MARCOS: Formidable special force of the Indian Navy

The Indian Navy has an assortment of vessels that include aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates. Today we discover the role and task of its Special Forces element, known as MARCOS. These robust and highly skilled Marine Commandos can fight in many dimensions and are internationally recognized to be amongst the best commandos who engage in counter- insurgency operations.

The missions of MARCOS are shrouded almost like a mystery. They are officially named as the Marine Commando Force. Founded in 1987 these naval warriors have expanded their combat competency over the decades. When we look into the history of the Indian military, we are made to understand that a Diving School was set up in Cochin in 1955. This was done with the help of the British Special Boat Service (SBS).

At this early stage the Indian sailors were taught combat diving skills, such as explosives disposal and salvage diving. During the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, the Indian combat divers were sent into action; however they did not meet the anticipated objectives. During this phase the Indian Navy came forward to assist the Indian Army in landing operations.

In 1986 the high command of the Indian Navy realized there was a lacuna for a naval Special Forces team that could engage in a maritime combat environment and counter-terrorism operations. Subsequently three officers from the diving school were selected and did their initial training in USA with the world-renowned US Navy SEALS.

Marcos during CT operation in KASHMIR
Marcos during CT operation in KASHMIR

These three officers later trained with the British SBS. In 1987 the pioneer marine commandos proudly took their position within the Indian Navy and the unit was named Marine Commando Force in 1991. Due to the sensitive nature of combat operations most of the MARCOS missions remain classified. Since July 2016 the MARCOS headquarters is garrisoned at INS Karna in Vishakapatnam.

The MARCOS men are experts in amphibious reconnaissance, airborne assault, close protection, close-quarters combat, direct action, underwater demolition, clandestine diving missions, hostage rescue, foreign internal defence and unconventional warfare. The INS Abhimanyu was the base where MARCOS was initially formed. The MARCOS emblem depicts the Ashoka (national symbol), the wings symbolize the capability to undertake airdrops, the dagger displays the killer instinct and the traditional anchor represents the Navy.

Indian navy SF MARCOs with Cost guard
Indian navy SF MARCOs with Cost guard

How does one become a MARCOS warrior? Personnel already serving in the Indian Navy can apply for selection. All of them must be in their early 20s and the training duration is two-and-a- half years. All personnel must face a three-day physical aptitude test. Those who pass must then encounter the ‘hell week’ – seven tough days which include intense physical training and sleep deprivation. This process filters the tough men. When real training commences recruits learn to use all kinds of weapons for a period of nine months. A challenging part of the MARCOS training is the ‘death crawl’– a field exercise where aspiring naval commandos must crawl through mud for 800 metres carrying a 25Kg combat pack. Already exhausted from the mud crawl they must proceed to accurately shoot at a target which is 25 metres away.

The commandos learn about combat diving, airborne operations, anti-hijacking ops, anti-piracy duties, counter-terrorism, infiltration and unconventional warfare. All of the MARCOS members are parachute qualified. In addition, some specialize in operating the COSMOS – a small two-man submarine. Interestingly these Indian commandos have the ability to para-drop into the sea with their weapons.

Another amazing team combat ability is to drop two boats (from an aircraft) into the water, with 32 MARCOS men wielding their weapons. Every commando is proficient in handling the following weapons – 9mm semi automatic pistol, Beretta 92FS pistol, MP-5 machine gun, AK 103 assault rifle, IWI Tavor assault rifle, SAKO sniper rifle, OSV 96 rifle, MSG90 rifle, IWI NG7 light machine gun and the VSK suppressed sniper rifle. Their support weapons include GP25 grenade launcher, Shipon anti-tank weapon and MG2 machine guns. Their airborne missions are done out of Sea King, Chetak and HAL Dhruv helicopters.

Many Sri Lankans will be unaware that MARCOS took part in a daring water-borne raid against the LTTE decimating one of its makeshift harbours. In this raid 18 Indian commandos led by Lieutenant Aravind Singh stealthily swam 12km, carrying their weapons and explosives. Diving underwater they were undetected and silently rigged their explosive charges, which were later detonated. Taken by surprise the LTTE fired upon the Indian commandos minutes later, but the MARCOS team swam back to safety with no casualties.

In 1988 the MARCOS engaged in another clandestine raid at sea. A group of 47 Sri Lankan mercenaries belonging to PLOTE and the lesser known ENDLF had taken 23 Maldivians hostage. The mercenaries were sailing on a high-jacked ship named MV Progress Light. Once alerted the Indian Navy assigned its frigate INS Godavari to pursue the suspect vessel, which it trailed for two days. INS Godavari had proceeded to carefully fire at the suspect ship, forcing the armed rebels to come on deck. They were finally subdued by the MARCOS team along with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Army.

indian navy marcos
Marcos gurading the wular lake

By 1993 the Indian marine commandos were sent to Mogadishu, Somalia to augment the Indian forces already working there for a UN mission. Another sector of area domination by the MARCOS teams takes place continuously in the Jammu and Kashmir regions, specifically amidst the Jhelum River and the Wular Lake. This area covers nearly 250 square kilometres. Armed militants are found in this region which has a mountain pass. In this rugged and hostile terrain, the Indian marine commandos work alongside the Indian Army Special Forces. Their combined military presence has seen a steady decrease in militant intrusion. In 1999 the MARCOS teams took part in the Kargil war.

In November 2008, the Indian Navy MARCOS and National Security Guard (NSG) better known as the Black Cats gained international media attention when they boldly stormed the Taj Palace hotel and Oberoi Trident hotel in Mumbai, India. Both these opulent hotels (along with some other locations) were targeted by terrorists, and many guests were taken hostage. The local police did their best but the situation soon escalated to dangerous levels.

The MARCOS commandos and NSG Black Cats put together an operation code named Black Tornado. All the terrorists were shot dead and 250 people were rescued from the Oberoi Trident hotel and 300 people were rescued from the Taj Palace hotel.

The MARCOS and Sri Lanka Navy commandos actively participate in the SLINEX exercise between the two countries. The MARCOS have also been preparing for urban warfare and begun practising on 3D virtual models of offshore installations to deliver a swift response to terrorist attacks. MARCOS remains an integral part of India’s overall defence.

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