Updated December 10th, 2023 at 11:03 IST

Analyzing India's Elite Special Forces under AFSOD: MARCOS, Garud, and Para SF in the line of duty

The comparison explores their unique capabilities, training, and operational roles, highlighting their contributions to national security.

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
The anticipation that the AFSOD might evolve into a comprehensive tri-service command in the future, underscores its strategic importance. | Image: Republic

Indian Special Forces and AFSOD

In the realm of special operations, India boasts three elite forces – Garud (Air Force), MARCOS (Navy), and Para SF (Army), each specializing in distinct domains. This comparative analysis delves into the unique capabilities, training methodologies, and operational roles of these special forces, shedding light on their contributions to India's national security. 

The Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) emerged as a pivotal tri-service entity within the Indian Armed Forces, dedicated to executing specialized operations crucial for national security. Comprising personnel from the elite special warfare branches of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the AFSOD stands as a testament to India's commitment to bolstering its special operations capabilities. Major General A. K. Dhingra, a distinguished war veteran with a background in the renowned Para SF of the Indian Army, assumed the mantle of the AFSOD's first head in May 2019.  

The AFSOD's mandate is clear – to conduct special operations that demand a tri-service approach, seamlessly integrating the unique capabilities of each branch. As a dynamic force, the AFSOD draws upon the strengths of the Army's Para SF, the Navy's MARCOS, and the Air Force's Garud Commando Force, forming a cohesive unit ready to address a spectrum of challenges. 

MARCOS (Indian Navy)

The Marine Commandos, officially known as the Marine Commando Force (MCF) and popularly referred to as MARCOS, stand as the specialized force of the Indian Navy. Established in February 1987, MARCOS has evolved into a highly proficient unit capable of operating in diverse environments – at sea, in the air, and on land. This section provides a comprehensive insight into the formation, responsibilities, and training regimen of MARCOS.

Credit- Indian Navy

Originally named the Indian Marine Special Force, the unit underwent a transformation to become the Marine Commando Force, reflecting a distinct identity. The acronym 'MARCOS' was later coined, symbolizing the elite nature of this force. Since its inception, MARCOS has garnered international recognition for its professionalism and operational experience. 

Operational Responsibilities- MARCOS operates at both strategic and tactical levels, contributing significantly to the maritime security apparatus. The force's responsibilities have evolved over time, encompassing a wide array of specialized tasks. These include providing support to amphibious operations, conducting special surveillance and amphibious reconnaissance, executing clandestine operations in hostile territories, and undertaking diverse missions such as direct action, hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, asymmetric warfare, and foreign internal defence. 

Training and Selection- The selection process for MARCOS is exceptionally stringent. Candidates, selected from the Indian Navy in their early twenties, undergo a meticulous screening process, including a three-day physical fitness and aptitude test. The subsequent 'hell's week,' reminiscent of the United States Navy SEALs' renowned training, involves intense physical exercises and sleep deprivation, resulting in a high attrition rate. 

The training program spans seven and a half to eight months and covers a spectrum of skills, including airborne operations, combat diving, counter-terrorism, anti-hijacking, anti-piracy operations, direct action, infiltration and exfiltration tactics, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, open and closed circuit diving, intelligence training, and operation of submersible craft. The relentless training at INS Abhimanyu, the home base of MARCOS, ensures that personnel are prepared for any operational environment, including underwater missions and parachute drops into open water. 

MARCOS in Action- MARCOS, equipped with a diverse array of weapons and instruments, including knives, crossbows, sniper rifles, and submachine guns, are also freefall qualified for high-altitude, high-opening (HALO) and high-altitude, low-opening (HAHO) jumps. Their capabilities extend to operating the Cosmos CE-2F/X100 two-man submarines, showcasing their adaptability to various operational scenarios. 

The force continuously refines its skills, incorporating modern techniques such as 3D virtual models for urban warfare training and innovative equipment like the duck-drop system for swift maritime operations. MARCOS' commitment to excellence is evident in its rigorous training standards, ensuring that only the most elite individuals join the ranks of these silent guardians of the seas. 

Garud Commando Force (Indian Air Force)

The Garud Commando Force, the elite special forces unit of the Indian Air Force, takes its name from Garuda, a prominent figure in Hindu mythology. Established in September 2004, the Garud forces play a pivotal role in safeguarding critical Air Force bases and installations, conducting search and rescue operations, and providing disaster relief during calamities. This section delves into the formation, tasks, selection process, and training of the Garud Commando Force.

Credit- Indian Air Force

In response to the need for a specialized force to protect critical Air Force bases, the Garud Commando Force was formed. The unit is tasked with various responsibilities, including direct action, special reconnaissance, rescuing downed pilots in hostile territory, establishing airbases in hostile regions, providing air-traffic control to these airbases, and undertaking suppression of enemy air defenses. Additionally, the Garuds are trained for counter-terrorism, airborne assault, anti-hijacking, hostage rescue, and assisting in civilian relief operations during disasters. 

Airmen Selection Process- Unlike special forces units in the Army and Navy, Garud Commandos are not selected from volunteers of other branches. Recruitment to the Garuds is conducted directly through airmen selection centers via advertisements. Eligible candidates undergo rigorous physical training, and those who meet the required standards become Garud trainees. Once trained and meeting the necessary criteria, they are absorbed into the Commando force and remain in this specialized stream throughout their careers in the Indian Air Force. 

Training Regimen- Garud trainees undergo a comprehensive 72-week training program, making it the longest among all Indian special forces. The initial three-month probationary training, conducted at the Garud Regimental Training Centre near New Delhi, filters promising candidates for further phases of training. The subsequent special operations training is imparted by the Special Frontier Force, the Army's Para SF, and the National Security Guard (NSG). 

The training encompasses a range of skills, including jungle and snow survival, demolition, airborne operations, and specialized weapon handling. Garuds also undergo training at the diving school of the Indian Navy and the Army's Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS). The final phase involves active operations, where Garud commandos are attached to the Rashtriya Rifles of the Indian Army to gain operational experience. 

Garuds in Action- While the specifics of Garud commando operations are classified, it is known that they have been deployed to Congo as part of UN peacekeeping missions. They also operate alongside special forces of the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir, contributing to counter-insurgency operations. 

Garuds' versatility is showcased in their ability to operate in diverse terrains and climatic conditions, including desert and mountain warfare. The Garud Commando Force, with its distinct role in securing air assets and contributing to special operations, stands as a crucial component of India's defense capabilities. 

Para Special Forces (Indian Army)

The Para (Special Forces) battalions, also known as Para Commandos, form a formidable segment of the Indian Army's Parachute Regiment. This section explores the history, functions, selection process, and training regimen of the Para SF, shedding light on their critical role in various military operations.

Credit- ADGPI

The roots of the Para SF trace back to World War II, with the creation of the 50th Parachute Brigade in October 1941 under the British Indian Army. Among the fifteen Para (SF) units, 9 Para (SF) is the oldest, having been raised in 1966. These elite units specialize in diverse roles, including counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, counter-insurgency, and direct action. Over the years, Para (SF) has been involved in pivotal operations such as the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, Operation Bluestar, Kargil War, and counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir. 

Special Group and Recruitment- The Para (SF) units contribute personnel to the Special Group (4 Vikas/22 SF/22 SG), a clandestine special forces unit operating under the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Recruitment for Para (SF) is a voluntary process, and candidates are selected through a stringent probationary period. Unlike some other special forces units, Para (SF) soldiers are not drawn from volunteers of other branches but are selected directly through airmen selection centers. 

The Para (SF) operates in assault teams, working individually behind enemy lines. Their functions include intelligence gathering, special reconnaissance, sabotage of vital enemy infrastructure, and covert and overt/direct action special operations. The unit is also involved in hostage rescue operations within and beyond Indian territory. The selection process for Para (SF) involves a three-month probationary period, with candidates first required to qualify as paratroopers. The completion rate of this demanding selection process is typically under 12-15%. 

Training and Specialization- The training of Para (SF) is intense and varied, covering weapons handling, demolition, navigation, communication, and medical skills. The initial probationary training is followed by further specialized training in areas like jungle and snow survival. The Para (SF) operators work in small teams, focusing on strategic reconnaissance, surveillance, target designation, hostage rescue, and direct action tasks. Each Para (SF) battalion may have a specific focus, such as desert warfare for 10 Para (SF) or mountain warfare for 9 Para (SF). 

Operational Involvement- Para (SF) personnel actively participate in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, particularly in regions like Jammu and Kashmir. Their role has expanded to include proactive raids against militants, contributing significantly to the Home Ministry's strategy. The Para (SF) battalions, with their specialized skills and unwavering dedication, stand as a formidable force within the Indian Army's elite units.

Noteworthy is the anticipation that the AFSOD might evolve into a comprehensive tri-service command in the future, underscoring its strategic importance. This potential transition reflects India's foresight in adapting and expanding its special operations capabilities to meet evolving security needs. 

Published December 10th, 2023 at 10:56 IST