Home / India / The special tip of the spear

The special tip of the spear

The story behind India's Special Forces, little known beyond maroon beret and naughty ditty

SUJAN DUTTA   |   Published 01.10.16, 12:00 AM

Capt. Pawan Kumar, who was killed in February

New Delhi, Sept. 30: By the time the bullets and shrapnel tore through him, Capt. Jaideep Sengupta's men had already outflanked the militants. The bullets and metal pierced the 26-year-old troop commander's stomach, thigh and chest.

Despite being ambushed and bleeding profusely, he kept firing while also manoeuvring another team behind him.

The commander of No. 3 assault troop was leading all of five men on a search-and-destroy mission on the Tunnukkai-Mankulem Road in the Jaffna Peninsula.

It was February 5, 1988. Operation Pawan was in full swing. The Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) was fully committed to Sri Lanka in a tragic chapter in the history of India's armed forces. But that was not known then.

Today, Col. Jaideep Sengupta, 54 years and now retired, is heading to the New Delhi railway station to catch a train to Calcutta. It is Mahalaya and the pujas can be smelt. His unit, the battalion he served in and for which he was awarded the Vir Chakra gallantry medal, is in Jammu and Kashmir.

The 9 Para SF (Special Forces) crossed the Line of Control two nights ago, striking "terrorist launch pads" in hostile territory and giving the Narendra Modi government political relief and a few more inches of chest.

The cross-border action by the 9 Para SF and the 4 Para SF has brought the nature of these units into sharp relief.

In just one year, the use of the army Para SF units has increased so much that the government, defence sources say, is planning to increase the number of such battalions. This a decision that many who have served in the Special Forces find questionable.

In June 2015, the 21st Para SF conducted operations along the Myanmar border after 18 soldiers were ambushed in Manipur by suspected NSCN(K) militants. In November 2015, Col. Santosh Mahadik, formerly of the 21st Para SF was killed battling militants in Kupwara, north Kashmir. At the time he was with the 41 Rashtriya Rifles. In February this year, 22-year-old Capt. Pawan Kumar was killed when militants captured a building at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Pampore near Srinagar.

The army currently has eight Special Forces battalions with about 650 troops each, much smaller than regular infantry battalions (900-1,100 troops each).

This is because the nature of SF operations are vastly different. Unlike regular battalions that operate with sections, platoons and companies of troops, the SF units operate in small squads with five to six men in each.

The fundamental difference between infantry battalions and Para SF battalions is that the Para SFs are not tasked to hold ground. They are mobile forces that have to strike multiple targets and move on -- the "tip of the spear".

The military establishment now views SFs as a necessary component of what it calls "hybrid" warfare. They are allocated to commands - especially the northern and eastern commands - "as per terrain and operational requirements", said a defence source.

Unlike the regular battalions of the army, they are unpublicised till a government chooses to announce a Special Forces operation. The Modi government has done so probably for the first time in a theatre of non-conventional war.

So secretive is the culture of the SF that even episodes from conventional wars fought decades ago are still hushed-up. Little is known beyond key identifier of a Special Forces soldier - the maroon beret - and their naughty ditty: " Jab bura hai waqt, tab commando hai f****d".

Each of the three armed forces have their own special troops - the navy has the Marcos (Marine Commandos), the air force, the Garud -- and counter-terror outfits like the National Security Guard are also recognised as a special force. But it is the army Special Forces that are forever in operations.

SF troops are so secretive that even years after retirement, they hate to talk of operations of the past. Col. Subin Balakrishnan, formerly of the 21st Para SF and now retired and settled in Mumbai, said that Operation Khukri was too recent for him to talk about.

Operation Khukri was in the embattled African country of Sierra Leone in the year 2000. Two companies (223 soldiers) of the Indian Army's 5/8 Gorkha Rifles on deployment in a UN peacekeeping mission were besieged for nearly two months by a militant outfit called the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUFSL).

From the sketchy information available, it is understood that negotiations had failed and the RUFSL had run over a Kenyan battalion on the road to the Indian post. A desperate Indian Army despatched 90 soldiers of the 2 Para SF. The unit landed there with almost no weapons and no transport to call its own.

But the British SAS (Special Air Services) with whom some Indian SF soldiers had trained was there. For a week, a team of Indian SF soldiers in civvies surveyed the region and then, early one morning, teams of the 2 Paras in two borrowed US-made Chinook helicopters were inserted into the villages of the rebels.

With phosphorous grenades borrowed from the SAS, they blinded the neighbourhood. The Gorkhas broke out in the clouds of grey gas and the dust raised by whirring rotors.

The publicising of SF operations and government measures to increase the number of SF units makes veterans like Sengupta and Balakrishnan squirm. Sengupta wonders if the SF troops in this week's cross-LoC operations were used in the manner they should have been.

"It looks like a superior infantry task. If you have good infantry capability, you can do this. SFs are meant to do more strategically, go to depths of 7 to 50km inside (hostile territory). But we probably don't have the wherewithal and the bollocks to provide them with the right extrication facilities - I mean, if you are sending a soldier in, you must give him at least a 50 per cent chance of survival," Sengupta said.

Special forces are expensive to raise and maintain. The Indian Army does not list the equipment that are at the disposal of the SFs. But they were the first to be issued the Israeli-origin Tavor guns, for example. "We ensure they have multi-incursion capability," says a defence source.

But the organisation and re-organisation of the army's special forces have still found them wanting in logistics.

First raised in 1966 by a superseded officer, Major Megh Singh, of the Brigade of the Guards, the 9 Para is the oldest of the SF units. In 1965 Megh Singh went to his then Western Army commander, Lt Gen. Harbaksh Singh, and told him he had ideas about operating behind enemy lines. Harbaksh Singh told him if he was as good as his word, be would be made a battalion commander.

With a just a company of soldiers, Megh Singh operated behind Pakistani lines in the war that year and blew up bridges. The following year the Army Headquarters decided it needed an SF unit for Rajasthan and the 10th Para SF was raised.

The troops were originally from the Parachute Regiment raised by the British in the Second World War. But the operational philosophy was different. In 1995, the defence ministry was considering creation of a special operations command. But it 1996, the idea was dropped and the special force units went back to the Parachute Regiment.

Since then, the size of the SF has expanded.

"There are questions of quantity over quality, I think," said Col. Balakrishnan. "While we have the tactical acumen and the technical skills, the institutional bandwidth that is required is of an entirely different order."

Saikat Datta, who has co-authored a book with Lt Gen. Prakash Katoch (retired), a former SF officer who was injured during Operation Bluestar in the Golden Temple in 1984, said: "The biggest damage that has been done to India's special forces is the forcible coupling with the parachute regiment. Unless the SFs are given their own identity under a dedicated special operations command, they will never be able to achieve the potential that they have."

Such potential, explained Balakrishnan, lies in the idea of using SFs to back up, for example, India's support to forces inimical to Pakistan on its north-west and west. He means Afghanistan and Balochistan.

"As a professional who has foot-slogged for long and done a thing or two to earn a living in these environments, I know for a fact that the LoC offers more than adequate opportunities for response not just by the Special Forces, but also by highly motivated and skilled infantry units, straddling both the tactical and operational levels. Make no mistake -- each of these actions are much more than just 'ego massages."

Balakrishnan added: "The technical and tactical skills of our Special Forces and the will and wherewithal to effect short, sharp action across the LoC is tested and proven. What we have lacked is the political spine and the institutional bandwidth to effect such responses in suitable windows of time and space to amplify their impact on the one hand and the resilience to shape consequence management within reasonable proportions on the other.

"That is when we will be able to create strategic outcomes for ourselves. By showing the ability to influence outcomes in those regions, like the classic Green Berets (US Rangers), we should be in a position to organise the resistance there instead of just giving lip service."



• Motto: Balidan (Sacrifice)
• Wanted: A guy whose mind can function when his tongue is hanging out. It should function enough to drag him out of a hole. What is between the ears matters more than how broad your shoulders are
• Age range: 21-22, the age range at which others in the army also are commissioned
• Selection: The Special Forces are a voluntary service (mostly from the Parachute Regiment), dependent on selection through an initial probation period of three months during which only about 30 per cent are selected
• Training: After probation, training lasts three years
• Dropout probability: 70%
• Fitness: The Special Forces in full gear need to finish in 21 minutes the 5km run for battle physical efficiency test. Other units can take three more minutes.
  Running is not the sole criterion. An officer graded satisfactory (on a scale of excellent, good, satisfactory and poor) in the run but rated excellent in mountain walk may still make the cut 
• Armed combat: Should be able to fire from either shoulder. Trained to use semi-automatic pistols, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, light machine guns, grenade launchers and rocket launchers. Choice of weapons is mission-dependent.
• Unarmed combat:  Martial arts such as judo, karate, kung fu
• Mode of transport: Mostly legs. Sometimes parachutes, after jumping from aircraft. Sometimes hands, to swim
• Can they marry?  Yes
• Have I seen them? Yes, if you have watched the Republic Day Parade. The only contingent to hop-jog through Rajpath during the parade is the SF


• Motto: The only easy day was yesterday
• Wanted: Ability to avoid fights altogether but make every blow count when needed 
• Age range: 18 to 28. 17 with parental permission
• Training: 2-month naval special warfare preparatory school, 3-week basic orientation, 7-week basic conditioning, 7-week combat diving, 7-week land warfare training involving basic weapons, demolitions, land navigation, patrolling, rappelling, marksmanship and small-unit tactics. (SEAL stands for Sea, air and land teams)
• Minimum fitness: 2.41km (1.5 miles) in 10 minutes and 30 seconds; 50 push-ups in 2 minutes; 50 sit-ups in 2 minutes; 10 pull-ups with no time limit but candidate cannot touch the ground or let go of the bar and 500-yard swim in  12 minutes and 30 seconds.
   If exceptionally fit, a SEAL might perform 40-90 minutes of continuous movement in one session. Continuous high-intensity performance involves moving for 15-20 minutes without stopping at a pace approximately 90-95 per cent of the maximum pace one can hold for that duration. 
• Dropout probability:  80-90%
• Armed combat:  The FN SCAR (Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle) is the standard issue weapon while pistols are usually carried as back-up
• Unarmed combat: Punching (ideally with the knuckles of the index and middle fingers), kicking, elbowing, gouging, biting, stabbing, ripping, crushing, choke-holding
• Mode of transport: SEAL delivery vehicles, manned submersible craft, inflatable boats, rubber raiding craft
• Can they marry? Yes
• Have I seen them? Yes, if you have watched Tears of the Sun, the action movie starring Bruce Willis (in picture). Not to mention Zero Dark Thirty, the film that features the hunt and strike that killed Osama bin Laden


• Motto: Who Dares Wins
• Wanted: Those who will not whine. One complaint and you are out of the SAS (Special Air Service). 
• Age range: 18 to 32 years and 364 days. (Now we know what precision is)
• Training: In three phases over five months. The hill stage lasts three weeks in South Wales, culminating in “the long drag”, a 64km trek carrying a 25kg rucksack that must be completed within 24 hours. Jungle training in Belize, honing basic survival skills and learning patrolling in harsh conditions. Last stage: candidates are tested on tactics of escape and evasion and then subjected to tactical questioning to see if they can withstand interrogation.  
• Fitness: Running 2.5km in 15 minutes as part of a squad, followed by the same distance run individually in under 10 minutes and 30 seconds
• Armed combat: The SAS uses a range of guns, anti-tank rocket launchers, stun grenades, anti-personnel mines and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles 
• Unarmed combat: Punching, cover-blocking, boxing, wrestling, fistfights and headlocks
• Dropout probability: 85-90%
• Mode of transport: Desert patrol vehicles, light-strike vehicles, armoured vehicles, amphibious troop carriers and over-snow vehicles. 
• Can they marry? Yes
• Have I seen them? Yes, you have if you saw The Rock. In the film, Sean Connery (in picture) plays an imprisoned SAS captain, the only one who can break back into a once-impregnable prison and foil a plot to destroy San Francisco

Indian SF details reported by Sujan Dutta.  Information on the Navy SEALs and the SAS compiled from the Internet. These are extremely secretive outfits and the information is rarely authenticated fully

Copyright © 2020 The Telegraph. All rights reserved.