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This article is organised as follows:

  • Part 01: Introduction to the Indian Special Frontier Force (SFF)
  • Part 02: Hierarchy of SFF.
  • Part 03: Organisation of SFF.
  • Part 04: Recruitment, Selection and Training of SFF.
  • Part 05: Training Establishments.
  • Part 06: Miscellaneous.

1.0     Introduction

“There is some debate over whether this secretive force has preserved its elite status as well as its original mandate.” (Rehman, 2017, p.118).

This article is about the Indian unit known as the Special Frontier Force (SFF), also known as Establishment 22 or Two-Two, and occasionally as the “Phantoms of Chittagong”. (Chowdhury, 2015).

“Both the Indian and Pakistani Special Forces were established with the active involvement of the CIA in the mid-1950s. In 1962, the Kennedy administration worked with India for the creation of a Special Frontier Forces (SFF) unit in the Indian military.” (Sinha & Balakrishnan, 2016, p.3).

Although India has the Parachute Regiment, dating back to Word War II, it was an Elite Force (EF) that would later be augmented with Special Forces (SF) units. Katoch and Datta (2013) state that the first true special force of an independent India was the Special Frontier Force (SFF), which recruited exiled Tibetans, in 1962.

The SFF is a Special Operations Forces (SOF) unit which specialises in unconventional warfare and covert operations behind enemy lines. Thus, SFF Commandos are trained for extreme conditions, with special attention paid to guerrilla tactics, mountain warfare, parachute jumps, hostage rescue and counter-terrorism operations.

This article will provide the reader with an outline of the Indian Special Frontier Force, providing a brief history and their role and purpose. It will then provide an outline of the hierarchy and organisation of Indian SFF moving on to describe the selection and training process. Finally, the article will discuss some of the training establishment which deliver training to Indian SFF candidates before providing some useful links, publications and references.

1.1     Brief History of SFF

The Indo-China War, also known as The Sino-Indian War and The Sino-Indian Border Conflict, was a war between China and India that occurred in 1962 concerning a disputed Himalayan border which was the main pretext for war, although other issues played a role.

There had been a series of violent border incidents after the 1959 Tibetan uprising, when India had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama. India initiated a Forward Policy in which it placed outposts along the border, including several north of the McMahon Line, the eastern portion of a Line of Actual Control proclaimed by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959.

Unable to reach political accommodation on disputed territory along the 3,225-kilometre-long Himalayan border, the Chinese launched simultaneous offensives in Ladakh and across the McMahon Line on 20 October 1962. Chinese troops advanced through Indian forces in both theatres, capturing Rezang la in Chushul in the western theatre, as well as Tawang in the eastern theatre.

The war ended when China declared a unilateral ceasefire on 20/21 November 1962 and simultaneously announced its withdrawal from the disputed area. Indian posts and patrols were removed from Aksai Chin, which came under direct Chinese control after the end of the conflict.

The Indo-China War is notable for the harsh mountain conditions under which much of the fighting took place, entailing large-scale combat at altitudes of over 4,000 metres (14,000 feet). The Indo-China War was also noted for the non-deployment of the Navy and Air Force of either side.

It is noteworthy that the build-up and offensive from China occurred concurrently with the Cuban Missile Crisis (16–28 October 1962) that saw both the United States and the Soviet Union confronting each other.

“In 1962, the Kennedy administration worked with India for the creation of a Special Frontier Forces (SFF) unit in the Indian military.” (Sinha & Balakrishnan, 2016, p.3).

“Following the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, India also set up a 10,000-strong unit call the Special Frontier Force (SFF), or Establishment 22. Composed of ethnic Tibetans and modeled on the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, they were trained to operate deep behind Chinese lines in the Tibetan autonomous region. This unit still exists, although it remains unclear whether it has preserved its elite status.” (WPR, 2015).

Consequently, the Special Frontier Force (SFF) was formally established on 14 November 1962, just seven days before the ceasefire. The Cabinet Secretariat (Section 2.1) had ordered the raising of an elite guerrilla force composed mainly of Tibetan refugees.

“Composed of thousands of ethnic Tibetans, many of whom had been resistance fighters in the TAR or part of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard, the SFF was an elite unit of paratroopers trained in mountain warfare, sabotage, and demolition.” (Rehman, 2017, p.123).

Its main goal was to conduct covert operations behind Chinese lines in the event of another Indo-China War. The first Inspector General of the SFF was a retired Indian Army Major General (OF-7), Sujan Singh Uban, who was known for his unconventional thinking (Bedi, 2015).

Soon the SFF came to be known as ‘Establishment 22’ due to General Singh, a Military Cross holder and a legendary figure in the British Indian Army, who commanded the 22nd Mountain Regiment during World War II in Europe and a Long-Range Desert Squadron in North Africa.

The SFF made its home base at Chakrata, 100 km from the city of Dehra Dun. Chakrata was home to the large Tibetan refugee population and was a mountain town in the foothills of the Himalayas. With a planned strength of 12,000, the SFF commenced six months of training in rock climbing and guerrilla warfare.

The Intelligence agencies from India and the US also helped in raising the SFF; namely the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, the US external intelligence agency) & the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW, India’s external intelligence agency). The SFF’s initial weapons were provided by the US and consisted mainly of M1, M2 and M3 machine guns; heavy weapons were not provided.

  • By late 1963, inter-service rivalry led to severe criticism by the Indian Army. To prove the worth of the SFF, the Inspector General sent 120 men for a field exercise with the Indian Army, codenamed Garuda. The exercise proved to be a dramatic success for the SFF and the Army was now less inclined to criticise the force.
  • In 1964, the SFF began its airborne training at Agra, and subsequently developed its own airborne training programme at Sarasawan airbase near Saharanpur.
  • By the late1960s, the SFF was organised into six battalions for administrative purposes. Each battalion, consisting of six companies, was commanded by a Tibetan who held rank equivalent to a Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4) in the Indian Army. A Tibetan Major (OF-3) or Captain (OF-2) commanded each company, which was the primary unit used in operations. Females also participated in the SFF, being assigned to signal and medical companies. During this time, the SFF was never used against its intended opponents, the Chinese. However, the unit did conduct limited cross-border reconnaissance operations, as well as highly classified raids to place sensors in the Himalayas to detect Chinese nuclear and missile tests.
  • In 1971, the SFF undertook combat operations in the Indo-Pakistan War; elements of the force were sent to Mizoram in late October. By November 1971, around 3000 SFF personnel were deployed next to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) (Chowdhury, 2015). With cross-border attacks becoming more frequent, the SFF was then ordered to attack the Chittagong Hill Tracts. For this operation, codenamed ‘Eagle’, SFF personnel were given Bulgarian AK47s and US carbines. This operation saw the first Dapon, Tibetan equivalent of a Brigadier (OF-6), to command part of the SFF task force. With war, right around the corner, the SFF was given several mission plans, including the destruction of the Kaptai Dam and other bridges. The Inspector General urged that the SFF be used to capture Chittagong, but this was denied due to the SFF not having any artillery or airlift support. After three weeks of border fighting, the SFF divided its six battalions into three columns and moved into East Pakistan on 03 December 1971. After capturing several villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Tibetans were given mortars and recoilless rifles and two Indian Air Force Mi4 helicopters. The SFF blocked a potential escape route for East Pakistani forces into Burma, and halted members of Pakistan’s 97 Independent Brigade and 2 Commando Battalion in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On 17 December 1971, Pakistan signed a ceasefire, with the SFF having suffered relatively few casualties: 56 killed and 190 wounded. For their bravery and courage in battle, 580 SFF members were awarded cash prizes by the Indian Government.
  • In 1973, the original Inspector General of the SFF was replaced.
  • In 1975, a new rule pertaining to the SFF was issued because of several incidents in which SFF Commandos had crossed the border and conducted unsanctioned cross-border operations. This rule prohibited the SFF from being deployed within 10 km of the Indo-Chinese border.
    By the late 1970s, Indo-Chinese relations had eased somewhat and the Indian Government was actively considering the future of the SFF. With this uncertainty, the SFF quickly developed a new role: counterterrorism (CT). Since the SFF consisted largely of Tibetans they were viewed as an ideal CT force because they were not directly related to India’s communal politics. Thus, in 1977, the Director General for Security dispatched 500 SFF commandos to Sarasawa for possible action against rioters during national elections. With the elections passing without any major incidents, only 60 SFF commandos were retained for CT duties. However, over 500 Army troops were sent to Sarasawa for CT training forming a new elite detachment known as the Special Group, under the command of the SFF Inspector General (surprisingly, all Tibetans were removed from the Special Group and returned to Chakrata). Among the Tibetan members of the SFF, three commando battalions were raised for deployment around India; one of these battalions is normally stationed on the Siachen Glacier with other Indian troops. The remaining SFF personnel were still trained for guerrilla operations along the Indo-China border.
  • By early 1984, the SFF’s elite Special Group became the primary CT force in India. They participated in the assault on Golden Temple, but the mission was to prove faulty, due to a lack of intelligence on the militants’ whereabouts in the temple locality. The SFF was also used for VIP security in late 1984, around the Prime Minister, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
  • In 1985, SFF personnel given rank parity with the Indian Army personnel (Singh, 2016).
  • In 1985, the SFF played a pivotal role in Operation Meghdoot (the Siachen battle of 1985/86) and since then one of its units has been constantly guarding the Siachen Glacier, a place considered one of the world’s most inhospitable battle zones.
  • In 1989, the SFF began wearing the standard Indian DPM (disruptive pattern material) camouflage uniform.
  • In 2009, SFF personnel given parity with Indian Army personnel in pay, allowances and pension (prospectively) (Singh, 2016).

1.2     General Duties of Special Operations Forces

SOF personnel are required to infiltrate and exfiltrate to and from operational areas dismounted, carrying heavy loads and manipulating personal and support weapons systems and other heavy equipment. SOF personnel perform insertions and assaults on targets by:

  • Parachuting onto ground or into water;
  • Climbing ladders and cliffs;
  • Rappelling;
  • Conducting close-quarters battle (CQB); and
  • Battle drills in varying types of terrain and climatic conditions day or night.

SOF personnel are also required to board ocean vessels while they are underway from another floating or airborne platform in all sea states day or night, and where speed and stealth are imperative. These duties are performed while wearing heavy rucksack and body armour. SOF personnel perform individual CQB and detainee handling which may require the individual to:

  • Combat and detain another person using blocking strikes;
  • Disarming;
  • Lifting;
  • Pulling;
  • Ground fighting;
  • Grappling; and
  • Moving a non-compliant person.

There is no tolerance for a lapse in attention when conducting CQB and other assaults while wearing night vision goggles as well as Special Operations Insertion and Extraction (SOIE) techniques. Accurate discrimination of non-combatants and precision engagement of enemy combatants requires extreme concentration.

Similarly, high-risk roped and un-roped insertions with no redundant safety systems require constant attention. SOF personnel require the ability for continuous analysis of the situation, environment, mission aims and unique foreign societal complexities during operations.

1.3     Role and Purpose of SFF

The core mission of the SFF is to conduct covert and guerrilla operations on the Chinese side of the Indo-Chinese border during conflict (Bedi, 2015).

However, the SFF has developed and expanded into other mission profiles, including:

  • Counter-terrorism (CT) operations;
  • “…the SFF is also trained for anti-hijack operations.” (Katoch, 2011, p.36-37); and
  • “The army special forces and the SG of the SFF would both be employed trans-border in a conventional conflict, especially with both having airborne capability…” (Katoch, 2011, p.37).

“The SFF better known by its nom du guerre Establishment 22 is operationally employed by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for clandestine and sensitive missions.” (Bedi, 2015).

“India did create a true Special Forces set up which was intelligence led in the Special Frontier Force, which was originally created for operations in Tibet, but it has now become obsolete and it is not clear what the mission of the force currently is.” (Joshi, 2016).

2.0     Hierarchy of Indian SFF

This section provides an outline of the civilian and military personalities and organisations that have some form of control, impact, direction over the Indian SFF.

2.1     Cabinet Secretariat

The role of the Cabinet Secretariat is to provide secretarial assistance to the cabinet and its various committees. It functions under the leadership of:

  • The Prime Minister: who is its minister-in-charge at the political level; and
  • The Cabinet Secretary: who is its administrative head, drawn from the senior most officers of the Indian Administrative Service.

Besides the Cabinet Secretary, there are three other Secretaries in the Cabinet Secretariat (Arora & Goyal, 2005):

  • Secretary (Security), normally an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer;
  • Secretary (Coordination), normally an IPS officer; and
  • Secretary (Research and Analysis Wing) (R&AW), responsible for the collation of external intelligence related to the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Cabinet.

“The Special Frontier Force (SFF) is an adjunct of the Cabinet Secretariat…” and is led by the Secretary (R&AW) (Sinha & Balakrishnan, 2016, p.4).

2.2     Secretary (R&AW)

The Secretary (R&AW) is responsible for the collation of external intelligence. However, the post-holder also performs some specialised functions, which include (Arora & Goyal, 2005; Sarkar, 2010; Sinha & Balakrishnan, 2016):

  • Director General (Security);
  • Head of Special Frontier Force (SFF); and
  • Head of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC).

Laximanth, (2011) acknowledges two of the positions but does not mention if they are led by the same post-holder.

The Secretary (R&AW) is assisted in these functions by several key personalities, including (Arora & Goyal, 2005):

  • Special Secretary (R&AW);
  • Joint Secretary (R&AW);
  • Director (SSB);
  • Director (ARC); and
  • Inspector General (SFF).

2.3     Inspector General (SFF)

Operationally, the SFF is led by the Inspector General SFF, broadly equivalent to a Major General (OF-7) (Arora & Goyal, 2005; Sinha & Balakrishnan, 2016).

3.0     Organisation of SFF

As well as the traditional leadership and staff officer roles identified above, the SFF contain personnel in enabler, supporter and other roles (e.g. administrative and logistical).

Although originally established with a strength 12,000 personnel, this quickly swelled to 20,000 by 1970 but was subsequently reduced to 10,000 (Sanyal, 2009).

“Modeled on the Kennedy-era Green Berets, the unit is rumored to contain about ten thousand soldiers…” (Rehman, 2017).

The unit is “Commanded by IA [Indian Army] officers on special assignment…” (Rehman, 2017, p.123) and is composed of Tibetans, “…Gurkhas [from 1965] and hill tribesmen who have swollen the SFF’s ranks over the years.” (Rehman, 2017, p.124). Other personnel include Para (SF) personnel who “…are seconded to SFF units frequently.” (Rehman, 2017, p.124).

Each Battalion is composed of six companies, with each company consisting of approximately 123 personnel. There is also a force of around 700 Gurkhas/Gorkhas in the SFF at any given time.

3.1     Special Group

“Furthermore are 1,200-1,500 SF from two shadowy Special Group (SG) battalions of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), raised after India’s disastrous 1962 border war with China, and headquartered at Chakrata, near Dehra Dun. The SFF and its SG served as models for the NSG SAG combine.” (Bedi, 2015).

Established in 1977, or 1981 (Shivam, 2016), Special Group is an ‘elite’ SOF unit within the SFF. The Special Group is also known as the 4th Vikas Battalion/Regiment and reputedly known as 22 SF or The Mavericks (Shivam, 2016).

4th Vikas, more commonly known as The Special Group (SG), is R&AWs ultra-secret military unit for clandestine intelligence missions. The unit is considered the equivalent of CIAs Special Activities Division.

Reportedly, the 4th Battalion of the Vikas Regiment was converted for special missions, with three squadrons (SF equivalent of an Infantry company); with two of these squadrons subsequently forming the National Security Guard (NSG) [LINK] (needs verification).

“…the Special Groups (SGs) of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) operating directly under the Cabinet Secretariat.” (Katoch, 2011, p.36).

One commentator (Shivam, 2016) suggests that Special Group was created by a Colonel (OF-5) from 10 Para (SF), “The Desert Scorpions”, under Project Sunray. However, unlike other SFF battalions who have Tibetans, Special Group consists of approximately 250 Indians. In 1983, six officers of Special Group went to a secret base of Sayeret Matkal, possibly Tel Aviv (Shivam, 2016).

There are suggestions that Special Group is essentially a standalone unit within the SFF which is manned by personnel on deputation from Indian Special Forces units (e.g. Para (SF) and MARCOS).

4.0     Selection and Training

“Commandant Dinesh Tewari, 68, a former Gurkha regiment captain who put thousands of SFF soldiers through a gruelling 44-week commando course during 1969-75…” (Sanyal, 2009).

It has been suggested that SFF training is conducted at Chakrata, lasts six months and is like India Army training, with additional instruction in guerrilla tactics and rock-climbing.

All SFF commandos are parachute qualified after five jumps, with three ‘refresher’ jumps every year; US parachute instructors apparently remained until 1966.

SFF commandos wear the formation insignia on the shoulder with an Indian Army parachute wing being worn on the right breast. An airborne maroon beret is worn with a distinctive SFF beret badge and an SFF tab in worn on both shoulders.

4.1     Pre-Selection

No information available.

4.2     Selection

No information available.

4.3     Basic SFF Training

No information available.

4.4     Advanced SFF Training

No information available.

5.0     Training Establishments

No information available.

6.0     Miscellaneous

6.1     Useful Links

6.2     Useful Publications

  • Ringchen, K. (2011) Special Frontier Force: Unveiling the Secrets. Dissertation. Proquest, Umi Dissertation Publishing.
  • Katoch, P.C. & Datta, S. (2013) India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces. New Delhi: Vij Books India.
  • Summer, I. & Chappell, M. (2001) The Indian Army, 1914-1947. London: Osprey Publishing Ltd.
  • Sinha, D. & Balakrishnan, R. (2016) Employment of India’s Special Operations Forces. ORF Issue Brief, No.150. June 2016. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/ORF_IssueBrief_150_SinhaBalakrishnan.pdf. [Accessed: 26 January, 2017].
  • Katoch, P.C. (2011) Indian Special Forces: 2030. CLAWS Journal. Winter 2011, pp.33-40. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/1395292151PC%20Katoch%20%20CJ%20Winter%202011.pdf. [Accessed: 26 January, 2017].
  • Chandramohan, B. (2013) The Indian Special Forces: An Evolving Approach. Strategic Analysis Paper. Available from World Wide Web: http://futuredirections.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/FDI_Strategic_Analysis_Paper_-_28_March_2013.pdf. [Accessed: 26 January, 2017].
  • Joint Doctrine for Special Forces Operations (JP-5), HQ IDS, 2008
  • Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, Naval Strategic Publication (NSP) 1.2. Integrated HQ, MOD (Navy). October 2015.
  • No War, No Peace by VK Shashikumar published on 27 Novemebr 2010 in the Tehelka Magazine (Volume 7, Issue 47). Discusses some of the issues surrounding the Indo-China border.

6.3     References

Arora, R.K. & Goyal, R. (2005) Indian Public Administration: Institutions and Issues. New Delhi: Wishwa Prakashan.

Bedi, R. (2015) India’s Special Forces Face an Identity Crisis. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/NewsDetail/index/1/4067/INDIAS-SPECIAL-FORCES-FACE-AN-IDENTITY-CRISIS. [Accessed: 30 January, 2017].

Chowdhury, P.B. (2016) Phantoms in the Hills. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.thedailystar.net/wide-angle/phantoms-the-hills-168325. [Accessed: 08 March, 2017].

Joshi, M. (2016) For Special Operations Deep into Pakistan, India Require a Different Kind of Force. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.orfonline.org/expert-speaks/special-operations-pakistan-india-force/. [Accessed: 08 March, 2017].

Katoch, P.C. & Datta, S. (2013) India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces. New Delhi: Vij Books India.

Katoch, P.C. (2011) Indian Special Forces: 2030. CLAWS Journal. Winter 2011, pp.33-40. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/1395292151PC%20Katoch%20%20CJ%20Winter%202011.pdf. [Accessed: 26 January, 2017].

Laxmikanth, M. (2011) Governance in India: Structure, Process, Institutions and Issues. Paper I. New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill Education Private Limited.

Rehman, I. (2017) A Himalayan Challenge: India’s Conventional Deterrent and the Role of Special Operations Forces along the Sino-Indian Border. Naval War College Review. Winter 2017. 70(1), pp.104-142. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/07f232bc-6116-466a-abc5-3ecd45c9baa0/A-Himalayan-Challenge,-India–39;s-Conventional-De.aspx. [Accessed: 08 March, 2017].

Sanyal, A. (2009) The Curious Case of Establishment 22. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/the-curious-case-of-establishment-22/story-eiDenZvNioffJFupLzNGOI.html. [Accessed: 08 March, 2017].

Sarkar, S. (2010) Public Administration in India. New Delhi: PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd.

Shivam (2016) Special Group or 22 SF or The Mavericks. Available from World Wide Web: https://elitepredators.wordpress.com/2016/08/24/special-group-or-22-sf-or-the-mavericks-2/. [Accessed: 15 March, 2017].

Singh, S.B. (2016) More Than 5000 Tibetan Soldiers to get Retirement Benefits. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.tibetsun.com/news/2016/07/01/more-than-5000-tibetan-soldiers-to-get-retirement-benefits. [Accessed: 08 March ,2017].

Sinha, D. & Balakrishnan, R. (2016) Employment of India’s Special Operations Forces. ORF Issue Brief, No.150. June 2016. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/ORF_IssueBrief_150_SinhaBalakrishnan.pdf. [Accessed: 26 January, 2017].

WPR (World Politics Review) (2015) India’s Special Forces Remain Underdeveloped and Underequipped. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/16169/indias-special-forces-remain-underdeveloped-and-underequipped. [Accessed: 26 January, 2017].