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Special Operations Division

April 8, 2019 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By IAF
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Special Forces of the Indian Armed Forces

On August 8, 2012, the Naresh Chandra Committee on national security submitted its report to the government, its recommendations including establishment of a Special Operations Command (SOC). In the backdrop of India combating proxy wars for over past three decades, it was obvious that any change in Pakistan's state policy of terrorism was unlikely to happen, despite numerous attempts and overtures by India to improve ties; hence, the necessity of SOC to transport this war into enemy territory. The nomenclature 'Command' must have alarmed MoD bureaucrats; not comprehending it was representational nomenclature. 'Command' must have been alarming, giving visions like Army's Eastern or Southern Commands. So after war-gaming it amongst themselves for a few years, it was conveyed through media that this organisation will be a "Division", not a "Command".

In July 2017, Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra stated at the Unified Commanders' Conference that Special Operations Division (SOD) as also Cyber & Space Agencies will be reality soon. In January 2018, media broke news that: India will soon have an elite unit of commandos drawn from Army, Navy, Air Force, to conduct special missions of strategic nature; SOD will be on lines US Special Operations Command (SOCOM); SOD will start functioning from November 01, 2019; having 3,000 commandos, SOD headed by a Major General will function under HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). This, portrayed that SOD will bridge the sub-conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis China-Pakistan in short term.

This was good for publicity and also achievable, but for the political will to implement it. How does national will get translated to action when a decision is taken? For example, the Japanese Ambassador to India, addressing Defence Services Staff College in 1979, narrated an interesting episode. Japan at one time was nowhere in computers. So the government called the corporate, scientists, academia and said, here is the infrastructure, the resources and funds, let us know what more you need but we want to come at par with America in the field of computers in next five years. Japan achieved the objective within three years. Compare this with India's resolve to set up SOD in backdrop of 'surgical strikes' undertaken by our Special Forces. It is perfectly understandable that SOD cannot come up overnight, but going by the above Japanese example, much more should have been done in establishing SOD. As per reports, the force is to begin one battalion worth of commandos of Army, Navy and Air Force and a Divisional Headquarters. Latter is planned to be raised not in the Capital but elsewhere, which itself will stymie it from day one. Starting from scratch, the Divisional Commander will need to liaise with HQ IDS on daily basis for formulating various policies relating to employment, manpower, training, equipment, plus selection, prioritising and training for missions. Finding space for the Divisional HQ in New Delhi should pose no problem, especially with HQ Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and Directorate General of Military Training (DGMT) moving out, as approved by MoD. As for battalion worth of commandos, they are to continue staying 'wherever they are', which implies no integration. This is no way to begin the SOD. It is also understood that the Navy and Air Force are agreeable to contribute only officers for SOD, not other manpower. There appears no plan for an intelligence cell, 'dedicated' insertion and extraction resources (helicopters, aircraft etc), support group, logistics group, cyber cell, training cell, R&D group, interface with R&AW, NTRO, IB, and with Special Forces Training School (SFTS) and the like.

We may propagate that India is raising SOD on the lines of US SOCOM but there is little understanding that aircraft and helicopters integral to SOCOM are specifically modified for special operations forces. The permanent location of SOD is not earmarked and perhaps would depend on a State offering land for SOD if it furthers someone's political interests. But then land for Special Forces Training School (SFTS) was offered at Bilaspur by Chhattisgarh Government two decades back, but the promised land could not be acquired from the State. So nothing moved and same will likely happen in case of SOD. With the type of lame duck beginning given to SOD, terming it a 'Division' itself is a joke – but would even calling it a 'Brigade' be appropriate? Given the number of Special Forces units Army has, two-three units could have gone to SOD. Similarly, the Navy and Air Force should have been 'ordered' to provide specified number of 'all ranks', Tasking of SOD perhaps is not visualised beyond retaliatory 'surgical strike' type of cross-border actions as done in September 2016, even as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley brags India already is capable of undertaking US-type operations that killed Osama bin-Laden.

Continuous employment of SOD in areas of our strategic interests is obviously not to the liking of the political hierarchy and the NSA, what to talk of the MoD, because it does not meet short-term political aims. Little wonder then that General Raymond Thomas, Commander SOCOM, who visited India this month (March 2019) and offered help in establishing SOD was given the thumbs down. But public should expect media reports by end of this year that SOD is operational and awaiting the green signals. Ironically, behind all the façade looms the mortal fear; as enumerated by an insider amongst policy makers to a senior veteran, "Tumko pura SOD de diya toh tum to coup kar doge" (if you are given full SOD, you will engineer a coup). Hence the throttling of SOD before it is born and government doing the military, keeping it at arms length, and below central armed police forces. Hence, partial obituary of SOD before it is born.