Thursday, May 12, 2011

A note on Special Forces

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.


Citizen D said...

While I agree with some of the points the author makes I believe we, as Indians, tend to do ourselves down with regard to our capabilities, mainly because of inherent lack of self confidence. This obviously reflects at the political level as well.
Lets take the US raid itself, in very simplistic terms it involved an special heliborne operation against a suspected militant hideout. The problems--- accuracy of intelligence (stated to be about60% accurate), insertion of about a 100Kms through difficult terrain using Nap of the Earth Flying techniques(wholly dependendent on technology and flying skills)and likely reaction after operation commenced. the advantages they had was that surveillence had shown no physical security or air defence assets (except suspected booby traps), complete secrecy of plans and ample time (appears over 6 months) to get the raid team together,get detailed terrain, house and enenmy information, plan and rehearse.
The actual operation was simple in planning--- landing troops on the objective,cordoning the house, forced entry and execution/snatching of the target(s)and speedy exfiltration.The reason for not dropping troops on the roof is the only obvious flaw in the plan, but they may have actually done so and the media is unaware of this.
All this is easily within Indian capabilities and does not really involve very high technology.Using stealth technology may have added to their sucess but infiltration of about a 100 - 120Kms by two helicopters (at night in mountainous terrain)is feasible without going really very high tech but requires very high standard of aircrew training. It would really be unfair to our Air Force if we believe that we do not have two sets of crews capable of carryng out such a mission or for that matter train crews within the 6 months available.
The actual assault team I believe is well within the capability of any of our Parachute and Special Forces units. The comparison of this operation to that carried out by the Sikh LI unit against Prabhakaran in Srilanka is not a fair comparison. For most troops who participated in that adhoc operation it was probably their first helicopter ride, leave alone heliborne operation. In fact the operation by our Special Forces in Sierra Leone to free our UN Peacekeeping troops held hostage by rebels was far more complex and definitely make a more suitable comparison.
Where I agree with the author with regard to lack of intelligence and joint operations ability are weaknessess that we do have along with complete lack of political understanding or ability to take the type of decisions that the US President took. But lack of political leadership in our case is nothing new, we have been plagued by this from the time Alexander the Great decided to come our way!To this if we add lack of self confidence then we will always opt to send the Foriegn Minister with money and prisoners rather than take the riskier and tougher option of carrying out an intervention. It is an unfortunate but true belief that the only Indian leader with balls was Mrs Gandhi.

Col. Abhay Rishi (Retd) said...

Read your blog with much interest! I must say it is very well balanced and an intelligent appraisal of the on ground realities which few are aware of! I wish to share my blog with you! You might find my stunningly original views- re problems being faced by India-making extremely absorbing reading!
Col. Abhay Rishi (Veteran), Chandigarh.

Gaur said...

A small nitpick. Gen VK Singh is not a Para Commando. He was a "Commando Instructor" at CTS Belgaum. While that is a highly prestigious achievement, he has nothing to do with Parachute Regiment.

Regarding his statement. I think he was solely indicating that we were "Militarily" capable of doing it. But as you yourself have said, that is not enough. We need political will and intelligence capability, both of them misssing.

Also, while I agree with your statement that there is much left to be desired even Militarily, I feel that we can pull it off even with current Military level.

Regarding stealth helicopters..OK..Black Hawk was modified. However, Chinooks were not. Also, people have a lot of misconceptions regarding stealth helicopters. Helicopters can never achieve high "radar" stealth because they have too many external moving parts. Plus, if they do the challenging "nap of the earth" flying, they don't even excessively need it. When we talk stealth in helicopters, it is "mainly" for IR signature.

The other part is Electronic Warfare. In that field at least, we have a huge advantage.

But having said all that, I feel that an open Military Operation by India would be highly inadvisable. It would only end up uniting the disintegrating Pakistan.
What is needed are more subtle measures through which India could not be directly implicated.