Establishment 22 a.k.a. Special Frontier Force a.k.a. Vikas Regiment is a name which was known mostly only among the military establishments. However, in the recent border skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, the Regiment has come to the fore. Though this Regiment was not widely known until recently, it has been in operation since 1962 and has also participated in key military operations such as Operation Eagle, Operation Blue Star, Operation Meghdoot and also Operation Vijay. In this article, we examine the origin and operation of the Special Frontier Force and why it remains a special part of the Indian Military establishment.
Vikas Regiment or Special Frontier Force (SFF) is unlike the other regiments of the Indian Army, where the officers are commissioned after the rigorous training process of India’s Military Academies. The SFF was raised in 1962, under the behest of the Cabinet Secretariat of India, following the Indo-China war. This Force comprised primarily of thousands of Tibetan refugees. (From 1965, Nepali Gurkhas also became a part of this Force). It is believed that the US external Intelligence Agency CIA and India’s external intelligence Agency R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing) together helped raise the SFF.
The unit was formed on 14th November 1962 and its first Inspector General was Maj Gen. Sujan Singh Uban, a retired Indian Army Major General. He was a Military Cross holder and had commanded the 22nd Mountain Regiment in World War II. Owing to his commanding the 22nd Mountain Regiment, SFF also came to be known as ‘Establishment 22’. Chakrata, situated 100 kms away from Dehradun, which inhabited a lot of Tibetan refugees, was the first home base for SFF. The commandos of this 10,000 member elite unit were trained in mountain warfare, guerrilla tactics, counter terrorism operations, parachute jumps and were imparted rigorous training as they were expected to excel even in extreme conditions. These personnel were required to complete five jumps under US parachute instructors, to be parachute qualified. It is believed that these instructors stayed on until 1966. Their focus of operations, initially, covered the Tibetan Autonomous regions and their key missions involved covert operations during the Indo-China conflict. Their duties involved infiltration into operational areas, parachuting, engaging in close quarter battles and so on.
The then Dalai Lama and Maj Gen Uban inspecting the SFF at Chakrata in June 1972. Source : The Daily Star.net
Early days and the operations they took part in
Initially the SFF mainly used machine guns and their weaponry excluded heavy weapons. However in 1971, when SFF personnel were deployed for the capture of Chittagong Hill Tracts and upon achieving success in the same, they were provided with mortars as well as two MI4 helicopters of the Indian Air Force. As a matter of fact, SFF was instrumental in stalling the escape of Pakistani soldiers to Burma, from Bangladesh. For their role in the 1971 war, the Indian Government conferred 580 members of the SFF with gallantry awards. There were about 50 men who lost their lives and close to 190, who were injured during this War.
Some of the fighters on the street of Chittagong and Dapon Ratuk Ngawang.
Source : The Daily Star.net
As a part of their restructuring process, the SFF was reorganized into six battalions, which also included female personnel. Each of these battalions was commanded by a Tibetan officer. While the SFF was never able to conduct any operation against the Chinese opponents, it is believed that a team of SFF personnel was instrumental in placing sensors in the high peaks of the Himalayas in order to keep a watch on Chinese nuclear as well as missile activities.
By late 1970s, SFF was also deployed for counter terrorism duties. Around 500 troops were chosen for CT training to form a new elite unit known as the Special Group. It was this force which was deployed in Operation Blue Star involving The Golden temple. ‘It was in 1985, they were given rank parity with Indian Army soldiers. The same year, the SFF also played an important role in Operation Meghdoot that led to the historically important capture of the Siachen Glacier. Since then, one of the SFF units has been consistently deployed at Siachen. SFF personnel once again proved their mettle in the Kargil War in 1999 with their exceptional rock-climbing abilities and strong command over the mountainous terrain of Dras and Kargil.
The SFF has been labelled as one of the most covert units in action. These battalions have a regimental flag, insignia and a rank structure of their own, which involves Tibetan soldiers. Each battalion is made up of six companies, of around 123 soldiers in each of them. The Special Group or 4 Vikas, functions under a separate chain of command which comes under the Research & Analysis wing. It is believed that at any point of time, there are about 700 Gurkhas in SFF. Very few Tibetan soldiers were commissioned as officers and rose to the rank of Lt. Colonels. These battalions are now commanded by Indian Army officers. In 2009, they came at par with the Indian Army personnel in terms of pay, allowances as well as pension.
Insignia of the Special Frontier Force. Source : bootcampmilitaryfitnessinstitute.com
Though it is true that the Special Frontier Force does not fall under the traditional chain of command of the Indian Army, it would be a grave mistake to undermine their contribution in any way. Ever since its establishment, the SFF has been a force to reckon with for its adversaries and a rock-solid wall that protects its people. After their unwavering courage over the years and their heroics in the 2020 Galwan Valley clash, it is only fair that we name them, acknowledge them and salute them.