Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Indian Special Forces - Capabilities and Shortcomings

Does India have the ability to launch operations similar to Operation Neptune’s Spear? What are the requirements for undertaking such missions?

The US operation in Abbottabad has raised the question whether India can carry out similar strikes on Pakistani soil or any where around the globe against fugitives wanted in India on terror charges.

India, like any other country does have its own Special Forces – the Army has Para Commandos, which are elite airborne units and the Ghatak Platoons which are attached to each infantry battalion of the Army, the Navy has the Marine Commandos (MARCOS for short), and the Air Force the Garud. Besides, India has the National Security Guards (NSG), a Special Response Unit which is primarily tasked with counter terrorism activities, the Special Frontier Force whose one squadron is responsible for counter-terrorism duties and the various state police have their own Special Task Force for special operations, like for instance Jammu and Kashmir Police has the Special Operations Group to tackle terrorism.

Opinion seems to be divided if we really have the intelligence and military capabilities to emulate the operation carried out by the US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 to neutralize Osam bin Laden.

In the backdrop of Osama bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad, India’s Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik and Indian Army chief General V.K. Singh declared their forces have the capability and competence to carry out a commando operation outside the country to target terrorists.

‘There is no doubt about it. The army, navy and air force are paid to be ready. None of the services chiefs is going to say he does not have the capability,’ says retired Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, director of naval think-tank National Maritime Foundation, when asked about the services chiefs’ comments.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, director of army think-tank Centre for Land Warfare Studies, concurs with Uday Bhaskar. ‘We virtually have the same capability (as the US Navy SEALs),’ Kanwal told IANS, pointing out that the army itself has over half-a-dozen special forces battalions trained to carry out such attacks on strategic targets. Brigadier Kanwal, however added that India should look at energising its external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for getting its wanted, rather than use its armed forces.

‘To be very honest, it is not possible to disclose if we have these capabilities or not. But, yes, we have the joint strategic capability for any special task that the government assigns to the armed forces, not necessarily in the neighbourhood, but anywhere around the globe,’ Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, former Indian Air Force (IAF) vice chief, told IANS.

‘But the decision on such operations is not taken by the uniformed personnel. It is taken by the political leadership after receiving all inputs including the implications and fall- out, and after planning for all exigencies, be it a nuclear conflict,’ Barbora said.

The Contrary View

According to Lt. General R. K. Nanavatty, who has been involved in planning aspects of Indian Special Forces and has been studying the subject for years, India does not have the capabilities of executing an operation similar to Operation Neptune’s Spear. Nanavatty said “We are not capable for a variety of reasons. Political understanding of special operations is very important then only you can commit money, time and technology for nurturing such a force. “Special Operations today are controlled by men who do not understand them”.

Lt Gen P C Katoch, a former SF officer and a leading expert on Special Operations, said major operations by Indian troops have at various stages demonstrated what was wrong with them. “There are problems of intelligence, logistics etc. Our SF forces are doing what conventional troops can do and there is an overall lack of political willpower to nurture the capability with long term vision,” said Katoch, who led an SF unit in Sri Lanka with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the 80s and has also been involved in planning of Indian SFs. “Our men are ready, but minus intelligence, support etc,” Katoch pointed out.

General Katoch pointed out that many of the mistakes of 1988 when Indian troops carried out an unsuccessful operation to capture the top leadership of the LTTE including its supremo Prabhakaran from Jaffna University were there to be seen in November 2008 in Mumbai when NSG commandos were deployed to take on the Pakistani terrorists. A decade back in 1999, a team of NSG commandos tailed hijacked IC814 aircraft to the Gulf region but returned. They couldn’t also think of carrying out a surgical operation in Kandahar for a host of reasons including lack of airlift and political will.

According to Colonel Anil Athale, the Indian State does not have the will to carry out such operations and hence has not created the wherewithal to carry out strikes like Operation Neptune’s Spear.

The Essentials

The two essential pre-requisites for conducting a successful special operation are availability of hard intelligence and sophisticated technical support. To elaborate, the planners and executors of this type of operation must be fed with concrete real time intelligence about the mission or objective to be accomplished. For instance, when the Israelis executed the raid at Entebbe in 1976, the commandos and the senior military commanders sitting in Tel Aviv were fully aware of the location of the hostages, the number of terrorists, the layout of the terminal building, etc. The commandos knew where their targets were, where precisely the Ugandan troops were stationed and how reinforcements, if any, were to be neutralized. There were no loose ends. In the absence of human intelligence (HUMINT), it may be impossible to carry out a successful operation. America's Central Intelligence Agency maintained a safe house near Abbottabad town for a small team of spies who conducted extensive surveillance on slain Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden's compound for months before President Barack Obama signed an order to kill the most wanted terrorist on April 29. It is estimated that the US has had about 3000 operatives active in Pakistan at the time of the Abbottabad raid.

The second essential is the availability of technological support such as satellite imagery of the target area, stealth technology for the purpose of infiltrating and exfiltrating of the operatives undetected and secure communications. India’s Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) capabilities are quite limited. India, in April 2009 launched its first dedicated radar reconnaissance satellite Radar Imaging Satellite 2 (or RISAT-2). The radar has an Israeli-built primary sensor which allows RISAT-2 to return images at any time of day, and in any weather conditions. India also has Cartosat-2 launched in 2007, which according to some experts may be used for military purpose. India needs to augment its space-based intelligence gathering capabilities.

Another important essential for carrying out special operations is political will. India lacks the political will to carry out any type of surgical strikes against non-state as well as state actors, notwithstanding the fact India has repeatedly been subject to terror strikes sponsored by Pakistan. In 1999, when IC 814 was hijacked and flown to Kandahar, Indian commandos merely tailed the hijacked aircraft but did not attempt a hostage rescue mission. Again in 2001, in the aftermath of the attack on Indian Parliament, the political masters could not muster the political will to carry out surgical operations against Pak-based terror outfits. It was the same story in 2008. Israel on the other hand, has displayed considerable amount of political will in striking back at its adversaries and has the unique distinction of having struck against non-state actors far from its borders.

India’s past experience of special operations (involving its Special Forces) have been limited in its scope. Barring Operation Cactus (1988) in Maldives, the failed mission to nab the leadership of the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna in 1988 and Operation Khukri (June 2000) in Sierra Leone all Special Forces’ operations have been carried out within the country, mostly in Jammu and Kashmir and in the North-East. In Operation Cactus a battalion of the Parachute Regiment was air-dropped to rescue and assist the government of Abdul Gayoom against the mercenaries belonging to the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Operation Khukri was a daring rescue mission conducted by the Para Commandos in Sierra Leone resulting in the rescue of 21 hostages. In Operation Blue Star (June 1984), commandos of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment were unsuccessful in reaching the edge of the sacred pool to the Akal Takht. The National Security Guards (NSG) was established pursuant to an Act of Parliament called the National Security Guard Act, 1986. It was set up in the aftermath of the infamous Operation Blue Star wherein apart from the high casualties suffered, the shrine itself suffered severe damage. The operation necessitated the need for setting up a highly specialised and efficient force for counter-terrorist operations. Thus, NSG was deployed initially to combat the militancy in Punjab. In Black Thunder I (April 1986) about 300 National Security Guards commandos stormed the Golden Temple along with 700 Border Security Force troops and captured about 300 separatists. Two years later, in May 1988, the Golden Temple was again besieged and the security forces conducted Operation Black Thunder II and were successful in eliminating about 40 militants and forced the surrender of 200 militants. Operation Ashwamedh was an operation conducted in April 1993 when NSG commandos stormed a hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft with 141 passengers on board at Amritsar airport. The lone hijacker, Mohammed Yousuf Shah, was killed in the operation. In September 2002, again the NSG carried out Operation Vajrashakti to flush out two heavily armed LeT terrorists who had caused carnage in the Akshardham Temple, Gandhinagar. In this operation, while the terrorists were killed, nearly 29 devotees and two commandos and one state police officer were also killed. About 79 devotees were also injured in the terrorist attack.

It is important to remember that all operations carried out by Special Forces have not been successful. The US which is lauded today for its operation against the terror master-mind Osama bin Laden had to face embarrassment and political backlash in April 1980 when the then US President Carter authorized an operation to rescue fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran ended in disaster. Operation Eagle Claw, as the ill-fated rescue mission was called resulted in the death of eight US servicemen. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.

Concluding Observations
In conclusion, it must be said that though India has Special Forces, they have been largely used as a kind of super-infantry - employing them on missions which the regular army would baulk at. India does not lack brave men and officers, but what it does not currently possess is the right blend of political will, politico-military-intelligence integration and specialized technology that make these operations possible.

As former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval says "What we need is to have a national political will accepting active national self defence as a doctrine to neutralise the enemies of India”. "The nature, instrumentalities and deniability quotient of covert actions should be determined by our mission objective, intelligence capabilities and requirements of consequence management," he added.

By their very nature, all Special Forces operations are fraught with not just physical danger, but grave political consequences may ensue from failure. A goof-up in Abbottabad would have led not only to the possible capture and death of the US Navy Seals, but a possible sinking of Barack Obama's presidency as in the case of Operation Eagle Claw.

An edited version of this article appeared in the website of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) http://www.claws.in/index.php?action=master&task=859&u_id=158


Pete said...

This is a very informative article Kumar. [I 'm not sure whether a Google technical hitch prevented this comment from getting through before]

As you pointed out as well as India's capability to launch an operation like Neptune's Spear the issue of Pakistani retaliation and escalation would be considerations.

This possibility of escalation to conventional, even nuclear, war would, of course be a major issue for politicians, military and intelligence as you have indicated.

Its very impressive that an edited version is on CLAWS.


Kumar said...

Hi Pete

India, even if it possessed the capabilities would not launch its own version of Operation Neptune's Spear because it lacks the political will. The fear is not escalation to conventional war or nuclear war; it will expose chinks in India's armour, in the event of failure. Secondly, a mission failure may lead to a huge public outcry and fall of the government of the day as in the case of President Carter.

If you recollect, India and Pak, both nuclear weapon states fought the Kargil War in 1999 under the nuclear shadow.


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