General V.K. Singh’s claim that India can launch special forces operations-- of the kind the United States did to kill Osama bin Laden-- probably reflects the esprit de corps of the para-commandos, of whom the Army Chief counts himself as one, rather than a true assessment of our capabilities.
In fact there are only two countries which have displayed an ability to launch high-risk, virtually suicidal operations, in modern times—Israel and the US.
India does have Special Forces, but they have been largely used as a kind of super-infantry where they are employed on missions which the regular infantry would baulk at. We don’t lack brave men, but we don’t possess the combination of political will, politico-military-intelligence integration and specialized technology that makes these operations possible. Special Forces work is a full-time job requiring specialized language and cultural skills which cannot be acquired if you are also deployed in routine military duties.
We also do not have the desperation of Israel which launches such operations because it believes that its national survival is at stake. Neither do we have the ferocious determination and technological prowess of the world’s sole super-power, which has used military as an instrument of foreign policy through much of its history. A great deal of technology, of course, goes with the ability to launch them. The US with its enormous constellation of surveillance, Elint and Comint satellites has a great advantage. It is also far ahead of most countries in stealth technology and the debris of the destroyed helicopter in the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad indicates that it was a stealth machine which successfully spoofed the Pakistani air defence radars. Claims that the Pakistani radars were inactive can’t be taken seriously since Abbottabad is in the air defence zone of Islamabad/Rawalpindi area.
By their very nature, true Special Forces operations are fraught with not just physical danger, but grave political consequences arising from failure. A goof-up in Abbottabad would have led not only to the possible capture and deaths of the US Navy Seals, but a possible sinking of the Obama presidency.
The disaster that hit Operation Eagle Claw through which President Jimmy Carter sought to end the crisis arising from American diplomats being held hostage by Iranians in April 1980 not only sank his re-election chances, but also poisoned Iran-US relations thereafter. One problem of Eagle Claw was the lack of cohesiveness of the various elements—the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines.
In India, the three Services cooperate only in name. The Air Force doesn’t do night flying on helicopters, but the Navy does, but neither will cooperate with the Army on a sustained basis. And all three of them have the poorest of relations with the Research & Analysis Wing which, in any case, lacks the covert operations culture which is vital for such operations.
One thing that Indian commanders who say they can do an Abbottabad do not realise, is the enormous technological assets that the US has brought into play. The MH-60 Blackhawk that the US crashed in Osama’s compound, was modified by the Joint Special Forces Command’s technology division to be stealthy. Considerable surveillance by satellites which we can only dream about possessing, were deployed along with human intelligence resources.
The key issue in Special Operations is political leadership. The US JSOC may have supervision of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Special Forces, but their missions are cleared by the President himself, because they have ramifications far wider than the world of the military or intelligence services.
Besides political leadership, Indian Special Forces require to have a far better working relationship with our intelligence services. Here we are talking of integrating two cultures—that of the armed forces and that of the civilian intelligence personnel, who would not only be people in R&AW, but NTRO, IB and those dealing with geospatial imagery. In this matrix, whether they have the right kind of body armour, assault gun, grenade or pistol, is really secondary. Actually India has the Special Frontier Force under the R&AW, which was originally created for operations in Tibet, but it has now become obsolete and it is not clear what the mission of the force currently is.