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Published on Jul 23, 2020
Indian 'Special Operations Forces': An instrument of foreign policy? Recent media reports state that the Army’s Special Forces (SF) have been employed in forward locations in Ladakh for operational roles, but it remains to be seen whether they will be used for the same. In all likelihood, the SF are there just for acclimatisation purposes to provide options to the political leadership given their function as a strategic deterrent. Like all Special Operations Forces (SOF), India’s forces too are shrouded in secrecy, especially when it comes to their operational details. Given their growing role and importance in foreign policy, it is important to assess their evolution over the last few decades. Brigadier Deepak Sinha (Retd.) and Ramesh Balakrishnan have defined SOF as “all those forces that are especially selected, organised, trained and equipped for tasks that have an impact at the strategic level and are beyond the remit of conventional forces.”

Categories of operations

Special Operations Forces conduct ‘clandestine’ and ‘covert’ operations. Clandestine means military operations while covert is intelligence operations. Military operations involve reconnaissance, surveillance and ‘direct action’, the details of which are eventually released to the public. Intelligence operations, however, include ‘snatch and grab’ and assassination operations that cannot be attributed to any actor. Each service of the Indian Armed Forces includes a Special Forces component: the most commonly utilised is the Army’s Parachute Regiment – Parachute (Airborne) and Parachute (Special Forces). Similarly, the Navy has the Marine Commandos (MARCOS) while the Air Force has the Garud Commando Force (Garuds). The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has the National Security Guards (NSG) under it whose Special Forces components include the 51st and 52nd Special Action Groups (SAGs), the former for counterinsurgency and the latter for anti-hijack operations. There is also the Special Frontier Force (SFF) controlled by India’s external intelligence agency – the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) – reporting directly to the Cabinet Secretariat, under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). 

Importance & role 

In the Indian context, the Special Operations Forces are extremely crucial as the nature of war is primarily unconventional and can only be addressed by them. To maintain an advantage against hostile forces their training, operational procedures, tactics and weaponry are modified to keep up with the changing nature of counter insurgency and guerrilla operations. As this is usually the primary reason for their involvement against hostile forces where conventional capabilities are insufficient, smaller, highly mobile SOF units with advanced weaponry can merge into a hostile environment and achieve their objectives. 

Foreign policy imperatives 

The Special Operations Forces play an instrumental role in achieving objectives of both foreign and security policies. They are considered to be a force-multiplier and have a greater impact against enemy assets using a small team to operate swiftly and decisively, thereby causing greater-than-expected damage. One instance of the SF being employed for such an action goes back to the Indian military action in East Pakistan in 1971. It was perhaps only the second (the first being Operation Vijay in 1961 to liberate Goa state from Portuguese control) instance of Indian forces entering the borders of a sovereign nation without permission in order to protect democratic and basic freedoms and the populace from genocide, authoritarian rule and persecution by Pakistani state forces. Indian Special Operations Forces played an understated yet crucial role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh, as it came to be known, through the Special Frontier Force and the PARA (SF). Both of them had a direct impact on Indian foreign policy. The SFF’s vital contributions included penetrating deep inside East Pakistan and initiating guerrilla campaigns to neutralise soldiers, key military infrastructure, communication lines, logistics and weapons supplies. They also prevented Pakistani troops from escaping into present-day Myanmar. Their entire involvement, under the cover of plausible deniability with the R&AW’s blessings, was to train Bengali freedom fighters and conduct special operations against Mizo and Naga insurgents. The SFF’s and the PARA’s (SF) actions prevented a Pakistani advance that would have significantly affected the outcome of the war. Both forces played a critical role in the victory, as well as ensured that the American fleet – deployed in the Bay of Bengal to deter India – was not given a chance to intervene against her. The US naval deployment only served to accelerate the Indian SOF operations. This is only one example of the role that Indian Special Operations Forces play in foreign policy, as they protected humanitarian values and aided in the establishment of a democratic polity. The original plan for 17 Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) was to have two divisions – for the Sino-Indian border and the Indo-Pak border. But there have been budgetary issues and only the division for the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was raised. There has been ambiguity regarding its status as a whole, but the prevailing notion is that the MSC plans are on hold. Hence, the only true strike elements that India has are the Special Frontier Force and the Parachute Regiment’s Special Forces’ and Airborne commandos. It is crucial to operationalise 17 Mountain Strike Corps’ pre-existing division and ensure that it is prepared for any action against China if required, which will be in Tibet. The Parachute Regiment will be vital in conducting limited offensives in the TAR to strike the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) reserves and supply routes in the event of a war. As an intelligence-led covert force, it would be interesting to see the SFF operate against China since its genesis lies in the Indo-China War of 1962. Their task could be to collect intelligence on the Chinese military strength and positions, exploit fissures due to anti-Chinese sentiments and strike critical infrastructure either slightly ahead of the Para Regiment or in conjunction with it. But military influence, power or force are not the only tools of foreign policy, and nor is any military action taken in isolation. Other tools of foreign policy include intelligence and information; security policy; diplomacy; and aid, economic development and trade. 

Recent SOF missions 

A few recent examples that illustrate the close connection with Indian foreign policy include Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka (1987), Operation Cactus in the Maldives (1988) and Operation Black Tornado in Mumbai (2008). The Indian involvement in Sri Lanka was to gain control of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka from the Tamil rebel groups, primarily the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was in direct fulfilment of a foreign policy objective, which is to ensure stability in a neighbouring country so as to maintain peace in the region. In the Maldives, India was requested by her president for military aid as President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was facing a coup attempt by the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). India was praised highly for her swift and decisive action, and especially for the synergy between all three services of the Armed Forces, as well as the political leadership and will. The efficiency in the decision-making process of the national leadership reflected on the ground as well. The Parachute Brigade’s intervention operation was assisted by the Indian Air Force (IAF). The involvement of the Indian Navy’s ships in the later stages of the operation led to the apprehension of the terrorists who were escaping in a ship. India was recognised as a pre-eminent regional power that could serve as a protector of democracy as well as a net security-provider in the neighbourhood. Unlike the Sri Lankan and Maldives operations, the SOF were employed within the country during the Mumbai terror attacks (26/11). Even though the fatality rate was high as Pakistani-trained terrorists of Lashkar-e-Taiba laid siege to the city, the two Special Forces involved – the National Security Guards and the Marine Commandos – executed their missions extremely well, being forced to adapt on-the-fly. This was especially true of the MARCOS, as they had to reject their meticulous training of the one-shot, one-kill technique because their primary objective was hostage-rescue in this case, rather than the neutralisation of terrorists. It was perhaps their first involvement with large-scale hostage-rescue, and they could not afford to be ‘trigger-happy’. More recently, India has also conducted missions across its borders – ‘surgical strikes’ – with increasing frequency to fulfil her foreign policy objective of ensuring the security and maintenance of territorial sovereignty and integrity. As is evident, the Special Operations Forces have been employed strategically by India in multiple theatres of action over the years. Their missions have always been given the green signal after factoring in the complex relationship between India’s security and foreign policies – and never in isolation. In the current context of the Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh and the consequent turmoil arising along the LAC, it remains to be seen whether the Forces, despite their reported stationing near the border, will be pressed into action.
The author is a Research Intern at ORF
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