By definition, Special Operations are those that are executed independently or in conjunction with conventional military operations with the aim to achieve a political or military objective where a conventional force requirement does not exist or might affect the overall strategic outcome. Special Operations, more often than not, exploit the advantage of speed, surprise and violence of action against an unsuspecting target and are typically carried out with limited numbers of highly motivated personnel painstakingly trained to operate in hostile environment, improvise beyond copy-book drills, be self-reliant and use unconventional combat skills and equipment to achieve objectives. As far as counter terrorism operations are concerned, helicopters are in constant use to airlift para-military and police forces to locate or relocate in response to changing situations. A real Special Operation involving the use of helicopters would thus be one where a border or Line of Control is violated deliberately in pursuit of a strategic or operational objective.
The astounding success of Operation Geronimo was undoubtedly studied by everyone related to the military with great interest. Not only was the planning immaculate but the rehearsals were realistic and mission security supremely intact right up to the landing in Abbottabad. The mission was successful inasmuch as it achieved its objectives. Gratitude is owed to Matt Bissonnette (pen name Mark Owen) for laying bare the details of the Operation in his book ‘No Easy Day’ and one hopes his troubles with US law over the publication of his book are transient.
The Operation revived the debate in the Indian military and strategic think tanks about India’s ‘capabilities’ of undertaking a similar mission. Notwithstanding the loss of one helicopter during the landing phase, considerable interest was generated in the use of helicopters for Special Operations. The then Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh and the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, publicly stated that if required, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) were capable of undertaking such a mission. Understandably, discussions in this context have hovered around the men, the machines and the ‘jointness’ of Special Operations. Of course, the lack of political will to mandate such an operation is a matter of a separate debate.
Special Operations in the Indian Context
India shares land borders exceeding 15,000 kms with seven countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan (at the moment the border lies within POK). Of the bordering states, Pakistan and China each having common borders with India of more than 3,000 km, are the ones with whom inimical relations are most likely to generate the need for Special Operations. Paradoxically, these are also the two against whom Special Operations are likely to produce the most damaging fallout.
There is also the problem of terrain. Performance of helicopters is significantly degraded at high altitudes discounting some types and severely restricting the use of others.
A large part of the land borders with the not-so-friendly neighbours sits astride high altitude and poses a problem for terrain-hugging, radar-dodging, night-favouring Operation Geronimo type of Special Operations. The consolation is that the terrain also renders defence against a determined operation difficult. Moreover, situations can arise within the extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of more than two million square kilometres and the almost 8,000 km coastal boundary that India has. There is also the massive geographical extent of India that is afflicted by insurgency. All these pose interrogative marks over ‘Special Operations’ using helicopters.
By definition, ‘Special Operations’ are those that are executed independently or in conjunction with conventional military operations with the aim to achieve a political or military objective where a conventional force requirement does not exist or might affect the overall strategic outcome. Special Operations, more often than not, exploit the advantage of speed, surprise and violence of action against an unsuspecting target and are typically carried out with limited numbers of highly motivated personnel painstakingly trained to operate in hostile environment, improvise beyond copy-book drills, be self-reliant and use unconventional combat skills and equipment to achieve objectives.
The notable Indian Special Forces are the Para Commandos, Ghatak Force, Marine Commandos, Garud Commando Force, Special Frontier Force, National Security Guards, Special Protection Group and the COBRA force. The first three listed above are most likely to be used in a trans-border heli-borne Special Operations. As far as counter terrorism operations are concerned, helicopters are in constant use to airlift para-military and police forces to locate or relocate in response to changing situations. A real Special Operation involving the use of helicopters would thus be one where a border or Line of Control is violated deliberately in pursuit of a strategic or operational objective.
As far as the fitness and motivation parameters are concerned, Indian Special Forces personnel have proved themselves during joint training events and indeed, in live operations. Operation Cactus was a classic special operation with 400-odd Para Commandos being airlifted 3,500 km to land on an unlit runway with no confirmation of who controlled the airfield. The Operation undoubtedly saved a nation. However, decisive Special Operations such as Operation Cactus (especially those involving helicopters) are unlikely in the Indian context in the future. The rotary wing craft in the IAF and Indian Army are capable of carrying Special Forces from Indian territory to unprepared landing areas across the border but are not equipped with stealth features for enhanced protection. With night vision equipment, it is possible to induct troops under cover of darkness.
Incidentally, No 6 Special Operations Squadron of US Air Force Special Operations Forces uses among others, Mi-8 and Mi17 helicopters. As the IAF has the much better performing Mi171V and its latest variant, the Mi17 V5, there is reason to feel assured about the helicopter availability for Special Operations. Extraction, of course, from the jaws of an alerted enemy, would undoubtedly be a daunting task. So, if our personnel are ‘macho’ enough to pull off impressive performances and our helicopters are reasonably suitable for Special Operations, what holds back the capability in this regard?
The first factor is the issue of political will to violate borders. Historically, as far as Indian political leadership is concerned, clear direction and the last bit of steel beyond the rhetoric, has been missing. In Kargil, even after Pakistani troops were known to have crossed over the Line of Control (LoC), Indian troops continued to be restrained. The IAF was also very reluctant to take the fight across the LoC. These strategic decisions in the initial parts of the conflict led to ever increasing levels of tactical difficulty in regaining lost territory. In the face of such evidence, it would be unreasonable to even hope that the Indian political leadership would ever come around to a Special Operation using helicopters to carry our Special Forces across an International Border (IB) or an LoC.
Special Operations would have needed political clearance. While a successful operation would have meant instant glorification for the leadership, failures such as the Iranian hostage botch-up by US Special Forces, would have placed the government and the party at risk.
How did the US overcome the problem of infringing international borders for Operation Geronimo? In 2001, the United States Congress had passed Special Resolution 23 (Authorisation for Use of Military Force) in response to 9/11. According to that resolution, “The President is authorised to use all necessary force against nations, organisations or persons he determines, planned, authorised, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or has harboured such organisations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism by such nations, organisations or persons.” In effect, it gave the US President the authority to order the elimination of a terrorist organisation and terrorist leaders.
As far as crossing Pakistani borders is concerned, the mission was ostensibly carried out not by the US military but by the CIA with US troops attached to the Agency. Since CIA operatives participate in anti-terrorist operations in Pakistan in collaboration with Pakistani forces, the operation was portrayed as an extension of CIA operations. A fuming Pakistan had no choice but to lump the intrusion and the loss of face. After Operation Geronimo, a hostile response by Pakistan was out of the question. However, in response to General V.K Singh and Air Chief Marshal P.V Naik’s statements about India’s ability to carry out Special Operations against terrorists, Pakistan Army Chief General Kayani called a meeting of Corps Commanders and sabre-rattled, “Any misadventure of this kind will be responded to very strongly. There should be no doubt about it.”
In that context, fear of reprisal or failure is one component of the thought process. The other is the inhibition as a nation to do so. There is also the question of government’s lack of comprehension of the strategic importance of Special Operations. Indeed, there is no single office in the establishment that has the responsibility to plan and direct Special Operations. Thus, when decisions are required for a commitment to Special Operations, personalities in the political machinery at that time become the deciding factors. The success of Special Operations depends on painstaking coordination of intelligence from various sources. Given the diverse nature of the possible sources of forces involved i.e. the defence, the paramilitary, the police and the intelligence, the only formula for success is a government level platform to coordinate and direct such an operation. To one’s mind comes up the famous picture of President Obama with a diverse set of functionaries huddled together possibly in the White House, anxiously following the progress of Operation Geronimo. As it turned out, the anxiety was wasted as the months of agonising lengths of coordination ensured the success of the Operation. Hark at the botched up heli-borne operation at Jaffna University in October 1987 by the Indian forces. The operation was a failure due to incorrect intelligence on deployment around the University campus.
Command, Control and ‘Jointmanship’
There is occasionally a bogey raised about how Para Commandos would be able to execute Special Operations better if the helicopters required for such operations were to be under the command and control of the Army. The reasons cited are better training, quicker reaction, better coordination and congruence of perceptions on the conduct of operations. There is some merit in the argument but then, other Special Operations forces across the world also have overcome inter-service differences in perception to achieve results which often are spectacular. Perhaps the answer lies, not in the direction of the Army becoming self-sufficient for heli-borne Special Operations, but in finding organisational and training solutions to the problem of ‘jointmanship’ in Special Operations.
The idea of a Special Forces Command has occasionally been mooted but has not gathered momentum. One reason is the small numbers involved both in terms of manpower and equipment for Special Operations. The equipment would include helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The other issue is that all forces and assets would have to be drawn from existing holdings of the services. In contrast, the US military has a Special Operations Command comprising US Army Special Operations Forces, Naval Special Warfare Units, US Marine Corps Special Operations Forces, US Air Force Special Forces, Coast Guard Special Operations Group, CIA Special Forces, Military Law Enforcement Teams and Civilian Law Enforcement Teams. In India, true ‘jointness’ has proved to be elusive despite debate within the defence forces, strategic think tanks and public forums.
The Naresh Chandra Committee had also recommended the bringing together of the Indian Special Forces such as Para Commandos (Army), Marine Commandos (Navy), Garuds (IAF), Special Frontier Force (Cabinet Secretariat) and National Security Guards (Home Ministry) and other agencies under a unified command and control structure in order to execute strategic or politico-military operations in tune with national security objectives so as to strengthen its clandestine and ‘unconventional’ warfare capabilities to effectively tackle the challenges. The Committee had recommended the setting up of a Special Operations Command. This recommendation is on the lines of the 2001 Group of Ministers’ Report after the Kargil conflict, which had also recommended a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to provide single-point military advice to the government and manage the country’s nuclear arsenal as well as bring ‘jointness’ amongst the Army, the Navy and the Air Force by resolving inter-service doctrinal, planning, procurement and operational issues including the conduct of Special Operations.
Therefore, hopes of a combined organisation for the conduct of Special Operations should be nurtured only after a joint organisation has been put into place. It is worth revisiting Kargil to reiterate some points of note. At the onset, the Army was keen to deploy the most offensive of the IAF’s helicopters, the Mi-25. It took some time for their unsuitability for operations at that altitude to become apparent. Thereafter, the Mi-17 was utilised offensive missions, casualty evacuation and logistic support. However, in the absence of precision-guided weapons, its efficacy was limited. Its employment in the offensive role with rockets, guns and bombs proved to be effective.
The success of Special Operations depends on painstaking coordination of intelligence from various sources…
However, its vulnerability to enemy action was high as the operations were conducted visually and that had the disadvantage of the enemy also being able to see the helicopters. After losing one Mi-17 to a Stinger, it was decided that their uses in offensive roles was not prudent. Through the Kargil operation and to some extent even today, views and counter-views can be heard on the utilisation of helicopters. The Army has maintained that precious time was lost from May 05 to May 26 when the IAF was not deployed, a charge refuted by the Air Force. There was also the question of a political decision as there existed an agreement between India and Pakistan prohibiting armed aircraft from flying within ten kilometres of the border of the LoC.
The mutual finger pointing between the Army and the IAF highlighted the lack of ‘jointness’ that the services lament the deficiency of, but cannot reach an agreement on. The Kargil Review Committee was followed by the constitution of a Group of Ministers to review the national security system and consider the recommendations of the Committee. Despite the high level of representation from Ministers of Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance, as also the National Security Advisor, there has not been much to inspire confidence that joint operations in the Indian context would be any better in a future Kargil-type scenario.
It is reasonable to hope that the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff and not just the creation of Integrated Defence Service organisation, would make for true ‘jointness’ and overcome the divergence in perception amongst the services. However, it will take more than Kargil for our services to get around to the idea of compromising on traditional and accepted single service tenets in favour of a combined Defence Doctrine. The idea is evolving but at a pace that is excruciatingly tardy.
The Army and the Navy have elite forces for Special Operations while the IAF owns the helicopters. The lack of ‘jointness’ has meant that even the communications between the delivery platform and the Special Forces is inadequate. Intelligence also remains a weak area. Each service has its own intelligence set up; so do non-military agencies. There is no joint enterprise to share coherently modulated streams of relevant intelligence. There is a need for an efficacious C4ISR policy and a joint organisation through which this policy runs as a common strand. The examples of US ‘jointness’ and C4ISR come to one’s mind again in this context. The results are manifest in the success of US Special Operations across the globe. Of course, it took the US years to get the ‘jointness’ of thought, doctrine, equipment, organisation and training into place. Considering the strategic environment that besieges India, the nation ought to have begun moving in that direction a long while ago.
The Task Ahead
Pakistan has been and is likely to remain in the foreseeable future a possible arena for Special Operations. China is becoming more and more assertive and aggressive. As the IAF seeks solutions to the Chinese challenge on India’s North East frontiers, it is almost certain that it would be, as a part of its appreciation, dwelling on the possibility of Special Operations at the rarefied elevations of Tibet et al. The Mi-17 family, with service ceiling of close to 20,000 feet, would be operating at the upper limit of its performance envelope if employed for Special Operations. This would leave little margin for extraction as hover performance at those elevations would be severely restricted in terms of the payload it can take-off with. Indian defence forces are professional and highly motivated.
Inter-service differences of perception remain but like in Kargil, once the battle had been joined, the Army and the IAF functioned “jointly” at the tactical level and the desired results were achieved. In Special Operations involving the use of helicopters, there may not be the luxury of time available to “readjust”. Proper planning, coordination and training would contribute to mission success. This has been demonstrated in the past notwithstanding the absence of a CDS to provide direction. However, for a triumphant heli-borne Special Operation, the critical factor may be political will to intrude into enemy airspace. A decisive attack on an ISI-sponsored LeT training camp in POK remains a dream for the Indian armed forces.