Special Frontier Force(SFF) also known as Establishment 22 is India’s most covert and elite Special Force unit which was established in 1962 with the original goal of conducting covert operations behind the Chinese Lines in the event of another Sino-Indian War.
It was also called Establishment 22 because its first Inspector General, Major General Sujan Singh Uban (Retd.) of Indian Army, was used to be commander of 22 Mountain Regiment during World War II.
Although India has the Parachute Regiment which is the airborne infantry regiment of the Indian Army consisting of 8 Special Forces battalions, dating back to World War II. Experts say that the first true and best special force of an independent India was the Special Frontier Force (SFF), which recruited exiled Tibetans, in 1962.
Special Frontier Force which is based in Chakrata, Uttarakhand is the armed wing of RAW. It was first put under the direct supervision of the Intelligence Bureau, and later, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency.
First Intelligence Agents of Indian Army – Tibetans
The ethnic Tibetans were part of the modern Indian Army, their role was to patrol and police their native areas. They used to work as spies, intelligence agents and even covert militia in northern India and Tibet proper.
Mustang Base was established by the American Central Intelligence Agency and the Indian Intelligence Bureau in the 1950s in Mustang of Nepal where the Tibetans were trained in guerilla warfare.
These Mustang rebels were used to bring the 14th Dalai Lama to India during the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion.
Formation of the Elite Indian Army Special Force unit, Special Frontier Force:
Towards the end of 1962 and in the aftermath of Sino-Indian War between China and India, the Indian Intelligence Bureau persuaded the government to form an elite commando unit. Nehru government realized the need and ordered the raising of elite commando unit specialized mountain divisions primarily composed of Tibetan resistance fighters.
An initial strength of 5000 men, mostly Khampas were recruited through Chushi Gangdruk (An organization of Tibetan guerrilla fighters who attempted to stop the invasion of the People’s Republic of China PRC in Tibet) at its new Mountain Training Facility at Chakrata, Dehradun which became the SFF headquarters.
Starting with a force of 12,000 men, 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 force; namely CIA & RAW. The SFF’s weapons were all provided by the US and consisted mainly of M-1, M-2 and M-3 machine guns.
Special Frontier Force unit established under the direct supervision of Prime Minister was under the operational command of IB and later R&AW.
It was primarily used for conducting intelligence gathering and commando operations along the Chinese Theatre. Initial training was conducted by the CIA paramilitary officers and the IB’s own special operations unit. In 1968 SFF, with the help of the Aviation Research Centre which provided airlift facilities, became fully airborne-qualified and a dedicated mountain and jungle warfare unit.
Many SFF members are Gorkha Rifles members due to their bodies being able to perform much better in high altitudes against others.
By the late 1960s, the SFF was organized into six battalions for administrative purposes. Each battalion, consisting of six companies, was commanded by Tibetan who had a rank equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the Army. A Tibetan major or captain commanded each company, which was the primary unit used in operations. Females also participated in the force and they were in the signal and medical companies.
During this time, the SFF was never used against its intended enemy, China. 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.
Main Motive of Special Frontier Force:
The main motive or the role of SFF is to conduct covert and guerrilla operations on the Chinese side of the Indo-Chinese border during a conflict.
But the SFF also carry out other operations such as:
Trans-border joint operation with Indian Army Special Forces (airborne)
SFF is also employed by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for covert and sensitive missions.
Special Frontier Force is likely the most covert Special Force unit of India. Their missions and operations generally are not covered publicly.
Special Group (SG) is an elite Special Operation Force (SOF) unit within the Special Frontier Force (SFF) raised after India’s disastrous 1962 border war with China. The SFF and its SG served as models for the NSG-SAG combine.
It was established in 1971 or 1981 (not clear) Special Group is also known as the 4th Vikas Battalion/Regiment and reputedly known as 22 SF or The Mavericks.
Special Group is R&AW’s ultra-secret military unit for clandestine intelligence missions. The unit is considered the equivalent of CIA’s Special Activities Division.
Sources suggest 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.
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 like, PARA SF and MARCOS.
Operations Carried out by Special Frontier Force:
The main purpose behind the establishment of Special Frontier Force was to conduct covert operation mainly along the Indo-China border, however, under the command of RAW and Indian Government SFF is being used in covert and overt operations.
China’s Nuclear tests and missile launches monitoring –
In 1964 Intelligence agencies reported the tests of Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by China which was a major concern for the US. To track these activities of China, US Intelligence Agency CIA launched a covert ELINT operation along with R&AW and Aviation Research Centre (ARC).
The operation involved celebrated Indian climber M S Kohli who along with operatives of Special Frontier Force and CIA (most notably Jim Rhyne, a veteran STOL pilot), was to place a permanent ELINT device , a transceiver powered by a plutonium battery, that could detect and report data on future nuclear tests carried out by China on the Nanda Devi mountain.
The first attempt to place the ELINT device failed as the team had to retreat due to adverse conditions. They left the device there but when they went back to recover it there was no sign of it meanwhile the Chinese not only kept testing nuclear weapons at regular intervals but also ballistic missiles.
The urgency to gather information was never greater. Another mission was launched in 1967 to place a similar device on the Nanda Kot but this mission also failed as the snow would pile up over the antenna and render it blind.
In December 1969 SFF went for another mission to successfully place a gas powered device on an undisclosed mountain supposedly in Chinese controlled areas. But by the following year, the US had the first generation of the TRW spy satellites in place and did not have to rely on the old ELINT devices.
Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 –
Special Frontier Force was effectively used in major combat in the Indo-Pak war. In November 1971, SFF carried out an operation, code-named as ‘Eagle’ where they were ordered to attack the Chittagong Hill Tracts. They were equipped with Bulgarian AK-47s and US carbines.
After three weeks of border fighting, the SFF divided its six battalions into three columns and moved into East Pakistan on 3 December 1971. After capturing several villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the Tibetans were given mortars and recoilless rifles and also two Indian Air Force Mi-4 helicopters.
With the Pakistani Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi surrendering on 16 December, the SFF had lost 56 men and nearly 190 wounded. The SFF was able to block a potential escape route for East Pakistani forces into Burma. They also halted members of Pakistan’s 97 Independent Brigade and 2 Commando Battalion in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. For their bravery and courage in battle, 580 SFF members were awarded cash prizes by the Indian Government.
Operations inside the Indian territories –
SFF was used in combating communal riots in the mid-1970s and later was used in Operation Blue Star in 1984. It was also used briefly for VIP security in late 1984 around the Prime Minister following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Later this role fell upon the Special Protection Group.
In 1975 a new rule pertaining to the SFF was issued, this prohibited the SFF from being deployed to within 10 km of the Indo-Chinese border unless under explicit instructions. This came about after several incidents in which SFF was found to be conducting unsanctioned cross-border raids and intelligence operations.
Special Frontier Force (SFF) – India’s Secret Army: