Special Frontier Force – Tracing the history of elite Tibetan unit that left China licking its wounds

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.

During the recent clash between the Indian and the Chinese army, a Tibetan soldier from the Special Frontier Force (SFF), equivalent to a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), was killed while another was injured. Most Indians would’ve for the first time heard about Tibetans fighting as part of the Indian Army. But what most do not know is that these intrepid Tibetans soldiers are carrying forward a legacy which began shortly after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950.

A History of Resistance

Chushi-Gandruk Flag

The story actually starts a few years after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 when the Chinese invaded and occupied the outer and eastern region of Tibet comprising of Amdo, Golok and Kham. The Chinese communists introduced various policies and programs which directly undermined the Tibetan way of life. The net effect was that by 1955-56, the people of these regions rose in simultaneous revolt against the Chinese occupation. The Chinese in retaliation used excessive military power, which included use of heavy bombers and fighter aircrafts to attack monasteries and local resistance, to subjugate the population and thousands of Tibetans were killed in these reprisals.

Khampa Warriors

Source: http://www.harrerportfolio.com/Images/Khampa.jpg

In early 1957, a centralized armed resistance to the Chinese occupation was organized under the leadership of Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang and named as Chushi – Gangdruk (Four Rivers, Six Ranges). Inn mid-1958, this resistance force which was raised primarily for defence of eastern Tibet was transformed into an all Tibet force and named as National Volunteer Defence Army (NVDA). However, this resistance force continued to be known more popularly as Chushi-Gangdruk

Gompo-Taqshi in the middle

Source: https://cz.pinterest.com/pin/815714551229558074/?nic_v2=1a3XgOqE6

This was also the period when Americans started taking keen interest in developments in Tibet. They were already in touch with the two exiled brothers of the current Dalai Lama from early 50s.

By 1956, a decision had been taken by the Eisenhower administration to support covert activities against the Chinese in Tibet.

Subsequently, a Tibetan Task Force was established, and it was decided to exfiltrate a batch of Tibetans to be trained in intelligence operations and guerrilla warfare. This training was done at the pacific island of Saipan. Not surprisingly, given the geographical proximity, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), ran its activities to support Tibetans from then East Pakistan. The first six Tibetans were smuggled across West Bengal into East Pakistan in February 1957, then flown in B-17s to Okinawa (Japan) and then to the island of Saipan. B-17 were also used to para-drop some of the initial batches into Tibet. Later C-118 ‘Liftmaster’ (USAF designation of DC-6) and even C-130 were used.

Subsequent batches of Tibetans were trained in mainland USA in the mountainous area of Colorado where the terrain and climate mimicked the Tibetan landscape. Till the involvement of India, these trained guerrillas were primarily para-dropped into Tibet. Kurmitola in East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) was the major base from where flights were made to transport Tibetan guerrillas to CIA bases in far east and then to drop then back, along with arms and ammunition, deep into Tibet after their successful training.

Source: https://caamedia.org/shadowcircus/camp.html

During this period, the then Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, was not in favour of any anti-China activities from Indian soil and no help was given to the Tibetan guerrillas from Indian side.

Strange Bedfellows

During the period leading up to 1962 Sino-India war, the relationship between India and China  has hardened considerably. Even before the 1962 war, there was some tacit understanding between India and USA over latter’s support for Tibetan guerrillas.

The Tibetan resistance had faced severe mauling from the People’s Liberation Army and most of its cadre was either neutralized or escaped to India. Hence, in 1960, CIA decided to set-up a new Tibetan guerrilla base in Mustang region of central-north Nepal which lies on the Nepal-Tibet border. This region extends into Tibet and the people are of same stock as Tibetans. While the CIA was utilizing various air-routes to supply these guerrillas in Nepal, these routes had become troublesome. The Chinese had shifted air-surveillance and air-defence assets into their Kunming province and hence, this corridor was no longer safe. Similarly, Burma also objected to flights over its airspace. The best route to drop supplies and insert US trained guerrillas into this region was by over-flying Indian airspace. And by late-1961, India provided a tacit approval for these over-flights.

In October 1962, China attacked India along its eastern and western borders. The war was disastrous for India and it suffered heavy reverses. Prime Minister Nehru reached out to US President on 29th October 1962 (a day after Cuban Missile Crisis was defused) for assistance in terms of arms, ammunition, fighter aircraft, tanks etc. One aspect of this new US-India relationship related to use of Tibetan guerrillas against the Chinese interests in Tibet.

Birth of an Idea

The need for a Tibetan manned guerrilla outfit for intelligence, surveillance, and other clandestine activities was felt by multiple quarters in India.

One such initiative involved the then Defence Minister Krishna Menon and Lt General BN Kaul. After the Phase 1 of Chinese attack and advance in October 1962, both had discussed the feasibility of raising a force of Tibetans to attack the Chinese army within Tibet. It is they who identified Brigadier Sujan Singh Uban (later Major General S.S.Uban) as the first commander of this force. Brigadier Uban had retired/was on the verge of retirement when he was given the offer of leading such a force. Later when the idea was implemented under different circumstances, not only was he reinstated but also promoted to the rank of Major General. To this day, the commandant of Special Frontier Force (SFF) is an army officer of Major General rank and is referred to as Inspector General, SFF.

Defense Minister VK Krishna Menon and Lt Gen BN Kaul
Major General Sujan Singh Uban

Their other partner in this activity was the Direct of Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB), Bhola Nath Mullick (BN Mullick). Through IB, Gyalo Thondup, brother of Dalai Lama who was living in Calcutta, was approached to help in recruiting Tibetans to this guerrilla force from various Tibetan refugee camps in India.

IB Director BN Mullick
Gyalo Thundup (left in picture) with HH The Dalai Lama

However, following the renewed Chinese offensive in November 1962 and crushing defeat of India, Krishan Menon resigned as Defence Minister and Lt Gen Kaul was thoroughly disgraced and out of picture. The whole program was passed onto BN Mullick and Intelligence Bureau.

Another person who approached Prime Minister Nehru with this idea was the former Chief Minister of Odisha, Shri Biju Patnaik. A maverick with charismatic personality and prior experience in running clandestine air operations, he proposed to raise such a force. PM Nehru directed him to work with BN Mullick as he was leading such an effort.

Both BN Mullick and Shri Biju Patnaik were to become central figures in India’s raising of a Tibetan guerrilla force and its supporting aviation assets.

After request for help from Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Kennedy administration sent a delegation in November 1962 comprising of representatives from State Department, Pentagon and CIA to discuss the assistance and cooperation required by the Indian government. The CIA delegation worked out the framework of engaging Tibetan guerrillas for clandestine activities with BN Mullick and his subordinates from the Indian Intelligence Bureau. There were two arrangements here –

  1. CIA Support to India
    1. Support to raise a paramilitary force comprising of Tibetans exiled in India along with support infrastructure under the aegis of Intelligence Bureau.

    2. This force would be used for intelligence gathering and clandestine operations in Tibet in case of any future India-China shooting match.

    3. This arrangement would lead to the birth of Special Frontier Force (SFF) and the Aviation Research Center (ARC).

  2. Indian Support to CIA Operations
    1. To sustain Tibetan guerrilla operations within Tibet from their base in Mustang in Nepal.
    2. While Indian involvement in this operation reduced significantly by late 60s, CIA ran this program till early 1970s when USA reached out to China and thereafter, all support to by USA to covert Tibetan resistance was cut-off.

This was start of India’s tryst with Tibetans, recruited and trained as an elite special operations force for fighting a common enemy. As time went by, both size and scope of this unique outfit increased.

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Two-Two

The process of raising a Tibetan paramilitary force was started in late-1962 with Chakrata in present day Uttarakhand as its headquarters. Chakrata is located to west of Dehradun and was a cantonment which had housed various units of British Indian Army and Indian Army. For some years after 1947, it was the regimental center of the 4th Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army.

From 1963 onward, a group of CIA instructors rotated out of the facility at regular intervals to train the Tibetans in art of guerrilla and irregular warfare, including para-jumping.

The new paramilitary force was named Establishment-22

Why?

Because Major General S.S.Uban had served with the prestigious 22nd Mountain Regiment during World War-2 and after India independence and named the new paramilitary formation after his parent unit.

In due course of time, Establishment-22 came to be known colloquially as ‘Two-Two’.

Considering their role as a clandestine operator, the entire force was expected to be parachute qualified. Para-jump training was imparted at Agra, which was home to the Indian Army’s Paratrooper’s Training School (PTS) and base of 50 (I) Parachute Brigade.

The unit was kept secret from rest of the Indian Army and as a ruse, an attempt was made to show that troops from fictitious 12 Gorkha Rifles were being trained in para-jumping. Training was imparted by a mix of CIA and Indian staff seconded to Establishment-22.

American trainer T. J. Thompson with two Tibetan student riggers, Agra airbase, summer 1963.

pic source: https://merabsarpa.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/special-frontier-force/

Later on, parachute training was shifted to Charbatia and finally to Sarsawa, which is about 130 km from Chakrata.

(Recent image) SFF para-jumping exercise at Sarasawa

pic source: https://merabsarpa.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/special-frontier-force

Living up to his legend, Major General Uban was the first one to jump out of the aircraft after having learned the procedure of para-jumping for only one day and that also, a day prior to the jump! He was 49 at that time and as per army regulations, no one above 35 was permitted to para-jump. But as a leader of this force, he considered it important to lead by example.

The organization was named Special Frontier Force (SFF) in mid-1966 and its size was subsequently doubled from initial strength of 5,000 soldiers to 10,000 soldiers.

Left arm badge of Special Frontier Force

Cap badge of Special Frontier Force

The oversight of the organization was shifted from Intelligence Bureau to Director General (Security) under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Subsequently, when a new external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), was created in 1968, control of Director General (Security) and control of SFF was transferred to it. 

As the 60s decade progressed, CIA involvement with SFF dwindled and by the time Richard Nixon was sworn in as 37th President of the USA, it was negligible.  

Aviation Research Center

As part of logistic set-up to support the activities of Special Frontier Force (SFF), a dedicated air wing was set-up between the CIA and Intelligence Bureau in September of 1963. This airwing came to be known as Aviation Research Center or ARC and was based in Charbatia, an old and unused World War-2 airfield, 10km north of Cuttack (Odisha). The airfield was refurbished with American assistance. The first director of ARC was the legendary Rameshwar Nath Kao (R.N.Kao), who went on to become the first head of Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), the new external intelligence agency which was created in 1968.

Code name for Charbatia airfield Oak Tree.

The person responsible for selection of this airfield was the former Chief Minister of Odisha, Shri Biju Patnaik. In fact, given his past experience in aviation, including running clandestine air services to support the Indonesian rebels against Dutch occupation, he was the point-person who worked closely with CIA on behalf of Indian government to sort out the aviation aspect of supporting both Indian and CIA led Tibetan guerrilla operations.

CIA’s clandestine air services operating out of Taiwan used to fly to Charbatia to drop arms, ammunition, and other equipment. And to pick-up Tibetan guerrillas destined for training centers in mainland USA and drop them back for further induction into Tibet.

In addition to air-operations, Charbatia or Oak Tree was also the main center for radio communication with Tibetan agents who had been infiltrated into Tibet from various points across the India-Tibet border. These agents were being run as part of CIA’s clandestine operations in Tibet.

During early 60s, Charbatia was also used as a base for U-2 spy plane which flew over China to collect photographic intelligence.

U-2 Spy Plane (representative image)

Apart from Charbatia, Sarsawa in western Uttar Pradesh and Doom Dooma in Tinsukhia district of Assam, were used to support SFF and CIA Tibetan guerrilla operations.

The CIA supplied ARC with a mix C-46, Helio Courier & Helio Twin Courier Shot-Landing and Take-Off (STOL) aircraft and some helicopters. On India’s request, CIA had also projected a requirement for two C-130 Hercules aircraft for ELINT operations. However, this request was not cleared, and  CIA outfitted a C-46 for ELINT role.

Helio Courier

Later, India inducted the Soviet built An-12 into ARC in 1967. CIA technicians modified an An-12 for ELINT role and also modified others for parachute training for SFF troops.

An-12 of Indian Air Force

Here again, by 1969, engagement between CIA and R&AW with respect to ARC ceased

Operations (1963-1971)

There are few recorded instances of SFF being used against China along the Indo-Tibet border. For example, various SFF components were placed along India-Tibet border from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh (then North-East Frontier Agency – NEFA) for intelligence gathering and surveillance. Then, as part of Project GEMINI, SFF teams were infiltrated into Tibet in mid-60s to tap the Chinese telephone lines which ran close to the border. This operation was repeated in 1970 and terminated in the same year.

In an operation which became known recently, SFF troops were part of an Indian Army led mountaineering contingent, whose objective was to place a nuclear-powered monitoring device on the Nanda Devi peak. This CIA supplied device was expected to keep a watch on the Chinese nuclear and missile testing activities in Xinjiang.

pic source 1&2: https://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/g1GCx9n5O83AqHI4ClJAZP/1965-Nanda-Devi-spy-mission-the-movie.html

pic source 3: https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/cover-story/nanda-devi-nuclear-device/

In 1971, SFF troops were involved in Liberation of Bangladesh and it was known as Operation Eagle. Infiltrating into East Pakistan from the border town of Demagiri in Mizoram, SFF troops conducted guerrilla raids against the Pakistan Army troops in Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) region. Their action in CHT potentially blocked the escape route of Pakistan Army’s Chittagong based 97th (I) Infantry Brigade. About 3,000 SFF troops took part in Operation Eagle suffering a loss of 56 men and further 190 men were wounded. The Government of India (GOI) cash awards to 580 personnel from the SFF for the actions during 1971 war.

Gyalo Thondup, the 14th Dalai Lama’s elder brother is seen addressing the Tibetan men who serve in Establishment No. 22/Special Frontier Force and had encouraged them to join the War of Liberation of Bangladesh 1971. From right to left the persons seated is 1. Brigadier T S Oberoi, Commandant Establishment No. 22, 2. Mr. R. N. Kao, the Secretary, Directorate General of Security and RAW(Research and Analysis Wing), and 3. Major General Sujan Singh Uban, the Inspector General Special Frontier Force

pic source: https://bhavanajagat.com/2013/05/12/special-frontier-force-establishment-number-22-the-problem-of-espionage/

The Dalai Lama and Maj. Gen. Uban inspect the SFF at Chakrata, June 1972 (source:

[Story of Special Frontier Force and its further evolution to be continued in part-2 of this series]


[A slightly modified version of this article appeared online on India Today dated 6th September, 2020]

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