Legend has it that a peculiar case of a maverick British army officer was brought to the notice of Field Marshall Montgomery, during the Second World War. Monty, as he was known, saw the file and smiled. “Mad. Quite mad”. This officer was of Scottish descent, and that, to many, seemed like explanation enough. The matter ended there.
David Sterling was “mad, quite mad”, and from this madness, or genius, there being marginal difference between the two, sprung the idea of a small group of men, vehicle mounted, who would drive into the desert shooting up German aircraft, while they were parked in the airfield. The Second World War was raging, and ideas were in short supply.
Claude Auchinleck, the then Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, blessed this mad enterprise. A small unit was born. It created merry hell for the Germans. Sterling would appear at airfields riding Jeeps, shoot up many aircraft as he and his men could, and vanish. On a warm July night of 1942, his team drove 18 Jeeps to the Sidi Haneish airstrip in Egypt, and destroyed 37 aircraft, all in one night. Ervin Rommel, the Desert Fox, called him The Phantom Major. The legend grew.
David Sterling was the father of the elite SAS or the Special Air Service. And the SAS is the father of modern Special Forces. In the world of motion picture driven, testosterone fuelled Special Forces narratives; people throw about names like Seal Team and Delta Force. Not many realize that in many ways, when it comes to good old killing, there is still no one better than the SAS. In public imagination, SAS loses out; one of the many disadvantages of not being from the Hollywood country.
Lt Col Megh Singh was an Indian Army officer who was once Court Martialed and demoted to the rank of Major. After successful raids into Pakistan in September of 1965, he was again promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Originally from 3rd Battalion, Brigade of the Guards, he strongly believed that a small group of men, highly trained, motivated and equipped could create absolute havoc inside enemy territory. He believed in this theory so much that he walked up to Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh and presented him with this proposal. Soon, Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh also believed.
Since the force was ad-hoc, it was named after its founder Lt. Col. Megh Singh. It was called “Meghdoot Force”. After the war, the government was so impressed with the performance of this ad-hoc unit, Lt. Col. Megh Singh was directed to raise a special mission unit. On 1 July 1966, 9 Battalion (Commando) was raised in Gwalior. In June 1967, 9 Battalion (Commando) was split into two, and 10 Battalion (Commando) was raised. In 1969, both these units were re-designated as 9 Para (Commando) and 10 Para (Commando).
1978 saw another addition to the roll of honour. 1 Para (Punjab) was converted to 1 Para (Commando).
As the Para Commando battalions grew in stature, they grew in numbers. Today, Indian Army Para Special Forces stand at nine battalions strong. 1 Para SF, 2 Para SF, 3 Para SF, 4 Para SF, 9 Para SF, 10 Para SF, 11 Para SF, 12 Para SF and 21 Para SF complete this pantheon of devils.
Para SF battalions operate in the shadows. Very rarely do we hear their names mentioned in the media, unless the government specifically wants to drive home a message, like in the case of the surgical strikes.
Para Special Forces are the best of the best of the Indian Army. They are truly unique. Each man is selected because he fits a certain groove that the unit has created and nurtured. When officers undergo probation, they do so with Other Ranks. There is no difference, during probation, between officer and soldier. They shed the “same blood in the same mud”, as the marines would say.
When an officer is selected (less than five percent make it), everyone has a say, including the NCOs and jawans. In Para SF, the men have a right to choose who will lead them. If an NCO who is already in Para SF (and is part of the team conducting the probation) feels that the officer who is under probation does not fit into the unit, he can voice his opinion and his opinion will be honored. The officer will be sent back to his parent unit. Very few are worthy of the BALIDAN badge.
Why is the Para SF different in terms of the way they approach army hierarchy? Simply because they operate in small teams and officers and men spend days on end in operations, cheek by jowl. There is no space for ceremony or rank. Para SF units are also unique in that the NCO is an independent leader. He leads a squad of 5+1 and can direct and lead an operation by himself. He is professionally competent to manage the “fog of war”. Special Forces seek Officer Like Qualities in NCOs; qualities like leadership, initiative, operational integrity and commitment, to name a few.
But this article is not about how good the Para SF is. It is about how badly they are equipped and used.
Unfortunately, our own understanding of our Special Forces capabilities is limited. Many a time, Para SF is used in a tactical role. They are strategic assets. They should not, and cannot be used tactically. You cannot have a Para SF house entry in a CASO (Cordon and Search Operation). That is something that infantry Ghataks must do. Keep Para SF out of day-to-day Counter Terror operations. They are the nations’ trump card. To use them tactically would be to blunt their edge. We have never nurtured our Special Forces, and our attitude is like having a Katana and using it to adorn a wall. Quite frankly, we don’t know what to do with them most of the times.
Special Forces have very little in common with the Para Airborne units, except that they are part of the same regiment and jump out of planes. They need to be de-hyphenated. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Special Forces should not be considered a part of infantry at all. It must be recognized as a separate Arm of the Indian Army, like the infantry, armored corps or artillery.
In the current scenario, and with the Special Forces Command still a few years away, the Para SF battalions, clubbed together as a singular operational entity, must be headed by a Major General rank officer, who must have a direct line of reporting to the COAS. He can have a dotted line reporting to the DGMO.
Another issue that plagues the Indian Army Para Special Forces is the lack of equipment and weapons. They still use the Maruti Gypsy. They use the 7.62 mm Galil sniper rifle that cannot kill beyond 800-1000 meters. They have most of their kit supplied by the Ordnance Factory Board. I don’t wish to dwell upon the OFB, because that needs another article altogether. Their main weapon is the TAR 21 Tavor, a 5.56 mm Israeli assault rifle. It’s a fine weapon, except that it does not have the punch of a 7.62 mm. And that punch is needed. They need good anti-material rifles and long range sniper rifles. They need world-class communication equipment. Best in class mini-subs and underwater demolition technology must be put in their hands. In essence, they need the technology of tomorrow.
We need to free the Para SF from the mind-bending bureaucracy of the Defence Ministry. They need to be able to purchase their own weapons at short notice. It should not take two years for a new rifle to be inducted. It should take two months for the first lot to be inducted. A Para SF unit should be able to order weapons and equipment off the shelf. They should be using modified Land Rovers for movement, and not Maruti Gypsies. The list is long. But know this…if you want our Para SF to perform like the SAS or Seal Team 6, you have to treat them like that. Forget about dedicated satellites and combat drones. I am just asking for the basics.
Special Forces should ideally work in very close coordination with RAW. If they are indeed to be truly successful, the lines between special ops and intelligence must be blurred. SAS works hand in glove with MI 6 and Seal Teams work very, very closely with CIA. In India, we are unfortunately busy with bigger things like turf wars.
While they do go for foreign training, it must be substantially ramped up. Para SF must train regularly with US Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, Sayeret Matkal and with the granddaddy of them all, the SAS. The Spetsnaz is again gaining momentum after a few decades of flux. We could learn from them and also teach them a trick or two.
Para SF needs dedicated airlift capability and helicopters on standby. The Indian Air Force has the capability. All we need is better coordination. The list is long and perhaps endless, because new technology keeps entering the battle-space. They will need to keep upgrading.
If we do this much, India will have a tremendously potent weapon in its hands. It will be like the legendary “Brahmastra” from Hindu mythology. All the Prime Minister of India will have to do is pick up the phone and approve a mission. And Indians will no longer ask questions like, “Why can’t we take out Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim?” And the answer to the question, “Can we get Kulbhushan Jadhav back?” will then have been answered. Special Forces can plan and execute at a ghostly pace.
It will not be long before a senior general from the Indian Army looks at the plan and smiling gently to himself, says “Mad. Quite mad.”
Major Gaurav Arya (Veteran)
17th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment
Disclaimer: This article does not discuss other special forces like MARCOS and Garud. Till the time the Special Forces Command is formed, such a discussion is of little use. NSG is under the Home Ministry. SFF & SG are under the Cabinet Secretariat, and function in another orbit. While Indian Army personnel staff them, they are not under command the army.
The Article was shared by Major Gaurav Arya on his Facebook page.