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Employment of Special Forces in Conventional Operations




1. The history of warfare is replete with instances of a band of elite troops taking on a numerically superior force and using surprise to achieve relative superiority to emerge victorious. In a world where the nature of threat is becoming increasingly complex & encompasses the entire spectrum of warfare, Special Forces hold their own importance. These highly trained & motivated troops with sophisticated weapons & equipment are capable of operating in all types of terrain & weather conditions to seek a favourable response to sensitive situations.

2. In an era of modern warfare where all dimensions of force, time, space & even virtual space or cyberspace are likely to be exploited to gain moral or physical ascendancy over the adversary, the role of the Special Forces becomes very important. It is therefore incumbent on any nation to have these forces fully geared up to confidently take up the challenges of the modern battlefield environment with a sound backing of tried & tested doctrines & employment concepts.


3. Given the changing face of warfare & the aspirations of our nation to be a global player, there is a requirement of carrying out organisational & doctrinal changes to our Special Forces for undertaking conventional operations in the future.

Statement of the Problem

4. It seems quite obvious that there indeed is a need for having a re-look at the way the Special Forces are employed in present context of operations. Therefore, the problem can be stated as “What are the organisational & doctrinal changes required for effective employment of the Special Forces in conventional operations in the future?”

Justification of the Study

5. Recent wars such as those in Kosovo or Iraq have amply proved that no single instrument of war wins a campaign or successfully executes a mission. As conflicts become more complex and diverse, those involved with planning and executing campaigns and missions have greater challenges at hand[i].

6. The Special Forces, by virtue of their superior combat training & specialised weapons & equipment, are a force multiplier unit available not only to a tactical commander to gain an upper hand vis-a-vis the adversary in a tactical battle, but also to a strategic force commander due to their ability to strike at the decisive points of the enemy. Special Forces are also a very effective force available to the commander in sub conventional operations where the very nature of the latter is based on small team concept.

7. On a larger canvas, as part of our growing influence in world matters & our expanding interests in the Asian region, it may be necessary in future to station own Special Forces in some of the nations for safeguarding of our foreign assets as well as to improve our capability to react to an Out of Area contingency.

8. It is therefore mandatory to study as to what are the fundamental changes, if any, which are required so that our Special Forces are able to effectively execute the multifarious tasks expected out them in the future battlefield.


9. The scope of the study encompasses a brief overview of the organization & structure of the special operations forces of a few major developing & developed countries followed by an assessment of the present organisation & concept of employing our special forces. The study will thereafter analyse the likely future world order & the spectrum of conflicts in the future & analyse the changes in present organisation & concept of employment to meet challenges of conventional operations in the future.

10. The study does not deliberate upon the specific operations of the Special Forces. However, an operation or part thereof may be included in a chapter to bring out certain lessons having a bearing on the topic.

11. The study will be carried out in the following manner:-

(a) Chapter I : Overview of the Special Forces of various nations.

(b) Chapter II : Present organisation & concept of employment of India’s Special Forces.

(c) Chapter III : Future world order & spectrum of conflict.

(c) Chapter IV : Changes in present organisation & concept of employment to meet challenges of conventional operations in the future.

(d) Conclusion.

i Air Power & Special Operations: AIR POWER Journal Vol. 2 No. 2 SUMMER 2005 (Apr-Jun) 102 pp 91-93 .


Intro duction

1. The evolution of the SF has been a continuous process the world over since the times of the Vikings & the Mongols. Every age has produced a special soldier, be it the Greek Hoplite, the English Archer, Chhatrapati Shivaji of India, the Green Beret of the USA & the Paratrooper Regiment of India.

2. The process of evolution of the SF gathered pace during & after the World War II. Today, almost all nations with a standing army have the Special Operations Forces on their strength. In order to derive lessons about the role & employment of the Indian Special Forces, it is therefore pertinent to study the organisational & employment models of some of the modern Special forces of various nations of the world.


3. In the post war western world, the UK has been the leading nation in evolving SF organisations, specialised equipment, training & employment doctrines.

4. Organisation .

The SAS was raised in the 1950s & has evolved into a balanced, well trained force headed by the Director, Special Forces Group. The Director reports directly to Whitehall & the Chief of Defence Staff. Under him, he has the following forces[ii]:-

(a) 21st, 22nd & 23rd SAS Regiments.

(b) Special Boat Section (SBS).

(c) 14th Intelligence Group.


. Of these, the 22nd SAS is the only active regiment while the other two are Territorial Army SAS units.

5. The Royal Air Force (RAF) has a dedicated squadron which includes fixed & rotary wing aircrafts for the operations in support of the SAS.

6. The primary mission of the SAS has been to undertake unconventional military operations in a conventional war. The SAS has

performed this mission in various conflicts like the Falklands War & the Gulf War with remarkable degree of success. Another task which the SAS was assigned in the near past was that of incident response operations dealing with intervention in hijack & hostage situations. The SAS earned a niche for themselves by providing quality training & advisory teams to a large number of Middle Eastern & African nations.

7. Over the years, the SAS has developed into a highly professional force with clearly defined missions & well equipped, highly trained & motivated personnel to execute them.


6. The USA has the most elaborate & well organised SF establishment in the world. It is also one of the largest with an overall strength of over 45,000 personnel & a budget of over $ 4 bn.

7. The US adopts a systems approach to respond to problems which shows their bureaucracy in a good light & demonstrates the clarity of thought & determination of their leadership.

8. The US SOF has a dual role in today’s context. They are seen as the nation’s penetration & strike force as well as warrior – diplomats capable of influencing, advising, training & conducting operations with foreign forces, officials & population.

9. The Posture Statement mandates the SOF to be able to undertake the following types of missions:-

(a) Counter Proliferation.

(b) Counter Terrorism.

(c) Foreign International Defence.

(d) Special Reconnaissance.

(e) Direct Action.

(f) Psychological Operations.

(g) Civil Affairs.

(h) Unconventional Warfare.

(j) Information Operations.

10. As can be seen, the SOF of the US has been created to undertake a plethora of operations. More importantly, they have also been tasked to carry out operations like Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations & Information Operations which have assumed tremendous importance in today’s conflicts.


11. The SOF has an elaborate joint services organisational structure headed by a four star General who reports directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff & the National Command Authority. The detailed organisation of the SOF is as shown at Appendix A[iii].

12. Each of the unified theatre commands has a separate Special Operations Command (SOC) to meet their special requirements. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a joint headquarters that deals with organisational & training aspects & is designed to study special operations requirements & techniques, ensure interoperability & equipment standardisation, plan & conduct joint special operations exercises & training.


11. The SOF of China is modelled upon the Russian SOF pattern. Chinese forces, although adept at guerrilla warfare & special missions, did not have a dedicated Special Forces component until the early 1990s when China underwent a doctrinal change from “people’s war” towards “fighting a local war under high-tech conditions”[iv].

12. All the seven mil regions in China have a dedicated SOF component capable of deploying upto a regiment sized force. As its strategic reserve, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also has the 51st Airborne Division equipped with the BMD3 Paratrooper vehicles. The division has the capability to conduct airborne operations in a radius of upto 900 kms & is likely to be employed for sabotage missions, disruption of command & control structures etc.

13. PLA Airborne Corps plays a critical role in special operations scenario. It forms part of the PLA’s strategic reserve & rapid reaction forces. Airborne operations in the context of China include paratroops’ operations, air transport operations, heliborne operations & special operations. The division inventory of the AB Corps is similar to that of an infantry division except for the heavy weaponry like tanks, heavy artillery & anti-aircraft weapons.

14. The PLA Navy (PLAN) also has several elite units specialised in underwater special operations & is known as the “Amphibious Reconnaissance Groups”. These are similar to the SBS of UK or the SEALs of the USA.

15. The SOF’s Taiwan-focused training over the years has made them highly proficient at locating and destroying transportation nodes, logistics depots, and conducting reconnaissance missions. With the growing threat of terrorism on its Western borders, the SOF has also been strengthened in the fields of counter-terrorism, unconventional combat, as well as direct attack missions.

16. Although a conflict with China over disputed territory is by no means imminent, it would be wise for Indian policy makers and defence analysts to take note of the SOF’s relatively newly acquired strengths, especially its ability to locate and destroy transportation nodes and logistics depots. In the event of hostilities, a PLA first strike would likely involve air strikes followed by a ground incursion and in order for this to occur, the SOF would need to create ground conditions that would be conducive to such operations. India should remain vigilant along its disputed border with China and should maximise any opportunity that it has to observe Taiwan-focused PLA training[v].

17. Major indicators of the role & importance of the SOF suggest the following:-

(a) The evolution & development of the SOF in China display both traditional & modern principles of special operations.

(b) The Chinese have emphasised on specialised warfare techniques since the 1990s after a deep study & analysis of Gulf War & the ongoing ‘War on Terror’.

(c) The role of the SF in anti-terror operations is the new element that has been added to the overall strategy in the recent time.

(d) Improvement in specific areas like sea-borne operations, EW & IW suggest that these could be extensively employed in future regional conflicts with India etc.

(e) Efforts to improve AB operational capabilities indicate its ambitions to gain strategic advantage in the Himalayan Region.


18. The SOF of Pakistan is known as the Special Services Group (SSG). The first unit was formed in the late fifties with an initial strength of 12 companies including a SCUBA company. Post the debacle of 1965 Indo-

Pak war, the SSG was reorganised & expanded. Two new battalions & a HQ were raised. In 1970, the SSG formed an independent combat diver unit by re-designating the old SCUBA Company. An additional company, the ZARAR Company was raised in 1980 as a CT force with the assistance of the British SAS[vi].

19. The current strength of the SSG is estimated to be upto four battalions of 700 personnel each. The Commander SSG, of the rank of a Brigadier oversees the operations of the SSG. The Group has dedicated air assets earmarked for its employment. Of the four battalions, one battalion is under training at any given time, two are under operational deployment & one is deployed for security of vital strategic assets.

20. The missions of the SSG include the following:-

(a) Unconventional Warfare.

(b) Long-range reconnaissance & intelligence gathering.

(c) Riverine operations.

(d) CT.

(e) Tactical Assaults.

(f) Target designations for air force & artillery.

(g) Protection of vulnerable points.

21. The SSG is a battle- hardened force & has grown in strength & experience since the debacle of 1965. It has gained some really worthy experience during its recent employment in the operations against the Taliban & al-Qaeda in NWFP & Swat valley.

ii Brigadier Deepak Sinha: Beyond the Bayonet – Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century. Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi.

iii Ibid pp 60-67.

iv Ibid pp 115-116.

v Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM: Approach Paper for Seminar on Doctrine, Structure & Employment of Special Forces Across the Spectrum of Conflict in Indian Context (Centre of Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, Sep 2005).

vi Ibid pp 97-101, pg 104.




1. The employment of specialised guerrilla forces in Indian context dates back to the ancient ages. However, in the recent history it can be traced to the rule of the Maratha warrior, Chhatrapati Shivaji. Shivaji employed his small forces to infiltrate into enemies defences thereby turning them & causing panic & large scale casualties.

2. The modern SOF in India was raised consequent to the directions of Sir Winston Churchill which led to the raising of the 50 Independent Parachute Brigade in 1941. This brigade was employed in the Battle of Shangsak & in an airborne operation in the WW II in the Burma Theatre. The 50 Independent Parachute Brigade is the oldest formation in the world to have continuously remained in airborne role.

3. Today, the Indian SOF comprises of the Parachute & the Parachute Special Forces Battalions, the National Security Guards (NSG), the Marine Commandos (MARCOS) & the Special Frontier Force (SFF). The organisation & employment of these forces is discussed in the following chapters.

Concept of Emp loyment of Special Forces

4. In war, Special Forces are an invaluable adjunct to conventional forces. Selectively employed, they have a force multiplier effect. In situations short of declared war, they are capable of sophisticated, specialized and measured response in complex politico-military situations where the application of conventional military forces is inappropriate because it could trigger an escalating response.

5. In order to fulfill the role and execute missions – Special Forces should have the capacity to operate in all kinds of terrain in the areas of interest and exploit adverse weather to own advantage. They should be capable of using the medium of land, sea and air for carrying out deep penetration to accomplish the assigned mission, which implies that their organization needs to be an integrated unit to maximize effectiveness.

6. The organization of Special Forces is designed to be cellular with the smallest functional group being a buddy pair. Based on past experiences,

it was realized that there was a requirement of distributing danger, provide greater internal resources for psychological and physical backup and a need of varied combat skills namely – demolition, navigation, communication, medical, weapon proficiency and language within the group, have necessitated enlargement of the smallest functional group from

a buddy pair to a combat patrol of a four- five men assault squad. Four such squads would be ideal to make a troop for carrying out overt and limited covert military special operations in war and situations short of declared war, either independently or in conjunction on with other special forces of similar nature, in own areas of interest to achieve military and or political objectives in support of military and / or national aims.


Organisation & Employment

7. The Parachute Battalions are the oldest of the SOF in our country. These were formed either by converting the standard infantry battalions into Parachute Battalions or by the integration of the Indian Parachute Battalions post independence. Presently we have five Parachute Battalions of which, three battalions form part of the 50(Independent) Parachute Brigade. These are considered to be the only rapid reaction forces available with the country.

8. The 50(Independent) Parachute Brigade is a brigade group comprising of elements of all arms & services[vii]. The Parachute Battalions are organised on lines similar to the regular infantry units. However, they are different from them in terms of their equipment profile. Another significant aspect is their manpower which is purely on the basis of volunteers who are selected after a very tough & challenging probation for a period of three months.

9. The Parachute Battalions are organised & trained for offensive operations behind enemy lines & Out Of Area Contingencies. The Parachute Brigade over the years has been kept as an Army HQ Reserve or employed piecemeal in certain operations.

10. The Parachute Battalions have been employed with a fair degree of success in conventional operations in the past. The Para Brigade was successfully employed against the Portuguese in Goa, as a coy sized task force at Bara Hoti against the Chinese in early 1961 & in the Kutch operations in 1965. The most successful operation of the Paras still remains the para drop of a battalion sized force at Tangail. This operation is arguably the one which tilted the balance in India’s favour. As regards

failed operations, the most glaring example is that of the failed paradrop at the Jaffna University during Op PAWAN. However, the failure of this operation may not be attributable as much to the Paras as it would be to faulty planning & coordination at higher levels.

11. Over the last decade & a half, the Parachute Battalions have been employed in Counter Insurgency (CI) operations. Their employment in these operations has been quite successful with almost all battalions having been awarded the Chief of Army Staff Citation.

12. The Parachute Battalions have been employed as a rapid reaction force & as a crack force to act upon hard intelligence to destroy terrorist hideouts. They have also been employed in covert role for surveillance & pseudo operations.

13. In the recent past, perceptions among certain sections of the defence establishment have led to the crystallisation of the belief that large scale airborne operations are not feasible in the modern context. This has seriously affected the tactical & strategic airlift capability.

14. In CI operations, the Parachute Battalions have been employed as regular infantry battalions- although as a tougher version of the latter. Couple this with the high expectations & quick results desired from them, & we see that the pressure to perform on these battalions is enormous. The fact that despite the above these units have performed exceedingly well is a tribute to their exemplary leadership & high standard of training.


History & Organisation

15. The evolution of the present day MARCOS dates back to 1986, when the National Security Guards (NSG) was being formed. In response to the requirement of an equivalent force for safeguarding our shore – based & off-shore assets, the Indian Marine Special Force was formed in Feb 1987. This force was modelled on the lines of the US Navy SEALS & the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Section. The name was changed from Indian Marine Special Force to the present day Marine Commandos (MARCOS) in 1991[viii].

16. The present strength of the MARCOS is estimated to be about 2000 personnel[ix]. It is divided into three groups, one each at Mumbai, Kochi & Vishakhapatnam.

17. The MARCOS undergo a very rigorous training of two years which includes the Combat Divers Course, the Army’s Ghatak Course & parachute jumps. Thereafter the personnel are sent to operational groups for ‘on the job’ training for a year. This includes counter terrorist (CT) operations, storming of oil rigs & hostage rescue operations.


18. The CT operations of the MARCOS are executed by the Quick Reaction Sections (QRS) which are upto a platoon size. MARCOS can also be tasked for beach reconnaissance, under water demolitions & other operations in support of the amphibious landings.

19. The MARCOS are presently also employed in teams in the J&K, where they are primarily deployed along the Dal, Wullar & Nageen lakes. Their deployment has led to an effective domination of these water bodies. In the very recent past, the MARCOS were employed during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008, wherein the MARCOS teams were heli-landed atop the Hotel Oberoi to eliminate the terrorists.

20. The recent employment of the MARCOS in neutralising the terrorists in Mumbai brought to fore once again the need to have an institutionalised framework for employing the Army & Naval SOF in a coordinated manner. There is also a requirement of standardisation of equipment & weapons if there has to be any joint operations in any future conflict. There is also a need for enhanced joint training of the army SF & the MARCOS as they will surely be employed jointly in any future operation.


21. The National Security Guards (NSG) was formed in 1986 under the National Security Guards Act ( Act 47 of 1986) & has fast emerged as the elite anti-terror establishment not only in India but in the entire Asian region. The NSG is under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) & is mandated to carry out CT, anti-kidnapping, anti-sabotage, anti-hijacking & hostage rescue missions[x].

22. The NSG has approx 7500 which are further sub-divided as under:-

(a) The Assault Groups, i.e, 51st & 52nd Special Action Groups (SAG).

(b) The Support Group.

(c) Two Bomb Disposal Units.

(d) A Dog Unit.

(e) A Communications Group &

(f) A Transport Group.

23. The other element of the NSG is the Special Ranger Group (SRG) whose task is to isolate the target area where the SAG is to operate. However, these are now responsible for providing close security cover to VVIPs & politicians.

24. The Support Group is manned by a mix of army & para-military forces personnel & includes the NSG Training Centre at Manesar near Gurgaon & the Force Headquarters headed by a three star police officer of the IPS Cadre. The operational & training aspects are handled by the army while the para-military forces look after the logistics & budgeting.

25. The NSG has to its credit a string of successful operations & is rightly known as the premier specialist CT organisation in India. The NSG successfully executed Op BLACK THUNDER in the precincts of the Golden Temple in 1984 wherein it was able to neutralise the hardcore militants with minimal collateral damage. The other notable operations include the neutralisation of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi at the Bangalore Airport & the intervention at the Akshardham Temple in Gujarat. However, the most recent successful operation of the NSG remains the intervention & neutralisation of terrorists at the Hotel Oberoi during the terrorist strikes at Mumbai on 26 November 2008. The NSG on the other hand, received a lot of unwarranted flak for its delayed employment during the IC-814 hijack crisis. As the picture of the exact turn of events is now clearing up, one can confidently say that the NSG should have been the last to be blamed in the matter.

26. However, the NSG is plagued with a number of problems of late. The most serious one is that of the Command & Control structure. Although the most important aspects of operational role & training are handled by the army, the head of the NSG is still an IPS officer. It is important that the command of such a premier CT organisation be vested with someone with a practical & on the job experience of CT operations which naturally is with an army officer. The issue has been raised at the highest possible levels time & again, most recently after the Mumbai attacks, but to no avail. It is important for the powers that be to stop the lobbyist attitudes which may eventually jeopardise national security.

27. Another major problem that has been created is due to the diversion of the Special Ranger Group (SRG) for VVIP protection tasks. The original task for which the SRG was raised – to isolate the target area for subsequent operations by SAG – has thus suffered a void.

28. Until before the Mumbai attacks, the SAGs were based in New Delhi & operated from there. Post the incident, it was realised that there existed a need for the NSG to have operational bases in major metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata & Hyderabad for rapid response to a terror strike. Accordingly, additional NSG units have been proposed to be raised for these cities. As to where the manpower for these units is likely to come from, especially when the NSG in its present form itself is plagued with a shortage of manpower, is matter of serious concern.


29. The Special Frontier Force (SFF) was established in 1962 after the debacle in the war with China. The force has six battalions each with six companies. It also has a training establishment known as the Establishment 22 & a Parachute Training School. The force comprises of personnel recruited from the border hill tribes & Tibetan refugees. The force is officered by Indian Army officers on deputation. The task of the force is to conduct reconnaissance, carry out raids on vital installations & direct air & artillery strikes in case of hostilities with China[xi].

30. In addition to the battalions, the force also has a unit known as the Special Group which is manned fully by personnel on deputation from the army[xii]. This group is organised & equipped to carry out CT operations. The exact nature of tasks to be performed & their likely employment is not very clearly spelt out. This group provided the core on which the first NSG unit was raised.

31. The SFF saw major combat in the 1971 War for the first time when it was employed in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for carrying out cross- border attacks which preceded the war. It also fought some spectacular actions against the 2nd Commando Battalion SSG of Pakistan during the war.

32. Despite the raison de’ etre’, the SFF today is faced with the serious problem of their relevance. The normalisation of Sino-Indian ties & the rapid modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has diminished the possibility of a liberated Tibet. The fact has been accepted even by the Dalai Lama, who now talks of an Autonomous Tibet instead of Free Tibet. All this has led to a drastic reduction in the number of expatriate Tibetans with knowledge of local language, terrain & culture.

33. Over a period of time the force has lost its motivated & dedicated Khampa fighters & have been replaced with second generation Tibetans who have been born & brought up in India & are consequently unaware of the terrain, local customs & traditions of native Tibet – an aspect of prime importance for employment of the force. The army itself has been facing serious manpower problems especially in the officer cadre & sending its officers on deputation to these units means taxing the already critical officer- state in the regular regiments/ battalions

34. Another important drawback in the force structure of the SFF is the Special Group. This Group was initially raised as an anti-hijack & building intervention force. Subsequent to the raising of the NSG – for which the Group provided the core element – their employment & role has been in a limbo. If it was intended to be employed for covert operations, it has not been done for lack of political will despite opportunities for the same having existed for so many years, especially against terror groups operating out of Pakistan.

vii Brigadier Deepak Sinha: Beyond the Bayonet – Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century. Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi pp 138-139.

viiiIbid pp 164-165.

ix Ibid pp 167- 171.

x Ibid pp 177- 181.

xi Ibid pp 177- 181.



1. In order to fully understand the changing dynamics of the world order & the creation of new alliances & partnerships, especially in the military realm, it is important for us to set for ourselves a realistic period we are looking at. What should such a period be? Five yrs from now? Or should we look at a timeline of 2020?

2. Given the continued progress of our nation in the Asian region as well as its emergence in the global affairs as a vital player in world’s politico-strategic dynamics, it is saner to look at a period of 2020. This is so because it is not only important for a nation to continue on its path of progress, but it is equally important to keep consolidating the gains as the years go by. Therefore, we can safely assume that by 2020, India would definitely be a long way up on the road to being the second most dominant player in the regional matters after of course, China which aims to be the regional superpower in the corresponding period.

3. What then is the strategic & operational role of the army in 2020? What are the challenges it will have to face & what are we required to attain to complement & supplement the ambitions of our nation in this period? These & other such questions are briefly discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.


4. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s & the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 Sep 2001 were two events which redefined the directions of world politics. While the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a creation of a unipolar world ( which is a reality as on date, despite the emergence of the European Union & the rapid economic growth of China), the 9/11 terror attacks brought the ‘War on Terror’ to the doorstep of the Indian sub-continent.

5. Extrapolation of the current geo-political & geo-strategic environment to 2020 will, in all probabilities, give us the following picture[xiii]:-

(a) While the US will continue to be the sole

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