Tri-Service Special Forces Command: An idea whose time has come

Since the end of the Cold War, the character of conflict has been changing gradually, but perceptibly. While conventional conflict between nation states has declined, sub-conventional conflict, ranging from intra-state conflict or civil war to proxy wars using terrorism as a tool, is gaining prominence. Non-state actors are engaged in what Israeli military historian and theorist Martin van Creveld has called ‘crummy little wars’. Also, India is being increasingly called upon to assume greater responsibility for regional peace and stability and become a ‘net provider of security’. 

In the ‘hybrid’ wars of today, as well as in military intervention operations in the neighbourhood, Special Forces (SF) units often play a significant role and are sometimes the only recourse available to a nation state because these units can be employed for covert operations with plausible deniability. While strategic reconnaissance is a primary responsibility, the SF can be employed to cause disruption behind the opposing army’s frontline and to seize a bridgehead across an obstacle like a river. They are the force that is best equipped to destroy the adversary’s nuclear warhead storage sites for battlefield nuclear weapons, missile bases, rocket launchers, medium artillery guns, tank transporter vehicles, communications nodes, logistics installations and headquarters, among other high value targets.

India’s SF units have several notable achievements to their credit, during both conventional operations and sub-conventional conflict. The surgical strikes launched all across the LoC in September 2016 after the Pakistani terrorist attack on an army camp at Uri, were just the latest manifestation of an enduring legacy. However, at present the army (8 to 10 SF battalions), navy (1,500 marine commandos – Marcos) and air force 1,200-1,500 Garud personnel) have their own Special Forces and these are employed piecemeal by the three Services. 

In order to streamline planning for various SF contingencies, synergise their operations and draw optimum benefit from their specialist capabilities, it is necessary to ensure that all SF units in the three Services are raised, equipped, trained to the same exacting standards and placed under the operational command of a single commander. This can be done by raising a new tri-Service Special Forces Command on the lines of the Strategic Forces Command that has now been in existence for over ten years. Taking this pragmatic step will improve intelligence gathering, increase the quantum of firepower backing that can be provided for each operation and optimally utilise scarce transportation assets like the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and Chinook CH-47 helicopters.  

A recommendation to this effect was reportedly made by the Naresh Chandra-led committee that reviewed the progress on the implementation of the post-Operation Parakaram defence reforms initiated by the Vajpayee government in 2003. In fact, the Naresh Chandra committee is said to have recommended the raising of three new tri-Service command HQ: Cyber, Aerospace and Special Forces. While the first two have relatively a few assets in place today, in view of the ongoing employment of the Special Forces in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states, the Special Forces Command will have enough on its plate from the first day itself.

Special Forces units will often be the first responders in future conflicts that are hybrid in nature and characterised by the employment of asymmetric capabilities. In order to exploit the adversary’s strategic fault-lines, it is necessary to make a centralised plan for their employment. All the SF must be grouped under a Commander-in-Chief who has full operational control. The raising of a tri-Service Special Forces Command is an idea whose time has come.