Men of Steel

In future battles, the role of special forces will be more significant and critical

Rohan Ramesh | Bengaluru

Special forces. The very word conjures up visions of shadowy, reclusive super men with abilities and skills that are superior to ordinary people. As the word connotes, these units, now an integral part of most, if not all armed forces, are highly trained specialists who can be deployed in special operations that require strengths and skills beyond the ken of the most professional soldiers.

Para SF commandos during a republic day rehearsal

The US Navy Seals and Green Berets exemplify the term special forces, more because Hollywood and the US media has lionised them, and also because of high profile operations such as Operation Geronimo to take out Osama Bin Laden. But less spoken of, but as good are Special Forces units elsewhere in the world, including the Indian Special Forces, or for that matter the Russian, Israeli and the British.

The security challenges all over the world demand more innovative solutions. This requires units that specialise in unconventional warfare, rapid deployment for defence of national interests on foreign soil, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism. The Afghan Mujahedeen, the Taliban and its later avatar - the Islamic State, have only brought specialised forces into the mainstream of military thinking.

While the Osama bin Laden operation captured public imagination, like the Israeli raid at Entebbe airport way back in 1976, the other elite units wearing Indian, Russian or British uniforms have been less famous, but as lethal as any. The Russian Spetsnaz forces have had their place under the sun with the Nord-Ost theatre siege or the Beslan school hostage crisis, while the British SAS has had some glory days too, handling successfully the Iran embassy siege crisis and the Gambian hostage crisis.

And the Indian elite units have made their mark with many special operations, such as Operation Khukri in Sierra Leone, not to speak of the surgical strikes across the borders in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in 2016 and earlier in Myanmar in 2015.

Let us take a look at the Indian special forces that are present and are or have been tasked with operations on foreign soil.


Para (Special Forces)

The Para SF are part of the Parachute regiment. Their tasks comprise Intelligence collection, special reconnaissance, subverting and sabotaging vital enemy infrastructure, communications using methods like deep penetration and surgical strikes behind enemy lines. The Para SF also conduct covert and overt special operations which is vital to the Indian Army’s counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations.

The Para SF are also tasked with hostage rescue operations within and beyond Indian territory. Unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defence, counter-proliferation, seek and destroy and personnel recovery also form part of their repertoire.

The Parachute regiment boasts of nine Special Forces units and five Para units. Para SF units can operate on land, air and water. Paratroopers (Airborne) Battalions demand three months on intense probation while the norm is six months intensive probation for Para SF battalions.

It finds its roots in the Meghdoot force, an ad hoc commando unit, made up of volunteers from various infantry units. The unit was under command of then Major Megh Singh of the Brigade of the Guards. Paratroopers (Airborne) Battalions demand three months of intense probation while the norm is six months intensive probation for Para SF battalions.

During training all personnel are first required to qualify as Paratroopers. Once the probationers are selected, they may choose to advance to the SF selection. The SF selection is one of the longest, stringent and toughest training courses anywhere in the world. The applicant is exposed to sleep deprivation, humiliation, exhaustion, and mental and physical torture bringing him to a breaking point.

The Para Commandos were first deployed in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Operation Blue Star in 1984 also saw the Para SF participate. In the Eighties during India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s civil war codenamed Operation Pawan, the Para SF saw action. They were also involved in Operation Cactus to restore normalcy in Maldives in 1988 and in the Kargil War which took place in 1999.

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