Special Forces are unconventional forces used to execute irregular warfare in terrains which are otherwise difficult to operate in for conventional troops; they are almost always used for strategic objectives. Selection in such units across the world are very difficult as they have strict recruitment criteria.

States which are known to exert regional and global influence tend to employ Special Forces as tools of exerting state policy abroad. Some notable examples include the ouster of Manuel Noriega in Panama by US Special Forces and the anti-regime warfare against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya by British and French Special Forces.

Special Forces are not employed regularly; their use is well thought out and finalized after careful deliberation by the ruling government, mostly as a ‘last resort’.

India’s growing interest in Special Forces

Amit Kumar, a Research Assistant with the Military Affairs Centre at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India wrote a paper titled “India’s Special Forces: An Appraisal”. He highlighted in detail the existing force structure and capabilities of India’s paramilitary and military Special Forces. Most notably, he put repeated emphasis on why India’s military urgently needs an all-in-one unified Special Operations Command (similar to the US military).

Kumar cited excerpts from a book by Lt Gen (retd) Prakash Katoch, former head of Indian Special Forces, titled “India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Indian Special Forces”. Lt Gen (retd) Katoch presented a model for a unified command structure for Indian Special Forces. He proposed a three-tier ‘Special Forces Cell’ within the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) which will be used for strategic deployment as and when deemed necessary by the Government of India:

1. Tier one would be Special Forces that are deployed strategically on politico-military missions on foreign soil

2. Tier two would be the Commando Forces which meet military requirements in conventional war and Counter Insurgency (COIN)/Counter Terrorism (CT) within India

3. Tier three would be Airborne Forces as rapid-reaction forces

What is of particular concern is Tier One i.e. battalions of Special Forces for strategic missions on foreign soil. We heard recently about the first such case, at least made public, in which Indian Special Forces entered foreign territory i.e. Myanmar purportedly to take out handlers of the Nagaland rebels. That Indian government officials, not only its sensationalist media, acknowledged and snubbed at other countries in the region post the operation, is a warning sign for regional countries who have long been highlighting India’s ambitions to become a self-proclaimed “regional superpower”.

Kumar wrote that in October 2008, Integrated Defence Staff Headquarters (IDS HQ) of the Indian military formulated a ‘Joint Doctrine for Special Forces Operations’. Its publication reflects growing synergy among India’s tri-services (army, navy and airforce) to conduct special operations for contingency strikes as and when required. The case of Myanmar seems like a deliberate attempt by the establishment in New Delhi to make its motives well-known. In fact, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, India’s State Minister for Information & Broadcasting, declared to the media that India, “will carry out surgical strikes at the place and time of our own choosing”. When asked if such an action will also be taken against ‘threats’ from the Western border i.e. Pakistan, he remarked, “western disturbances will also be equally dealt with”.

This is quite interesting; Rajyavardhan Rathore is a former Colonel in the Indian Army and he also happens to be heading a ministry on media and related affairs. That the Myanmar operation, which should have been kept clandestine, was made so openly public, similar to the US Navy SEALs’ raid in Abbottabad, is enough to show the disclosures were intentionally publicized.

Kumar further notes that the Government of India had a few years ago set up a 14-member Naresh Chandra Committee which proposed the establishment of a Special Operations Command for timely and effectively employment of Special Forces in pursuit of politico-military objectives both domestically and, most importantly, on foreign soil. However, he noted with concern that so far, even the present government (BJP) has not implemented upon the committee’s recommendation or given it any serious review.

Threats to Pakistan and the region

It hasn’t been reported thus far but from the Myanmar episode, I believe Narendra Modi and his cabinet are definitely taking Special Forces with much seriousness. We must be mindful of the fact that New Delhi already has strong ties with the military establishment in Kabul and India once also had an operational airbase in Tajikistan. India also has a growing understand with Iran and Bangladesh along with a strategic base developing rapidly in the Andaman & Nicobar islands. Pakistan, thus, should not take the threat from India as “wishful thinking”. The near-complete occupation of key government posts by BJP’s hardcore pro-Hindutva members might one day give the go-ahead for a “surgical strike” in Pakistan.

It is worth mentioning that in 2009, India’s former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansigh commented on the possibility of India’s surgical strikes on Pakistan by saying that, “…there isn’t any empirical evidence that surgical strikes work in stopping terrorists. In this case, a military strike would give the Pakistani army an excuse to silence its critics and even overwhelm or oust the civilian government. We might end up driving Pakistan into the hands of the militants, giving them much greater power to threaten us. Above all, there is the ultimate threat of nuclear war. That always has to be taken into account in our calculations.”

The Modi-led BJP government has some understanding with the Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad. Frequent communication between the two leaders dispels the notion of any such pre-emptive strike, but the possibility cannot be completely ruled out.

On June 10, 2015, Colonel (retd) Vivek Chadha, another fellow at IDSA wrote an op-ed titled “Why India’s Myanmar style attack won’t work against Pakistan”. He said that cross-border operations in Pakistan are not impossible but some measures need to be put in place to ensure they don’t result in a damaging fallout.

He wrote:

There is an ongoing debate relating the (Myanmar) operation to similar attempts against Pakistan in future as well as the Israeli policy of pre-emption. The operation clearly highlights a shift from the past for a number of reasons discussed above and is also indicative of India’s counterterrorism capability. However, there is still some ground to be covered before the same can be replicated against Pakistan. This is not to say that cross-border operations have not been conducted successfully in the past. However, it is the nature and scope of similar operations in the context of Pakistan, which requires raising existing preparedness by more than a few notches. It does not merely involve the professional competence of the Army, but capabilities of a complete range of support structures that must be built simultaneously. In contrast to Myanmar, Pakistan presents a highly hostile operational environment for undertaking operations. This includes belligerent air defence, a strong border presence, inadequate network that can provide precision intelligence, insufficient capability to undertake insertion in depth areas and as yet limited experience in employing special forces as a strategic asset.”

Colonel (retd) Chadha made strong observations, obviously from an operational risk perspective. He rightly asserted that the (Indian) army’s competency/capability is not the only factor which will propel a successful strike, rather there are “capabilities of several support structures” which need to be built first. These have been highlighted earlier by Amit Kumar in detail; some of these ‘support structures’ include political will, a unified command structure and better funds/HR resources.

Sandeep Unnithan, Deputy Editor at India Today, wrote an op-ed on June 17, 2015, titled “Why India desperately needs a Special Operations Command”. Commenting on the Naresh Chandra Committee’s proposal, Unnithan observed:

This proposal has languished before the Cabinet Committee on Security since 2013. It is not that the government does not know how critical the requirement is. Addressing the combined commanders conference last October, Prime Minister Modi noted that full scale wars would become rare but that future security challenges “will be less predictable, situations will evolve and change swiftly”. The challenges that the PM outlined would make a special operations command an urgent requirement. There are indications that this government, more than any previous one, plans to use special operations. In the light of this, the delay in approving a special operations command, is baffling.”


Amit Kumar’s paper, Rajyavardhan Rathore’s indirect warning to Pakistan and the op-eds by Col (retd) Vivek Chadha and Sandeep Unnithan are some prominent publications exhibiting the growing mindset in India which envisages Special Forces as force multipliers and strategic foreign policy tools.

Perhaps the most telling signs are from Modi himself. Addressing heads of Indian foreign missions on February 7, 2015, he urged diplomats to project India as a “leading forces” instead of just a balancing force. Commenting on the conflict scenario, Modi said there were new “actors” and new “threats” to global peace and prosperity, adding that India has “a great responsibility in helping the world counter these challenges to peace.”

According to Amit Kumar, India’s Special Forces will be crucial in countering these ‘new threats’.

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