Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lessons of the Surgical Strike in Myanmar

In the early hours of 9th June 2015, Indian Army’s Special Forces launched a cross-border attack on two rebel camps in Myanmar. The operation was not just a retaliatory response to the 4th June attack on an Indian Army convoy that killed about 18 army personnel, but was also pre-emptive in nature. India must seriously consider setting up a unified Special Forces Command in the wake of a changed geo-strategic environment in the sub-continent.

On 4th June 2015, in one of the worst attacks suffered by the Indian Army in a decade, at least 18 soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed and 11 injured when Naga militants ambushed their convoy in Manipur's Chandel district.

The attack occurred between Paralong and Charong villages around 8.30 am when militants used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at the convoy.

Most of the bodies were charred, officials said.

They laid an ambush on the road from Tengnoupal and, as an administrative convoy of four to seven vehicles reached the spot, the attack was launched. The attackers detonated country-made mines and opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) - called "Lathods" - on the soldiers of the 6 Dogras, according to reports reaching army headquarters.

This was the first time the Indian Army had lost 18 soldiers in a single strike in 20 years. It was also the first time that RPGs were used by insurgents on the army.

"An elite strike unit of Naga Army, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) carried out the ambush today (Thursday)," The NSCN-K said in a statement issued to the media.

The 9th June Operation – 

Intelligence and Planning

Sources said once clearance for the raid was given by the highest level of the government, detailed plans were drawn up for the assault by troops of the elite 21 Para (Special Force) Regiment.

Prior to the operation, intelligence was gathered by operatives who crossed over into Myanmar a couple of days earlier and returned with precise co-ordinates of the terror dens along with photographs.

Once specific intelligence inputs came on the two camps, showing that they were housing several National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) militants, and of other groups such as PLA (Peoples Liberation Army of Manipur), UNLF (United National Liberation Front) and the MNRF (Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front), the plan for the commando raid moved quickly. "Inputs clearly said that some militants in the camp were involved in the attack on our troops in Chandel last Thursday," one source said.

At a camp in the Ponyu area, the NSCN (K)'s 3rd brigade is based. And among its cadres were those who participated in operations against the Army. In Aungzeya area was the other camp which housed a mixed group of militants. Both camps had about 25 militants.

The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) had the necessary data ready since many months about the activities of the insurgent groups in the area which is called ‘Greater Nagaland’ by the militants. The local insurgent groups want a ‘Greater Nagaland’ carved out of the Naga-dominated areas in the neighbouring states within India and contiguous areas in Myanmar.

The commandos trained for three days at a make shift camp before carrying out the strike.

The Strike

Contrary to media reports, an Army source said: "There was no heli-drop. It was a one-night, ground operation. We couldn't have carried out a heli-drop because that would have alerted the militants." The SF troops were moved close to the border in advance by helicopters and were dropped off at Manipur-Nagaland junction with Myanmar. On the night prior to the strike, about 20-25 commandos trekked across the porous border into Myanmar. For some stretch of the approach to the target, they crawled in order to avoid detection.

Once on the ground, the contingent of the Special Forces split into two groups and headed for two camps being run by NSCN (K) and KYKL, who are believed to be responsible for the deadly ambush on June 4, they said.

The teams trekked through the thick jungles for at least five kilometers before they reached the training camps. "Each of the two teams was further divided into two sub-groups. While one was responsible for the direct assault, the second formed an outer ring to prevent any of insurgents from running and escaping," the sources said.

The strike by the Indian forces on the two locations across Tuensang in Nagaland and Ukhrul in Manipur lasted about 45 minutes and the camps were annihilated. There are conflicting reports on the number of militants killed in the operation. The army sources state that the militants suffered significant casualties - the number of militants killed has been between 22 and 50. The Indian raiding party returned safely without suffering any casualties.

Thermal imagery was also used to track the operation about which Myanmar authorities were kept in the loop, they said. Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force were put on standby, ready to be pressed into service to evacuate the commandos in case anything went wrong.  "The operation was carried out based on specific and very accurate intelligence" and the operation was overseen by General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps Lt Gen Bipin Rawat, the sources said.

The government of Myanmar was reportedly informed about the strike after their offices opened on the morning of 9th June. India and Myanmar have a "Hot Pursuit" Agreement pursuant to which, both the states' forces can cross the border, with consent, if they get any information on militant activity on the territory of the other state. In the past, Operation Golden Bird had been conducted along the Myanmar border in 1995 and Operation All Clear inside Bhutan in 2003. 

There is no doubt euphoria, on the successful surgical strike by the troops of the Indian Army’s 21 Para across the border in Myanmar. But one must appreciate the fact that faced with an existential threat, considering that Myanmar may not be a safe haven after all, the militant groups are likely to re-group and respond. Indian forces may have to be on the alert to foil attacks on civilian and military targets in the region in the foreseeable future.

Joint Special Forces Command

It is high time that India establishes a Joint Special Forces Command which will oversee and exercise operational control over the Special Forces of the three branches.

The Special Forces of states like the US, UK and France are placed under a unified command to enable optimal utilization of resources and achieve operational synergy.

In the US, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is a unified combatant command which oversees the various Special Operations Command of the four branches of the armed forces, namely, the Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marine Corps. USSOCOM conducts several covert and clandestine missions, such as direct action, special reconnaissance, counter-terror operations, etc. Each branch has a Special Operations Command that is unique and capable of running its own operations, but when the different special operations forces need to work together for an operation, USSOCOM becomes the joint component command of the operation, instead of a SOC of a specific branch.

Joint Special Operations Command is a constituent command of the USSOCOM and is tasked to study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability and equipment standardization, plan and conduct special operations exercises and training, and develop Joint Special Operations Tactics.

In the United Kingdom, the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) and the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service (SBS) are under the control of the UK Special Forces, a unified command of the Ministry of Defense.   
The proposal to establish a Special Forces Command in India was made in 2012 by a select panel on national security called the Naresh Chandra Committee.

“The Indian concept of employment of Special Forces has yet to graduate from that of tactical in support of conventional operations to strategic employment, as the US [Navy] SEALs,” or the British Special Air Service, said Rahul Bhonsle, a retired Indian Army brigadier and defense analyst. “This will have to be a political decision and would require a high degree of strategic sophistication, which I do not think the Indian political leadership is displaying for now.”

An Army official said India’s special ops forces — which number about 10,000 troops from the Navy, Air Force, Army and paramilitary units — have been used only for conventional warfare and internal security threats. The officer argued the special ops forces should be used for strategic tasks, such as deterrence against irregular threats and asymmetrical warfare.

According to General Katoch, asymmetric war is not launched against the military, but a nation. “Special Forces must be central to asymmetric response, but in the current context, we neither have the political will nor even the military will, and hence have not been able to establish deterrence to this asymmetric war.”

Bureaucratic barriers also may have played a role in the government’s inaction.

“The Indian bureaucracy, which supposedly handles these issues, has neither the expertise nor the structure needed for the purpose. The reluctance to allow the creation of a professional body can only be attributed to the bureaucracy’s fear of losing their clout and turf,” said Venkataraman Mahalingam, a retired Army brigadier and defense analyst.

Not all Special Forces’ operations can be publicly acknowledged or given publicity. In the Myanmar operation, the government of Myanmar had cooperated by allowing Indian troops to carry out the strike. In other situations, the forces may have to be inserted into enemy territory without the knowledge of the host country and objectives must be achieved in utmost secrecy. These types of clandestine operations can be carried out more effectively if a unified command is set up.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Kumar

Thankyou for a very interesting analysis of:

- the Indian surgical strike (thank goodnesss no Indian casualties in that Op) with clear detail on the stages of the Operation and

- your detail on obstacles to form an Indian unified Special Forces Command

Looks like someone of general equivalent rank in the Ministry of Defence and/or Prime Ministers Office is needed to bring together the doctrine and forces (military and intelligence) to build such a Command.

Myanmar certainly seems in the news for the wrong reasons. Is it more unstable?



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
There is a need to establish a SF Command. Unfortunately, the Indian polity lacks farsightedness. Once a unified command is in place, a wide range of roles can be assigned to the SFs.

Myanmar, like most of India's neighbours is politically unstable; only the degree of instability varies. The good thing about Myanmar is that it extends cooperation and support for India's actions against terrorists and insurgents.