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Armed Forces Special Forces Division: A good beginning to make but according higher status in future key for better efficiency

Ideally, an officer with Special Forces (SF) credentials needs to write this. However, having served alongside all three SF units of the Indian Army which existed in the late 80s, in Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka) and having handled some of their tasking and deployment at operational and tactical level at different stages of one’s career I do perceive myself reasonably qualified to write this public information piece.

One was fortunate to also have had some excellent Marine Commandos (Marcos) functioning with the army in Kashmir. The context here is the report that the government has decided to set up an Armed Forces Special Forces Division (AFSFD) under the Headquarters (HQ) Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). With public interest at a high pitch on issues related to the Armed Forces and numerous queries about the new organisation, it is only correct that information of an unclassified nature is placed factually in the public domain with a ‘need to know’ analysis of the initiative undertaken.

 Armed Forces Special Forces Division: A good beginning to make but according higher status in future key for better efficiency

Representational image. PTI

Maj Gen AK Dhingra, an SF officer himself has been asked to raise the new organisation by November 2019 and a suitable location for the same is under consideration. The General Officer is eminently suited to do the honours of raising this elite force having more than sufficient experience in SF operations at different levels and having tenanted the appointments of Commander of India’s only Parachute Brigade, and Military Attache at Washington (US). The latter appointment would have given the General Officer sufficient insight into the complexities of the Special Operations Command of the US Armed Forces (USSOCOM) from where this concept of command and control apparently has been drawn.

SF is military terminology for troops who conduct special operations. The NATO definition states that these are military activities conducted by specially designated, organised, trained and equipped forces using operational techniques and modes of employment not standard to conventional forces. These activities are conducted across the full range of military operations independently or in coordination with operations of conventional forces to achieve political, military, psychological and economic objectives. Our teaching always describes SF as a strategic organisation to be tasked to achieve strategic objectives. In plain words, what everyone else can do the SF must be kept away from. Only a task suitable to the expertise, equipment and advance leadership techniques possessed by SF must be allotted to them. The objective and target must invariably be worthy of being tackled by SF.

Two decades ago there were just four SF units in the Indian Army; one each allotted to four operational commands. The Marcos in their sub-units (prahars) and the Air Force Garuds were with their field organisations. These were considered insufficient considering the array of tasks identified for them in the field and at the central level. The emerging strategic threats also demanded centralised and integrated response. The increasing need for some central, concentrated resource for the government to employ without affecting operational capability of field forces led the Naresh Chandra (NC) Task Force on Security to examine the necessity of having an organisation akin to USSOCOM.

There a certain number of SF units of different US Armed Forces (Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force) are placed under a central organisation for joint tasking at the central strategic level. Besides that, the equipping, training, and transportation are all centrally executed without reference to the parent Service. I am unaware whether there is any permanent secondment of any of the component SF units in USSOCOM. The NC Task Force recommended a Special Forces Command for the Indian Armed Forces, along with the raising of two other Tri-Service organisations -- Cyber Command and Space Command. It all seemed to fit in perfectly to overcome the highly charged, transactional and ego-driven inter-service rivalry; one integrated Command each for the three Services, on the basis of their core expertise and domain; Cyber going to the navy, Space going to the Air Force and SF going to the Army; each under a Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) level officer.

Seven years later AFSFD, the first of these organisations, has emerged but with a watered down status. The AFSFD could have been allotted a status similar to Strategic Forces Command (SFC) which is responsible for all strategic nuclear assets and functions under a C-in-C. The Strategic Forces Command (now AFSFD) could cater to emerging threats beyond just conventional warfare include irregular warfare and terrorism, both essential components of hybrid war, subsets of which are always strategic in nature; as strategic as the nuclear threat. Perhaps the problem was of command and control.

An independent Special Forces Command recommended by the NC Task Force could not have reported to the Chief of the Integrated Staff to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) who is the head of the HQ IDS because both the heads would have the status of C-in-C. Ideally it, along with Cyber Command and Space Command, also with Cs-in-C in command, should have been placed directly under the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) if the government was prepared to create the post. Since that is not being done at the moment for various reasons it has probably been decided to reduce the status of these organisations such that they can be placed under the CISC. The command and control aspect will be debated for long; alternatively, the AFSFD, Defence Cyber Agency and Defence Space Agency could have been placed under the Chiefs of Staff Committee with the CISC designated as the functional head.

This is actually the likely arrangement with some interplay of words in the command and control instructions. Thus at the inception stage, it is only practical to give these organisations a status of agencies or divisions (not in the classic military sense of a formation) and vest their command in the CISC. However, I do suspect we have not seen the end of the issue related to the status of these organisations being reduced to agencies and divisions as against commands.

Fleshing out information on the new organisation it is learnt that initially, 150-200 personnel will form the seed elements to work out the nuances before actualisation. The latter will lead to force strength of about 2,000 personnel which could be increased if required. One can reckon that 2-3 SF units in the rotation could be placed as integral elements along with a suitable number of Marcos and Garuds. Whether these elements will be integrated with the Army’s SF units or remain independent and provide sub-units to form mission-related task forces, is something Maj Gen Dhingra will have to work out. As to the location of the organisation it is always good to have the entire entity together.

An airfield in close vicinity with requisite infrastructure and very highly integrated communication support is absolutely essential. The troops should not have to move far and wide for training or for launch into operations. At the same time, it should not be far from Delhi either. Ambala, Meerut, Bareilly and Saharanpur do fit in as potential locations. However, the infrastructure for such an elite organisation must not wait a decade to emerge; it should be ready in the next two years.

Finally, what is AFSFD going to do that National Security Guard (NSG) will not do? Is it fair that AFSFD is headed by a two star officer and NSG by a three-star officer with no commensurate experience in handling special operations? Relevant questions which I am sure many SF veteran experts will give more adequate answers to. I leave the second and more contentious issue of rank aside but the issue related to the NSG is a more interesting one.

Do recall the controversy in early 2016 regarding the detailment of the NSG to Pathankot to cater to the terrorist threat as against an SF unit located not too far away. The NSG is a superb resource whose charter must remain specific to anti-hijacking and intervention operations, particularly in urban terrain. It must not take on offensive special missions which must remain the charter of AFSFD. Of course, as with any other new organisation flow of ideas must continue to evolve the AFSFD into a world class entity. Lastly, with AFSFD in place the role of the SF units under field armies would probably be re-designated to the operational-strategic environment as against the strategic; enough scope for debate there too.

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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 15:32:56 IST