Thirteen years ago, when I stepped into the darkened confines of South Block, the cupola-topped complex that houses our Ministry of Defence, for the first time, I didn’t know that my first day as a defence correspondent would also be a tremendously fortuitous one. It was the day I would meet a soldier from the Special Forces for the first time.
I had been dispatched by my newspaper to introduce myself to officials and spokespersons at the ministry, shake their hands and begin navigating the bewildering world of defence reportage. Instead, my first full conversation that afternoon was with a man who, like me, appeared to be waiting for an appointment. I knew just enough to recognise he was no regular soldier; he belonged to the Indian Army’s fearsome Para Special Forces.
The soldier would be the first of innumerable such soldiers I would encounter in the course of my reporting duties. But as a budding journalist cast into the deep end of a difficult subject, I could think of nothing that I needed more than those fifteen minutes with the Major (he never told me his name, and I didn’t ask) to open shutters to the most fascinating, awe-inspiring and terrifying side of our military. The launch of Operation Jinnah has afforded me a chance to revisit that fleeting memory I had salted away. I started by asking him what compelled him to opt for the Special Forces.
Signing up for the Special Forces is entirely voluntary. The drop-out rate is a staggering 70 per cent. From initial training to probation to final operational training in the field, a fraction of the original number finally become Special Forces men. I asked the officer why he chose to join the Special Forces at all. His reply: ‘If I’m going to be in the military, I want to be the blade that does the cutting. Every time.’
Images from military demos and ceremonies like Republic Day reveal the basic weapons and equipment in service with the Indian Special Forces. These include the now ubiquitous Israeli Tavor TAR-21 assault rifle and Galil sniper rifle. A whole arsenal of support weaponry and gear exists that you’ll never see or hear about, since procurement information is frequently privileged and masked.
For instance, the Indian Navy’s MARCOS operate old Italian-built Cosmos miniature two-man submarines, soon to be replaced by Indian-built swimmer delivery vehicles for undersea assault and sabotage operations. Para-commandos are also rumoured to already operate VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) drones in some parts of Jammu & Kashmir. A MARCOS officer I once spoke to said, “Warriors are the biggest weapons here. Everything else is just an enabler. But life-and-death enablers. What you see is what we’re allowed to show you. Anything else would be a risk to us in operations.”
While the Indian Navy’s MARCOS and Indian Air Force’s Garud special forces remain ever-ready for combat (as is the National Security Guard), it is the Indian Army’s Para-SF units that are permanently deployed in hostile theatres for quick reaction offensive operations. Teams from two of these units went across the Line of Control last September to destroy terrorist launch-pads. The MARCOS remain deployed at Kashmir’s Wular Lake, the only operations site where the naval special forces are permanently deployed.
The Para-SF, the largest of the military special forces, has just over 5,000 warriors spread across eight battalions, deployed largely in Jammu & Kashmir and the North-East. With the use of the Para Special Forces increasing dramatically in the last 18 months, the security establishment is said to be contemplating increasing the number of such units to maybe a dozen, and nearly 8,000 Para Special Forces warriors. Some experts believe it is the separation of the Special Forces from the Army’s Parachute Regiment (an airborne infantry regiment) that will fully reveal the capabilities and worth of SF warriors, and that the current numbers are fully adequate for India’s requirements.
However, forget the Special Forces, the Indian Army doesn’t accept women entrants even in regular combat arms like the infantry, artillery or armoured corps yet. Women officers populate regiments like Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation (Air Traffic Control), Army Air Defence, Electronics & Mechanical Engineers, Army Service Corps, Army Ordinance Corps, Intelligence Corps, Army Education Corps and Judge Advocate General branches. There’s mixed news elsewhere too.
The US still doesn’t have a single female applicant for the US Navy SEALS and no successful applicant for the Green Berets (US Army Special Forces) even a year after doors to all special forces and combat arms were opened to women. On the other hand, Norway recently revealed Hunter Troop, the world’s first all-woman special forces training unit.
As fierce debate prevails, several proponents and experts believe that while women ought to be permitted to choose any regular combat stream, they would particularly be well suited for special forces operations. Missions where the difference between life and death isn’t just physical strength, but survivability, endurance and relentless mental toughness.