for assainations of terrorist leaders as part of any counter terrorism operations. In today’s world, drone technology could provide a lot more information for reconnaissance and intelligence than boots on the ground.
As India’s needs and interests grow, India would have to protect its assets in far off parts of the world. The American model for building a ‘Special forces’ model may not be the right model for India because America’s reach, resources and capabilities are of an order of magnitude higher than what’s possible in the Indian context. India would have to come up with a policy that is in consonance with its own unique requirements and resources at its disposal. Before addressing the long term requirements for India’s Special Forces, several questions need to be answered. What is India’s strategic objective? What kinds of threats should India prepare for in the long term? Given that institutional reforms to India’s defence and intelligence functions have always been episodic, long term thinking is needed to address current deficiencies. Moreover, developing language expertise and being equipped with language skills in an area in which Indian Special Forces need to see substantial improvements in future.
(This report is prepared by Ramesh Balakrishnan, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)