Less Than Special
By using Para SF officers as mere commandos, the army is wasting human resource and money

SF personnel training at the Special Forces Training School in Nahan Special Forces (SF) in India have an existential dilemma. On the one hand the absolute defensive approach of the government to national security makes SF unnecessary. On the other hand senior military commanders rarely understand that special operations are qualitatively different from regular warfare, not a sub-category of it. Talks, therefore, of raising SF command is putting the cart before the horse. The need is to first resolve the fundamental issues at the political and military levels.

The first step is for the military (especially the army) and the political leadership to understand how best to respond to the new face of war, that has emerged with Pakistan’s proxy war, and is at the heart of the two-front war staring India in the face. SF has a key role to play in both. A good definition of special operations undertaken by SF is given in the book Special Operations and US Strategy published in 1984 by US National Defence University: ‘small-scale, clandestine, covert or overt operations of an unorthodox and frequently high-risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy.’

Thus, Indian Para SF (insignia: Balidan) is different from Para battalions (insignia: Shatrujeet) and commandos. The only similarity between them is that all three forces are commandos. The other two are best used behind enemy lines; the Para battalions have the ability to hold ground for brief periods, while the Para SF is simply meant to hit hard and move on. While there is no hard and fast dividing line between special operations and regular warfare (one can merge with the other), it is in conditions of proxy war and when pitted against a stronger adversary, that the true utility of Para SF stands out. And this is the kind of war that the Para SF should be trained for and used.

How is the Para SF being used in the army?

As mere commandos. In the last Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999, Para SF battalions were employed to outflank enemy position to occupy positions in depth with the clear instruction that the Line of Control (LC) would not be crossed. This was certainly not the optimum utilisation of Para SF meant for use across the border. Following the death of Major Udai Singh of 1Para SF in a counter-terrorist operation (CT ops) in Rajouri, Jammu on 29 November 2003, FORCE had done the January 2004 cover story titled ‘The Maroon Beret’. For this comprehensive story, FORCE team had visited the Special Force Training School in Nahan — the school had been upgraded in January 2003 from the Special Forces Training Wing raised in 1993 — and had met with senior Para officials. The sense then was that the new face of war by the Indian Army was finally in the offing. This has not happened. Most officers continue to think about the Para SF as Lt Gen. Nirbhay Sharma, the then colonel of the Parachute regiment had told FORCE in January 2004. He said, “CT ops provide an ideal training ground. It is giving the boys combat experience.” The flip side of this is the Para SF is so heavily involved in CT ops, that they themselves have started believing that this is their major task. Most Maroon Berets see themselves as toughened commandos.
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