Editor’s note: This article was written by Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, a Special Operations officer in the Indian Army, and originally published on Mission Victory India. It offers an original perspective of affairs in Southern Asia and also a glimpse into the Indian Special Operations community. 

The use of SF in conflict is as old as warfare. But a perceptible change in warfare, in recent years, is the emergence of the sub-conventional segment of conflict over even the conventional and nuclear segments within the overall ambit of hybrid wars. Conventional conflict has become prohibitively costly in terms of finances and lives. Powerful nations care little about financial costs of war, especially when promoting conflict is aimed at geopolitical supremacy, control of oil, water, minerals, and promotion of own defense and industrial export objectives, in addition to other reasons.

But even in such cases, costs in terms of lives matter which politicians vying for power can justify only up to a particular level as perceived by them. Therefore, the reduction in ‘boots on the ground’ is visible, especially in conflicts raging on foreign territories.

Employment of SF is on the rise, as they provide a low-cost option with high gains, leaving ambiguous signatures or none at all. Yet, SF are ‘force multipliers’, not the end means by themselves. This too is evident from instances where excessive use of SF, experimented as replacement of the ‘force’ for which they are to provide the ‘multiplier’ effect, have not produced the expected results. In turn, such mass has caused avoidable excess casualties to SF.

Therefore, the replacement ‘force’ is being found amongst the host of terrorist organizations roaming the world; armed, sustained, fought, suitably relocated, reused and exploited in conflict to meet political objectives of powerful nations or group of nations and their protégés, an example of the latter being Pakistan. SF employment has been integrated into this process, with instances of them operating in synch with terrorist organizations, enhancing their game-changer effect. This by no means implies that individual SF operations including against terrorist organizations have ceased.

Special Forces

In asymmetric settings, SF have limitless pro-active employment possibilities to exploit dissidence; employ asymmetric approaches from the nuclear and space spheres to psychological operations, information war, economic, technical, financial war. In counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, SF can be used for intelligence, surveillance and psychological operations, rival / pseudo gang operations, infiltrating radical organizations, neutralizing terrorist leaders, organizations, support groups, infrastructure, selective raids, ambushes, snatch operations and incident response operations.

In out of area contingencies, they can assist airborne/conventional forces or be called upon to perform politico-military missions like assistance to third world nations, surgical strikes, recovery missions, prevent terrorist use of a weapon of mass destruction, humanitarian assistance and the like.

Future conflicts will see a heightened need for intelligence and deniable covert capabilities for achieving strategic aims, both of which will have a major SF component. In the context of the Indian sub-continent, there is little doubt that asymmetric wars (of which terrorism and insurgencies are manifestations) will continue to dominate the conflict spectrum, albeit windows of conventional war under the nuclear backdrop will remain.