Special Frontier Force
Insignia of the Special Frontier Force
Founded14 November 1962
Country India
TypeSpecial forces
RoleSpecial reconnaissance
Direct action
Hostage rescue
Unconventional warfare
Foreign Internal Defence
Covert Operations
SizeClassified (5,000–12,000 troopers speculated)[1]
Part ofCabinet Secretariat[2]
HeadquartersChakrata, Uttarakhand, India
Nickname(s)Establishment 22, "Phantoms of Chittagong"
EngagementsBangladesh Liberation War
Operation Blue Star
Operation Cactus
Operation Pawan
Kargil War
Operation Rakshak
2020 China–India skirmishes
Maj.Gen Sujan Singh Uban
SFF badge.jpg
Aircraft flown
HelicopterHAL Cheetah
HAL Lancer
Cargo helicopterMi-17V-5
Utility helicopterHAL Dhruv
HAL Chetak
ReconnaissanceIAI Searcher II
IAI Heron
DRDO Rustom
TransportGulfstream III
IAI Astra 1125

The Special Frontier Force (SFF) is an Indian special operations unit created on 14 November 1962. It mainly comprised Tibetan refugees living in India. Now it has increased in size and scope of operations. Its primary goal originally was to conduct covert operations behind Chinese lines in the event of another Sino-Indian War.[3] Throughout its history, SFF has fought in India's major external wars including the Bangladesh Liberation War and the Kargil War. It has also been involved in internal security, including Operation Blue Star and also serving as the "Personal Force" of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to suppress opposition parties during the state of emergency from 1975 to 1977.[4] It has been part of border operations against China, including the 2020 China–India skirmishes.[3]

Based in Chakrata,[5] Uttarakhand, the force was put under the direct supervision of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and later the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency,[6] and is not part of the Indian Army but functions under their operational control with its own rank structure, charter and training infrastructure. It falls under the authority of the Directorate General on Security in the Cabinet Secretariat headed by an Inspector General (SFF) who is selected from the Major General rank of the Indian Army and who reports directly to the Prime Minister's Office.[2]


British India precursor

Tibetans have been a part of the modern Indian Army for as long as it has existed. During the time of the Great Game, the British Indian Army began to employ Tibetans as spies, intelligence agents, and even covert militia in northern India and Tibet proper.[citation needed]

1950s training with IB and CIA

At the time of Indian independence, the northern mountain-covered region of India remained the most isolated and strategically overlooked territory of the subcontinent. During the 1950s, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) established Mustang Base in Mustang in Nepal,[7] which trained Tibetans in guerilla warfare. The Mustang rebels brought the 14th Dalai Lama to India during the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion.


Chakrata, Uttarakhand, is where SFF personnel are trained in stealth combat and scouting techniques.
Chakrata, Uttarakhand, is where SFF personnel are trained in stealth combat and scouting techniques.

The idea of raising a specialized force consisting of Tibetan refugees and Tibetan resistance fighters in India against the Chinese was first mooted by General K S Thimayya when he was leading the Indian Army between May 1957 and May 1961.[8] During the Sino-Indian War and towards the end of 1962, after hectic lobbying by the IB Chief Bhola Nath Mullik and World War II veteran Biju Patnaik,[9] the Jawaharlal Nehru government finally ordered the raising of an elite commando unit and specialised mountain division.[2]

The primary task of SFF is defence against the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Force as well as conducting clandestine intelligence gathering and commando operations along the Chinese border. Chushi Gangdruk leaders were contacted for recruitment of Khampas into this new unit. The initial strength was 5000 men, mostly Khampas who were recruited at its new Mountain Training Facility at Chakrata, 100 km from the city of Dehradun.[10] The SFF is also known as 'Establishment 22' or just '22' due to its first Inspector General, Maj. Gen. Sujan Singh Uban, who commanded the 22nd Mountain Regiment, Royal Indian Artillery during World War II.[9][11] Uban also went on to command a Long Range Desert Group Squadron (LRDS) in North Africa during the war.[12] The SFF made its home base at Chakrata, a mountain town in the foothills of the Himalayas home to a large Tibetan refugee population. Starting with a force of 5,000 men, the SFF commenced six months of training in rock climbing and guerrilla warfare. Initial training was conducted by the Intelligence Bureau Special Operations Unit. Both the RAW and the CIA helped in raising the force.

During the same period, the Indian government also formed the Ladakh Scouts and the Nubra Guards paramilitary forces on similar lines. Many SFF members were also absorbed from the Gurkha Rifles. SFF was later incorporated into the Special Services Bureau. By late 1963, inter-service rivalry led to severe criticism by the Indian Army. To prove the SFF's worth, the Inspector General sent 120 men from the SFF on 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.[13] However the force faced other problems such as mass desertions by Tibetans. The Tibetan recruits found that smuggling was a much easier way of making money than risking their lives along the border.[4]

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 Sarsawa Air Force Station. In 1968 with the help of Aviation Research Centre (ARC), SFF were provided with airlift facilities and became fully airborne-qualified with a dedicated mountain and jungle warfare unit.

CIA support and pull-out

The SFF's weapons were all provided by the US and consisted mainly of M-1, M-2 and M-3 sub-machine guns. Heavy weapons were not provided.[14] The US government pulled out the CIA from the training program as relations with India soured in the early 1970s during the period of Cold War, with the Sino-Soviet split and Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China for improving the bilateral relationship.[15] The unit conducted limited cross-border reconnaissance missions as well as highly classified joint operations with the CIA in 1965 on Mount Nanda Devi in the Himalayas.[14]

Battalions and composition

The SFF has a total of six battalions called 1 Vikas, 2 Vikas, 3 Vikas, 5 Vikas, 6 Vikas, and 7 Vikas. Each battalion has around 800 troopers.[1] The six battalions are commanded by Indian Army officers of colonel rank. At least five other Indian Army officers are in a battalion.[1] At the helm of SFF is the Inspector General (SFF), an officer of Major General rank. The Special Group, or 4 Vikas, functions under a separate chain of command under the R&AW.[1] Historically, by the late 1960s, the SFF was organised into six battalions for administrative purposes. In the past, each battalion, consisting of six companies, was commanded by a Tibetan who had a rank equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the Indian Army. A Tibetan major or captain commanded each company, which was the primary unit used in operations.[14] After the 1980s, the practice of giving Indian Army commissions to Tibetans was discontinued.[1]

Ethnically, the unit is a mixture of Tibetans and Gurkhas from Nepal.[16] The Tibetan troopers are recruited from the dwindling population of Tibetans in India, which stood at 85,000 in 2018.[17] The flow of Tibetans joining SFF has slowed due to the declining population of Tibetans, leading to a more ethnically mixed unit.[17][16] Gurkhas have been recruited to the SFF since 1965.[18] Tibetans currently serve as soldiers and non-commissioned officers and were in the past given officer commissions.[1] Women are also recruited for specialized operations as well as in signal and medical companies.[14]


SFF was raised with covert operations in mind, mainly along the Indo-China border; however, SFF has been fielded by the R&AW and the Indian government in various covert and overt operation theatres.[14]


Cold War

In 1964, intelligence reports kept indicating that China was preparing to test a nuclear weapon at its Lop Nor nuclear installation in Xinjiang. On 16 October 1964 China did indeed test a nuclear weapon in Xinjiang. It was expected, but not enough details were known. Later in November 1964, the CIA launched a U2 flight out of Aviation Research Centre (ARC)'s Charbatia Air Base in Orissa, but its return turned out to be something of a mishap.[19][20] The Lockheed U-2 overshot the runway and got stuck in slushy ground caused by heavy rain in the monsoon. Getting it unstuck and out of India without being noticed by the Indian press, then even more subject to leftist influences and hence antagonistic to the US, was another clandestine operation. This gave all concerned quite a scare and it was decided to rely on other technical means.

The CIA therefore decided to launch an electronic intelligence (ELINT) operation along with R&AW and to track China's nuclear tests and monitor its missile launches. The operation, in the garb of a mountaineering expedition to Nanda Devi, involved celebrated Indian climber M S Kohli who, along with operatives of SFF and CIA (most notably Jim Rhyne, a veteran STOL pilot), was to emplace 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. The plan to install a snooping device was devised far away in Washington D.C., in the offices of the National Geographic Society. Barry Bishop, a photographer with the magazine, interested General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in the idea.[21][22]

The actual efforts called for the placement of a permanent ELINT device powered by a nuclear SNAP 19C power pack fuel cell. The first attempt to place this device on Nanda Devi, by a Kohli-led SFF team under the cover of a mountaineering expedition, failed as the team had to retreat in the face of adverse conditions and left the device in a small unmarked mountain cave after having hauled the device just short of the 25,645-foot peak. When another Kohli-led expedition returned the following year to recover the device, it was found to be missing.[19][23][24] In the meantime the Chinese not only kept testing not only nuclear weapons but also ballistic missiles at regular intervals. The urgency to gather information was never greater.

Another mission was launched in 1967 to place a similar device on the Nanda Kot. This mission was successful but a couple of years later another problem cropped up: snow would pile up over the antenna and render it blind. So Kohli and a SFF team were sent once again to bring it down; this time they retrieved it successfully. In October 1967 the Chinese began testing an ICBM capable of reaching targets 6000 miles away. There was renewed urgency to find out more. So SFF mountaineers went off on one more mission in December 1969 to successfully place a gas-powered device on an undisclosed mountain, supposedly in Chinese-controlled areas. However, by the following year, the US had the first generation of TRW spy satellites in place and did not have to rely on the old ELINT devices.[25]

2020 Ladakh skirmishes

During the 2020 China–India skirmishes, SFF was reported to have conducted operations along the LAC, including the capture of heights in South Pangong Tso range.[26][27] In another incident, an official statement by the Indian Army read: "Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the southern bank of Pangong Tso, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground".[28] During this operation, on 1 September 2020, company leader Nyima Tenzin died in a landmine blast while undertaking a reconnaissance mission along the line of actual control.[29]

Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971

Illustration showing military units and troop movements during the war
Illustration showing military units and troop movements during the war

SFF was part of major combat operations during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Starting in late October and November 1971, elements of the force were sent to Mizoram. An SFF Task Force of around 3000 members was deployed to conduct pre-emptive strike in support of the Indian Army formations along the Chittagong Hill Tracts and to train the local underground unit called Mujib Bahini.[30]

With cross-border attacks becoming more frequent, SFF was ordered to attack the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Bangladeshi campaign was designated Operation Mountain Eagle,[10] and SFF members were given Bulgarian AK-47s and US-made carbines. This operation saw the first Dapon, the Tibetan equivalent of a Brigadier, in command of part of the SFF Task Force.

With war imminent, SFF successfully executed several mission plans that included the destruction of the Kaptai Dam and other bridges of strategic value. The Inspector General also urged that the SFF be used to capture the second largest city, Chittagong, but the idea was found not favourable to military planners in New Delhi since the unit lacked artillery or airlift support capabilities to conduct a mission of such magnitude. After three weeks of border fighting, the SFF divided its six battalions into three columns and moved into East Pakistan on 3 December 1971. The Tibetans were given mortars and recoilless rifles and two Mil Mi-4 helicopters of the Indian Air Force, and captured several villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The air-operations were handled by ARC at Balasore.

On the night of 14 November 1971 in the forests of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Brigadier Dhondup Gyatotsang was killed in a firefight with Special Service Group of the Pakistan Army. With the fall of Dhaka and Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi surrendering on 16 December 1971, SFF had lost 49 men[31] and nearly 190 were wounded.[32] The SFF Task Force 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 at the Chittagong Hill Tracts. For their bravery and courage, 580 SFF Task Force members were awarded cash prizes by the Union Government of India. Their swift covert capabilities won the force the nickname 'Phantoms of Chittagong'.[33]


The Special Frontier Force retains a military rank insignia system distinct from other Indian paramilitary organizations.

Rank group General/flag officers Field/senior officers Junior officers Officer cadet
Special Frontier Force
Major general
Lieutenant colonel
First Lieutenant
Second Lieutenant
Enlisted ranks
Rank group Junior commissioned officers Non commissioned officer Enlisted
Special Frontier Force
No insignia
Subedar Major Subedar Naib Subedar Havildar Naik Lance Naik Sepoy


  1. ^ a b c d e f Unnithan, Sandeep (5 September 2020). "The Tibetan ghost warriors". India Today. Retrieved 6 September 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Chhina, Man Aman Singh; Kaushik, Krishn (2 September 2020). "Explained: What is the Special Frontier Force, referred to as Vikas Battalion?". The Indian Express. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  3. ^ a b Shukla, Ajai (2 September 2020). "Ladakh intrusions: Special Frontier Force takes first casualties". Business Standard India. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  4. ^ a b Bobb, Dilip (15 December 1980). "Special Frontier Force: More of a white elephant than an effective intelligence outfit?". India Today. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  5. ^ "Establishment 22". chushigangdruk.org. 17 December 1971. Archived from the original on 17 January 2016. Retrieved 28 September 2012.
  6. ^ "Bollywood Sargam – Special: Tibetan faujis in Bluestar". Archived from the original on 2 May 2013.
  7. ^ Arpi, Claude (8 January 2003). "The Phantoms of Chittagong". Rediff. Archived from the original on 10 February 2003.
  8. ^ Thimayya, K.S. (1 January 1963). "Chinese Aggression and After". International Studies. 5 (1–2): 50–53. doi:10.1177/002088176300500105. ISSN 0020-8817. S2CID 155069361.
  9. ^ a b Sanyal, Amitava (14 November 2009). "The curious case of establishment 22". Hindustan Times. Archived from the original on 17 November 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
  10. ^ a b Chauhan, Bala (4 September 2020). "Establishment-22 draws its strength from Karnataka". The New Indian Express. Retrieved 4 September 2020.
  11. ^ Dubey, Ravi (3 September 2020). "DNA Special: How India's Special Frontier Force is nightmare for China". DNA India. Retrieved 4 September 2020.
  12. ^ Uban, Gurdip Singh (20 September 2020). "On The Roof Of The World, The Shadow Of The Celestial Snow Lion". Outlook India. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  13. ^ Shulkla, Ajai (9 September 2020). "Special Frontier Force: India's secret weapon against PLA". Rediff. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  14. ^ a b c d e "Land Forces Site – SFF". Bharat Rakshak. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  15. ^ "The Special Frontier Force: Tibetan refugees, once trained with US help". The Week. Retrieved 4 September 2020.
  16. ^ a b "Special Frontier Force: why is a covert group under the spotlight now?". Indian Express. 8 September 2020.
  17. ^ a b "Latest India-China border clash turns spotlight on Tibetan refugees in Special Frontier Force". South China Morning Post. 4 September 2020.
  18. ^ "Centre says it's ready to restore service pension of special force veterans". Hindustan Times. 22 June 2016.
  19. ^ a b "India used US spy planes to map Chinese incursion in Sino-Indian war". Hindustan Times. 16 August 2013. Archived from the original on 16 August 2013. Retrieved 16 August 2013.
  20. ^ "Nehru permitted CIA spy planes to use Indian air base". Business Standard. 16 August 2013. Retrieved 16 August 2013.
  21. ^ "Book Extract: Spies in the Himalayas By M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy". Vayu Sena. 2020.
  22. ^ O'Toole, Homas (13 April 1978). "CIA Put Nuclear Spy Devices in Himalayas". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  23. ^ Kapadia, Harish (1998). "Nanda Devi". In Salkeld, Audrey (ed.). World Mountaineering. Bulfinch Press. pp. 254–257. ISBN 0-8212-2502-2.
  24. ^ There are many theories about what happened. Likely ones are that the device rolled off the mountain and is now lodged at the bottom of the glacier. More imaginative theories speculate that the supposedly indestructible nuclear power pack with a highly toxic plutonium isotope in its core, with a half-life of many thousand years, is inching its way into the Ganges. Another plausible theory is that another team of Indian mountaineers came up secretly early the next season and spirited the device away for Indian nuclear scientists to study. Many Americans lean towards this, and with the legendary spymaster RN Kao in the picture anything was possible.
  25. ^ Madan, Tanvi (27 February 2020). "The pitfalls and promise of a US-India partnership driven by China". Brookings. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  26. ^ "India-China standoff: Indian Army captures Pangong North Finger 4 in Ladakh". Business Today. 2 September 2002. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  27. ^ "India uses commandos from covert Special Frontier Force to stop Chinese misadventure - Misadventure thwarted". The Economic Times. 1 September 2020. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  28. ^ Som, Vishnu (31 August 2020). "China Says "Taking Countermeasures" As India Foils Ladakh Move: 10 Points". NDTV. Retrieved 31 August 2020.
  29. ^ Shukla, Ajai (2 September 2020). "Ladakh intrusions: Special Frontier Force takes first casualties". Business Standard India. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  30. ^ Bangladesh. Mantrī Parishada Bibhāga. Bāṃlādeśa Muktiyuddha Sammānanā : Muktiyuddha Maitrī Sammānanā = Bangladesh Liberation War Honour: Friends of Liberation War Honour. OCLC 841212999.
  31. ^ "1971 War: How the US tried to corner India". www.rediff.com. Retrieved 4 September 2020.
  32. ^ "Remembering the 'Phantoms of Chittagong'". Dhaka Tribune. 27 December 2019. Retrieved 4 September 2020.
  33. ^ Uban, Sujan Singh (1985). Phantoms of Chittagong: the "Fifth Army" in Bangladesh. Allied Publishers. ISBN 81-7023-042-X. OCLC 15054054.