The visuals were frightening to say the least. In Kabul, terrorists attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, sending guests scurrying for shelter. Local reports put the number of dead at 22, which included several foreigners with no link whatsoever to the ongoing violence. The Taliban claimed the attack, even released names of the attackers, and showed a false morality in claiming that the attack was delayed by a day to avoid a crowded wedding reception.
The death toll would have been much worse had not the Afghan special forces come to the rescue. A 12-hour siege inside a 200 room hotel was no cakewalk. The Afghan unit had to literally walk through fire. These forces are Kabul’s deadliest riposte against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Islamic State, among others.
In India, a truncated account of our own special forces “surgical strike” was finally made available to the general public after it was aired by a prominent TV channel. The attack was carried out against terrorist launch pads lying just across the Line of Control (LoC) in retaliation to a strike by a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide group against an Indian Army brigade headquarters at Uri on 18 September, 2016.
The commandos were able to cause significant damage to terrorist hideouts and returned with no casualties. Pakistan would have been left with egg on its face, if not for the fact that several Indian media persons chose to question whether the operation even took place. But that’s another story. The point is that a message was sent, in a situation of nuclear overhang, and where conventional escalatory strikes would have been difficult and undesirable.
Even earlier, it was the special forces unit that undertook a highly risky operation against Osama Bin Laden, when he was hiding well within an area dominated by the Pakistani Army. Why the US chose a highly risky Special Operations Forces (SOF) instead of a few well-placed bombs to ‘decapitate’ those in the building offered further lessons in the value of SOF.
An air operation, even if undetected by Pakistan’s air defences, would have had the country up in arms, and forced it to retaliate, thus inevitably leading to escalation. Second, Bin Laden could have escaped such a raid — as he did in an earlier air attack in Afghanistan in 1998 — and would emerged stronger than ever, his apparent invincibility reinforced. SOF provided relative certainty, a low profile, and a low signature: Which meant that an operation was over before anyone even realised it began. It could be denied if it failed and claimed if necessary. That’s the value of special forces.
As the Afghan example showed, SOF utility also arose from their multiplicity of roles. They could be used offensively or defensively, in conventional or unconventional war. The rise of SOF in recent years, from a peripheral tool of war to almost its nucleus, arose from the shift of war into the unconventional sphere.
The most obvious example has been Pakistan relentlessly waging a campaign of terror against India and Afghanistan, with its ‘troops’ made up of groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani Network and the Taliban.
Another example: The Islamic State and its cohorts, their war chest sustained by a multiplicity of nations, out to get their own two bits from the mess in Syria. These are wars of a different kind. A World Bank study indicated a significant rise in armed conflict since 2015, even as regular interstate conflict went down. It also indicated that most of these conflicts were cross-border in nature. In other words, nations were still at war, and borders were under threat, but through different kinds of invasion and destabilisation.
That is also why militaries with serious neighbourhood issues have opted to increase their SOF capabilities. Apart from the US, whose SOF numbers have increased from 33,000 to more than 70,000 since 2001, China made its own observations on the evolving situation and fused SOF into its own military strategy and modernisation plans.
Special forces grew from reconnaissance units to being built up as force multipliers. SOF units are part of each service including the second artillery, which controls all missile operations. According to Chinese sources, selection to such units require extremely harsh training, and failure rate is as much as fifty percent.
Recently, a new unit of what was claimed to be a ‘super elite’ was reported, which can conduct maritime counter-terrorism operations and underwater infiltration. Crucially, future plans are for Chinese SOF to be supported by the full panoply of enabling platforms by air and sea. For instance, plans include a new type of small submarine that can assist marine infiltration, as well as helicopter carrying ships for quiet ingress into enemy coasts.
Here lies the rub. First, any SOF is only as good as its equipment. This is true of the armed forces as a whole, but is particularly applicable to the SOF. An army division, for instance, may ‘manage’ a situation by weight of sheer numbers and tight command in a given geographical area. The SOF cannot.
An SOF unit can hardly do deep penetration operations if it doesn’t have the platform to get there. It cannot even do a short strike if it doesn’t have the necessary high-end weapons to strafe a terrorist hideout. Second, an SOF operation is only as good as the intelligence available. The tragedy of the Jaffna University helidrop in October 1987, when a covert operation to get the LTTE leadership failed miserably due to defective intelligence, comes to mind.
An entire detachment of Sikh light infantry and several para-commandos were mowed down by the waiting Tamil Tigers. In today’s networked world, the SOF needs to be able to access intelligence on the move, even as it closes in on the target. Third, an SOF unit is only as good as the training it gets. And finally, there’s that old adage: Not every tool can be used for every occasion.
Some of India’s special forces need significant attention. First, while the navy’s MARCOS and the army’s Paras remain among the most efficient in the world, their access to real-time satellite based intelligence remains limited, and their ability to operate deep into enemy country is questionable given the lack of stealth platforms.
Earlier option of para-dropping is unlikely to serve the purpose given the considerable upgradation of air defence capabilities around our borders. If the army wants to win in the new kind of wars, its needs to focus a lot more on equipment and funding of its special forces. The average army officer may never ride a tank gloriously into battle, but is highly likely to find the need to quietly enter enemy territory and snuff out a few terrorists or carry out quiet acts of sabotage.
Another elite unit, the Special Frontier Force has also seen bad days. Set up in 1962 with a little help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it was meant to be deployed only along the China border. Over the years, however, pusillanimous governments ordered them back for fear of angering China.
The fact that there was severe inter-agency competition and resentment from the army against a unit outside its control severely hampered its initial growth. It was not until 2009 that the unit was given pay parity with the armed forces.
There’s a lesson there. Special forces need nurturing and constant training, not exercises in fighting bureaucracy and paper work. As China continues to increase its rhetoric and its incursions into India, this force needs a significant upgrade. Other cases abound: Highly trained commando units used for guarding netas, or tasks better done by conventional forces.
The deployment of the Navy’s MARCOS in Kashmir is one example. As war slides more into the treacherous waters of covert operations, the need for these highly trained units is only going to rise. Before reaching for that prohibitively expensive fighter aircraft or a new armoured vehicle, the defence ministry would do well to ask the forces exactly what kind of wars it expects to fight over the next two decades.
A certain conventional capability for a probable but unlikely large scale war is needed. What is needed, as of yesterday, is equipment which will get that secret warrior into, and even more importantly, out of enemy territory. The war has already begun, and it is unlikely to end anytime soon.