Indian Para Commando/Special Forces: Evolving For a new frontier- from 1972- 1989.

After a stellar performance in the 71 war, 9th and 10th Para Commando battalions, proved the efficacy of such a specialized unit on the battlefield. By 1978, Army leadership felt the need to convert another battalion into Para Commando, to act as strategic reserves. Hence, 1 Para (one of the oldest regiments) got converted into Experimental Commando Wing…to be modeled like the British SAS or US Delta Force. Although the intentions were noble, the actual execution was mired by the deep traditions and conventions that the Indian army was seeped into. This prevented the Para Commando regiments from getting advanced weaponry and distinct command structure and tactics which would allow them to transform into true Special Forces role.

Let me clarify here as to what is meant by true Special Forces role. Indian Commando battalions were more attuned for tasks like behind enemy line action….supporting the conventional forces in achieving their objectives….forming assault teams to strike at designated targets. British SAS which had moved on from these battlefield roles, were now engaged in recce and intelligence gathering activity. They were also involved in infiltrating and dismantling terror groups in the middle east. They had adapted to acquire multiple skills instead of theater specific skills like Mountains fighting for 9th Para and Desert fighting for 10 Para. SAS was acting as a strategic tool for the UK foreign office. Some visionaries in the Indian Army also envisaged a similar role.

By 1983, India had three Para Commando Battalions which were sending assault teams to the north-east for counter insurgency ops. The commanders understood that no training was better than actual combat experience which shall prove valuable in Sri Lanka, a few years later. But, before that, after having a rather peaceful existence since the 71 war, the Para commandos were to experience a disastrous operation in the town of Amritsar.

Operation Blue Star/Operation Metal- If you want to rank the most poorly planned military operations in history, one that was executed in Amritsar in  first week of June 1984, would be a top contender. It seems the army leadership which did the operational planning, forgot to read its own handbook on how to fight in an urban/built-up area. Para commandos were sent through main entrance which was heavily guarded by the militants. The commandos were not allowed to use armor vehicle or rocket launchers…there was also very sketchy intelligence about the number of militants and the kind of weapons at their disposal. The frontal assaults led to heavy causalities (officially 83, unofficially 700) before gains were made.  One of the commanders of the Para units remarked that the commandos were sent into a Kill Zone with their hands tied behind their back. Many lessons would be learned from this disastrous operation and would prevent similar occurrences in future.

IPKF deployment in Sri Lanka:
During the IPKF deployment, Para Commandos were sent in to support the infantry units and after initial setbacks, they started to prove deadly.  They were in an unknown land…with negligible intelligence…difficult topography…a ruthless, clever and heavily armed enemy, adept at guerilla warfare. The commandos were still fighting with antiquated SLRs or self loading rifles while the Tamil Tigers were shooting back with AK-47. Commandos would keep any captured AK-47 as a trophy and as luck would have it, SLR’s 7.62 mm ammunition could also be used in the Kalashnikov.
In Sri lanka too, the Local commander would use Para commandos for more conventional roles like taking out some enemy hideout…establishing ambushes…etc. Gradually, the Para Commandos started doing roles like intelligence gathering…getting in touch with other Tamil groups hostile to LTTE…tracking and capturing the LTTE Leadership. They met with marginal success in that role and also created a intelligence data bank which proved to be highly useful in understanding LTTE tactics and behavior.

There was one failed operation which stands out. There was some sketchy intelligence about the LTTE Leadership meeting in Jaffna. It was decided to conduct a heli-borne operation with the Para commandos landing first and securing the landing zone which was a football stadium, surrounded by high rise buildings. The only helicopters available  were four Mi-8, which could carry 20 personnel at a time, and they were supposed to carry 480 men which meant more than 20 sorties. Obviously the element of surprise would be lost after the first roaring helicopter landed in the stadium. This is what happened, by the time third wave came in, LTTE had positioned machine guns and rocket launchers all around the stadium…it was full moon night. Out of the 29 men who came out of the helicopters…28 were shot dead. The helicopters were also fired upon and kudos to the brave pilots who still went in and completed their task. The whole operation was aborted midway. But, there were Indian troops stranded on the ground…those who came in the first two waves.
An audacious operation was launched to rescue the stranded Para units who had landed initially and had fought their way into the University campus beside the stadium. Three T-72 tanks followed a railway line which ran parallel to the University campus and rescued the commandos, after some very heavy fighting. This again highlighted the dismal intelligence available about the enemy’s capabilities and numbers.

But, the IPKF experience was a baptism by fire for the commandos. They developed SOPs or standard operating procedures for such unconventional operations which would prove very handy in tackling militancy brewing in the state of  Jammu & Kashmir.  More on that coming soon.

– Jai Hind
Ref. India’s Special Forces by Lt. Gen P.C.Katoch and Saikat Datta.

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