The National Identity XIV: Inside the Special Forces’ identity crisis

A blood thirsty approach to earning the coveted “Balidaan” badge is slowly killing it; and the men who wear it.

Clock-wise from top-left — Garud Commandos (Air Force), Marine Commandos (Navy), National Security Guard (Home Ministry), Para Special Forces (Army) with slain terrorists

As the gun battle raged on at the Pathankot Air Force Base, the senior (retired) Lt. General couldn’t help but wonder why the Para Special Forces, Para (SF), were not pressed into action. Three battalions of the Para (SF) were available close by and this seemed like an operation tailor-made for them. The ensuing gun fight lasted over 72 hours with the National Security Guard (NSG) and the Garud commandos of the Air Force battling terrorists inside the Air Base. The Lt. General, Prakash Katoch, himself a Para (SF) veteran, understood the intricacies of search and comb, area domination and elimination very well. He was a part of the Para Special Forces fraternity for almost four decades and grew up with the Para (SF) as they acquired the unique skill set of tackling “area targets” and turned into a battle hardened force. In the process, they unlearned a lot of what they were meant to do — force multipliers on steroids to politico-military ends.

Two Indian Army / Special Forces operations seared the national conscience in the recent past. While the raid in Myanmar, in 2015, was greeted with aplomb and the 56" chest first flexed, the big question lingered — would India, could India, pull this off against her Western foe? India answered with “surgical strikes” in late September ’16. Terror launch pads across the LoC were destroyed and Uri stood avenged.

Despite these two iconic operations last year, very little is known about the Special Forces in India. Perhaps one operation, which didn’t deploy the Para (SF) frames the debate around the Special Forces in India, as much as the storied, albeit textbook, “surgical strikes”. While not delving into the history (which is quite easily available on Wikipedia), today the National Identity aims to talk about their identity itself — their mandate, strengths, doctrines governing them and the missions the country actually deploys them on.

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An enigmatic new insignia popped up on a soldier’s uniform a few years ago which sent defence enthusiasts and experts alike into a tizzy. The insignia, worn above the service patches, above the left pocket, belongs to servicemen of the SG — Special Group. Tenanted mostly by men from the Para (SF) battalions of the Indian Army there are also Tibetans and a few Marine Commandos to be found within their ranks.

The insignia of the Special Group (SG)

The Special Group’s two battalions (1200–1500 personnel), are a part of the shadowy Establishment-22 or the Special Frontier Force, SFF, which is under the operational command of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). By virtue of not being under the Ministry of Defence, the SFF, let alone the SG, are seldom discussed in the Parliament. Almost all their missions, to date, are classified. As are their ranks.

A parallel to the Special Group inside the National Security Guards (NSG), under the Ministry of Home Affairs, are the 51st and 52nd Special Action Groups (SAG). These groups are specially trained for counter terrorism and hijacking scenarios, largely in an urban landscape. The SAGs, which make up 54% of the force, are the assault element, tenanted exclusively by personnel of the Indian Army. The remaining personnel form the “holding force”, called the Special Rangers Group. The 52nd SAG successfully executed Operation Ashwamedh in 1993, rescuing 141 passengers from a hijacked plane at Amritsar with 0 casualties. The 51st SAG executed Operation Black Thunder in 1988, at the Golden Temple, the very place which birthed the NSG four years ago.

What sets Special Group (SG) apart is their exclusive use by the intelligence agencies of this country. It is a direction which the US has irreversibly set the world’s clandestine agencies and special forces on. Great, strategic and tactical, operations are now intelligence led. Only the clandestine agencies can provide actionable intelligence on various targets owing to the complex machinations surrounding identification of targets, tapping diplomatic channels, tracing terror financing, coordinating the inter-agency and inter-country support for the attack etc. These missions have to be executed with extreme stealth and by hardened personnel who train for, and execute, similar missions for years; a level of expertise which only the Special Forces can provide. The CIA led — SEAL Team Six executed mission to kill Osama Bin Laden is foremost example of such coordination. This uneasy alliance, yet to be officially enshrined in India, is a result of the threat matrix which most countries now face. This also increasingly places uniformed officers and men of the Indian Army under the operational command of civilian leadership, something the Army is yet to come to terms with.

While it is clear that the proverbial “tip of the spear”, across all the aforementioned forces, is provided by the Army’s Para (SF) battalions, the mandate of these forces is very different. After years of target-specific training, the reflexes of the soldier can’t be un-trained in the few hours it takes for the soldier to be air-dropped to the mission-site. The use, and misuse, of these forces is what frames the debate around the special forces doctrine in this country and their future deployment.


“An impression has been assiduously created that Punjab is not being dealt with” — Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her address to the nation before Operation Bluestar, June 1984

The infamous Operation Blue Star, was an Army led operation, under the operational command of Lt. General Sundarji (GOC-in-C Western Command), which was carried out with typical Army bluster and heavy handedness. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s address also set the tone for the Operation. There would be no siege and choking off of supply lines for those holed inside the compound and there would be no negotiations. Fatally, there would also be limited intelligence on the compound and its’ fortifications. The first wave of Indian Army offensives, led by the Para (SF) battalions, were easily beaten back by the Sikh extremists. This led to the enduring image of the operation — battle tanks entering an area so pious that people leave their footwear outside. The operation was an unqualified failure, and led to the creation of the National Security Guard (NSG) who successfully executed Operation Black Thunder I and II, in conjunction with Punjab Police, in May 1988.

A tactic of “patient pressure”, which the police and NSG are well suited to carry out, but the Army is ill-suited to, was applied in Operation Black Thunder and it led to the surrender of almost 400 terrorists (along with 43 killed). The operation was also carried out in the full glare of the global media, something an operation involving the Special Group and Para (SF) wouldn’t permit. The success of this Operation lay in its’ solid foundations — the NSG was created as a “target specific” force; a temple complex, a hijacked airplane, a hotel building; essentially Close Quarter Battle (CQB). Their weapons, training and men are tailored to such missions. Coordination with the state governments and police forces becomes easier by virtue of being governed by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The attack on the Pathankot Air Base, in January 2016, was an attack on an Armed Forces base — an Armed Forces base. The Armed Forces, in the absence of an enshrined doctrine, could deploy whichever force they chose fit to for the mission to bring it to its’ successful conclusion. This was not a Close Quarter Battle situation — the base is spread over hundreds of acres, and the mission required a “holding force”, an “attack team” and a team to protect the assets at the base — something the infantry and the three Para (SF) battalions stationed nearby could easily provide. The Operation by the NSG and Garud Commandos of the Air Force lasted a mammoth 72 hours — an unacceptable timeline for a siege which could have seriously damaged one of India’s operational/attack air nodes. The extended timeline was a direct consequence of the lack of mission-specific training and experience that both these forces had.

The innumerable attacks on Army bases in Kashmir are all cleared out by the Army, not the NSG. An attack on the 61st Cavalry’s camp in Samba, in 2013, was neutralized by 9 Para (SF) who slithered down ropes, dangling from helicopters, and secured the camp within hours. Something similar was required for securing the Pathankot Air Base. The NSG, have no expertise in dealing with such a wide area and no expertise in combing. While deployed effectively in such operations, the unasked question around the Special Forces still lingers, unasked; were they ever meant to carry out such operations?


The next leg in understanding the “identity crisis” of the Special Forces, lies in understanding the gross over-use of the Para (SF) battalions and the proliferation of the coveted “Maroon Beret” across the Kashmir valley and the North East. Special Forces were envisioned, and christened, to bring about strategic change — not tactical. The Special Forces are meant to be force-multipliers on steroids owing to their tactical flexibility, mastery over a wide range of advanced weaponry and strategic mobility.

While occasionally deploying them to clear Army bases, for lack of better alternatives, is just about acceptable, sending them in to clear buildings in the middle of towns and COIN (Counter-Insurgency) operations on the LoC is plain wrong. Deploying the Para (SF) on countless, and endless, such defensive missions has led to an alarming rise in Special Forces casualties, along with blunting their readiness for “strategic, politico-military missions”. Combing and clearing missions can easily be carried out by the “Ghatak Platoons” of the regular Infantry battalions.

“India’s SF are so only in name, not orientation because the country’s higher defence organisation lacks military professionals. Their ability to employ SF on politico-military missions at strategic levels is lacking.They (SF) continue to be employed tactically” lamented Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, a former SF officer.
India’s various Special Forces; note that NSG(SAG) and Special Group are also made up of Para (SF) operators. (Source: The Citizen & The Hindu)

The Army will soon raise its’ tenth Para (SF) battalion, bringing its’ Special Forces personnel to 7,000–8000. The Indian Navy has a 1000–1200 strong force of Marine Commandos (MARCOS), while the Indian Air Force has a 1000 strong force of Garud Commandos. These numbers exceed the strength of the United States Special Operations Command (US-SOCOM) which has a global remit and regularly carries out missions in all terrains, geographies and against all enemies, unlike India.


Another facet, which the Special Forces community inside the Army feel very strongly about is the regimental identity itself. India is probably the only major country which has grouped its’ airborne and special forces battalions under the same parental regiment — the Parachute Regiment. The Para and Para (SF) battalions are also under the same command and control structure. This has caused much consternation among the Special Forces operators. The “conversion” or “baptism” that existing or new Para Battalions have to go through to become a “SF” battalion has also been severely watered down to six months served in a hostile area.

On the left is the insignia of the Parachute Regiment, “Shatrujeet”, which all personnel (SF and non-SF) wear on their maroon berets. On the right is the “Balidaan” badge, which only the Para (SF) operators wear

The bone of contention is clear for all to see — the Para (SF) wear the coveted “Balidaan” (Sacrifice) badge; which sets them apart from mere airborne forces. Airborne forces are merely airborne infantry — they aren’t designed to carry out “surgical strikes” or other high value strikes. The race to earn the coveted “Balidaan” (Sacrifice) badge has led to a large number of maroon berets operating in Kashmir and the North East; doing tasks that regular Infantry battalions can easily carry out — all in a quest to serve six months and earn that badge. They are also pushed into these operations by a high command which continues to believe in the outdated logic that CI operations are a good training ground for these Special Forces.

Administratively, a lot of tasks at the Army HQ in Delhi, which require a SF officer are carried out by a regular paratrooper. Posts like the ADGMO (SF) are regularly tenanted by Para officers and not specifically Para (SF) officers. This further circumscribes the Special Forces’ operational remit as “regular paratrooper” officers are unable to adequately represent the capabilities of the special forces at the Army HQ, and consequently in front of the country’s political masters.

In the absence of a centralized command for the Special Forces of all arms, mission duplication is rife along with the lack of a centralized and standardized procedure for selection, deployment and weapons procurement. Even among the Para (SF) battalions, selection procedures vary as men undergo part of the “probationary” period with a particular battalion and not a combined Para (SF) center. This effectively means a different standard to get into, say, 9 Para (SF) versus 1 Para (SF).

The Garud Commandos of the Air Force, raised in 2004, were envisioned to conduct para-rescue of downed pilots behind enemy lines, “lasing of targets” for air strikes and other “offensive” tasks. IAF’s plan to add a further 700 men to this Garud Force, in the wake of the Pathankot attack, will only blunt the force by deploying them to protect air force installations and air expos. This future, poignant, misuse is akin to blunting the combat readiness of the NSG’s Special Rangers Group with mandates to provide mindless, and endless, VIP security.


A centralized tri-service special operations command, which cuts across arms and regimental rivalry and provides unity in command and control for the Special Forces is the need of the hour. Integration of the military special forces (Para (SF), Garud and MARCOS) should be the priority before integration with the Paramilitary special forces (NSG and SG). Force rationalization should soon follow — 4 battalions of Para (SF); say 1,9,10 and 21 Para (SF), along with the current battalion+ size of the Garud and MARCOS, along with a few aviators from all arms, will clearly suffice as the tip of the spear. A simple formation patch on their tricep can indicate their service in the Special Operations Command. Other Para and Para (SF) battalions should be be attached to the Army’s operational commands and continue to hold exclusive expertise in the kind of operations they are currently deployed for.

Potential force make-up of the Special Operations Command

Training in capturing and neutralizing enemy nuclear weapons, securing our own and destroying enemy nuclear installations should be mandatory. Closer integration with the already existing Strategic Forces Command will, therefore, be a must. The National Security Advisor, as the conduit between the military and the PMO, shall act as the de-facto head of this command while operational command will lie with a three-star officer; a Lt. General or equivalent. These commanders should be bred, not through the regular route of commanding conventional brigades, divisions and squadrons, but by spearheading operations and reconnaissance for the Special Operations Command, after having commanded their battalions.

The recently cleared Defence Acquisition Council’s (DAC) Rs. 300 crore war-chest for the Para (SF) is woefully inadequate considering the size of their task and the number of battalions at present. It is much safer to have a sharper tip of the spear than an unwieldy and blunt spear. The storied, and “legacied”, 1,3,9,10 and 21 Para (SF) battalions are almost entirely staffed with the Israeli Tavor rifles but face a shortage of the 7.62mm Galil Snipers. The newly raised battalions bear the brunt of the weapons shortage — the freshly raised 12 Para went into a mission with the antiquated and ineffective INSAS 5.5, in which even the regular Army’s trust has completely eviscerated, let alone the Para (SF). Other new battalions are still equipped with the AK series of assault rifles. The shortage of advanced weapons for the Special Forces should be decoupled from the broader weapons shortage within the three services, by having a two window clearance from the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister. Doing away with the serpentine weapons procurement process for the Special Operations Command is necessary for its’ efficacy and survival.

The proliferation of “special” accouterments and the constant efforts to raise a man-power intensive special force need to be thwarted if India is to maintain a sharp end which can actually do some damage.

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XI : The story of India’s most ambitious hawk

XII : The games Generals play… and they need to stop

XIII : “Tawang must not fall”

XVI : The forgotten soldier of India’s foreign war

XIX : The Indian soldier in Kashmir

III and IV deal with the Cold Start doctrine, V through X and XIII largely with Indian Army operations. XVII and XVIII talk about what lies beneath.

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