Inducted into the theatre of operations well before the actual war began, the US Army's under-cover Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers; the Navy's SEALS, and a handful of Air Force and Marine Corps units, together with British and Australian SF units, played a bigger role in Iraq than in any other war in recent history. The unconventional employment of Special Forces in small teams dispersed all over the Iraqi desert provided a force multiplier capability to the coalition forces that was possibly way beyond their own expectations.
In the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty, Special Forces (SF) provide the most reliable means to a government for the application of military force to achieve national security objectives. The SF components of a nation’s military and other security forces are force multipliers in times of both war and peace. If they are well-structured, well-equipped and well-trained, they can achieve dramatic results with small numbers, in the least possible time, at minimum political cost and with low casualties. In fact, in certain situations, particularly when ‘deniability’ of the use of force is a key political criterion, it is not possible to employ regular forces at all and SF provide the only viable option to the government. For example, for trans-Line of Control (LoC) raids to destroy terrorist hideouts and their support infrastructure in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), or to launch a preemptive strike against a group of infiltrators planning to cross the LoC, only the SF can be employed due to the deniability inherent in their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs).
If the Indian armed forces had the capability to storm the Indian Airlines aircraft hijacked to Kandahar, India would not have had to suffer the ignominy of succumbing to the blackmailing machinations of mercenary Pakistani gangsters. An attempt could have been made to repeat the success stories of Entebbe and Mogadishu at Kandahar with a reasonable chance of success.
The recent United States-led campaign in Iraq has vividly highlighted the wide range of employment possibilities that the SF provide to a theatre commander. The multifarious tasks allotted to the SF, the manner in which these were accomplished, the methods of insertion into the combat zone and extraction from it, the detailed coordination between the SF, the ground and air forces and the marines and the mode of sustenance in the areas of responsibility over long periods, illustrate both the outstanding capabilities of the SF and the professional hazards of planning SF operations.
Special Forces in Iraq
Inducted into the theatre of operations well before the actual war began, the US Army’s under-cover Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers; the Navy’s SEALS, and a handful of Air Force and Marine Corps units, together with British and Australian SF units, played a bigger role in Iraq than in any other war in recent history. Numbering nearly 10,000 of the estimated 100,000 US troops, in Iraq the SF fielded the largest number in any war since the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and 1970s. The CIA also had a small number of operatives in Iraq and together with the SF, they launched joint operations, synergising the special strengths of each individual force and helping to overcome the weaknesses.
SF commandos provided accurate information about Iraqi deployments and movements. They also directed air-to-ground strikes on the Republican Guards and other Iraqi forces. Dubbed as an ‘inoculation strategy’ — killing or disabling Iraqi forces before they could be effectively employed against coalition forces — the SF launched raids to prevent the Iraqis from blowing up bridges and dams. They hunted leadership targets in Baghdad, organised Kurdish resistance in the north and secured the western border of Iraq even though they lacked the capacity to seal it completely. Super-secret sniper teams boldly operated within the Iraqi capital itself.
Operating in small teams, the SF raiding parties disrupted Iraqi command and control, seized oil wells and captured suspected sites from where Scud missiles might have been launched at Israel. They disrupted Iraqi lines of communication and acted as decoys to lure Iraqi forces into pre-designated ‘killing’ areas where the Iraqis were decimated by air and artillery strikes. Under the cover of darkness, they hunted and assassinated Baath Party members and Republican Guard leaders, demolished selected bridges to deny their use to the Iraqis and even waged cyber-warfare using viruses to disable computers at military command centres, power plants and telephone networks. They were especially effective once the urban fights began. Joined by their British, Australian and Polish counterparts, the SF undoubtedly hastened the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government. Some of their specific achievements were as follows (Jack Kelly, ‘Special Ops: The Hidden War’):
- Destroyed Scud missile launchers in western Iraq, secured oil fields in northern and southern Iraq and seized the Haditha Dam northwest of Baghdad that could have been used to flood the battlefield.
- Called in air and artillery strikes on countless targets, including Saddam’s palaces and military compounds and on Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamic group in northern Irag that the Bush administration said had links with al-Qaeda.
- Searched and secured almost a dozen of nearly 1,000 suspected biological and chemical weapons sites and broke into homes of Iraqi scientists to recover documents about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (However, no evidence of the illicit weapons was found.)
- Tapped into Iraq’s Chinese-built fibre optics communications, allowing US forces to intercept the conversations of Iraq’s military and political leadership. They also recruited Iraqis to provide information on Saddam’s whereabouts.
The Indian Context
The Indian army’s SF battalions have several notable achievements to their credit during both conventional operations and low intensity conflict (LIC). However, their numbers, capabilities, organisational and ancillary support structures, the quality of their leadership and the training standards of their personnel need to be substantially enhanced for their optimal exploitation in support of current and future national security objectives. Also, the army’s SF battalions, the navy’s MARCOS (marine commandos) and the air force’s commando units that are reportedly to be raised, need to be closely integrated in order to achieve synergy of operations. Unless they are equipped with compatible cations equipment, have similar TTPs and train to common standards, they will not be able to operate effectively with the degree of ‘jointness’ necessary in modern warfare.
Despite recent peace overtures, the Pakistan army is likely to continue its low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff option of waging a proxy war against India as its very reason for existence in such large numbers depends on continued hostility towards India and gives it a unique leverage during negotiations. The Indian security forces can break out from the present situation of a strategic stalemate in Kashmir only if the deployment of SF units is substantially enhanced and they are effectively utilised for trans-LoC operations. They must be employed on a regular basis to raid known ISI terrorist training camps and launchpads for infiltration. They should be utilised to launch clandestine attacks to destroy logistics installations and infrastructure in POK such as ammunition and FOL (fuel, oil and lubricants) dumps, bridges, radio-relay communications towers and battalion and brigade headquarters.
Besides continuous artillery shelling that has the attendant disadvantage of causing collateral damage to civilian life and property, the trans-LoC employment of SF provides the only viable option to hurt Pakistani army personnel and ultimately break their will to fight a senseless limited war. Such hit-and-run attacks in the rear areas in POK will substantially degrade the Pakistan army’s potential to sustain a long drawn out campaign to infiltrate trained terrorists into Kashmir. The objective should be to raise Pakistan’s cost of waging a proxy war both politically as well as militarily. At present, while Indian security forces are targeted on a daily basis, the Pakistan army suffers no casualties as all the fighting on its behalf is done by hired mercenary terrorists — the so-called mujahideen.
Gulf War II is a good pointer to the type of role that should be assigned to the SF in conventional operations. While strategic reconnaissance will remain a primary responsibility, the SF must be employed more aggressively to cause disruption behind enemy lines, to seize an airhead or a bridgehead across an obstacle in depth through heli-landings and to establish a forward operating base for attack helicopters during break out operations with armoured divisions. They are the force that is best equipped to destroy the enemy’s nuclear warhead storage sites for battlefield nuclear weapons, missile bases, rocket launcher hides, medium guns, tank transporter vehicles in harbours and waitIng areas, communications nodes, logistics installations and headquarters, among other such high value targets.
In the mountains the employment of SF units has to be more nuanced. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, some of them were employed as super-infantry to launch attacks that were foredoomed to failure and were later criticised for not succeeding. Such temptations to hasten the speed and tempo of operations must be curbed. The classical SF tasks call for language and survival skills and training standards, including mental conditioning, of a very high order. Only the toughest, the fittest, the most dexterous and the bravest soldiers would meet the exacting demands of operations behind enemy lines. Those with the right potential must be carefully selected and thoroughly trained for the tasks that are likely to be assigned to them during war.
An accurate analysis of the exact number of SF units for future requirements must be based on a holistic appraisal of India’s national security objectives and the military strategy necessary to achieve those objectives. However, clearly the present number is grossly inadequate. Defence analysts have recommend a 10,000 strong SF component, “rising to perhaps a division strength in due course.” Only the most ill-informed would quibble with this number. However, calls for the raising of a Special Forces Command on the US pattern are still premature as the Indian armed forces are light years away from graduating to the Chief of Defence Staff system with integrated theatre commands. At the same time, the ad hoc raising of SF units by various security forces by obtaining government sanction on a case-by-case basis must cease forthwith as such accretions lack synergy and are a national waste.
Military commanders have been traditionally reluctant to accord to the SF a significant role in their operational plans partly because of a poor understanding of their capabilities and partly because they see Special Forces as ‘these shadow guys who go off and fight their own war.’ During Gulf War I, General Norman Schwarzkopf used the ‘snake eaters’, as the SF are sometimes called, only sparingly. However, in Gulf War II, General Tommy Franks leaned on his experience in Afghanistan and used the SF very effectively. The unconventional employment of Special Forces in small teams dispersed all over the Iraqi desert provided a force multiplier capability to the coalition forces that was possibly way beyond their own expectations. Indian Special Forces also need to be armed, equipped, trained and employed behind enemy lines in a similar fashion. The wherewithal necessary to insert and, subsequently, support them in such employment over sustained periods must be acquired no matter what the cost.
It needs to be appreciated by India’s policy planners that in many situations when war has not yet commenced and it is not possible to employ ground forces overtly, Special Forces can be launched covertly to achieve important military objectives with inherent deniability. However, they can act with assurance only if they have been well-organised and well-trained for the multifarious tasks that they may be called upon to perform.