Special Frontier Force – How India’s covert Tibetan unit has been mauling terrorism all these years

The elite Special Frontier Force (SFF) is not only involved in repelling Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but was also deployed during the Bangladesh Liberation War and Kargil War, and in anti-terror operations in Kashmir and Punjab, under different names.

This covert unit, comprising Tibetan refugees led by Indian officers, came known to the public only recently after one of its commandos was martyred in a landmine explosion near flashpoint Pangong Tso. This two part series tracks the origin, evolution and heroics of these high-altitude warriors.

In the first part of a two-part series, we saw how the SFF was born out of Chinese brutalities in Tibet and trained by Indian and American forces. In this part, we will look at how this battle-hardened guerilla unit has been striking terror in the hearts of those disturbing peace in India all these years.

Evolution

The training of the force was expanded and sometimes in mid-70s, components from SFF were trained in free-fall technique of para-jumping. Over a period of time, SFF battalions started serving directly under command of the Indian Army.

First Parachute Free Fall Batch of SFF

At some point SFF came to be referred to as Vikas Regiment and its battalions as Vikas Battalions. As per publicly available information, currently, Special Frontier Force is organized into six Vikas battalions, 1 x Archer Battalion, and Special Group; all amounting to ~10,000 men.

  • 1 Vikas Battalion
  • 2 Vikas Battalion
  • 3 Vikas Battalion
  • 4 Vikas or Special Group
  • 5 Vikas Battalion
  • 6 Vikas Battalion
  • 7 Vikas Battalion
  • 1 Archer (Cdo) [also known as ‘Para Gurkhas’]

1 Archer (Cdo) or ‘Para Gurkhas’

SFF or Vikas battalions are equivalent to regular airborne troops with more emphasis on small unit action. These are officered by a mix of Indian and Tibetan officers. 1 Archer (Cdo) is the commando battalion which has strong presence of Gorkha troops from the Indian Army, hence the nick-name, ‘Para Gurkhas’. Special Group is an elite Special Forces outfit which is manned exclusively by officers and men on deputation from the Indian Army, with a healthy presence of men from Para (Special Forces) and Parachute Regiment.

Given their proficiency in mountain warfare and relative ease of operating at high-altitude areas, SFF battalion were inducted in Siachen glacier during heights of Operational Meghdoot. And also deployed along LOC in southern glacier in general area of Turtok. . Today, a Vikas battalion is permanently deployed in Siachen.

SFF soldier from 3 Vikas, somewhere in Siachen Glacier
SFF soldier with a snow scooter, somewhere in Siachen

— Images of SFF troops over the years (source: internet)

— Some more publicly available images of SFF, taken from the internet. Credit to the owners:

The Mavericks

Special Group/22 SF/Maverick chest badge

Sometime in mid-90s, as counter-insurgency operations raged in Kashmir, obituaries started appearing in the Indian newspapers of fallen soldiers from a unit mentioned simply as 22 SF or 22 Special Force.

Funny thing about 22 SF was that Indian Army at that time, and even now, does not have any 22 Special Forces unit.

So, what was it?

It was an organization about which most even within the army did not know about. And while it was staffed 100% by Indian Army personnel, it was not even under army control!

This was the Special Group, known simply as SG.

If SFF was an enigma, Special Group was literally a black hole with very few people even aware about its existence.

During the 70s, terrorism was at its peak with aircraft high-jacking, bombings, hostage taking etc becoming a common feature. Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes made countries around the world realize the requirement of units specialized in counter-terrorism operations.

The failed US operation to release US Embassy hostages in 1980 led to birth of Delta Force in USA. Meanwhile,  the British Special Air Service (SAS) burnished its reputation as a leading special force through successful execution of Operation Nimrod – neutralizing terrorists who had laid siege to Iranian Embassy in London.

A need was felt to raise a similar crack Counterterrorism and Hostage Rescue (CT/HR) formation in India. However, rather than work with the Indian Army to either raise a new unit or convert one of the three existing Para Commando Battalions (1,9 and 10 Para Cdo Bns), a new unit was raised under the aegis of Director General (Security).

For sake of obfuscation, it was termed as 4 Vikas. Its real name was Special Group.

However, it was different from other Vikas battalions in that it comprised of 100% Indian soldiers and officers.

A nucleus of officers was sent to Israel for training with Israeli special forces. This nucleus trained the rest of the unit. The unit consists of four squadron and each squadron in turn has four troops.

Some operations where SFF is supposed to have been involved, were carried out by the Special Group. For example, during Operation Bluestar, a team of SG was sent to take part in the operation. A combined team of SG and 1 Para (SF) (then known as 1 Para Commando or 1 Para Cdo), lead the opening phase of Operation Bluestar.

Special Group operators in Golden Temple post Operation Blue Star (source: India Today)

Even prior to Operation Bluestar, a plan had been prepared by Special Group for a heliborne assault on the Golden Temple with the aim of neutralizing or snatching Jernail Singh Bhindarwala, the leader of Khalistanis inside the holy site.

When SG was conceived, it was supposed to be a pan-India elite force responsible for handling all CT/HR related operations on the lines of British Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. However, post Operation Bluestar, a new CT/HR force was raised under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) which came to be known as National Security Guard (NSG). The core of NSG came from Special Group.

When the Prime Minister Indra Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards after Op Bluestar, Special Group was deployed to provide close proximity security to the new PM and deceased PM’s family.

When insurgency and militancy reared its head in Jammu & Kashmir, SG was deployed to this theater as well and this is where 22 SF was born.

During this period, Indian Army had just four Para (SF) battalions namely 1, 9, 10 and 21. Now, since obituaries could not be placed under its correct name, the story goes that 22 SF designation [ in continuity to 21 Para (SF)] was coined.  For some reason, this 22 SF name stuck and there even formal award list carried 22 SF/SG designation.

All men within SG are from Indian Army with many coming from Para (SF) and Parachute Battalions. However, it has a wider selection net and takes officers and men from other regiments and arms as well. Men serve with SG on deputation and after that, revert to their parent unit or regiment.

Interestingly, while SG is thought of as part of SFF, even the cap badge of Special Group is different from SFF and SG operators wear Special Group sleeve tabs. This is borne out of as recent images of SG operators.

Special Group ( SG ) Operator Pradeep Singh Rawat was martyred during a covert action in Uri Sector of Kashmir in 2018

By virtue of being part of intelligence set-up, it is said that the unit has access to latest weaponry and does not suffer from bureaucratic delays in acquisition like Para (SF) battalions of the army.

Also, through R&AW’s Aviation Research Center (ARC), it has access to air-transport for various activities at a short-notice.

Some publicly available pictures of Special Group operatives. Credit to owners.

Future

In 1975, a rule was put in place whereby Tibetans could not be placed within 10-km of India-Tibet border. This was because of some cross-border actions taken by Tibetan teams including firefight with the Chinese.

However, given the recent news of SFF troops being used to directly confront the Chinese in Eastern Ladakh, this rule for sure has been scrapped long back.

For long, Indian Army has been making a case for incorporating SFF under its complete operational control for better synergy and utilization of such a key asset. As it is, few Vikas battalions are always under the army’s operational control, the Inspector General of the SFF is an army Major General and its supporting staff and officers are from the army. However, given how tenaciously turfs are protected in our bureaucratic set-up, this is unlikely the case.

Same goes for Special Group. While being 100% army staffed, it remains outside the ambit of army’s control. Available material about new Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) shows that its jurisdiction will extend to special forces of the three Services. SG will still continue to remain away from control of the armed forces

Its tasks and objectives continue to remain a mystery.


[A slightly modified version of this article appeared online on India Today dated 7th September, 2020]

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