Indian Special Forces: Reorganising for an Expanding Role

Indian Special Forces: Reorganising for an Expanding Role

Brig. (r) Gurmeet Kanwal

Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Critical examination of the role and employment of India’s Special Forces (SF) and the organizational structure necessary to support this important component of India’s armed forces, must necessarily be based on a holistic assessment of the current and future threats and challenges to national security. These have been articulated in the Indian Defence Review in some detail earlier. [i] In addition to the traditional threats to India’s security, newer challenges are surfacing with every passing year. Increasing acts of piracy, rampant exploitation of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the smuggling of contraband goods as well as WMD-related materials threaten India’s maritime security. Non-traditional threats to national security, to which only lip service was paid till recently, are now gradually coming into sharper focus as they escalate to menacing proportions. The safety of India’s energy-related infrastructure (oil rigs and exploration platforms, refineries, oil and gas pipelines, thermal and nuclear power plants, hydro-electric projects and power transmission facilities) against the threat of terrorism is an emerging concern as frequent interruptions in power supply will adversely affect India’s growth rate aims and projections.

Since its independence in 1947, India has followed a fairly autonomous foreign policy and has consciously decided not to join military alliances. However, in an increasingly interdependent world, multi-national joint and combined operations to defeat a common threat are gradually gaining currency. It would not be prudent to rule out the possibility of Indian armed forces joining international coalitions for achieving specific political and military aims. India is already engaged in pro-active military exercises as part of its new defense cooperation strategy with friendly nations. In future this is bound to lead to joint operations, particularly at sea. For example, India may find it in its interest to join the recently launched Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and Container Security Initiative (CSI). These could involve joint seizure operations. Also, in future joint patrolling of the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean with other friendly navies, particularly in choke points such as the Malacca Straits, is a distinct possibility.  

In the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty, carefully structured, equipped and trained Special Forces (SF) provide the most reliable means to a government for the application of military force to achieve national security objectives. The SF components of a nation’s military forces and other security forces are force multipliers in times of both war and peace. If they are suitably organized and provided dedicated transportation facilities for rapid induction, they provide policy planners with multiple options to deal with emergent situations. Special Forces can achieve dramatic results with small numbers, in the least possible time, at minimum political cost and with low casualties. In fact, in certain situations, particularly when “deniability” of the use of force is a key political criterion, it is not possible to employ regular forces at all and SF provide the only viable option to the government. For example, for trans-Line of Control (LoC) raids to destroy terrorist hideouts and their support infrastructure in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), or to launch a pre-emptive strike against a group of infiltrators planning to cross the LoC, only the SF can be employed due to the deniability inherent in their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs).

Special Forces in Iraq The recent United States (US)-led campaign in Iraq has vividly highlighted the wide range of employment possibilities that the SF provide to a theatre commander. The multifarious tasks allotted to the SF, the manner in which these were accomplished, the methods of insertion into the combat zone and extraction from it, the detailed coordination between the SF, the ground and air forces and the marines and the mode of sustenance in the areas of responsibility over long periods, illustrate both the outstanding capabilities of the SF and the professional hazards of planning SF operations. It is an experience that is relevant to an emerging regional power like India and must be examined in detail. Text Box: When confronted with the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar, India lacked not only the political will but also the requisite military capability to respond suitably. If the Indian Special Forces had the capability to storm the aircraft parked on the tarmac, India would not have had to suffer the ignominy of succumbing to the blackmailing machinations of mercenary Pakistani gangsters. An attempt could have been made to repeat the success stories of Entebbe and Mogadishu at Kandahar with a reasonable chance of success.Inducted into the theatre of operations well before the actual war began, the US Army's under-cover Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers; the Navy's SEALS, and a handful of Air Force and Marine Corps units, together with British and Australian SF units, played a bigger role in Iraq than in any other war in recent history. Numbering nearly 10,000 of the estimated 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the SF fielded the largest number in any war since the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and 1970s. The CIA also had a small number of operatives in Iraq and together with the SF, they launched joint operations, synergising the special strengths of each individual force and helping to overcome the weaknesses. SF commandos provided accurate information about Iraqi deployments and movements. They also directed air-to-ground strikes on the Republican Guards and other Iraqi forces. Dubbed as an “inoculation strategy” – killing or disabling Iraqi forces before they could be effectively employed against Coalition forces – the SF launched raids to prevent the Iraqis from blowing up bridges and dams. They hunted leadership targets in Baghdad, organised Kurdish resistance in the north and secured the western border of Iraq even though they lacked the capacity to seal it completely. Super-secret sniper teams boldly operated within the Iraqi capital itself.


Operating in small teams, the SF raiding parties disrupted Iraqi command and control, seized oil wells and captured suspected sites from where Scud missiles might have been launched at Israel. They disrupted Iraqi lines of communication and acted as decoys to lure Iraqi forces into pre-designated “killing” areas where the Iraqis were decimated by air and artillery strikes. Under the cover of darkness, they hunted and assassinated Baath Party members and Republican Guard leaders, demolished selected bridges to deny their use to the Iraqis and even waged cyberwarfare using viruses to disable computers at military command centers, power plants and telephone networks. They were especially effective once the urban fights began. Joined by their British, Australian and Polish counterparts, the SF undoubtedly hastened the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government. Some of their specific achievements were as follows : [ii] •        Destroyed Scud missile launchers in western Iraq, secured oil fields in northern and southern Iraq and seized the Haditha Dam northwest of Baghdad that could have been used to flood the battlefield. •        Called in air and artillery strikes on countless targets, including Saddam's palaces and military compounds and on Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamic group in northern Iraq that the Bush administration said had links with al-Qaeda. •        Searched and secured almost a dozen of nearly 1,000 suspected biological and chemical weapons sites and broke into homes of Iraqi scientists to recover documents about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (However, no evidence of the illicit weapons was found.) •        Tapped into Iraq's Chinese-built fiber optics communications, allowing U.S. forces to intercept the conversations of Iraq's military and political leadership. They also recruited Iraqis to provide information on Saddam's whereabouts. The spectacular success of SF in Gulf War II was in marked contrast to their employment in Gulf War I in which General Norman Schwarzkopf had confined them to executing mainly traditional commando tasks behind Iraqi lines. Their success in Gulf War II clearly brings out their real potential for making a strategic impact on a military campaign when employed skillfully and given directive control over the planning and execution of the role assigned to them. Operational efficiency in the peace-time combat situations in which the Indian armed forces are perpetually engaged, especially operations other than war (OOTW) in a LIC context, would be vastly enhanced by the carefully calibrated employment of SF.   Employment of Indian SF in LIC Operations

Despite recent peace overtures, the Pakistan army is likely to continue its low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff option of waging a proxy war against India as its very reason for existence in such large numbers depends on continued hostility towards India and gives it a unique leverage during negotiations. The Indian security forces can break out from the present situation of a strategic stalemate in Kashmir only if the deployment of SF units is substantially enhanced and they are effectively utilized for trans-LoC operations. They must be employed on a regular basis to raid known ISI terrorist training camps and launch pads for infiltration. They should be utilized to launch clandestine attacks to destroy logistics installations and infrastructure in POK such as ammunition and FOL (fuel, oil and lubricants) dumps, bridges, radio-relay communications towers and battalion and brigade headquarters.

Besides continuous artillery shelling that has the attendant disadvantage of causing collateral damage to civilian life and property, the trans-LoC employment of SF provides the only viable option to hurt Pakistani army personnel and ultimately break their will to fight a senseless limited war. Such hit-and-run attacks in the rear areas in POK will substantially degrade the Pakistan army’s potential to sustain a long drawn out campaign to infiltrate trained terrorists into Kashmir. The objective should be to raise Pakistan’s cost of waging a proxy war both politically as well as militarily. At present, while Indian security forces are targeted on a daily basis, the Pakistan army suffers no casualties as all the fighting on its behalf is done by hired mercenary terrorists – the so-called mujahideen. Employment of Indian SF in Conventional Operations

Gulf War II is a good pointer to the type of roles that could be profitably assigned to the SF in conventional operations. While strategic reconnaissance will remain a primary responsibility, the SF must be employed more aggressively to cause disruption behind enemy lines, to seize an airhead or a bridgehead across an obstacle in depth through heli-landings and to establish a forward operating base for attack helicopters during break out operations with armored divisions. SF units are the best equipped force to destroy the enemy’s nuclear warhead storage sites for battlefield nuclear weapons, missile bases, rocket launcher hides, medium guns, tank transporter vehicles in harbors and waiting areas, communications nodes, logistics installations and headquarters, among other such high value targets.

In the mountains the employment of SF units has to be more nuanced. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, some of them were employed as super-infantry to launch attacks that were foredoomed to failure. Later, these SF units were criticized for not succeeding. Such temptations to hasten the speed and tempo of operations must be curbed. Operations in the Himalayan mountains are a hard slogging match with high casualty rates because of the almost complete lack of opportunities for maneuver. Envelopments and turning movements in the mountains are dreamt of only by those higher commanders who have spent most of their service in mechanized formations. Due to the painfully slow and laborious nature of offensive operations, it is difficult to achieve worthwhile progress even at the tactical level in a politically acceptable time frame.

As every officer with experience of mountain warfare knows, an infantry division can realistically advance only about eight to 10 km in about two weeks. A brigade group can take only one major mountain feature before and even for that it usually requires at least one additional battalion.  However, by inserting SF units behind enemy lines, a commander can conduct simultaneous operations in depth and succeed in unhinging the enemy and causing paralysis in conjunction with skillfully coordinated air-to-ground strikes, information operations and cyber-warfare. He can also plan to make the enemy’s forward defenses untenable by driving a wedge between his logistics support areas and forward defenses. Simultaneity of operations in frontage and depth invariably enhances the speed of operations and helps to maintain the tempo.

Analysis of Future Requirement of SF Units An accurate analysis of the exact number of SF units for future requirements must be based on a holistic appraisal of India’s national security objectives and the military strategy necessary to achieve those objectives. Though a Strategic Defence Review is reported to have been carried out by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), its recommendations have not been made public. However, clearly the present number of battalions is grossly inadequate. Bharat Karnad has consistently recommended a 10,000 strong SF component, “rising to perhaps a division strength in due course.” [iii] The COAS had stated in January 2004 that the strength of Indian SF is to be raised from the “current five battalions to 10 within four years” and agreed with the need to modernize SF units. [iv] It has been recently reported that “a study group set up by the army recommended that the army increase its present strength from the existing five battalion of Special Forces to 13 by 2010.”[v] The current and emerging threats and challenges to national security are such that only those steeped in a deeply pacifist tradition would quibble with the need for substantial enhancement in the number of SF units so as to be able to employ them more pro-actively. Cordon-and-search type counter-insurgency operations at company and battalion level, supplemented by ambushes, raids, domination patrols and mobile check posts, produce only limited results and are a drain on resources. They also serve to alienate the people against the state as the people view them as deliberate harassment. The army needs to review its present counter-insurgency doctrine that is now producing only diminishing returns. Greater reliance on invisible and quiet SF operations, marked by surgical strikes based on “actionable” intelligence gathered by SF personnel themselves, will yield greater dividends. For the ongoing LIC operations both 15 and 16 Corps have an inescapable requirement of at least two SF battalions each during the summer months. Ideally, the divisions deployed on the LoC in each Corps sector should have one battalion between them for trans-LoC operations to strike at the infrastructure set up by the ISI for infiltration. Similarly, the Rashtriya Rifles Force HQ in the hinterland of both the Corps should be able to share the resources of one battalion each. In Eastern Command, 3 and 4 Corps, deployed for internal security operations in the north-eastern states should both have one SF battalion each available to them throughout the year. Hence, if six battalions are to be employed almost continuously for counter-insurgency and internal security duties, a similar number should be available to relieve them after their two-year tenure. This means 12 SF battalions should be available at all times purely for LIC operations.

It must be clearly stated that while the requirement is of six battalions for operations that are ongoing currently, their allotment to lower level formations would be in teams for specific operations and durations and employment would still be in squads, in keeping with the well-evolved operational ethos of SF units in counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism operations. They must be employed for strategic effect though an individual operation may be purely tactical. For example, when the Charar-e-Sharif shrine was burnt down by the Hizbul Mujahideen in 1995 and Mast Gul escaped through the army cordon, the task of hunting him down and capturing him before he could cross the LoC into POK should have been entrusted to the SF. However, this could only have been done if various likely contingencies had been anticipated and a team had been following the events closely. Using their language skills and melting with the people, SF personnel can provide high-value strategic intelligence even in counter-insurgency/internal security operations.

The employment of SF units in Bangladesh and Nepal to further India’s national interests is a distinct possibility in future. Their tasks could include raids on terrorist training camps and hideouts and the capture of insurgent leaders like Paresh Baruah if the government of Bangladesh continues to deny any knowledge of their whereabouts. Even battalion size SF operations to destroy insurgent camps in areas contiguous to India’s borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh are well within the realm of possibility. Given the unstable security situation and the ever increasing influence of Islamist fundamentalist elements in the countries in India’s neighborhood, it may one day become necessary to launch an SF operation to evacuate an Indian ambassador and his staff from their chancery building. India’s security planners must learn the lessons of the unsuccessful US intervention in Iran during the Carter administration and develop capabilities accordingly.

Other out-of-area contingencies could occur on India’s island territories. Intervention may become necessary to support friendly governments making a request for aid, as was the case in the Maldives in the late-1980s. It is now well known that Indian forces were standing by to intervene at the request of the government of Mauritius too around the same time. There may be occasions when army SF units need to reinforce the navy’s MARCOS during an operation at sea. Another Sierra Leone type SF operation to reinforce and relieve besieged Indian peacekeepers will always be a possibility as UN peacekeeping operations are becoming more complex and are increasingly tending to be launched under Chapter VII instead of Chapter VI of the UN Charter. 

It emerges from the need to prepare for such contingencies and the requirement of SF units during conventional war that Indian SF units must gradually go up to about 12 to 15 in number. Careful analysis of the requirements reveals that most of the tasks are of the para-commando variety and only some of the tasks are the highly specialized ones that the US and coalition forces SF units were called upon to perform in Afghanistan and Iraq. It may therefore be tempting to organize, equip and train about 10 to 12 SF units like the present para-commando units and re-structure and upgrade only two to three units to genuine SF capabilities for operations deep inside hostile territory. Succumbing to such a temptation will result in creating an elite force within an elite force and can only lead to lack of coherence and heartburn. All SF units must be organized and equipped alike though within each unit the personnel may have different skill sets for different contingencies. Quite obviously, it would be extremely difficult to find suitably qualified volunteers in adequate numbers for such a large force. Also, such expansion would add to the country’s defense budget and must be spread out over at least two decades. Once an operational requirement is established and accepted by the government, the rest is a matter of detail and all contentious issues can be eventually resolved – even if each doubting Thomas has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his bit. Bharat Karnad has called for the immediate raising of a Special Forces Command on the US pattern.[vi] Though most Indian analysts are of the view that the recommendation is premature at present as the Indian armed forces are light years away from graduating to the Chief of Defence Staff system with integrated theatre commands, it is undeniably operationally justifiable in the emerging strategic scenario. SF units and personnel are a scarce resource that should be closely integrated at the national level for optimum operational efficiency. In this context, the ad hoc raising of SF units by various security forces by obtaining government sanction on a case-by-case basis must cease forthwith as such accretions lack synergy and are a national waste. Need for Political Will The Indian army’s SF battalions have notched up several impressive achievements during both conventional operations and low intensity conflict (LIC). However, their numbers, capabilities, organizational and ancillary support structures, the quality of their leadership and the training standards of their personnel need to be substantially enhanced for their optimal exploitation in support of current and future national security objectives. Also, the army’s SF battalions, the navy’s MARCOS (marine commandos) and the air force’s commando units (Garud) that are reported to be under raising, need to be closely integrated in order to achieve synergy of operations. Unless they are equipped with compatible communications equipment, have similar TTPs and train to common standards, they will not be able to operate effectively with the degree of “jointness” necessary in modern warfare. Classical SF tasks call for language and survival skills and training standards, including mental conditioning, of a very high order. Only the toughest, the fittest, the most dexterous and the bravest soldiers would meet the exacting demands of operations behind enemy lines. Those with the right potential must be carefully selected and thoroughly trained for the tasks that are likely to be assigned to them during war. Military commanders have been traditionally reluctant to accord to the SF a significant role in their operational plans partly because of a poor understanding of their capabilities and partly because they see Special Forces as “these shadow guys who go off and fight their own war.” During Gulf War I, General Norman Schwarzkopf used the “snake eaters”, as the SF are sometimes called, only sparingly. However, in Gulf War II, General Tommy Franks leaned on his experience in Afghanistan and used the SF very effectively. The unconventional employment of Special Forces in small teams dispersed all over the Iraqi desert provided a force multiplier capability to the Coalition forces that was possibly way beyond their own expectations. Indian Special Forces also need to be armed, equipped, trained and employed behind enemy lines in a similar fashion. The wherewithal necessary to insert and, subsequently, support them in such employment over sustained periods must be acquired no matter what the cost.   It needs to be appreciated by India’s policy planners that in many situations when war has not yet commenced and it is not possible to employ ground forces overtly, Special Forces can be launched covertly to achieve important military objectives with inherent deniability. In Kandahar-type situations they provide the only viable military option. However, they can act with assurance only if they have been well organized and well trained for the multifarious tasks that they may be called upon to perform. Above all else, it must be realized that Indian policy planners need to cultivate the political will necessary to boldly employ SF units to further national interests without being too squeamish about legal niceties. There are enough precedents from the Cold War and the period that followed it. However, political will is not a commodity that can be switched on and off. It requires a permanent change of mindset from the present ethos of belonging to a soft state to one in which national security is never compromised no matter how negative the political impact may be internationally. If India cannot learn from the example of the US, the country must at least learn from the examples set by Israel and South Africa.    

This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review and has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.



[i] For an analysis of the internal and external security environment and the battlefield milieu likely to prevail around 2015-2020, see Gurmeet Kanwal, “Army Vision 2020: Restructuring for an Era of Strategic Uncertainty”, Indian Defence Review, New Delhi, January-March 2004, pp. 31-35.
[ii] Jack Kelley, “Covert Troops Fight Shadow War Off-camera”, USA Today, April 7, 2003. (
[iii] Bharat Karnad, “Winning Low Intensity Conflict: Special Operations Forces”, Indian Defence Review, New Delhi, July-September 2000, Pp. 99.  More recently he has written that the SF strength should be two divisions eventually. “To Pack a Good Wallop”, The Week, December 28, 2003, Pp. 33.

[iv] “More Army Mission Specialists on Anvil”, Hindustan Times, January 16, 2004. (A similar report had appeared earlier, soon after Gulf War II. See Aditya Sinha, “Indian Army to Raise US-type Special Forces”, Hindustan Times, April 20, 2003.

[v] Saikat Datta, Outlook, November 8, 2004.
[vi] n. 3.