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Sri Lanka Navy - Amphibious Operations

An amphibious operation is the epitome of joint military action, and thus the success depends on efficiently executed amphibious actions by the Navy. It is difficult to understand whether Sri Lanka has a Marine Corps in the sense of the United States Marine Corps. The US Marine Corps is a specilized unit that is organized, trained and equiped to project power from ship to shore, and to conduct sustained operations ashore.

Sri Lanka seems to have a variety of formations that satisfy each of these elements, but none of these units satisfy all of these criteria. Sri Lanka has also conducted several amphibious assaults, but with indifferent results. The Navys "Shakthi", a Chinese built Landing Ship Tank (LST), played a pivotal role in transporting troops, equipment and weaponry during the humanitarian operations. SLNS Shakthi can carry nearly 500 soldiers. But there does not seem to be any particular unit associated either with combat amphibious assaults, or with the Sri Lankan landing ship.

Since the early 1990's the SLN had been involved in land operations assisting the Army on amphibious operations liberating land areas from terrorist control. SLN also assist the Army in ground combat duties. For this purpose North Central Command was established and Naval Patrolman battalions were raised to take up this task.

The Naval Patrolman Branch was formed to augment the land operations capabilities of SLN. Officers and sailors of this branch mainly perform duties on land combat operations and numerous appointments under various commands in the Navy. One estimate of current size suggested it may be only 2-3 battalions strong. By 2009 there were 48,000 in the Navy, at which time the Sri Lanka Navy deployed over 12,000 naval personnel in operational areas in support of the Government's ground strategy. These units were formed primary as a protective force for base and port security, but has since been trained and deployed for amphibious and land combat operations. In addition to being equipped with light arms, the patrolmen have 60mm, 82mm mortars and operate Unibuffel light armored vehicles. But these naval personnel seem to be shore-bound, and are not reported to be involved in amphibious exercises and operations.

The Special Boat Squadron (SBS) is the Navys elite special marine force specialized in amphibious warfare and maritime counter-terrorism operations. Established in 1993 the elite marine force conducts a wide range of special water-borne and land-based operations. They played a pivotal role in eradicating terrorism by conducting a series of well-coordinated special missions during the humanitarian operation.

The Special Boat Squadron (SBS) are specially trained to penetrate deep into enemy territory and carryout special missions. During their specialized training course they are given extensive exposure into amphibious operations and intelligence gathering. SBS combat skills include sniper attack, combat diving, close quarter combat, high speed recovery and small boat attack on beaches. The Special Boat Squadron has contributed immensely towards the success of the Sri Lanka Navy.

The Army Commandos are empowered with tasks such as Amphibious Operations, but they also conduct Direct Action, Unconventional warfare, Special reconnaissance, Hostage Rescue and Combating Terrorism VIP Protection, K9 Handling, Clandestine Operations and Covert Operations, Airborne and Air Assault Operations and Foreign Internal Defence.

The Navys Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Army Commandos conduct amphibious operations, but these are special operations units that conduct raids, and are not configured to conduct sustained operations ashore. Thus they are akin to the US Navy SEALS, not the United States Marines.

The Navy was credited with some daring amphibious landings, with the largest ever conducted in the middle of 1991 to spearhead the assault to relieve the besieged Elephant Pass base. Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, has been the scene of several amphigious operations.

On July 10, 1991 the Army camp at Elephant Pass came under siege by the LTTE. The army base commanded by the then Major Sanath Karunaratne defended the camp. The battle for Elephant Pass turned to be the most violent and bloody confrontation between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces.

To break the siege and reinforce the Elephant Pass camp Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa, along with Brigadier Vijaya Wimalaratne, launched "Operation Balavegaya". Brigades 1 and 3, commanded by Colonel Sarath Fonseka and Colonel Anton Wijendra respectively headed for an amphibious attack to regain Elephant Pass. The troops led by Lt. General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Major General Vijaya Wimalarathne landed at the Vettilaikerni beach head engaging LTTE in the most fierce battle fought in the decade. The 5th and 6th Bns of The Gemunu Watch assisted the two Brigades that launched the first amphibious Balavegaya I operation to rescue the besieged troops at Elephant pass in July 1991.

LTTE commander Prabhakaran's much publicized, `Mother of all Battles,' was defeated. According to defence observers, the success of the campaign was triggered due to the diversion attack 'Asaka Sena', which was under taken by the Commandos and Special Forces (SF).

The meticulously planned defence of the Elephant Pass camp was a great morale boost to the Army. Had the Navy failed to carry out the landings, the LTTE would have overwhelmed Elephant Pass. The fall of Elephant Pass in 1991 could have had a devastating impact on isolated security forces bases in the Jaffna peninsula, with they being primarily confined to Palaly complex and KKS. By 2006 major amphibious landings wouldnt be possible due to a variety of reasons, particularly the type of armaments available to the LTTE.

As many as four LTTE formations were engaged in amphibious operations. The Sea Tigers, Black Sea Tigers, a special amphibian force and a special commando force were involved. The amphibian and commando units were modelled on the US Marine Corps and SEALS. The LTTE, like Eklavya emulating Drona in the Mahabharatha had trained these elite formations on the lines of the US marines. The LTTE's first major amphibian attack was in 1993 when the Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai naval complex was attacked. The Tigers came across the lagoon in rafts to escape detection. The operation was then codenamed Thavalai or frog. The frog is an amphibian. That name was chosen to signify the amphibious nature of that attack.

Not all Sri Lankan Armed Forces amphibious operations enjoyed success. Shortly after midnight on 18 July 1996, an estimated 1000 LTTE cadres began the attack on the Mullaitivu Military Base, from its northern and southern defences. This base was home for Sri Lanka Army's 215 Brigade Headquarters, located on a thin strip of land alongside the coast.

In 1996 "Operation Thrivida Pahara" was a combined rescue operation in which re-enforcement troops deployed in Jaffna boarded a merchant vessel berthed at Kankesanthurai harbor for a 20 mile journey into the high seas off Mullaitivu. From there, they were to transfer into Naval landing craft, come closer to the shore and transfer again to dinghies to make an amphibious landing on a beach-head. This required troops to transfer twice into different types of vessels. The tactical sense of this complicated maneuver was questionable. Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command led by Vice Admiral D.K. Dassanayake and Zonal Commander (East) of the Sri Lanka Air Force, both based in Trincomalee, had to deploy their resources in the hurriedly prepared rescue effort.

At one point delays to rush troops by sea infuriated Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte so much that he severely reprimanded a high ranking Navy officer. Minister Ratwatte told him to be prepared to pack his bags and leave if he could not execute the tasks entrusted to him. As 18 July 1996 dawned, troops on the merchant ship had reached their pre-arranged point in the high seas, transferred to the Navy landing crafts, travelled some distances and shifted to the dinghies to make a landing on the coast.

It was afternoon by the time troops began their journey from the high seas towards the Mullaitivu coast escorted by a flotilla of Navy patrol boats. Around 4:30 PM the sea borne convoy was advancing towards Mullaitivu Military Base, when Sea Tiger suicide cadres in boats laden heavily with explosives rammed one of the Navy vessels escorting them - SLNS Ranaviru, a Shanghai class fast gun boat. The Navy craft sank, and the entire crew of 36 was killed. Once again a sea borne landing was aborted.

The next day, 20 July 1996, the Navy called off attempts to induct troops and made more preparations. There were also minor repairs that were needed on some craft. Hence, they were set to resume their operations to land troops only on 21 July 1996. It was only on 21 July that Navy landing craft began landing troops after the commandos at least five kilometres south of Mullaitivu had established a beach-head. That too came under heavy mortar fire. A few mortars fell on the wire mesh of a Navy landing craft. Another hit the landing ramp severing it and killing a group of soldiers who were disembarking.

It took up to 23 July 1996 for the troops to consolidate on the beach-head and advance towards the Mullaitivu base under fierce resistance. By the time the advance troops reached the southern perimeter of the Base, they discovered that what was once a military base was no more. The buildings had been razed to the ground. The troops reported that they were greeted by the unbearable stench of decayed and dismembered bodies.

By 24-25 July 1996 the troops were making a withdrawal after the higher command had decided to abandon the relief of the destroyed base. The withdrawal also had its own snags. The Navy landing craft supporting the withdrawal determined that they would beach the landing craft only for six minutes for embarking troops. Navy officials say that they waited for 13 minutes and left the beach only after Army officials gave them the all clear. Be that as it may the hiccup in the withdrawal left a group of soldiers stranded on the beach, all of whom were eventually killed by the Tigers. In the end, a staggering 1639 were dead or missing in action.

After evicting the Sri Lanka army from the Wanni in November 1999, the LTTE set the stage to isolate Elephant Pass in December. During phase three, launched on December 11, 1999, they established a beach-head at Vettilaikerny and simultaneously seized control of Paranthan, the southernmost part of Elephant Pass, forcing troops to fall back to the rear of their defence lines.

Even though the LTTEs senior commander, Balasegaram Kandiah alias Balraj, had taken part in most of the operations in the north since early 1990s, his leadership in the capture of Elephant Pass in 2000, involving amphibious assaults that took the lives of hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers, and driving over 10,000 Sri Lanka army soldiers into abandoning the base originally built by the Portuguese in 1760 and re-established by the Sri Lanka army in 1952, was well acknowledged.

Specialised sea-borne units of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched an amphibious assault in the early hours of 24 May 2007 on the Sri Lanka Navy stationed at the northern island of Delft. Apart from killing and injuring at least 10 navy men, the Tigers seized a radar unit and also took away a cache of arms and ammunition. While the LTTE claims that at least 35 security personnel were killed and three vessels including a Dvora gun boat were damaged, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has denied it. Likewise the GOSL claims of having inflicted destruction on the Tigers and repulsing the attack after a protracted battle, have been rejected by the LTTE.

In the north of the country, some of the bloodiest fighting since 2001 took place after the LTTE launched massive attacks on Sri Lanka Army defence lines in the Jaffna peninsula on 11 August 2006. The LTTE used a force of 400 to 500 fighters in the attacks which consisted of land and amphibious assaults, and also fired a barrage of artillery at government positions, including the key military airbase at Palaly (Paluyaala). Initially, the Tigers broke through army defense lines around Muhamalai (Mahakanda), and advanced further north but were halted after 10 hours of fierce fighting.

The unprecedented evacuation from Muhamalai (deployment of a landing craft to ferry civilians) in September 2006 took place against the backdrop the suspension of Naval monitoring by the Nordic truce monitoring mission on 11 May 2006. The Military emphasized that the amphibious assault ship Shakthi did not sail under ICRC flag. Although the ICRC facilitated an earlier civilian ship movement it did not get involved this time. The LTTE vehemently opposed such movements. The LTTE wanted the immediate re-opening of the Muhamalai entry and exit point. The military went ahead with the movement despite the severe threat. Pro-LTTE TamilNet erroneously identified SLNS Shakthi as Lanka Muditha, a civilian vessel. Since the closure of Muhamalai entry/exit point on the Jaffna-Kandy (A9) road in August 2006, the SLN had transported over 13,000 civilians by October 2007.

In an amphibious offensive on the naval base in Galle harbor by a 15-member Tiger squad on 18 October 2006, all attackers perished, but two vessels berthed along the navy pier were damaged,

During the Eelam War IV [July 2006 May 2009], there hadnt been a single major amphibian operation, though the SLN had planned an amphibious assault at the tail end of the offensive on the Mullaitivu beaches. On May 18 2009, Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE, bringing to an end three decades of conflict and suffering.

"Exercise-Cormorants Strike", the first joint security forces (Blue forces) exercise involving several thousand troops got underway 21 November 2010 with the Sri Lanka Armed Forces [SLAF] inducting Special Forces and Commandos into enemy (Red forces) held area in the north-western region. The SLAF mission involved helicopters and Y-12 fixed wing aircraft in the aftermath of the Special Boat squadron (SBS) securing beaches ahead of a large scale amphibious landing also in the same area on 24 November 2010. The nine-day Cormorant Strike was the first post-LTTE era joint exercise conducted on an amphibious setting on the north-western coast.

Over 1600 Army Commandos and Special Forces troops were the main element, together with Naval ships and Air Force aircraft. The Exercise was to test on their command ability at all levels, decision making, execution of designed concepts to achieve operational competence in a joint environment with sister services, build-up of mutual understanding, discovery of own personal capability and limitations, provision of logistics and replenishments, etc.

Over 2500 troops drawn from the Army, Navy and Air Force joined the nine-day long exercise conducted in the areas spanning from Silawathura, Mannar to Mavillu in Thanthirimale, Anuradhapura. Exercise "Cormorant Strike" involves amphibious landing followed by operation on land under simulated combat action. The exercise gives an opportunity to the different elements of the Sri Lanka Navy to rehearse the concept of amphibious operations and enhance own skills.

Amphibious Task Force 505 (ATF 505) was given a series of tasks ranging from inducting and de-inducting troops to providing naval gun fire support. The naval element comprised three segments with the first involving SLNS Shakthi (Landing Ship Tank), L 821 (Landing Craft Utility) and 10 Inshore Patrol Craft (IPCs) tasked with carrying out a major amphibious landing. The second segment includes two Fast Gun Boats (Ranadeera & Wickrema II), three Fast Attack Craft and 23 Arrow type assigned to escort SLNS Shakthi-led group. The third segment involves induction of troops by sea at a different location. Troops assigned for this particular operation would go for targets far away from the beachhead.

The three-week Ex - Cormorant Strike II - 2011, comprised about 4,000 Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. It was largely headed by elite Army Commandos and Special Forces as strategic forces that come directly under the command of the Army Commander. A large contingent of I Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) and 20 Gajaba Regiment (GR) took part in this exercise for the second time after the first such exercise took place in Mannar and Mullaitivu several months earlier. Over 110 officers of the Commando Regiment, 90 officers of the Special Forces, 400 sailors and 150 Air Force personnel, in addition to some 2,750 other ranks in the Army participated at this special training.

The exercise, launched following a suggestion made by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to Army Commander Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, conducted mock raids on boat yards, taking of high value targets, reconnaissance, surveillance on targets, airborne operations, seaborne operations, amphibious landing, path-finding missions, para jump into enemy strongholds, ambushes, search operations, counter terrorist actions and hostage rescue mission.

Four countries were invited to participate with eight man teams in the Comoran Strike SEAL (SEa, Air and Land) exercise of the three armed forces to be held in September 2012. All together some 68 foreign servicemen attached to the elite special forces will jointly conduct training missions with the special forces units attached to Sri Lanka Armed Forces. Nearly 2,500 soldiers from the three armed forces including 1,600 representing the army Commandoes and the Special Forces participate in the annual exercise which started in 2010. The previous exercises were held in Silawarthura area in Trincomalee to enhance the striking capabilities especially in amphibious warfare operations.





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