Formation Insignia of the Special Frontier Force

From Elite Forces of India and Pakistan, by Ken Conboy and Paul Hannon

The Special Frontier Force (SFF) was created on 14 November 1962, near the end of the Indo-China War. The Cabinet Secretariat had ordered the raising of an elite guerrilla force composed mainly of Tibetan refugees. It's 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 who was known for his unconventional thinking. Soon the SFF came to be known as 'Establishment 22' due to its first Inspector General, who used to be commander of 22 Mountain Regiment during World War II.


SFF commandos, armed with the Mk.4 Sterling, wearing parachute crash helmets.

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. 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. Heavy weapons were not provided.

By late 1963, inter-service rivalry led to severe criticism by the Indian Army. To prove that the SFF's worth, the Inspector General sent 120 men from the SFF for a field exercise, codenamed Garuda, with the Army. 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 led by the Inspector General, began its airborne training at Agra. The SFF then began its own airborne training program at Sarasawan airbase near Saharanpur. By the late-1960s, the SFF was organised 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 it's 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.

1971 saw the SFF being used in major combat in the Indo-Pak war. Elements of the force were sent to Mizoram in late October. By November 1971, around 3000 SFF members were deployed next to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. With cross-border attacks becoming more frequent, the SFF was then ordered to attack the Chittagong Hill Tracts. For this operation, code-named 'Eagle', the SFF members were given Bulgarian AK-47s and US carbines. This operation saw the first Dapon, Tibetan equivalent of a Brigadier, 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 found not favourable, since SFF members did not have artillery or airlift support to conduct a mission of that magnitude. 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 also two Indian Air Force Mi-4 helicopters.

With the Pakistani Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi signing the ceasefire on 17 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 Govt. In 1973, the original Inspector General of the SFF was replaced and in 1975 a new rule pertaining to the SFF was issued. This prohibited the SFF from being deployed within 10 km of the Indo-Chinese border. This came about after several incidents in which SFF commandos had crossed the border and conducted unsanctioned cross-border operations.


A Dapon (Brigadier) from the SFF. He wears a maroon beret with the SFF cap badge; the same badge is seen on the belt buckle.

By the late 1970s, Indo-Chinese relations had eased up somewhat and the Indian Government was thinking twice about maintaining this force. With the future of the SFF being uncertain, the force was soon given a new mission: counter-terrorism. Since the SFF consisted largely of Tibetans, they were seen as an ideal counter-terrorist force since 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 away without any major incidents, only 60 SFF commandos were retained for counter-terrorist duties. However, over 500 Army troops were sent to Sarasawa for counter-terrorist training. They formed a elite new detachment, known as the Special Group and they fall 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 the other Indian troops. The remaining SFF members were still trained for guerrilla operations in China.

By early 1984, the SFF's elite Special Group became the primary counter-terrorist 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. Currently, one SFF battalion is stationed in the Siachen Glacier. In 1985-1986 several SFF members were given bravery medals for their actions on the glacier. The current SFF force levels are around 10,000 men. Battalions are still composed of six companies, each company consisting of 123 men. There is also a force of around 700 Gorkhas in the SFF at any given time.

Training conducted at Chakrata, lasts six months and is similar to 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 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. In 1989, the SFF began wearing standard Indian DPM (Disruptive Pattern Material) camouflage.