Operation Geronimo, which enabled elimination of Osama bin Laden - the world’s most wanted and hunted terrorist leader - in a special forces’ action will go down in history for strategic as well as operational reasons. It has several lessons on the use of Special Forces in the emerging security threats related to terrorism, border management, security of offshore assets, and to meet any ‘out of area contingencies’ (OOACs).
At the strategic level, Operation Geronimo shows that national security remains the highest priority for the US President, no matter which political party he may belong to. It reflects national determination and perseverance to achieve a national security goal: in this case bringing to justice a terrorist leader who had so brutally assaulted the US ten years ago on September 11, 2001. And if such a goal demands overlooking ‘sovereignty’ of a friendly or a not- so- friendly nation, so be it! As this mission and its cause were so righteous, no nation except Pakistan has raised any objection on it. The operation has enhanced US deterrence capability against any future 9/11 type misadventure.
At the operational level, credit should be given to the CIA, which on the basis of a Guantanamo interrogation report, was able to build upon it, brick by brick, and get to the target. That the target was being shielded by its own ally would have made that more difficult. In such a mission, human intelligence plays a much greater role than technical intelligence and ensures greater chances of success in the execution of the mission. The CIA has shown exemplary capability and once again proved the importance of human intelligence over technical intelligence.
Like the buildup of intelligence, planning and execution requires capacity building: selection of personnel, extensive training, coordination and rehearsals over target like objectives. The plan must ensure total surprise to be able to deliver high results with minimum resources and signatures. For days, the team has to maintain a ready to launch mode so that minimum time is wasted between political assent and mission execution. Security of the mission is, therefore, critical.
The operation in Abbottabad was conducted by a SEAL Team (acronym is derived from its capacity to operate at sea, in the air and on land) nominated for the mission two months in advance. The SEALs are US Navy's principal special operations force; part of the Naval Special Warfare Command and maritime component of the US Special Operations Command. They are trained in a wide variety of missions including counter-terrorism and unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and hostage rescue.
Yet another lesson from this operation is about the blurring dividing line between the strategic and operational levels of mission. Continuous intelligence briefing of the US President over nine months and the picture of the President monitoring its execution along with his national security team says it all!
Operation Geronimo has reinforced the need for Special Forces in the emerging security threats in peace and war. In war, they are employed as force multipliers to complement the task performed by conventional forces entailing high risk and high gain missions requiring minimum visibility.
India maintains Special Forces in all three wings of its armed forces-Army Commandos, Marine Commandos (MARCOS) and Air Force Garuds, apart from the Special Action Groups (SAGs), comprising Army personnel on deputation with National Security Guards. While the SAGs have dedicated resources like aircraft and helicopters, state of the art equipment and training facilities, the Special Forces of the armed forces depend mostly on their service resources. These Special Forces are not country specific but mission specific. Special Forces of the armed forces can be integrated for any mission. For this purpose, they carry out joint training frequently.
India’s Special Forces do not have the same capability as the US forces due to non-availability of high technology. But depending upon the distance involved and combat environment up to and on the target, they are capable of carrying out Operation Geronimo type missions across the border or for OOACs. However, there are some problems in their tasking, organizational and equipping priorities.
First and foremost is the inhibition at the decision making level, usually on the ground(s) of moral and diplomatic propriety, poor understanding of strategic environment, military knowledge and risk appetite. This attitude at the highest level gets reflected in their employment mostly on tactical missions instead of strategic missions. We thus fail to exploit their true potential and remain content with successful counter terror operations hinterland.
Intelligence is the key to Special Forces operations. Employment of Special Forces requires accurate intelligence and continuous surveillance of the target. We need enhanced human and technical intelligence capabilities in our neighborhood and wherever else required. This takes a long time to build and much less to get eroded. Some years ago, RAW had built such a capability but was frittered away on political directions. Intelligence also requires automated decision support system and real time dissemination along with a common operation picture.
In the absence of a Chief of Defense Staff and tri-service apex organization like the Special Forces Command, despite frequent joint training, our Special Forces are not optimally integrated. Currently, Army Special Forces face an acute shortage of officers and some essential equipment.
Finally, it must be stated that strategy and diplomacy in international relations are based on the art of the possible and advancement of national interests. The Western world believes that morality in this ethical system is the handmaiden of state policy, dictated by the situation in which we are placed. A righteous cause is important, but the method need not be sentimental, or even ethical! According to Kautilya, ‘when the interests of the country are involved, ethics are a burdensome irrelevance’.
Gen VP Malik, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) is former COAS
Courtesy: Hindustan Times, Chandigarh, 7 May 2011
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).