Guest Column | Powerful Punch

A restructured Special Operations Force can be a game changer in India’s security landscape

Vinod BhatiaLt Gen. Vinod Bhatia (retd)
‘When India conducted surgical strikes, the world experienced our power and realised that India practices restraint but can show power when needed’

– Prime Minister Modi in Washington, 26 June 2017

The overhyped and politicised September 2016 surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) continue to trigger an unprecedented interest and imagination of the Indian people. Without a doubt it was one of its kind, a strategic signal to Pakistan that India had exhausted its patience and was prepared to raise the costs for Pakistan’s three-decade-old ‘low cost high effect proxy war’ demonstrating a strategic resolve to fight terror. However, an excess of everything is bad or say counterproductive, as seems to be in the case of the surgical strikes.

Continuing to cash in on the success of the surgical strikes, reportedly the government is now planning to raise a Special Forces unit especially for this task to be known as ‘Surgical Strike’ unit comprising the best soldiers recruited from the three branches of the armed forces. According to an NDTV report, this unit will undertake surprise attacks deep inside enemy territory with precision, inflicting maximum damage and leaving the battle area in the shortest time. The strategy will be more lethal than the cross-border strike carried out by the country’s Special Forces in September 2016 as the government plans to use the air force in future operations.

“The government feels the need for a special group with enhanced skills, so a unit having the best officers from all the three branches of the armed forces is being planned,” the report mentioned, adding that, this is a pet project of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The new commando group will have soldiers from Garuds, MARCOS and PARAS — the special forces of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Navy and Army respectively. Their skills must be at par with the US Navy Seals as they are required to manoeuvre in different terrains. It was the Navy Seals (Seal Team Six) which eliminated Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in a near flawless Operation Geronimo executed deep inside Pakistan at Attobabad.

Indian Army’s Elite 9 Para Commandos – © wikipedia-Panky2sharma

The key question which needs discussion and deliberations is — Are the Special Operational Forces (SOF) optimally structured and equipped to effectively contribute to the changing nature of future warfare and the emerging security challenges in the Indian context? Are we as a nation, and the armed forces, only factoring in the ‘one-time success story’ of the surgical strikes or are we preparing our SOF as a force multiplier, a game changer and a critical component of ensuring ‘Low Cost, High Risk and Effect’ instrument of national security?

Indian SOF are one of the most battle-hardened, combat rich force in the world known for successful conduct of operations whenever and wherever tasked, despite certain infirmities in the structures and lack of requisite wherewithal. The SOF should be mandated, structured, organised, equipped, manned, trained and located to be the first and possibly the final responders in an emerging security criticality impacting national security or national interests and assets.

The recently released 13-page Land Warfare Doctrine amplifies the SOF employment. According to the document, “Special Forces shall be equipped, structured and trained to ensure their application in multiple employment opportunities for exponential gains, to achieve our military objectives. Their equipment profiling, standards of training and employment strategies must form a vital component of our overall deterrence capability, both in unconventional/ conventional domains.”

It further states that “India’s role as a regional security provider mandates a force projection capability to further our national security objectives. A Rapid Reaction Force comprising Integrated Battle Groups with strategic lift and amphibious capability will be an imperative for force projection operations.”

However, there appears obvious contradictions in the signals emanating from the armed forces and the ministry of defence (MoD) on the proposed restructuring of the SOF, with the latter biased towards raising a Special Force Division capable of effectively executing more surgical strikes and the armed forces wanting a 360 degree focus on structuring and employment of Special Forces in critical missions at the strategic-operational levels of war prevention and warfighting.

The Land Warfare Doctrine simply but logically highlights the security environment, concerns and the nature of future wars. India’s security concerns are impacted by a dynamic global and regional security environment. As India transforms from an emerging and rising power to a risen responsible power, it will need credible military capabilities to project military power, assist Friendly Foreign Countries (FFC) in times of crisis from unconventional threats and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). The continuing proxy war with Pakistan, the ever increasing and omnipresent threat from terrorists, the imperative to safeguard our national interests and assets dictate that we enhance capacities and build capabilities to face future threats and challenges.

Future conflicts will be characterised by operating in a zone of ambiguity where nations are neither at peace nor at war — a ‘Grey Zone’ which makes the task more complex. Wars will be hybrid in nature, a blend of conventional and unconventional, with the focus increasingly shifting to multi-domain warfare varying from non-contact to contact warfare. Non-contact and hybrid domains of conflict are now being integrated into the conventional and sub-conventional realms and could be non-declaratory and non-attributable in its execution, a characteristic of grey zone warfare that needs to be catered for. This dictates that the nation builds adequate and appropriate capabilities especially in terms of SOF.

What are special operations?

These can be defined as ‘unconventional military operations, undertaken in a hostile or politically sensitive environment, to achieve political and military objectives at national, strategic and operational level and to safeguard economic interests. Their arena extends to the complete spectrum of conflict and ranges from direct action to covert and clandestine operations. These are undertaken mostly in concert with other elements of national power.’

As these operations have international and national ramifications, it is essential to create an appropriate political understanding. The national polity needs to comprehend the options and the associated risk sensitivity compared to out-of-proportion impact and limited escalation dynamics. As India has grown in stature and economic power, it will become more vulnerable to unconventional threats on its national assets. It is now an imperative to synergise the SOF under a single command to meet future challenges. The structure of SOF is a major indicator of a nation’s will and capabilities to safeguard its interests, the capability to project hard power and political signalling.

At present, each service has its own SOF which has grown over the years. These are service specific and more often than not, there is competition and conflict of interests, rather than cooperation and coordination, be it their roles and tasks, equipping, training and command and control. Existing SOF of the armed forces include nine Parachute (Special Forces) Battalions and five Parachute Battalions of the army, an 800-strong Marine Commando Force (MARCOS) organised on the lines of the US Marine SEALS and a 1,000-strong IAF Garud.

The NSG (SAG) and the Special Group manned and led by the army for internal security and hostage rescue are under the ministry of home affairs (MHA). These are elite forces, where every man is a volunteer, highly-trained and motivated. This force is among the most battle-hardened and combat rich, equal to if not better, than the best in the world. The SOF is both force multiplier and a substitute. These forces provide the theatre commanders with low cost high effect options to target high value military objectives in depth areas, thus giving the much-needed strategic and operational reach during war.

SOF are assigned missions at the strategic, theatre and operational level and tasked to execute direct action, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks during war to delay, disrupt and destroy high value targets in depth areas. During peace they are mandated to execute counter terrorism (CT) and counter insurgency (CI) operations, special reconnaissance, hostage rescue, capability building of friendly foreign countries, and above all, training for war. The recently-demonstrated capability by the IAF of lifting nearly 500 tonnes in a single wave is an apt testimony of the fact that if required, India’s SOF have the capability and ability to intervene with a substantial force in its areas of interest.

What is lacking are formal structures to optimise the potential of the SOF. It is an imperative to structure, equip, enable and empower our Special Forces to be effective contributors to national security. These are cost effective forces with high payoff and a high degree of assurance of success. In 2012, the Naresh Chandra task force recommended creation of a Special Operations Command (SOC), Cyber and Space Commands. With the Modi-led NDA government demonstrating an urgency and resolve to address national security concerns, it was hoped that the three commands, as recommended will be finally sanctioned, paving the way for an effective command and control structure and the much-needed jointness and synergy among the SOF.

The government, for reasons not known, has shied away from exploiting this force multiplier and decided to raise a Special Operations Division (SOD) under a Major General/ equivalent officer, which is at best a half measure and will be detrimental to effective employment, deployment and exploitation of SOF. A major weakness in this interim arrangement is the lack of a lean, mean, agile and versatile joint force under a single commander empowered and keyed in to the national decision-making apparatus. This can only be achieved by raising a SOC. The SOC should be structured and organised as a truly integrated tri-service command with integral lift capabilities. The roles assigned to the SOC in pursuance of the national security objectives would be power projection and intervention to safeguard our national interests and assets in the region. For instance, assistance to friendly foreign countries (FFC), albeit on invitation, HADR and augmenting the war effort.

The tasks assigned to SOC during war would be to secure/ destroy high value targets in the strategic domain and operational depth in furtherance of national military objectives. During peace, or rather no war no peace, the SOC will be the first responder to any emerging or impending threat to our national interest in the region. The scenarios for its employment could include hostage rescue of Indian nationals and diplomats, evacuation of Indian nationals, reinforcement or assist in evacuation of United Nations Peacekeeping Missions, assist FFC from threats by inimical elements within (on invitation of course), assist in HADR missions in the region and beyond and capacity building of armed forces of FFC.

An empowered SOC will also be a credible ‘threat in being’ contributing to war prevention. ‘Surgical strikes’ may be executed by the Theatre Commands or the SOC depending on the desired politico-military end-state. Given the envisaged roles and tasks, the SOC has to have a direct access to the national decision-making body (CCS) in times of crisis and strategic missions.

‘When we play Maggie Plays’ was displayed prominently on a billboard at the gates of the British Special Air Section (SAS) Training Centre at Credenhill, Herefordshire, UK, on return from the Falkland war. The success of the surgical strikes can again be attributed to the synergy between various organs of the government under the direct directions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The national security structures and the SOF should prepare to counter threats in the multi-domain warfare; linear wars now being only a subset of multi-domain wars. The SOFs are not only agile but also most suited to adapt to future security challenges. The role of the SOFs to meet and mitigate these threats that undermine India’s strategic interests needs to be refined and defined. Envisaged role and structure of SOC should include:


Roles of SOF

Rapid Deployment: The need for a designated, equipped, highly mobile, well-trained early intervention force capable of operating in a highly transparent media intensive environment to safeguard national interests and secure India’s national goals.

Instrument of Nation’s Smart Power: The term smart power refers to an approach that relies primarily on alliances and partnerships backed by a strong military. This has evolved due to inadequacies of both hard and soft power, thus necessitating an integrated approach to achieve national aims. The SOC is an optimal instrument to project smart power as it will be integrated at the politico-military level with a capability for application of a multitude of forces and skills including cultural skills to project tailor-made forces.

Force projection in continuance with national interests.

Instrument of deterrence and threat in being for political signalling.

HADR: As part of regional and global responsibilities.

Assist friendly governments in a crisis situation albeit on invitation: Being an aspiring permanent member of United Nations Security Council (UNSC), India as a risen responsible power and a global leader will be called upon to play a more pivotal role in world events. Hence, it is imperative to build capabilities.

To act as a force multiplier in support of conventional operations.

HADR missions in the region and in inaccessible areas.



SOC should not be an amalgamation of all available SOF of the three services. It should be a capability-based organisation to cater for the roles that have been elaborated above, at the same time retaining certain SOF components under the theatre commands.



This is the most important and critical facet of the SOC and includes integrated command. It should be directly under the Prime Minister’s Office through a Chief of Defence Staff. The C-in-C, SOC should be a member of the Crisis Management Group. It should have integrated intelligence set up; mission planning staff with expertise in special operations; Information Warfare cell with representations from ministry of external affairs and Press Information Bureau; and interface with concerned ministries and other government agencies as and when required.

The representatives from Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Intelligence Bureau, Defence Intelligence Agency and National Technical Research Organisation should be an integral part of HQ SOC for integrated planning early assessment and monitoring of developing crisis situations.

It should also have a research and development, as well as procurement wing for fast track provisioning, development and procurement of equipment and weapons. The R&D wing will address the requirement for mission specific wherewithal, in addition to supporting in-house operational requirements including high-end and future technologies.


Nodal Agency

SOC can be the nodal agency for training, manpower provisioning, equipment, R&D and doctrines for all SOF. C-in-C should be the advisor for SOFs, even those under theatre commands.

SOFs are not only more effective and exciting, but also more efficient and decisive and have delivered in all wars and CI/CT operations. Now that the full potential of the SF has been recognised at the highest levels of the government, it is an imperative to review and implement structural changes and ensure that the requisite wherewithal is provided immediately and procedures are in place to constantly and continuously upgrade and exploit the full potential of the SOF by creating a SOC rather than a special operations division which does not serve national security requirements. The need for direct access to decision and policy makers is an imperative to realise the full potential of this force multiplier and game changer, and it can be achieved only once the SOC with the requisite mandate and structure is operational. Earlier the better.

(The writer is director, CENJOWS. He is a former DGMO and Colonel of the Parachute Regiment)


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