Sunday’s attack by militants from Pakistan on an Army camp in Kashmir that claimed the lives of 18 Indian soldiers has once again shown that India needs to look at a series of responses to counter this proxy war. Traditionally India has maintained a numerical and conventional superiority against Pakistan. However, as the Uri attack and the ones before have shown, Islamabad will continue to leverage non-state actors to target India and undermine its strategic underpinnings.

How can India respond to this decades-old proxy war that has claimed more lives than all those lost in the wars that it has fought since Independence?

It is also pertinent to ask if India has learnt any lessons from these attacks, be it Pathankot or Pampore. The loss of armed forces personnel also impacts the morale of the men and women who guard India's external boundaries and form the bulwark of its internal security. While there is no doubt that there were lapses in past attacks and the Uri attack on several levels – intelligence, military and political – it is also an opportunity to redress the lapses in a meaningful manner.

The Indian political, military and intelligence establishments must use this opportunity to tell the world that India means business.

But how can New Delhi do that?

Wars of the future

The attacks in Pathankot, Pampore and Uri were all in the sub-conventional domain. They were carried out by non-state actors with active help from the Pakistani military leadership.The answer to such attacks, therefore, does not lie in the domain of a conventional response. To do so would be fraught with risks at the military, diplomatic and political levels. A conventional response could also lead to rapid escalation of conflict and lead to many unintended consequences.

The answer lies in the sub-conventional or the unconventional domain where India continues to lack capabilities. A good way to redress this imbalance is to raise a Special Operations Command, which has been on the cards for several years. This was a recommendation of the Naresh Chandra Task Force set up by the United Progressive Alliance government, which failed to implement it in time. This recommendation, like the one to institute a Chief of Defence Staff, must be implemented forthwith so that it has time to settle in and mature and deliver the capability that India desperately seeks.

Why is this important? Today, the nature of conventional warfare has changed dramatically. Nations seek deniability, as well as the ability to strike at strategic targets far beyond their territorial boundaries. This needs the extensive deployment of Special Forces that can operate in the sub-conventional or the unconventional domain.

This does not mean that India ignores its conventional strengths. Maintaining conventional superiority (in the case of Pakistan) or parity (in the case of China) is a credible deterrence to a larger threat. However, the conventional superiority that India has always maintained over Pakistan has failed to deliver succour from the militant attacks that Pakistan indulges in as part of its strategy to bleed India by a thousand cuts. Today, the Indian Army is tied down in Jammu and Kashmir, carrying out counter-insurgency duties, while also being forced to get into situations that puts it in opposition to the local populace. This is not only undesirable, but also dangerous for a professional military like the Indian Army.

Instead, India needs to think about expanding its ability to strike far away from its shores, at targets that are strategic and also the centres of sponsoring a proxy war. To get this ability, India needs a deliberate and well thought out strategy that will take years to unfold, but can shape the wars of the future.

Special Operations Command

To start with, the very essence of building this capability lies in creating structures that are durable, time-tested and can deliver the results a country like India needs.

A Special Operations Command will go a long way in consolidating the various Special Forces units that are dispersed throughout India’s security architecture and serve different masters. In its current stage, the armed forces Special Forces are disparate, with little or no commonality. This has a profound impact on its capabilities. Members of the Special Forces don’t train together, they don’t have the same objectives, and they don’t share the same equipment.

Then, the Special Forces that lie outside the military are under a different command and control, and except for taking officers and troops on deputation, have little to do with the armed forces. The Union Home Ministry has its own Special Forces components that work on a completely different grid. Consolidating these disparate elements and bringing them under a cohesive command and control will dramatically enhance India’s abilities to plan and execute complex special operations far from home.

All the forces that are considered Special Forces or were raised as such must be consolidated under this Command. Specifically, the four original Special Forces battalions of the Indian Army – 1, 9, 10 and 21 Para (Special Forces) – that have gathered considerable experience, expertise and capabilities and can form the nucleus of this proposed Command. The remaining Army special forces battalions can be left to the various Commands to carry out tactical operations. The Navy’s Special Forces, known as the MARCOS must also be placed under this proposed Command, so that they can add their expertise and capabilities. This also creates a jointness along with the special operations-capable elements of the Indian Air Force, which will provide the much needed airlift capabilities. But while these will form the nucleus of the Special Operations Command, there are many other elements that need to be added to achieve the capability India needs to respond to sub-conventional threats.

Intelligence and Special Operations

The mere creation of a Special Operations Command is not adequate unless it is linked to the intelligence apparatus of the nation. Today, the three intelligence services – Intelligence Bureau, Research & Analysis Wing and National Technical Research Organisation – work under different ministries and departments and have no institutional linkages to the Special Forces. Whatever linkages that exist are all at the tactical level and are usually ineffective on the ground. This needs to change if India seeks to create a credible deterrence to the decades of terrorism that it has faced.

But merely bringing intelligence with the Special Forces will not be adequate.

Admiral William McRaven, who planned and executed Operation Neptune Spear, which led to the neutralising of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden, has always emphasised that special operations are strategic in nature. They are operations that have an inordinately high political risk, but also equally high deliverables.

Lessons from other wars and insurgencies also show how technology is shaping the future of warfare. When Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal took over the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, he noticed how different capabilities of the Special Forces and the intelligence teams were placed just a few hundred metres apart, but rarely spoke or cooperated with each other. He went on to demolish these artificial walls and built joint teams of Special Forces and cyber specialists, working together as a “Team of Teams” to confuse and degrade the Iraqi insurgency with great effect. Cyber hackers of the United States’ National Security Agency would hack into online social networks to confuse the enemy and use the opportunity to hit them with the Special Forces.

India did something similar against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, using elements of 9 and 10 Para (Special Forces), but those lessons have been lost to the current military leadership. A new Special Operations Command can revive those lessons and create the capabilities that are needed urgently.

Role of the NSA

Therefore, the Special Forces must be adequately placed under a military-political-intelligence command structure that can take crucial decisions and drive the Special Forces. In India’s current structure of governance, this is best achieved if the Special Operations Command and its resources are placed under the office of the National Security Adviser, who is an integral part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The National Security Adviser is in may ways the single-most important point of advice on all security and strategic matters for the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. The mechanism of the Cabinet Committee on Security, with key representatives of Defence, Home, External Affairs and Finance, has to work together and support the National Security Adviser and the National Security Council to take key decisions to deploy the Special Forces in high-risk, high-yield missions in any part of the world where India has a strategic stake.

In the United Kingdom, the Director (Special Forces) is a part of the Crisis Management Committee that is headed by the Prime Minister. While the United Kingdom also has a Chief of Defence Service, the role of the Director (Special Forces) is unique. The director, an officer of the rank of Major General, is usually from the Special Air Service or Special Boat Service – British Special Forces from the army or Navy – and has the ability to give professional advice to the highest policy makers in the land.

For a country of the size of India, with its complex security challenges, this is the interface that can deliver results. The highest decision-makers must have access to the best professional advice from men and women who have dealt with such operations, without having to depend on traditional military hierarchies. This is not to suggest that the traditional military hierarchy be kept out of the loop. They must be included, but a dedicated Special Operations Command chief must get a seat at the high table to render professional and sound military advice.

Afghanistan alliance

Teams of Special Forces can be deployed in Afghanistan with the blessings of a bilateral agreement or alliance, and carry out joint training or missions, depending on where the terror threat to both countries lie. These must be carried out in close cooperation with intelligence agencies. This, in turn, will give a loud signal to the neighbourhood that India and its allies will no longer brook any threat to its national and economic interests.

Both New Delhi and Kabul can explore joint training and operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area that can deliver ample strategic gains to both the nations. India and Afghanistan have to also be mindful that the Chinese have key interests here and will always be a valuable ally to Pakistan. On the ground, it must be made clear that while India never had any expansionist ambitions, it will continue to go to any length to protect its interests at home and abroad.

New Delhi must support the government in Afghanistan politically and militarily – with equipment, advice and intelligence support. This is again an area where Special Forces can play a major role and lead the way to create a deterrence that will ensure that Pakistan or any other adversary will not be spared if it continues to inflict harm to India and its people.

Lt Gen Hardev Lidder is former Chief of Integrated Staff and a veteran Special Forces officer. Lt Gen Prakash Katoch is former DG (Information Systems) and a Special Forces Veteran. Saikat Datta is former Editor (National Security), The Hindustan Times and co-author of India's Special Forces.