On February 21, three men from the India Army’s elite Special Forces lost their lives while trying to evict two terrorists from Pampore’s Entrepreneurship Development Institute in the Kashmir valley. The deaths of Captain Pawan Kumar, Captain Tushar Mahajan and Lance Naik Om Prakash are tragic, but also raises several questions that urgently need answers.

Officers among the Rashtriya Rifles formations, a force that is permanently situated in Jammu and Kashmir for counter insurgency operations, said that several inexplicable decisions were taken during the Pampore operation that led to the sudden rise in casualties.

“In any hostage rescue operation in a multi-storied building, it is key that the commandos enter the building from multiple entry points simultaneously to achieve surprise,” said a senior Special Forces army officer in the area. “In this case the team commander of 10 Para (SF) had requested for time to plan the operation and ensure a simultaneous multiple entry into the EID building, but this was denied by the senior commanders.” The officer requested anonymity since he is not authorised to speak.

An officer in the Rashtriya Rifles formation deployed under Victor Force (the formation dedicated for operation in the Kashmir Valley region) confirmed this. “Ideally, the men should have cordoned the area and conducted the operation in day light,” he said. The rush into the building at night, he contended, “can be dangerous and this probably cost Pawan his life”.

Tactical error

Most Special Forces veterans who are familiar with such operations pointed out that entering a building from the top is a standard precaution that is taken along with a simultaneous multiple-entry to gain tactical advantage. “If take the higher ground, you have the tactical advantage and as you rush in using multiple entry points, you overwhelm the enemy,” said a former SF veteran, who retired as a Lieutenant General a few years ago.

The fact that a helicopter was not used to land the SF team on the roof has also perplexed many SF veterans. “A dedicated squadron of Advanced Light Helicopters is usually kept at the disposal of the SF teams in Udhampur,” the former General pointed out. ”They could have been used to land the team on the roof. This was done during the 26/11 operations in Mumbai at Chabad House.”

Several other officers who are familiar with the Pampore operation agreed that the lives of Captain Kumar, Mahajan and Lance Naik Om Prakash could have been saved if these tactics had been followed. While 10 Para (SF) took the lead in trying to flush out the terrorists, a team from 9 Para (SF) was rushed in to aid their operations. This team also did not intervene from the roof or use multiple entry points, leading to another casualty.

Much of this could have probably been avoided. A rescue of the hostages from the Iranian Embassy in London by the British SF unit, the SAS is still considered as the classic text book operation for others to emulate. Unfortunately, the pressures of reacting to a tense situation, many suspect, led to an inordinately high number of casualties. But there seems to be a deeper malaise that is contributing to these high casualties among the Special Forces.

High casualties

Since September, the Special Forces has lost five men in different operations in the Kashmir valley, which is unprecedented. In September, Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami of 9 Para (SF) was killed in an operation. Two months later Col Santosh Mahadik formerly of 21 Para (SF) was killed leading his unit in an operation in Kashmir. The Pampore operation has now claimed three more, in such a short span.

“The Pakistanis are sending in hired mercenaries and we are losing some of our most precious boys,” said Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, a veteran of the Special Forces and several special operations. “This is unacceptable and we have to find a better way to employ our elite.”

In many countries like the US and the UK, the SF have been placed under a unified command to ensure that they are employed judiciously and for strategic objectives. In the US, after the failure of a major operation in Iran in 1980, the US Congress took it upon themselves to address the systemic failures in the military. Two legislative measures followed quickly. The US Congress passed the Reorganisation of the Pentagon Act that would lead the way in reforming the US military. This would be followed by the Nunn-Cohen amendment to the Reorganisation of Pentagon Act, creating the Special Operations Command, created exclusively for the Special Forces through legislative statute.

This ensured that the Special Forces would have a single command for their employment in high-risk operations, or to equip them with the latest equipment to ensure they could carry out their missions to the best of their abilities. While the Special Forces had hits and misses, they also notched up several successes such as Operation Neptune Spear when a team of Navy SEALS infiltrated into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and took out the Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.

Divided house

Unfortunately, in India the Special Forces remains a divided house. In the Army, it has been forcibly placed under the Parachute regiment, which is meant for large-scale airborne operations. The Special Forces are small team operations, which depend on secrecy, speed and mobility to achieve their targets behind enemy lines. There is also no single command for all the Special Forces elements that India has. The Army, Navy and Air Force SF units are all independent of each other. The other Special Forces units – the Special Group reports to the Research and Analysis Wing and the National Security Guard to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. As a result, each force continues to work in a disjointed manner

Manoj Joshi, a former member of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on security and a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is scathing in his views on how the Special Forces are employed: “We must have a Special Operations Command that is intelligence-led and can carry out operations that can achieve our strategic needs. Using them tactically is a sheer waste of talent and more disturbingly, precious lives.” In fact the committee did recommend the creation of such a command but that proposal was sent into cold storage after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power.

In the end, the Special Forces in India continue to be orphaned by a lack of vision and misunderstood among the military and political hierarchy. “On most occasions they are viewed as super infantry boys, who will rush in and achieve the impossible,” said Katoch. “That is a dangerous myth that must be discarded if we want an SF that can deliver strategic objectives.”

Unfortunately, even the recent spate of deaths and goof ups such as the response in Pathankot has failed to generate a meaningful debate or reform in the military or the government. The wages of the systemic faults are being paid by the loss of precious lives.

The Special Forces men who have died recently
Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami, September 5, 2015
Santosh Mahadik, CO, 41 Rashtriya Rifles, killed on November 17, 2015
Capt Pawan Kumar, 10 Para (SF), February 21, 2016
Capt Tushar Mahajan 9 Para (SF), February 21, 2016
Lance Naik Om Prakash, 10 Para (SF), February 21, 2016

Saikat Datta has been a journalist. He has co-authored a book on India’s Special Forces, published by the United Services Institution. All views are personal.