Almost 24 years ago, two Indian naval officers were quietly sent off to the United States to attend a training course that few really knew much about. These two officers, Lt. Arvind Singh and Lt Shamsher Singh Deopa, were young naval officers who had never done anything like the course they were about to attend.
The same course they attended would eventually produce the men who slipped into Abbottabad, Pakistan in the early hours of May 2 to neutralise Osama bin Laden. Both Singh and Deopa were the first ever Indian officers to attend the Navy S.E.A.L.S course, the toughest few weeks of physical and psychological torture created to produce some of the best Special Forces in the world.
In the weeks that followed, both naval officers did India proud and Singh emerged on the top of his course. On their return to India, Singh and Deopa became part of a top secret project that had been envisaged by a few naval officers. Both men were to be the nucleus around which the Indian Marine Special Forces (IMSF) would be built and give India’s navy the same edge that the Navy S.E.A.L.S had.
In the next few years the IMSF would see action all over the Jaffna peninsula as the IPKF battled the LTTE in Sri Lanka. The first time the IMSF would see action would be a hazardous operation to blow up the Jaffna jetty. This was a crucial link to the LTTE’s suicide boats that was threatening the IPKF’s naval supply ships as well as the Sri Lankan navy. India’s naval operations decided to use the first batch of the IMSF to put together a team that would take out the jetty.
Naturally, the man they chose to lead the operation was Lt Arvind Singh. In the late hours of a summer night, Singh and his men slipped off an Indian naval ship and began to swim towards their objective a good 10-12 km away. Carrying their weapons and demolitions, the team slipped into the Jaffna harbour and laid their charges. As soon as the jetty blew up, the LTTE immediately detected the IMSF team and began to harass them with withering fire. Singh and his men returned the fire and began their long swim back to their ship. They returned without any casualties and, a year later, Singh would walk up the steps of Rashtrapati Bhawan to receive his Maha Vir Chakra.
Singh would participate in many more operations including a major rescue of Sri Lankan and IPKF forces held hostage in the Jaffna fort by the LTTE. Singh and his Sri Lankan counterparts parachuted into the fort and brought out the troops who had been held hostage for weeks. Years after the IPKF withdrew from the Sri Lanka, the IMSF would return to the Island nation for a few more operations that will always remain under wraps. Renamed as the MARCOS (Marine Commandos) they would continue to play a stellar role in the anti-piracy operations undertaken by the Indian Navy in recent months.
Unfortunately, while the men who served in these elite units were some of the finest, they continued to remain neglected by a poor military and political leadership that had little appreciation for their strategic reach.
The operation to capture Osama has amplified the strategic reach that Special Forces (SF) can give to a state facing myriad challenges. Sadly, while India’s SF, was patterned on the best in the world, have withered away since then. Take the Indian Army’s SF battalions. Created in 1968, the 9th and the 19th battalions of the Parachute Regiment underwent training designed by a young army captain from Pune who had been sent to the U.S Special Forces training school. Both battalions would cover themselves with glory in the 1971 war.
A team from 9 Para (SF) would cross the line of control to raid a major Pakistani artillery gun position in Mandhol. The team returned after destroying all the guns and with just two minor casualties. In the scorching deserts of Rajathsan, a young prince from Jaipur led a team of 10 Para (SF) to raid the Pakistani town of Chachro in Sind. Legend has it that when Bhawani Singh was returning with his raiders, the Indian BSF opened fire on them thinking they were Pakistanis! No one could believe that an Indian army team could slip across the international border, hit a major town and return back to base successfully.
Since then, the Indian SF has seen monumental neglect at the hands of hostile military leaders and ignorant political masters. While the U.S saw the consolidation of all its Special Forces under one command, India went in the opposite direction. In 1987-88 a young Colonel R K Nanavatty was part of a study that would make an attempt to upgrade the strategic capabilities of our SF. A comprehensive study recommended that the SF be separated from the Parachute regiment and have a home and hearth of its own.
In 1994 this was done and a new Special Forces Regiment, headquartered in the hilly town of Nahan, Himachal Pradesh was created. Unfortunately for the youngest regiment of the Indian Army, the death of the then army chief, Gen B C Joshi proved to be a death blow. Gen Shankar Roychowdhury took over and under pressure from retired generals of the Parachute Regiment, he promptly disbanded the Special Forces regiment.
Since then, the Indian SF has been put through a series of blunders. At one point, while there was a severe lack of resources to modernise the SF, army headquarters began an ill-advised expansion. More battalions were converted into an SF role, but in reality they had no equipment, training and therefore, no special capabilities. Many within the SF community opposed this tooth and nail but failed to anticipate the political machinations of a vested few. In the end, the expansion took place and we continue to pay for this mammoth blunder even today.
If that was not bad enough, India’s military and political masters have steadfastly refused to create a Special Operations Command. So while the army has its SF component, the IAF, Navy, Cabinet Secretariat and the home ministry have their own. No one speaks to the other, everyone buys equipment in complete isolation, and there are no joint doctrines, trainings or exercises. As a result India’s strategic use of SF remains an incoherent mess.
So if we need to go after our enemies, or protect our growing energy needs, or address an out-of-area contingency far away from our territorial boundaries, we simply don’t have the wherewithal. If the U.S could fly several thousand miles into Abbottabad to capture and neutralise a declared enemy of the state, it is because they began work over 30 years ago. Similar successes have been notched up by the British Special Air Services (SAS), as they became a major tool for British foreign policy. During every major crisis that the U.K faces, one lowly Brigadier gets to sit next to the British Prime Minister as he consults his crisis management group. A badge worn by the Brigadier on his uniform with the words “Who Dares Wins” is the only indication that he belongs to the legendary SAS.
In India, only powerful IAS bureaucrats and politicians get to sit in the crisis management group. They are supposed to mull and decide over the options that can be exercised when an enemy of the state shows hostile intent. Therein hangs a tragic tale of a strategic blunder.