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RAHUL BEDI | 21 JUNE, 2015

In India, the Special Forces Constitute Not the Vanguard but the Back-End

Having to make do with poor equipment


This is the second part of Rahul Bedi’s analysis of the Indian Special Forces. The link to the first part that was carried by The Citizen is : www.thecitizen.in/NewsDetail.aspx?Id=4079&India’s/Special/Forces/Face/An/Identity/Crisis

NEW DELHI: In its formative years, the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIAs) paramilitary wing alongside the Indian Army, trained and armed the SFFs largely Tibetan Khampa recruits. It supplied them lightweight .30 caliber M1 semi-automatic carbines- and its M-2 and M-3 variants-and infiltrated its SG personnel into Chinese-occupied Tibet to gather intelligence and execute disruptive raids. Thereafter, with airlift facilities provided to in the 1970s by the RAW’s secretive Aviation Research Centre, the SFF became a fully airborne jungle and mountain warfare unit.

However, such force abundance spawns operational problems. For, other than operating individually, there is a tendency amongst individual services to look upon each SF unit as their singular preserve, thereby compromising ‘jointness’ and integrated mission capability. This includes dedicated air support to ensure insertion and extraction of SF units, coordinated armed reconnaissance and close air support missions to depreciate vital enemy assets.

The IAF, for instance, cited inadequate cooperation from the army in 2004 as its operational rationale for raising, at great expense, its own Garud counter-terrorism and anti-hijacking force. This needlessly duplicated the NSGs role as a counter-terrorism force to tackle hijackings a decade earlier. In turn, the army, claiming insufficient support from the IAF, plans to create two special aviation squadrons for its SF further duplicating scarce assets.

Proposals to establish a unified SF command headed by the Indian Army- alongside those for Space and Cyberspace led by the IAF and IN respectively – announced in early 2013, are nowhere near fruition.

These followed the May 2012 recommendations of the 14-member Naresh Chandra National Security Review Committee, set up by the Congress Party-led federal collation to evaluate the progress in defence reforms introduced after the 1999 Kargil conflict.

The long overdue Commands- particularly the SF- were aimed at dispelling enduring inter-service and intra-service rivalries for funding and reducing asset duplication, particularly in communication and network-centric systems and aerial platforms like helicopters. Economising on over-extended resources, in order to free up moneys for long-deferred military modernisation, was the other aim behind this deferred restructuring but such force and resource rationalision is awaited.

A rapid expansion- almost a 120 per cent increase-of the army’s SF units occurred in an ad hoc manner between 2001 and 2004, after the US deployed its SF in large numbers to Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

At the time, two successive influential Colonels of the Parachute Regiment-ironically, both non-SF officers- erroneously prevailed upon the army’s higher defence management that an expanded SF, like the US’, was the ‘magic bullet’ for all future campaigns and conflicts on the sub-continent.

Thereafter, three Parachute Regiment battalions were hastily converted to SF maroon beret units with their distinctive ‘Balidan’ badge and special Rs 7,000 monthly allowance for the officers. “Operational efficiency was ignored as the jobs-for-the-boys policy was implemented” Lt Gen V K Kapur said. It was a totally unprofessional decision, he declared.

Grievously, army headquarters had failed to comprehend the central principal behind these lethal fighting units, that SF effectiveness lies not in numbers, but in cohesion amongst small numbers honed by intensive training and backed by superior equipment.

Disregarding the dictum that SF cannot be mass-produced and the quality of its manpower is better than quantity, army headquarters arbitrarily pursued the SF exponential enlargement. Unthinkingly, a fourth assault team too was added to existing SF units, perpetuating the cult of elite-hood but at the cost of operational capability.

Army planners also disregarded a 2001 internal study on modernising the SF by consolidating existing numbers and training and arming them better. Instead, some senior officers went as far as to recommend that each of the army’s 13 Corps-lately 14, including the under-raising 17 Mountain Strike Corps-be assigned an SF battalion.

This proposal, if pursued, would necessitate converting three, if not four, more Parachute Regiment battalions to SF status. And, other than further depreciating SF fighting skills, it would also overwhelm the already overstretched SF headquarters at Nahan in the Himalayan foothills and it’s equally overloaded training centre at Belgaum in Karnataka, to structure and equip such a vast force.

According to Gen Katoch the SFs rapid proliferation has adverse integral consequences. He said each time an additional SF unit is created, existing SF battalions are required to provide it a nucleus of officers, junior commissioned and non-commissioned officers and varied support staff.

“This breaks the cohesion of existing units, as personnel continuity in a five-man assault team and two-man surveillance team, is central to the success of all missions” Gen Katoch said. Further compounding this crisis, was the officer shortage all SF battalions faced, of up to a third of their authorized strength of 48 officers. This deficit further diluted SF combat output, tailored for precision strikes led by officer-led sub-units, he declared.

In comparison, SF expansion by the Chinese and Pakistani militaries has been studied and strategically orientated. Numerically, the Peoples Liberation Army Special Operations Forces, for example, are estimated anywhere between 7,000 and 14,000 personnel, while Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG) number around 5,000.

The PLAs SF, established 1988 onwards, specialize in rapid reaction combat in a limited regional war under hi-tech conditions, commando operations, counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering. They are also trained in target designation, surveillance, airborne insertion, sabotage and offensive strike missions. Currently they are receiving instruction on the newly digitised army soldier system and on varied high-mobility land weapon platforms.

Pakistan’s 10-battalion SSG, on the other hand, headquartered at Tarbela in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province), was created in early 1956 by converting the 19 Baloch infantry battalion. Its training, orientation and weaponry is based on that of the US SOCOM with whom it has exercised for decades and still does. The SSG specializes in desert, mountain and underwater warfare.

Meanwhile, the Indian SF organisational woes were exacerbated by a persisting shortage of varied materiel and a lack of dedicated air support due to the persevering deficiency of helicopters that have been under acquisition for nearly two decades.

Till late 2006, bureaucratic procedures had delayed the induction of some 3000 Israel Weapon Industries 5.56mm Tavor-21 assault rifles (TAR-21) with 40 mm under-barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs), four years after the USD20 million contract for them was signed. These numbers, however, were inadequate to arm all SF units and the shortfall was made up by imported AK-47s.

Some 20 types of specialised SF equipment promised by the US nearly a decade ago, like laser designators and night vision devices are still awaited. SF sources said deficiencies, of not only 5.56mm training ammunition-of which there is an annual 50 per cent shortfall-but of carbines, sniper and underwater rifles, heavy and general purpose machine guns persevered. Also needed were 60mm mortars, disposable anti-tank rocket launchers and flamethrowers, amongst numerous other offensive assets that constitute the staple of all SF globally.

Adequate communication equipment including satellite telephones, GPS systems and tactical computers, were awaited, as were combat free fall parachute systems. The long-awaited Battle Field Management System, which the SF could operationally exploit, was in the process of being fast tracked was unlikely to be operational for at least a decade, leaving a massive communication hiatus.

Guided Para-foil Delivery Systems (two and four ton category), underwater propulsion vehicles and cameras, digital compasses, high-resolution video and still cameras, radio-controlled and remote detonator transmitters, high resolution and passive night vision binoculars, too were required.

Even rucksacks provided to the SF were of poor quality, forcing soldiers to acquire them from the open market with their own money. “In most other armies SF units are the vanguard for most equipment testing” Gen Kapur said. In India they constitute the backend.

(Defence and Security of India-Media Transasia Publication. )

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