Special Forces – More Focus Required

Special Forces are being used strategically world over to further national interests of their countries. Their employment is actually an extension of their foreign policy.

Issue: 1 / 2018By Lt General P.C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By Indian Army
Special Forces in action

The recent terror ist attack on the Sunjwan Army Camp on February 10 saw employment of Special Forces (SF) of the Army from more than one unit. Not only was this particular camp large, the terrorists had managed to get inside the family quarters. It then required systematic clearing of these quarters numbering some 150, after the occupants were evacuated. The operation required multiple room interventions in backdrop of ambiguity of the exact number of terrorists and which quarters were occupied by them especially after firing ceased. It is not that the infantry is not capable of undertaking room intervention, but the Special Forces are better trained and equipped. Logically, the infantry, especially their Ghatak Platoons, should be fully trained and equipped for such tasks. However, this focus is not to the required level because the Special Forces whose primary tasks should be across the borders are mainly being employed own side of the border, and hence are available. In J&K, most of the incidents where terrorists managed to get inside buildings, the SF are in the vanguard in operations. This also suits Pakistan’s lowcost proxy war, because if Indian SF begin undertaking covert operations on sustained basis ‘inside’ Pakistan in conjunction with Afghanistan to fan Pakistan’s fault-lines, Pakistan may find the instability becoming uncontrollable.

The surgical strikes by our Special Forces in POK on September 28, 2016 were effective but were unfortunately politicized. Covert operations must be kept under wraps in the interest of security of future operations. The US disclosure of the raid by Seal Team 6 to kill Osama bin Laden being publicized was a different issue because US don’t need to undertake a second strike Abottabad, whereas our Special Forces may have to repeat similar operations many times over. It is also significant to note how many years the US kept under wraps building intelligence for locating and planning the killing of Osama bin-Laden, rehearsing mechanics of the raid, suppression of Pakistani air defences and the like. Compare this to our irresponsible media recently broadcasting that India had put its Special Forces on alert for possible intervention in Maldives – similar to what India did in 1988 under Op ‘Cactus’. There were televised debates on how to launch Op Cactus 2.0 by India – with possible mechanics of intervention being discussed threadbare. Even in the case of the ‘surgical strikes’, some enterprising TV anchors wanted to know details of all types of weaponry and equipment our Special Forces hold. Some having heard Special Forces had been employed, talked of paradropping, combat free-fall and even helicopters landing across the across the LoC albeit these surgical strikes were just about few km across the LoC and being on foot could have been executed by regular infantry as well. Pakistan denied any strikes had taken place but the SP of Mirpur in POK when contacted by a media house on telephone posing as his DIG revealed that multiple surgical strikes by India had indeed taken place and in his location alone five Pakistani army men and number of terrorists had been killed, and while he did not know how many terrorists were killed and injured, some 12 bodies were taken away in vehicles.

Strategic Employment

Special Forces are being used strategically world over to further national interests of their countries. Their employment is actually an extension of their foreign policy of the concerned country. Leading nations employing Special Forces proactively transfrontiers are perhaps the USA, Russia, UK, China and Israel. US Special Forces (USSF) are operating in over 100 countries. This is in addition to almost all diplomatic missions in foreign countries having USSF presence. China has already positioned PLA troops in her development projects globally included Pakistan, POK, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Maldives in India’s neighbourhood, besides other countries in garb of workers and technicians of development projects. So, we can safely posit a sizeable section being Chinese Special Forces. Pakistan has employed the SSG actively in Afghanistan, Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal and Bangladesh, and is forging links with extremist/terrorist organisations in India. Significantly, Ata Ullah, leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and Asim Umar, leader of the Al Qaeda’s South Asia Branch (AQIS) are both Pakistani nationals.

Strategic Asymmetry

The four broad divisions in the spectrum of conflict comprise the nuclear, conventional, sub-conventional and cyberspace. China has advanced capabilities in all four divisions. As for cyberspace, India and Pakistan are still taking initial steps. But what should be of serious concern to us is that while both China and Pakistan are employing pro-active sub-conventional capabilities, we are drastically lagging behind in this sphere, and we cannot think of employment of Special Forces beyond direct action type of tasks like surgical strikes. In absence of such deterrence against irregular warfare, simply telling Pakistan that talks and terrorism cannot go together cannot suffice. Talks anyway to be optimized from a position o strength. Successive governments have failed to not only not build effective deterrence against Pakistan’s proxy war but have compounded the strategic asymmetry by degrading even the conventional muscle. It is also not understood that pro-active subconventional deterrence cannot be effective with mere surgical strikes.

Our Special Forces

We have large number of Special Forces (Army’s Para (SF) battalions, Marine Commandos (MARCOS) of Navy, Garud of Air Force, Special Action Groups (SAGs) of NSG, and Special Groups (SGs) of Special Frontier Force), almost the number of US Special Forces, and we did employ then three parachute (commando) units as part of IPKF in Sri Lanka. But beyond that, unfortunately there is no thinking of their employment abroad other than in conventional war, UN missions, and short distanced physical or direct type of actions executed on a unit/sub unit basis. Their potential in asymmetric wars to further national security objectives is not understood by the hierarchy. Special Forces should be central to our asymmetric response, which does not necessarily imply operating in units/sub units. In most case, such a Special Forces response does not even automatically relate to physical attack, physical attack being only the extreme and potentially most dangerous expression of asymmetric warfare. The key lies in achieving strategic objectives through application of modest resources with the essential psychological component. These are issues that the national hierarchy needs to examine, in order to streamline employment of our Special Forces.


Special Forces equipping must cater for not only room intervention tasks but all weather, all terrain operability and survival capacity for strategic tasks including surveillance and target designation in areas of strategic interest, shaping asymmetric and conventional battlefield to Indian advantage, deterring opponents exploiting our fault lines, controlling fault lines of adversaries, undertaking information/psychological operations and unconventional warfare, anti hijack, building partner capabilities with friendly countries.

Military’s Vanguard. Special Forces of modern armies are the vanguard for induction of futuristic weapons, equipment and technologies into the rest of the armed forces. They have inbuilt R&D facilities that not only undertake research but are capable of customizing available off the shelf weapons and equipment to Special Forces needs and in some cases even for specifically individual Special Forces mission – not different from Q’s set up in James Bond movies. Indian Special Forces do not have such concept. The concept of ‘support elements’ and integral or dedicated insertion/extraction means is also missing.

Packaged Equipping. Special Forces must have is ‘packaged’ equipping; if an assault squad is authorized ‘X’ weapons and ‘Y’ equipment, all of them have to be provisioned together if the expected mission outcome and combat capability is to be achieved. For example, hand-held laser target designators have been authorized to army’s Special Forces since last 16 years but have not been provisioned yet. The army has also had the problem of re-supply/replacement of imported special equipment since concurrent action of ‘introducing’ the equipment into service has not been taking place. The absence of corner shots with the NSG employed during the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack was conspicuous although this equipment was held with the Special Group of the SF for past few years.

Weapons. Army Special Forces are authorized Tavor assault rifles but due to rapid expansion, units are left holding mix of Tavor and AK series of assault rifles, which is not good. Special Forces of modern armies are holding ‘silence’ version of small arms, which includes pistols, carbines and rifles, however, in the case of our Special Forces it is limited to imported carbines. The MoD has recently approved import of new 8.6mm sniper rifles, which will also replace the 7.62 mm Dragunov sniper rifles held by Army Special Forces.

Battlefield Information and Management. A major void exists in the provision of a battlefield information and management that would enable multiple Special Forces detachments operating wide spread over long distance deep inside enemy territory communicating with a special operations command post at the parent battalion headquarters, Corps level FMCP and directly to the air-force net for calling airstrikes, as also armed UAV ’s. A separate case for exclusive system for Army Special Forces was merged into the Battlefield Management System (BMS) for the Indian Army. Ironically, the BMS project was recently foreclosed due to lack of funds despite pursuing it for a decade plus, and despite China’s PLA going full speed for digitization. Army’s Battlefield Surveillance System (BSS) too is progressing at snail’s pace. Compare this to the US Marine Corps, which is on the cusp of further integrating a touch screen tablet and smart-phone technology that will aid Marines calling in accurate air artillery strikes:

Drones and UAVs. Special Forces must experiment and optimizes backpack UAVs and all types of commercial drones including for tasks like surveillance, monitoring, attacking, cyber, wall climbing and the like.

EW. Many Special Forces exploit the use of hand-held EW guns in counter insurgency as well as inside enemy territory.


Split between various organisations with varied channels of command and control. The government-appointed Naresh Chandra Committee in its recommendations submitted in August 2017 had recommended establishment of a Special Operations Command but six years have gone by. During the Unified Commanders’ Conference during July 2017, the Defence Secretary announced Special Operations Division (SOD) will “soon” become reality. According to media, SOD will collate Special Forces of the Army, Navy and IAF, for supporting offensive and defensive operations.

Well manned, well equipped, well trained and psychologically motivated Special Forces capable of projecting a nation’s power is one of the major currencies of future power play. Hence, they must be well nurtured for full conflict spectrum capability.

Given our peculiar environment and structures, what India needs is Special Forces optimization in two tiers: One, a National Operations Division (NOD) under the Prime Minister (Special Forces missions of politico-military nature in most countries are controlled and executed by political authority without reference to military due to their sensitivity) for employment of Special Forces at strategic level on politicomilitary missions to continuously shape the environment in India’s favour, and; Two, Strategic Operations Division (SOD) under CDS/Chairman COSC for supporting military operations through the spectrum of conflict. Strategic sense dictates SOD should also integrate relevant elements of NSG and SF. Elements of NOD must be deployed in all areas/regions of our strategic interests. The SOD must have theatre specialization and include specific task-based irregular complement, where required. It must have 100 per cent manning, separate budget, provision of state-of-the-art ‘packaged’ equipment, integrated plan for advanced and joint training including IT and cyber, integrated special operations squadron (s), Cyber Cell and R&D element to customize weapons and equipment.


Well manned, well equipped, well trained and psychologically motivated Special Forces capable of projecting a nation’s power is one of the major currencies of future power play. Hence, they must be well nurtured for full conflict spectrum capability. Their equipping certainly requires much greater focus. They should be the cutting edge for strategic force projection.