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Sri Lanka Navy - Eelam War IV

Had there been a realistic assessment of the LTTE and its global arms procurement network immediately after the withdrawal of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in March 1990, the government could have taken appropriate measures. Unfortunately, there had been no effort on the part of the establishment to identify the threat and take counter measures. Both the government and Navy top brass failed to tackle the LTTE procurement network. Their strategy had remained essentially the same over a long period of time. Deploy Fast Attack Craft (FACs) intercept arms smuggling trawlers on the northern and eastern waters.

It was only after 1980, when the LTTE problem become serious that a military dimension entered the equation. The SLN had to counter LTTE maritime terrorism and sea piracy operations affecting military movements, logistic operations, and commercial shipping. In the mid-1980s, the SLN began purchasing Israeli Dvora-class Fast Attack Craft (FAC) along with Shanghai-class fast gunboats and other coastal craft to meet its coastal defense and interdiction requirements. Since the formation of the Sea Tigers in 1984, they destroyed between a third and half of the Sri Lankan navy’s coastal fleet.

The Sea Tigers used swarm tactics combined with suicide boats to overwhelm and destroy SLN vessels. The first suicide attack by the Sea Tigers against a SLN vessel occurred in 1994.252 More significant, an October 2000 attack crippled a SLN-operated ferry used to transport troops to and from the Jaffna peninsula.

Sri Lanka saw fishermen and smugglers evolving into a group that reached the cutting edge of maritime terrorism, which created chaos and instability for nearly three decades. They chose to use the sea extensively during the conflict years, in order to sustain their protracted acts of terror. The threat at sea began by the use of small fiber glass boats carrying men with small arms and using speed to outrun naval craft, that were not geared to fight or give chase to “Go fast” boats. With the introduction of low draft, fast and maneuverable naval Fast Attack Craft the terrorists resorted to modifying and redesigning their own boats to carry anti aircraft weapons and a whole arsenal of modified weaponry on board. Speeds as fast as 50 knots have been recorded during confrontations.

When Vice Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda took command of the Sri Lanka Navy in September 2005, he took a comprehensive approach to LTTE maritime operations. He mobilized his forces to track down and destroy the LTTE fleet. Operations began with an attempt to identify and destroy the LTTE fishing trawler fleet responsible for smuggling operations. Within a year, eleven LTTE trawlers had been destroyed. The SLN used land-based radars to detect small boat threats up to 100 nautical miles from shore. Ships and boats were dispatched to chase down the potential threats.

However, the operations took a significant toll on the SLN. The bulk of the Navy’s assets were on continuous patrol to detect and destroy the LTTE trawlers hiding among thousands of civilian fishing vessels, which resulted in worn down and demoralized crews, while having little impact on smuggling operations.

By mid-2006, Karanngoda changed tactics — rather than chase the small vessels, he decided to better utilize intelligence to target the LTTE cargo vessels, or “floating arms warehouses,” that supplied the small boats. In addition to cooperation with India, the United States also provided intelligence to the SLN on the location of the LTTE arms warehouses. The intelligence proved critical in locating the more remote LTTE vessels that were loitering more than a thousand nautical miles from Sri Lankan waters.

Under Karanngoda’s command, the SLN, with international support, hunted down and destroyed the remaining LTTE cargo ships. Between September 2006 and October 2007, the SLN succeeded in destroying eight large LTTE warehouse ships containing over 10,000 tons of war-related material using a flotilla of three offshore patrol vessels (OPV) supported by “old tankers, merchant vessels, and fishing trawlers.

To counter both maritime terrorism and sea piracy, Vice Admiral Karannagoda developed an innovative scheme he termed the “Small Boat Concept.” Advanced training was conducted with US Navy SEALS. They brought their RHIB boats out to train twice a year. They came with a whole lot of training operators and staff. The training lasted for about two months at a time. The boats were organized into six-boat units under one commander. One larger boat (17-meters) provided a command platform with the remaining made up of smaller boats. The 17-meter boat had the communication systems in order to facilitate command and control. These units were organized into Rapid Action Boat Squadrons (RABS) totaling 25 to 30 craft. The squadrons were then stationed in high-threat locations along the northern and eastern coast to enable them to rapidly respond to and interdict Sea Tiger units at sea. RABS personnel were hand-picked from the naval community who were willing to fight.

The Navy’s role on the ground expanded starting in 2006. The ground deployment covers Jaffna Islands including Delft coastal belt from Karainagar, KKS, Mannar Island, Kalpitiya, Trincomlee north up to Yan Oya, Sampur, Mutthur, Upparu, Gangei, Arugamabay,Yala, Silawathurai, Kondachchikudah and Mullikulam. The Navy had been involved in some major battles in the northern and eastern provinces. But in the Mannar sector, the navy plays a critical role in thwarting LTTE attempts to smuggle in contraband to areas under its control. The SLN’s role in recovery of arms, ammunition and explosives, particularly the seizure of over 1000 kgs of explosives laden vehicle in September and a hitherto unknown type of suicide device during a raid on a kovil at Velani, Kayts emphasised the importance of intelligence-oriented ‘work.’ By 2009 the Sri Lanka Navy deployed over 12,000 naval personnel [of a total of 48,000 in the Navy] in operational areas in support of the Government's ground strategy.

The LTTE had a grand strategy to take the Jaffna Peninsula, where there were over 30,000 government troops stationed. To do this, they had to put a stop to all supplies to Jaffna. The ferry "Jetliner" played a pivotal role in keeping the lifeline of supplies of goods and servicemen in between Jaffna peninsula and the other parts of the country, when land based transport was not available due to the conflict. At that time, Jetliner alone managed the troop transporting tasks. The LTTE launched attacks on 01 August 2006 at the troop carrier "Jetliner" off Trincomalee harbor which was carrying 1,100 Army troops, directing artillery fire at the naval dockyard.

The overland road was restored by the Army in the first week of January 2009. To the credit of the SLN, the sea supply route was maintained in spite of losing men and craft in LTTE attacks. Prior to the Sri Lankan Army regaining control of Elephant Pass in early 2009, “the entire responsibility of transporting 40,000 to 50,000 members” of the Sri Lankan military and Police forces along with food, supplies, arms and ammunition, rested with the SLN.

Targeting floating warehouses had been a critical part of the action as the LTTE obviously managed to procure vast quantities of armaments from various sources. Their ability to procure Chinese arms from companies which incidentally also supplied weapons to Sri Lankan security forces is a case in point. The Navy had to tackle trawlers and other types of craft deployed to transfer weapons from floating arsenals and smuggle them into Sri Lanka, in many instances with the support of Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. Despite attempts to discourage the Navy by falsely accusing it of indiscriminately targeting the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet, the Navy has been successful in meeting the challenge.

The destruction of seven LTTE ships categorized by Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as floating arsenals, in four separate operations on the high seas this year, delivered the enemy a knockout blow. According to the SLN, the ships which were between 45 to 75 meters in length, had the capacity to carry 1,000 to 1,500 tons of cargo each. The SLN believed that the seven ships sunk in 2007 and the vessel destroyed on 17 September 2006 off Kalmunai were loaded with several thousand tonnes of military cargo.

What is so remarkable about the Navy’s blue water operations is the innovation and the coordination involved in its preparations. Years of intelligence gathering and better coordination with friendly countries had strengthened the Navy’s capacity to keep Sri Lanka’s territorial waters free from arms smuggling, illegal drug and human trafficking and sea piracy. The Navy didn’t launch these deep sea missions with new vessels or added resources but with existing assets being utilized with innovation to gain the maximum that they could with it.

The Navy’s two Offshore Patrol Oessels (OPVs) Sayura and Samudura assisted by the Fast Missile Vessels (FMVs) formed the strike capacity of the mission while the task of sustaining and replenishing this group called for some innovation. In a classic show of the Navy’s ingenuity and the ‘can do’ attitude, two commercial vessels and a landing ship (LST Shakthi) were outfitted to act as replenishment vessels carrying every thing from fuel to fresh water needed for the long endurance patrols which some times exceeded a 1000 nautical miles. These two vessels namely A 520 and A 521 also pitched in the battle to sink the LTTE floating warehouses.

The Sri Lankan Navy’s maritime interdiction operations proved invaluable to the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Aggressive and coordinated operations led to the destruction of the LTTE arms smuggling network by the SLN. By preventing access to illicit arms, the LTTE was forced to go back to rudimentary tactics like using improvised mortars and rockets instead of military grade munitions and arms. Facing desperate LTTE rebels, Sri Lankan ground forces rapidly liberated LTTE-controlled areas with far fewer casualties.

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Page last modified: 05-05-2012 19:19:07 ZULU