Mission Victory India spoke to Lieutenant General PC Katoch (Retd.) as part of an MVI exclusive interview series highlighting military literature. Lt Gen. Katoch is a distinguished veteran who served in the Indian Army’s 1 Para Special Forces and is now an author with three published books to his name: India's Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces (2014) published by Vij Books, Indian Military and Network-centric Warfare (2014) published by Wisdom Tree and Special Operations Case Studies: Lessons for India (2019) published by Lancer Publications.
Excerpts from the conversation
Q. Sir, you became a published author after spending a lifetime in some of the most sensitive and coveted military appointments. That must have been a great story. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey from being in special operations to penning down two authoritative books on the subject?
Ans: Most Special Forces officers have the same experience as mine. To this end my service in uniform was nothing extraordinary. But I was fortunate in commanding an independent commando company in the northeast for a year, participating in counter-terrorist operations in an urban setting, commanding a Special Forces battalion under the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and later serving as Deputy Director General Military Operations (DDG MO) Special Operations in the Military Operations Directorate, Army Headquarters (AHQ) at a time when joint training with foreign Special Forces had picked up steam.
Q. What inspired you to write India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Special Forces and subsequently Special Operations Case Studies: Lessons for India? Secondly, what particular aspects do the books cover (individually) and how do you feel the books, if read in succession will empower the reader on the nuances of the subject matter?
Ans: There was no book covering the history of Indian Special Forces although there was a book focused on equating Airborne Forces with Special Forces and another book covering the history and exploits of one particular Special Forces unit. Who are the Special Forces in India was not known to most including the media, which to an extent persists even today. Even a doorman outside shops in Connaught Place could be seen wearing Special Forces on his shoulders.
The concept for strategic employment of Special Forces to shape the environment in India’s favour was and still continues to be absent, which is not surprising since 74 years after Independence we still have not defined a comprehensive national security strategy. As a result, we cram Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast with Special Forces units, using them even on tasks that can be undertaken by ‘Ghatak’ Platoons of infantry battalions, individually or grouped at the brigade level.
Pro-active use of Special Forces in our case has generally been happening at the battalion or brigade level because the political will is lacking to use these forces pro-actively against our adversaries. That is why we suffer adverse strategic disadvantage at the sub-conventional level vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.
There was tremendous scope of employing Special Forces in Afghanistan even before the US invasion 2001 but the government would not take a call on it. Serving as Assistant Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (Strategic Operations) in HQ IDS, one could see immense scope for employing Special Forces as part of asymmetric warfare against Pakistan but again the political will was absent.
Unlike foreign countries like the US where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operates in synch with US Special Forces, here the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) feels operations on foreign soil are entirely their domain, not realizing that the full range of special operations is beyond their capacity and capabilities. It is well known that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) were trained in India under the aegis of R&AW, but had they been embedded with Special Forces personnel, we would not have ended up fighting them in the manner we were forced to eventually.
The second book was to apprise readers how some selected special operations have been conducted around the world in order to draw lessons; what our shortcomings are and what we should be doing to optimize employment of our Special Forces.
Q. Who in your mind are the core readers for both the books? And how do you feel that they further add to the discourse on the subject?
Ans: Both books are written in simple language that can be understood by anyone. The aim was for the public to know what our Special Forces are, how they have been employed so far, how foreign militaries have been employing their Special Forces and what we should do if we are to emerge as a country with requisite sub-conventional clout; a currency that is so vital in current and future warfare.
Q. Could you tell our readers about the research which went into writing both books? What was your process and how did the sources approached for the books respond to the finished products?
Ans: For writing the first book, I was awarded the Marshal KM Cariappa Chair of Excellence for the year 2011-2012 by the United Services Institution of India (USI) who also sponsored me to attend the Middle East Special Operations Commanders Conference (MESOC 2012) held at Amman Jordan in May 2012.
Research for the book incorporated wisdom from national and international seminars on the subject and Interviews and discussions (in person, telephonically or via e-mail) with scores of serving and veterans of Special Forces plus outstanding personalities (including General officers) who had commanded Special Forces in conflict situations and contributed to their development.
The interaction included all ranks of some Special Forces units – officers, junior commissioned officers, and other ranks.
Senior Journalist, Saikat Datta is the co-author of the first book. He had been writing extensively about Special Forces and joined me in research for this book. Together, we also conducted a special operations capsule for Force 1 of Maharashtra Police in Mumbai during 2011. His co-authoring the book also dispels doubts of readers that the narrative is biased towards the military. Foreword of the book is written by Lt Gen AS Kalkat, SYSM, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, former Overall Force Commander and GOC IPKF who had all the then three Parachute (Commando) Battalions serving under him as part of IPKF.
The bulk information for the second book was researched from books, papers, reports, blogs and interactions with special operations operatives over the years at home and abroad including some commanding officers and officers and junior operatives of Indian Special Forces. Foreword for this book is written by Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, former Vice Chief of Army Staff and first Colonel of the Army Special Forces Regiment, which unfortunately was disbanded in its infancy.
The introduction is written by Lt Gen HS Lidder, PVSM, UYSM, YSM**, VSM, former Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC), and former Colonel of the Parachute Regiment who has had an outstanding career in Special Forces.
Q. What did you learn during the writing process? What surprised you the most during your writing journey? Could you tell us about some of the key challenges you faced when writing the books? Did you experience writers’ block, if so, how did you overcome it?
Ans: Life itself is a learning process and more you endevour, more you get wise. Similarly, one learned more and more as the research went along despite having served in Special Forces during my service in the Army. The challenges were only to remain consistent in research and piecing together the book (s) in the required timeframe. Serving personnel contacted were frank and open though one could not acknowledge their contribution by listing their names. I did not experience any writers’ block.
Q. What can you share about your books that are not written in the blurb or synopsis? Is there any particular chapter from your books which you would like to share or highlight? If so what does the chapter specifically deal with and why does it stand out for you?
Ans: There is no synopsis at the beginning of both these books. Both are in simple language and not lengthy, so they need to be read by anyone interested in the subject or enhancing his/her general knowledge. The books explain how despite facing cross border terrorism past decades, host of insurgencies and our enemies’ hell bent to wage asymmetric wars on us, we have hardly made worthwhile effort to create the necessary deterrence primarily because of lack of political will; employing our Special Forces solely for Counter Insurgency-Counter Terrorism (CI-CT) tasks within India?
The first book recommends structures that need to be established to synergize the Special Forces effort. The second book brings out how the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) raised with much fanfare is a slip-shod formation not even two battalions worth and continues to remain so. Ironically, when the first General Officer Commanding (GOC) of AFSOD took up concrete proposals to streamline the AFSOD and raise it to the required levels, he was told to just relax since no one will be using them – the Chief of Defence Staff would know more about this.
The second book describes the ‘Surgical Strike’ and the raid in Myanmar termed Operation ‘Hot Pursuit’. Both were ‘reactive’ operations – first in response to losses suffered in the terrorist strike on an army base at Uri and the second in response to losses suffered in a militant ambush in the northeast. There was nothing pro-active about these operations.
For politicians, cross border employment of Special Forces boils down to compulsion because of public uproar or linked to vote banks-cum-state elections. That is why the first anniversary of ‘surgical strike’ was ignored but the second one celebrated. We may have some similar action before the next state elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Many young Special Forces officers have left the service in frustration due to the limited employment. In two cases it was after commanding Special Forces battalions despite the command having gone off well. Some even went to work with ‘Blackwater’ in Afghanistan to have some ‘real’ experience.
Q. The western media and military literature space is crowded with books on special operations. Everyone from enlisted troops to senior leaders who have served in elite units’ author books on themes ranging from personal experiences, operations to broader strategy, however, there seems to be a major lack of this in the domestic environment.
Do you feel that this is reflective of a lack of general interest in strategic issues or that ‘special operations’ are simply not understood or given due importance by the Indian security establishment?
Ans: There are books by veterans on variety of issues, but the number of such authors is small. No individual (including me) and any organization is perfect; the pursuit of excellence being a never-ending process. In a different context Napoleon had said, "The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people but because of the silence of good people."
But improving the system or an organization, be it at nation level, military, or Special Forces, requires critical examination. Looking at the write-ups today, most authors like to take the middle path so as not to ruffle feathers. This is also because publications fear reprisal in case the powers that be get annoyed with the criticism.
Both my abovementioned books are critiques that criticize the system and the manner in which Indian Special Forces are organized and employed, followed by recommendations. Most think tanks are ‘scared’ to publish such books. Incidentally, my second book was refused by a think tank for being too critical – so one had to go solo.
I don’t think there is lack of general interest about strategic issues or that ‘special operations’ are simply not understood by veterans, but it is a question of getting down to pen one’s thought other than inhibitions about the critique bit mentioned above. As for the security establishment, I guess their interest may be overshadowed by the politico-bureaucratic nonchalance towards Special Forces and their employment.
Q. Other than your books are there any other pieces of literary work on the subject you would recommend being added to the Army’s reading list?
Ans: The internet shows a host of books authored on Special Forces. The books referred under ‘Bibliography’ in these two books would be of interest. There is a plethora of books published on various other issues.
The power of drones has been demonstrated in the Azerbaijan-Armenia War and artificial intelligence (AI) in the recent Israel-Hamas Conflict. But we need to reflect where we stand in terms of network-centric warfare capabilities. In this context, my book ‘Indian Military and Netcentric Warfare’ may be of interest, especially since not much progress has been made thereafter.
Q. Why is reading important for our military and/or the nation at large and how has writing made you a more analytical thinker and security analyst?
Ans: Reading is important for the military and the nation at large for knowledge improvement and making one a better soldier or a citizen. In India, the military ironically is not part of strategic security formulation. The policy makers therefore must read up on defence and security issues, and there should be public opinion exhorting them to do so.
Recall Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw addressing the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in November 1998 had said, “Can those of our political leaders who are responsible for the security and defence of the country cross their hearts and say that they have ever read a book on military history, on strategy, on weapons developments. Can they distinguish a mortar from a motor, a gun from a howitzer, a guerilla from a gorilla, though a vast majority resemble the latter.”
Indians must read up on our military history as well for which many books have been published. An excellent one is India’s Wars 1947-1971 authored by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam.
Q. Are you of the opinion that military veterans should be encouraged write about their unique service experiences or share their professional views in the form of a book? How do you feel this will empower the next generation of military professionals and policy makers?
Ans: Veterans must write especially because those in service cannot do so because of regulations. The encouragement has to come from within. Their focus should be to write critiques and recommend measures for improvement. If the next generations read these, they will know where our weaknesses are and how we can improve them to make India strong.
Q. Lastly, what advice would you like to give a veteran who has a story to tell however does not know how to formulate it in the form of a book, how would you be recommend they go about the journey?
Ans: One does not need special training to write a book – it simply implies outlining chapters and getting down writing the book coupled with research and modifying the chapters as one goes along. Another way is to write a number of articles and compile them into a book. I once read Ruskin Bond saying he writes 1000 words every day. I found this not difficult.
Another way is to write novels based on actual events. For example, two novels ‘Valley of Shadows’ and ‘The Beckoning Isle’ authored by Abhay Sapru (veteran Special Forces major) are international best sellers. The first one is based on his actual experience in the Valley and the second one based on his experience in Sri Lanka.
About the Respondent
Lt Gen. PC Katoch (Retd), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC is a third generation army officer who superannuated as Director General Information Systems of the Indian Army in 2009. A Special Forces officer, he participated in the 1971 Indo- Pak War, commanded an independent commando company in counter-insurgency in northeast India, a Special Forces Battalion in Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, a Brigade on Siachen Glacier, a Division in Ladakh and a Strike Corps in South Western Theatre. He has had his work published in leading defence and national security publications and think tanks in both India and abroad.
(Views expressed are the respondent's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Mission Victory India)