Army personnel during a parade (representational image) | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
Army personnel during a parade | Representational image | Photo: Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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Two incidents in recent days caught my imagination, both related to Para SF, the elite forces of the Indian army.

The first was an encounter along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, where, in a close quarter fight, five fully-armed terrorists were eliminated. We also lost five Para SF soldiers — all belonging to the 4 Para Special Forces, which had undertaken the famed surgical strikes.

Second was the demise of a braveheart, Col Navjot Singh Bal, Shaurya Chakra, former commanding officer (CO) of 2 Para SF, who even in the ultimate test, stoically faced his fate, smiling, like the Warriors of Yore.

Many thoughts traversed my mind. What is that special ethos that motivates these men of the SF to make the ultimate sacrifice?  I also ended up enquiring to a few SF Officers if the operation in J&K had proved rather costly? Shouldn’t we minimise our casualties?

Col Saurabh Shekhawat, KC, SC, SM, VSM, India’s highest decorated serving soldier replied cryptically: “Sir we do our best to minimise casualties through intense training and planning, but once the battle is joined, it’s Vijay Ya Veergati (victory or martyrdom).

Having had the good fortune to have some of the finest SF units under my command, including the Para Centre at Bangalore, I do have an idea what goes into the selection and making of a Para SF leader and soldier.


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Raison d’être for Special Forces

Every nation needs to decide what its special forces are meant for. According to Stephen Cohen, “The task of special forces is the proxy application of force at low and precisely calculated levels, the objective being to achieve some political effect, not a battlefield victory”.

But, as Lt Gen P. C. Katoch, a war veteran of the SF, states: “In sharp contrast, in India, we have been simply looking at battlefield victory. SF units are deployed more on tactical missions rather than the broader, strategic and unconventional missions that should be their charter’’. Rahul Bedi also echoes the same in an article in The Citizen that the SF have often ended up as substitutes for conventional forces in counter-insurgency operations, for tasks that should be undertaken by regular infantry.

India’s Para SF are equipped reasonably, but not with the latest technology. It is time we provided them with the latest and the best that today’s revolution in military affairs offers: drones of all types, space and cyber-based applications among others.


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Unconditional ownership of the SF

Combat has always been and continues to be most brutal, challenging, unforgiving and the ultimate test of the human spirit. This is also the raison d’être of the special forces, for they exist only for special missions and combat. Facing special challenges requires a very high level of individual proficiency in the skills peculiar to SF. But more than that, it’s the combined combat capabilities of the squad/team that matters more. And this calls for very high levels of trust and unconditional ownership of the plan and the follow-up action. Anything less would not do. This involves trusting your life with your buddy/squad and ownership of both success and failures, for no plan survives the first contact. In fact, there are more lessons to be learnt in failures.

The Indian Para SF holds the ethos of unconditional and extreme ownership. Trust, of course, is the glue that binds the SF together. Trust that has been earned and created through living and training together under most severe conditions for prolonged periods. Innovation, ingenuity, boldness and risk-taking ability are key facets of it.


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Leadership is the ultimate force multiplier

Superlative leadership, especially at the officer’s level is the acknowledged hallmark of the Indian Army. Same is the case with the Para SF. But because of the decentralised nature of their operations, leadership at the JCO and NCO level becomes equally important. And these leaders have to deliver, for they are conscious of the fact that in the ultimate analysis what matters is the success of their mission. The SF junior leaders have to not only be masters of their trade, but also have the sharpness of intellect and battlefield intuition to put their finger on the right course of action, under severely stressful and time-constrained operational situations.

The SF officers are a breed apart, single-minded in their devotion to their profession, almost to an extreme. A large number of them have risen to high ranks, but some have also paid the price of not being able to adjust to life outside the uniform when they call it quits. And this is not peculiar to the Indian Para SF, but a phenomenon seen across the special forces in many nations. Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, a para officer of repute and erstwhile DGMO, sums it up well: “A bunch of misfits who fit well together. For the hazardous tasks they are called upon to undertake, they have to be special in all respects’’.


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Optimising the Para SF

Most Para SF Officers recognise that in peacetime, employment of SF in counter insurgency/counter terrorism (CI/CT) tasks gives them valuable combat experience. But continuous employment also detracts and is detrimental to their combat edge, attitude and training, required for the specialised tasks at operational/strategic levels in war. I would tend to agree that short-term focus should not govern the deployment and employment of SF in peacetime. Para SF is a very precious force multiplier and should be used judiciously.

The country must provide the SF, all that they need and more. The Defence Procurement Procedure must make a special provision for the SF. Anything less would be unacceptable dereliction on the part of those responsible. The SF should be provided the highest priority under the charter of the chief of defence staff and the department of military affairs. The equipment provided must be of top quality whether indigenous or from abroad. During the current pandemic crisis, where all procurement has been put on hold, the SF procurement should be allowed to proceed on fast track. The financial outgo would be limited.


Also read: Armed forces put non-operational expenditure on hold amid Covid-19 fund crunch


AFSOD needs nurturing

The creation of the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) is a good first step to capitalise on the SF capabilities for strategic-politico-military tasks, including out of area contingencies.

While some dedicated allocations have been made from the SF of the three Services, it’s still a work in progress and needs careful nurturing, as also support from the three Services, especially the Army.

The AFSOD has great potential to fill the existing gap at the politico-strategic-military level. The importance of providing it with dedicated assets (including aircraft), intelligence on a regular basis and an SF adviser of appropriate rank cannot be overstated. In peacetime, we should also provide them with discreet exposure in countries of interest.


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Minimising casualties 

Most analysts tend to avoid this, not wanting to question the professionalism and sacrifice of officers and soldiers, including in Special Forces. Based on my own convictions, while in service and even now, I am quite convinced that the Indian Army is losing more soldiers in CI/CT operations than is desirable and maybe, some steps can be taken to minimise our casualties.

To get a correct understanding, let’s look at two perspectives with respect to Para SF.

The first is at the unit/lower level, where the ethos are Balidan (sacrifice) and Vijay ya Veergati. It is not possible for the CO of an SF unit to lower this very high benchmark and combine it with caution because, as any SF officer will tell you, once the battle is joined the focus is on getting the job done, efficiently and with a ruthless streak to eliminate the target. The SF have also undertaken a large number of clean operations with no casualties, but the risk is ever-present and part of the job. My concern is mostly at a higher level, where tasking is done and requisite support provided. It is for the senior leadership to ensure that the SF are used only for critical missions, and once the tasking is done, they are allowed to complete the task as they know best, without undue pressure of time/ deadlines.

This is a truth that needs to be acknowledged at the highest level and rectified. As a senior SF officer told me: losing a valuable officer or trooper in CI/CT operations is always painful, and it is for the senior officers to be mindful of this. Once the target/ terrorist is locked, we will get him, tomorrow, if not today.

The other responsibility on senior leadership is to provide the best technology in terms of UAVs/Drones and other surveillance, with a continuous live feed to the team undertaking the operation. This will certainly reduce unnecessary casualties. I am of the firm belief that gone are the days when a senior leader’s focus was “Mission at any cost”. Today we need military leaders who will accomplish the ‘’Mission at least cost’’.

The author is a former Army commander and lieutenant governor. Views are personal.

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18 Comments Share Your Views

18 COMMENTS

  1. The Indian infantry, para and special forces battallions all need massive modernisation , induction of cutting edge equipment , weapons air transport and last but not the least a streamlined professional civil military chain of command . For this to happen American , russian Israeli technology together with training with Belgian , korean southafrican , Phillipines, Vietnam French , German British forces must be regularly done and one indian para or special forces battalion permanently trained equipped with that nations special force . The expanded special forces training establishment must then imbibe the best of technology , tactics stragic thaught , reach and streamline logistics , planning intelligence , technical support , air mobilty air support air evacuation and operations . Besides counterinsurgency operations these battalions teams must be bloodied in black ops in enemy and target countries. The special forces cdr must have IAS/IFS officers on staff and defence accounts officers with RAW and IB teams linked so that plans fo not flounder for lack of funds and minor equipment required can be purchased within 3 days and major equipment weapons within one month . Large acquisitions within six months . Financial powers must be delegated at all levels especially to Cos of the regiments , and team leaders.

  2. The main Problem is lack of Modern Equipment. Our SF force need technology of tomorrow to minimise casualties which happened recently. But currently we have very stipulated amount of modern equipment. Our govt should strictly look into this matter. And whatever General sir said on this article was absolutely true. That’s it..!!

  3. This article covers the one of the unspokened truths. And this is good, since our military and government need to look on this. Special force s of India are very professional in their field but the problem is the tech. Essential for their work.

  4. You have just copied everything from Major Gaurav Arya’s show Blitzkrieg. And you think you are better than Republic TV . First learn to create your own content .

    • I don’t even know who Major Gaurav Arya is – in my over 40 years service never came across him . And incidentally I watch very few channels , certainly not Republic TV. If there is coincidental harmony , it’s good ,, more people are thinking sensibly . Good wishes to all of them , so long as their narrative is in National Interest .🙏

    • If you hav the time & inclination read the book I edited last year -“Military Strategy for India in the 21st Century “,, available on Amazon ,, also pl go on google to see my CV ,, you will then Hav a better idea

  5. Sir,

    Pls suggest specific things to be done by army. What steps could have been taken to prevent these casualties of our SF commandoes.

    Rgds,

    • Hav discussed it with & suggested it directly to people who matter‼️This article was for more general information . Incidentally many SF officers have called / messaged to say that they agree.

  6. Another topical and very relevant article by the General. Since he perhaps for good reason chose not to be provocative, here goes

    Can Indian SF mount a successful op if a repeat of the Kandahar happens? No.
    Can Indian SF mount a Bin Laden type raid to get a Pakistani based top terrorist? No

    It has nothing to do with individual bravery or skills which makes keyboard warriors turned patriots angry. Instead it is about systemic shortcomings.
    Like with the regular armed forces the bane of the SF’s treatment by the nation is that they are lionized and placed on a pedestal without any attempts to truly understand their nature of operations, challenges and real gaps in capability.

    While some Indian SF officers have reached high ranks not one has made it to the top job unlike US, Britain and Israel, countries the general population and Bollywood both try to compare themselves with.

    When the three original Para SF units and later 21 Para SF did not have adequate strategic tasking why were more units converted from regular Para to Para SF? Empire building at the cost of war fighting.

    So if Para SF units are going to be used as “super infantry” be it in CI ops or in Kargil, they will often come a cropper – in any case when SF ops go bad the casualties can be fearsome – see Jaffna University (Arguably only truly strategic Indian SF op executed) or Mogadishu. Our hero worshiping makes it harder to identify deficiencies and make correctives in equipment and tactics/training.

    AFSOD as has been pointed out by Indian SF veterans in other fora is a diluted, disjointed and sub-optimal compromise. Critical supporting elements needed for strategic SF ops like real time operational intel (TSD) and specialized insertion and extraction “transport” capabilities are either missing or will be half-baked and will ensure AFSOD keeps doing tactical ops.

    And what about that “black” SF unit manned by the Army and under RAW based out of Sarsawa funded by the Indian taxpayer? How is it being utilized, for what missions exactly?

    Ultimately like with the regular armed forces it will need some incredibly motivated and talented misfits in Indian SF to stage a revolution against the status quoist and by and large mediocre leadership both uniformed and political to bring about real change

    • You certainly hav a very good grasp of matters Military 👍maybe a creditable mil background….Yess when you raise the Nos without fully est op necessity , then use as super Inf follows… I always avoid pushing the Armed Forces on public platforms ,, but am able to convey my strong viewpoints to the hierarchy directly ,, as far as AFSOD is concerned,, it’s a beginning ,, hopefully it will mature,, I understand the way our system works ,, it will always be evolutionary … await my article on CDS & Theatre Comds

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