Monday, May 22, 2017

Some comments about the "Special Frontier Force"

This matter has been in the news recently. I just want to add a few personal observations.

The origins of this force are in the Tibetan exodus following the Chinese invasion. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and there are many interpretations of that history.

In the Indian perspective, the biggest problem in having China walk into Tibet was that it would be able to deploy nuclear weapons on the outer Tibetan plateau. These weapons would put all of India's Gangetic plain where ~ 60% of India's population lives under a nuclear cross hairs.  GoI sought to contain this threat.

The US recognized the threat and sought to contain it as well. Most of the US interest focused on China's development of high yield nuclear devices and missile mounted nuclear warheads. There was considerable transfer of nuclear weapons technology from Russia to China in those days and the Chinese program was a window into the Russian one.

The Tibetans for their part - obviously wanted to liberate their country - but they also wanted to keep it from becoming a nuclear battlefield or wasteland. With the exception of the Khampa tribes who had a tradition of military service, most Tibetans were ill-prepared for military roles.

Out of these nuclear sensitivities and shared concerns - SFF was created with scant resources available at the time.

The CIA brought the money and advanced training techniques. The RAW and Indian Army brought the physical space and the mid level management. The Tibetans brought the manpower and knowledge of the details of the land. The result was a well trained, well led, high altitude acclimated force capable of mounting long range reconnaissance patrols deep into Tibet.

To understand why this force was necessary, one has to recognize that Tibet - though sparsely populated - has roughly half the land area that all of India does! To get to this massive landmass, one has to cross the Himalayas. It was these two geographical factors that caused a large Indian military and intelligence community presence to emerge under civilian led entities like the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.

The CIA had a relatively short path in this context. They were developing numerous technical means to evaluate the Russian and Chinese nuclear programs. To that end they had a defined entry point and exit on this. When their needs were met, they exited the collaboration.

The Indians were more open ended. Leading Indian intelligence figures were drawn to the versatile nature of the SFF's capabilities and sought to absorb them into their own force projection. Many an Indian Prime Minister were seduced by the power and potency of the SFF. So these efforts were supported at the highest level. The SFF came to become the mother-ship for a number of Indian conflict resolution abilities - much to the Indian Army's chagrin.

The Tibetans had no end point. Tibetan tribes like the Khampa had blood feuds with the Chinese. Ordinary Tibetans in the exodus had a deep desire to see their homeland liberated. Naturally they felt used by the GoI and the USG, but they didn't have a choice in the matter. They were very unhappy about being used for operations against Pakistan (such Op Eagle in CHT). The Khampa portion of this establishment revolted when the Mustang establishment was attacked in 1974.

The GoI response to this was to regularize the SFF and dilute its Tibetan content and provide financial support to the families of the Tibetans serving in the establishment. This seemed to stop the bleeding of trust. The Tibetans were okay with being part of the Indian security establishment as long as they were treated with dignity befitting a soldier of the Indian republic and the GoI was content to have a lever it could use to dampen Tibetan enthusiasm for war with the Chinese.

As the situation evolved, the GoI was able to negotiate settlements with the Chinese which sought to enhance peace and tranquility along the border. Most of these were in exchange for Chinese assurances to not deploy nuclear tipped short range ballistic missiles in outer Tibet. As a result of this the SFF sword dulled. The force members lost contact with people on the ground in Tibet and people that were actually familiar with the land gradually left the force. SFF regiments now mainly service pathfinder or rope-laying missions for high altitude military operations on the LAC, LoC and the AGPL.

Over the last thirty years, the strategic situation has evolved further. The local Tibetan population has become enmeshed with a Chinese economy and derives significant benefits from that interaction. This is a far cry from the late 80s when their land was being taken but they were seeing no benefits from the transaction. The Chinese security in the region is considerably tighter. PAP battalions are deployed in significant numbers, most roads have check points on them, and a resident ID card is now tied to biometrics. It will be very challenging for an SFF operator to pass themselves off as a resident Tibetan. China now has a massive nuclear weapons establishment at Golmud in Amdo and large airbases in the Tibetan Plateau. Massive PRC infrastructure investments in outer Tibet made it possible to station vast military forces there with significant amounts of high altitude acclimation.
Today Chinese special forces can carry out difficult high altitude operations, though not at the same level of capability as SFF units - they can violate the border in Kargil style intrusions. 

This last bit was worrying me in 2003. I had theorized about it in set of scenarios I wrote up as an editor for the BR Monitor. The scenarios were circulated with the word "Kanchenjunga" in the title (if I emailed them to you - please use that search term to find them). I stated that with PLAAF bases so close to the border, IAF air superiority could become contested and clearing out a Kargil style intrusion would become problematic. The key to clearing the Kargil intrusion was taking out rear supply bases like Gultari and Muntho Dhalo. On the LAC such nodes would play a similar role in conflict de-escalation. The SFF could become a major part of the response to such intrusions on the LAC and to that end bolstering its strength may be the way forward for India.

For outside observers, including Chinese ones, perhaps it is important to note that the SFF of yore and the SFF of today are different creatures. It is difficult to imagine SFF being airdropped on Lhasa. Anything is possible of course but this seems quite unlikely. 

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