Special Forces (SF) are the stuff of legend and military lore. Their derring-do and nerveless actions in the field have time and again rescued the losing side and turned the course of wars. Because the SF are geared to attaining the ends by any and especially unorthodox means, they have scant regard for the norms and procedures conventional forces live and fight by, and end up treating the regular military with disdain. The payback is in terms of the SOF facing institutional inattention, fighting for budgetary crumbs, and their commanders rarely rising to the highest ranks in the Services. The fabled Major David Stirling leading the Special Air Service (SAS) – the most accomplished of the British SF in the Allied Eighth Army active in the Maghreb, famously said that during the Second World War he fought as many battles with his own military brass as he did with the Axis Powers. The relations of the Indian Special Forces with their parent Services are likewise fraught and for many of the same reasons.
The regular military find the SF’s swagger and “can do” attitude grating, their unconventional methods distasteful, and dealing with their commanders a strain, but damned if they don’t covet the romance, glamour, and mystique of the individualistic and lethal commando that attends on them and their line of work. Hence, the Armed Services have sought to at once perpetuate and strengthen their control of the SF and to blur the distinction between them and the line units. Thus, the Indian Army, for instance, has from the beginning insisted, firstly, that the SF are an extension, and remain within the administrative ambit, of the “Parachute Regiment” and draw their officers and men exclusively from this fraternity. And, secondly, that the purely paratroop battalions be converted to paratroop-commando, notwithstanding the quite different missions the two types of forces are optimized for. Paratroopers are infantry able to be parachuted as the airborne element for forced entry behind enemy lines, or in any sector where rapid build-up of forces is required. Paracommando, on the other hand, are specialists in clandestine operations, able to be inserted by parachute or other means, in peacetime, war, and in operations other than war. Erasing the differences between the parachute and the para-commando units suggests the Indian Army, apparently, neither appreciates the quite different roles these two types of forces play, nor the gravity of depriving the country of military options in war by misusing the para-commando to do the job of parachuted infantry and vice versa, thereby limiting the forces available for these separate roles.
The other Services too have their Special Forces (SF). The Navy’s versatile MARCOS (Marine Commandos), styled after the US Navy’s SEALs (Sea, Air, Land), have been successfully blooded, for example, in Sri Lanka (Operation Pawan). Their action prevented the escape of the LTTE leaders to Tamil Nadu by scuttling that outfit’s vessels and, positioned on the Wular Lake in the mid-Nineties, they pre-empted the ingress by the jihadis into J&K. These days the MARCOS are itching to wipe out the Somalian pirates and bases, if only the Indian government affords them a carte blanche instead of the conditional approval of actions. The Air Force’s ‘Garud’ unit training, among other things, to destroy enemy air capability on the ground, has reportedly impressed in recent realistic exercises. With the acquisition of the C-130J airlift aircraft and amphibious warfare ship, INS Jalashwa, India now has an all Services SF nucleus to mount and sustain credible special operations.
The question is: Who should control the SF? The option is between expecting the Special Forces to deliver as part of the parent Services, or to constitute a separate Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Defence Ministry as I have advocated. At an international seminar on Special Forces held last week, hosted by the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies under Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), the head of Israeli SF, Brigadier Eyal Eisenberg, former Chief and current Colonel Commandant of SAS, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, and ex-Commander of the German SF, Brigadier Hans-Christoph Ammon, spoke about the conduct of Special Operations in the context of a Joint Command. Indeed, the historical record favours it. After an initial period of operating under parent Services, the US Office of Strategic Services and the British Special Operations Executive and SAS gained their greatest successes in World War Two when grouped under a single Special Operations Headquarters under the Supreme Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nearer home, Lord Mountbatten, as C-in-C, South East Asia Command, had the largest number of SF in his charge, utilizing them to considerable effect against the Imperial Japanese land forces.
The reasons for a JSOC are compelling. A unitary Command will be best able to represent the singular as well as combined SF interests, recruit the best talent from the three Services, assess the operational strengths and limitations of each type of SF, draw up Special Operations plans to mesh with the larger strategy, configure mission-based force-mixes for maximum impact, fight for an equitable portion of the defence pie, evaluate the various capability gaps and the materiel and human resources requirements of the SF, and to prioritize on an inter se basis the acquisitions and augmentation programmes. It will be a radical improvement on the existing state of affairs where the Armed Services tamp down on their respective SF and persistently mis-apply SF assets.
At the Conference, Lieutenant General HS Lidder, a former commando and Chief of IDS, proposed a JSOC under the National Security Adviser. An excellent idea, except he envisaged this arrangement only for peacetime, with SF reverting to the parent Service in war. This last is to fall back on a bad system wherein SF, subsumed in Theatre Command plans, are penny-packeted as Army Reserve and tasked mostly with trivial missions, such as blowing up culverts and ammo dumps across the Line of Control. It is akin to deputing highly-trained and motivated neuro-surgeons to diagnose fever and hand-out aspirin.
[Published in ‘The Asian Age’ & ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, March 17, 2011 at www.asianage.com/columnists/special-command-181 ]