by Kuldip Singh

On May 14, the Government announced the raising of the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) with Major General AK Dhingra as its first head. The AFSOD, with elements drawn from the Indian Army's Parachute Regiments (Special Forces), Indian Navy’s Marine Commandos (MARCOS), and the Garud Commandos of the Indian Air Force, will function under the HQ of the tri-services Integrated Defence Staff. Starting with 3000 soldiers, the AFSOD will reportedly have its own dedicated helicopters, transport planes and specialised weaponry besides surveillance equipment.

To be based at Agra (where the Parachute Brigade is located), the AFSOD is one of the three new strategic-level raising that were approved by the Defence Ministry in Sept 2018, and by the Government in December 2018. This was in consonance with the recommendations of the 2012 Naresh Chandra Task Force. The other two organisations are the Defence Cyber Agency (DCA), being set up at Delhi under Rear Admiral Mohit Gupta, and the Defence Space Agency (DSA), being raised at Bangalore with Air Marshal SP Dharkar as its chief. Together, all three agencies represent India’s resolve to address the evolved, new age threats.

Shape of Future Wars & the Importance of AFSOD

Ever since the 2006 Lebanon War (Israel-Hezbollah), military strategists have argued that the days of the ponderous, World War-II type of set-piece battles are over, and that in contemporary security scenarios, there would be inter-related battle spaces that would range from direct, faced-paced inter-state war, to unconventional, indirect wars utilising non-state actors of various types and proxies.

Thus, in future, our greatest challenge will perhaps not come from a State that selects one approach, but from a State(s) or groups that select from the whole menu of tactics, forces (conventional and/or irregular) and technologies to confront our strategic interests. Future scenarios, hence, will more likely present unique combinational or hybrid threats.

This type of hybrid warfare therefore requires full-spectrum forces, which includes conventional, as well as those capable of quick interventions using similar irregular or disruptive operations to thwart adaptive enemies.

And herein lies the importance of Special Operations Forces (SOF). Built around highly competent, multi-skill small-teams, SOF require team leaders with cerebral capacity, decision-making skills and tactical cunning to respond to the unknown, along with equipment sets to react or adapt faster than tomorrow’s adversaries. SOF can also preempt a potential crisis through timely intervention.

And to realise this construct requires structures, transformation processes and shaping that go beyond mere regrouping of various SOF into one large mass.

Problems With The Current Formation

Deliberations on the AFSOD (and the DCA and DSA) had commenced in 2010. These had envisioned the AFSOD being a large, well-equipped, strategic level formation headed by a Lt General. The heavily politicized “surgical strikes” (which in reality were the standard cross-LoC raid packaged with a fancy name), gave its raising an impetus. Reports suggested that the present NSA wanted a special group comprising the best from the three branches of the armed forces. This was meant to be at par with the US Navy's Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU / SEAL Team 6 that had killed Osama bin Laden at Attobabad, Pakistan; May 2011).

It is evident that the AFSOD falls short of the original vision.

Conflict With The Indian Army’s Doctrine

The AFSOD is proposed to be the first choice of the Government for major counter-terrorism operations both within and outside the country. This mandate conflicts with the Indian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine (of Nov 27, 2018), which identifies that “Future conflicts will be characterised by operating in a zone of ambiguity …. Wars will be Hybrid in nature, a blend of conventional and unconventional”.

The document adds that “Special Forces shall be equipped, structured and trained to ensure their application in multiple employment opportunities for exponential gains, to achieve our military objectives .... employment strategies must form a vital component of our overall deterrence capability, both in unconventional/ conventional domains”.

It also states that “India’s role as a regional security provider mandates a force projection capability to further our national security objectives. A Rapid Reaction Force comprising Integrated Battle Groups with strategic lift and amphibious capability will be an imperative for force projection operations.”

In other words, the Government desires to utilise the AFSOD for major counter-terrorism (CT) missions internally and for “surgical strikes” externally - whereas the Indian Army wants to assign the SOF missions at the strategic, theatre and operational level during war, which include ‘Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance’ (ISR) tasks, as well as deep operations to preempt, delay, disrupt and destroy high value targets in support of military operations.

This raises a question: will the AFSOD end up taking the best SOF personnel from each service and be used as just another CT force? If so, how will the Army, Navy and the Air Force fill their operational voids?

Or, will the AFSOD be dual-tasked? If yes, then its training, grouping and equipping merits refining beyond CT.

Unresolved Issues of Mandate And Hierarchy

In the US, all types of covert activities by the CIA and the US military are governed by two laws, namely ‘Title 50’ and ‘Title 10’, respectively. The CIA is the only US government agency which is legally allowed to carry out covert actions, unless the US President authorizes another agency (e.g. the US military) by issuing a ‘finding’. The US military’s statutory authority, broad missions and functions are codified in Title 10 of the United States Code.

Since there are international and political considerations and repercussions of using the SOF for covert action in foreign countries, US laws mandate that unless otherwise directed by the President/Secretary of Defence, a SOF activity/mission [“shall”] be only conducted within the jurisdiction of the GCC.

Since we are trying to emulate the US system, we need to understand our specific circumstances. In India, conducting “surgical strikes” across the LoC (an undefined boundary) is one thing; performing them across an international border (IB) is quite another - as legally, a target country can construe an overt, declared military strike across an IB, or the capture of an adversary’s military personnel on a covert mission inside its sovereign territory as a declaration of war - and escalate.

Besides, for cross-border operations, there are requirements of political management of the international community, information operations, real-time intelligence and imagery, media management, etc.

So: is the AFSOD only LoC (and ‘friendly’ countries) specific? Or, will it be available for “surgical strikes” across the IBs too? If it’s the former, it would be under-utilisation of a fine force.

If no, then it requires closer integration with the Ministry of External Affairs, Defence Intelligence Agency, Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), Intelligence Bureau, National Technical Research Organisation, etc. For that to happen, it should be reporting to the highest commander, e.g. a Chief of Defence Staff (yet to be appointed), as opposed to the chief of HQ IDS (CISC).

Can Indian Forces Finally Learn Jointness And Synergy?

While there has been a tremendous improvement in the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command since its raising, it is emblematic of the India’s Armed Forces’ apathetic attitude towards jointness. The US’ joint Combatant Commands, on the other hand, are the outcome of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defence Reorganisation Act of 1986. Under this,

(i) respective service chiefs are only responsible for “organising, training and equipping” personnel and do not have any operational control over their forces;

(ii) the troops of each service are deployed in, and support the commander responsible for a specific function (Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation) or a GCC; and

(iii) the military chain of command runs from the US President through the Secretary of Defence directly to Combatant Commanders, bypassing the Service chiefs, although they have an advisory role to the President and the Secretary of Defence.

In India however, the Service Chiefs have an operational role and full control over their forces – along with a reluctance to let go of their forces or support non-integral forces. This once again highlights the need for a CDS for joint organisations to flourish.

That said, it needs to be noted that, overall, the raising of the AFSOD under a capable commander is a very positive step. It needs to be nurtured by all elements of national power so that, with time, it matures and evolves into a larger, strategic force along the lines of, and with capabilities akin to, the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army