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In January 2016, while defending the Pathankot air base in Punjab, Corporal Gursewak Singh became the first Garud – the Indian Air Force (IAF) commando force – to fall to terrorist bullets. On Wednesday morning, two more IAF commandos – Sergeant Milind Kishor and Corporal Nilesh Kumar Nayan – became the first Garud fatalities in counter-insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). Kishor and Nayan died in action in Hajin village, near Bandipura in North Kashmir. They were operating with an army unit, 13 Rashtriya Rifles, when three armed militants opened fire at them. Incident accounts indicate the Garuds quickly killed two militants and were outflanking the third when he fired, catching them in the open. Like the navy’s Special Forces – dubbed Marcos, or Marine Commandos – the Garud force has been operating in J&K since 2005. Over the years, they have had significant successes, including killing two Hizbul Mujahideen district commanders in Kupwara. “We prefer to remain quiet about our operations in Kashmir and elsewhere”, says a Garud officer when asked for details. The Garud force was conceived in September 2004, when air force chief, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, on a visit to Israel, was impressed by their air force Special Forces Unit 5101 – also called Shaldag, or Kingfisher in Hebrew. On his return to India, Krishnaswamy ordered the establishment of a similar unit. It was named Garud, after a heavenly bird in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The Garud force conducts “aviation special operations”, including combat search and rescue (retrieving IAF pilots shot down or bailed out in enemy territory), “laser designation” of strategic enemy targets for smart bombs dropped from IAF strike aircraft, assessing the damage done to enemy targets after IAF air strikes, and the physical destruction of enemy air defence radars and guns. For these dangerous tasks, the Garuds must infiltrate into enemy territory by air, sea or land.
Certain helicopter units are affiliated to the Garuds for airborne infiltration.While the force today numbers over 1,500 persons, Garuds typically operate in small tightknit “squads” of 14 commandoes. These are grouped into “flights” of 60-70 men. All Garuds are volunteers, with some being directly recruited into the force and others opting to sidestep into the Garuds from other air force branches. It is rare to find pilots opting for the Garuds, since pilots link their futures with maximising hours in the cockpit. The Garuds are equipped with specially procured weaponry, like the Israeli Tavor rifle. Reports from Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence indicate a range of advanced counter-terrorist equipment is being procured for the Garud force, including thermal night vision binoculars, special silenced carbines with holographic and night sights. Lighly armoured strike vehicles are also being procured. The Garud force is headquartered in Chandinagar, near Baghpat, where training is carried out. In addition, Garuds are given specialist training by the navy’s Marcos, and army para-commandoes. In a message tweeted by Northern Command today, the army paid its respects to the two Garuds: “[Army Commander Northern Command] and all ranks salute the supreme sacrifice of our martyrs [and] offer our deepest condolences to the families.”