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Sri Lanka Navy - Modernization

The Navy conspicuously envisaged its future role as the sea-going arm is bound to protect the Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nm and staggering Search and Rescue region of 1,738,062.24 km2 in due course. The acquisition of large scale ships and craft with technologically advanced systems is extremely vital for the Sri Lanka Navy as it is aspiring to become a force that has the capability to venture out to the deep blue seas. The vision of empowering the Navy with 20 ships by 2025 has been clearly defined in the Sri Lanka Navys Maritime Strategy 2025. Accordingly, SLNS Sayurala will be the first of the 20 ships to join the SLN fleet in keeping with that visionary concept of Commander of the Navy.

The SLN accessioned only five ships after 2009, two of which are Bay Class patrol craft gifted by Australia. In addition, the SLN purchased two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) from Goa shipbuilders in India: the SLCG received one used OPV from the Indian Coast Guard in 2017 at no cost, and the navy is also expecting the ex-U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sherman in 2019. Only a small number of SLN personnel serve onboard ships and craft. As per percent records only 370 officers and 4,620 sailors, which is 10 percent of the overall cadre, are deployed onboard ships whereas approximately 90 percent of the total cadre has been tasked for administration, training, and land warfare roles, which places an additional burden on the countrys economy.

One shortcoming in the new 20-ship navy is the lack of amphibious landing platforms. The SLN still has plans to use available resources, especially small attack craft. The SLNs small craft consists of 57 fast attack craft, 11 fast gunboats, 160 arrow boats, and 73 inshore patrol craft with the amphibious landing ships squadron. Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, the former navy commander and later the Chief of Defense Staff, planned to form a Hybrid Navy for year 2020 comprising frigates, OPVs, FGBs, FACs, arrow boats, and Inshore Patrol Craft. The former navy commander proposed the establishment of a naval aviation capability or a Sri Lankan Air Force fleet air arm with surveillance equipment.

Ship20162018 2020 2022 2025 Total
Frigates -- 1 -- 1(2) -- 2
Corvettes -- 1 -- 1(2) -- 2
OPVs 4 1(5) 1(6) 1(7) 1(8) 8
Fast Missile Vessels 2 1(3) -- 1(4) -- 4
Fast Patrol Boats 2 -- 1(3) -- 1(4) 4
Total 20

In the late 1980s, the navy had a fleet of approximately seventy vessels, more than half of them coastal patrol craft. Building on an original fleet of mostly British ships, the government took aggressive steps to expand its sources of supply and at the same time develop a domestic shipbuilding industry sufficient to meet national defense needs. As a result, the Colombo dockyards began production of the 40-ton Pradeepa coastal patrol craft in 1980, followed by the 330-ton Jayasagara large patrol craft. The original fleet of six Sooraya fast attack craft (the Chinese Shanghai-II, bought in 1972 and 1975) was supplemented in 1985 with six Israeli Super Dvora craft, and six more on order. One serious gap in the fleet was the lack of shallow-draft vessels suitable for surveying purposes. Palk Strait, although relatively narrow, is infamously difficult to navigate because of the large number of uncharted coral reefs.

Had Sri Lanka strengthened its navy and adopted a cohesive strategy to deny terrorists freedom of movement at sea across the Palk Straits in the 1980s, possibly Tamil terrorism wouldnt have survived for over 30 years. Although successive governments acquired a range of vessels and increased the strength of the SLN over the years, the absence of an overall security strategy caused periodic setbacks. The failure on the part of the navy to effectively patrol the seas had a catastrophic impact on the entire war effort.

One critical drawback had been the absence of right equipment and the waste of funds on useless arms, ammunition and equipment. A case in point is the acquisition of a hovercraft at a staggering cost of Rs. 250 million to the taxpayer. The vessel acquired in 1998 had never been used for operational purposes. In fact, by 2007 the government wanted to get rid of it but seemed unable to find a buyer.

To counter both maritime terrorism and sea piracy, Vice Admiral Karannagoda developed an innovative scheme he termed the Small Boat Concept. The scheme was based on new equipment, designed by Sri Lankas Naval Research and Development Project Office, and new tactics that effectively copied the Sea Tigers asymmetric tactics, but on a much larger scale.

The Sri Lanka Navy developed a low profile small boat with superior speed, high manoeuvrability and lethal fire power similar to the weapon outfit of a Dvora fast attack craft. The R&D engineers took about six to eight months to develope three, indigenously produced, fiberglass-based IPC variants: a 17-meter command and fighting craft, a 14-meter fighting craft, and a 23-foot Arrow. The craft were fitted with 250-horsepower outboard engines (two engines for the Arrow and four for the 14-meter and 17-meter craft), providing a top speed of between 35 and 40 nautical miles per hour. They were armed with various combinations of .50-caliber machine guns, double- and single-barreled 23 mm guns, and 40 mm Automatic Grenade Launchers (AGL).

By 2009 the Navy had over 150 such craft, and was building a new boat every 8 days on average. By building these boats indigenously, the Sri Lanka Navy saved millions and millions of rupees to the country.

For small combatant platforms, operating in shallow waters, speed, stealth and maneuverability meant survivability. Good sensors and high rate of fire weapons that can acquire and target small stealthy craft effectively would emerge victors. Fast attack craft including inshore patrol craft had to operate together, in numbers and dilute enemy swarms, disrupting, isolating and destroying the stragglers.

Squadrons of these craft were stationed in strategic locations. This small boat concept was successful in effectively countering the LTTE suicide craft threat. The navy had to foster a new breed of surface warfare warrior who will take the initiative and be aggressive and daring. Naval officers and men had to form special operation units for this type of engagement.

The LTTE at the time had 23mm guns, just like the Navy. The November 2002 USPACOM Defense Assessment of the Sri Lankan military recommended that SLN fast attack craft (FAC) be outfitted with 30mm cannons to upgrade the existing 23mm cannons. This upgrade would assist SLN efforts to interdict and deter Sea Tiger resupply efforts. The GSL agreed with the recommendation, settling on the U.S.-made Bushmaster cannon as an option. DoD proceeded to look into possible procurement under FMS and determined that the Mark 46 weapons system (which includes a Bushmaster cannon) might be appropriate. The SLN, however, announced in June 2003 that it thought that the Mark 46 weapons system was too heavy for its 30 FAC. In the meantime, the SLN has looked into other options, including a possible commercial sale involving a Mark 44 weapons system (Bushmaster cannons and a "Typhoon" mount) sponsored through the Israeli company Rafael. The SLN's preferred solution, and one endorsed by the Ministry of Defense, is to buy an Israeli system based on the Oerlikon gun for all 30 FAC's. There were many rumors floating around that the SLN is on the take and believed that it can siphon funds from a possible Rafael-arranged sale, but not from a FMS procurement.

In 2003 Sri Lanka Navy negotiated to spend an estimated US$ 12.3 million to purchase 15 units of cannons from Israel when America had offered the same cannon of also 15 numbers at US$ 7 million less than the Israeli price. Yet, Navy Commander Daya Sandagiri is determined to make the purchase from Israel, insisting the navy has traditionally purchased its weapons from Israel and that the Israelis are thus that much quicker in providing the weapons. The Navy Commander's argument is that since the navy has over the years purchased its weapons and systems from Israel any weapons component from the USA at this point in time would hinder the replacement of spare parts in view of a complete new system different to the Israeli system.

By 2007 the Navy was involved in an ambitious project to upgrade firepower of fighting vessels. It is no secret that the navys failure to upgrade the main armaments onboard its FACs as planned due to negligence and corruption had caused serious problems. The Navy is also in the process of acquiring modern sensors. The effective deployment of radar to cover coastal areas has greatly improved the decision making process with real time data available at various command locations which will facilitate tactical decision making.

The Navy had a high seas capability in the 1950s and 1960s, when ex-Royal Navy vessels were in use. As late as the early 1980s, the navy acquired to Offshore Patrol Vessels, Sagarawardena and Jaya Sagara (named after President J. R. Jayewardene). However, with Sagarawardena being sunk by the LTTE in September 1994, and the constant breaking down of a newly acquired Chinese Sub-chaser warship SLNS Parakramabahu, the navy lost its high seas capabilities. The navys program to acquire large warships has been dogged by controversy, with accusations that the few ships purchased were too expensive, or that they were too old. With second-hand ships being much cheaper than brand new ones, the navy has mostly acquired used ships, which been breaking down constantly and spent much time undergoing repairs.

SLNS Sayura, the flagship of the Sri Lanka navy, was bought from India in 2001. Formerly known as Indian Navys Ship (INS) Saryu, the OPC was taken over by the SL navy to increase its blue water capability, especially in the light of confronting LTTE weapons smuggling vessels. The 10 March 2003 sinking of an LTTE arms supply ship by a Sri Lankan warship marked an important turning point in the history of the Sri Lanka Navy, being its first battle on the high seas in more than 50 years of its existence. SLNS Sayura, the former Indian Naval ship INS Saryu, was on its maiden long haul voyage since acquisition three years earlier. The action 240 nautical miles east of Point Pedro, was a short, sharp fight which ended with the frigate SLNS Sayura blasting the LTTE ship to destruction, together with 11 Sea Tigers. One navy officer and three sailors were wounded and the Sayura was slightly damaged. The most significant aspect of the battle was that the LTTE was unable to do anything to help its arms ship, since the battle took place too far away and it would have taken Sea Tiger reinforcements at least six hours to get to the scene. Any such reinforcements would also have had to fight their way through a large number of gunboats and Dvora fast attack craft which quickly took up positions close to Sea Tiger bases on the east coast in order to prevent any such attempt. With the LTTE ship having only 12.5 millimetre guns (commonly known as five-zeros because they fire a half-inch bullet), the Sayura with its 40 millimetre gun made short work of it.

In June 2004, the US Coast Guard transferred the inactive USCG Cutter Courageous offshore patrol vessel to the Sri Lankan Navy. The Courageous is a Reliant class vessel, first built in 1968 by the American Shipbuilding Corporation. It has two Alco 16V-251 diesel engines of 6480 horsepower that are capable of a maximum speed of 18 knotts (nautical miles per hour). But what is more important is that it is capable of a range of 6100 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 14 knotts. It was refurbished in March 1990, and is intended to have a crew of 75. The Cutter was transferred to the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy by Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Collins. Admiral Collins stated that this was an important step in the burgeoning relationship between the two countries and he was delighted that the ship would be in the hands of true professionals. Sri Lanka renamed her as SNLS P-621 Samadura and had it retrofitted at the Newport News facility in Virginia. It was refurbished and mounted with a weapons system in the United States and commissioned as SLNS Samudura. The P-621 went through a comprehensive reactivation and refurbishing process in the US, and once completed set sail for Sri Lanka. This was an important turning point in US-Sri Lankan military relations, as it was the first significant military hardware transfer between the two countries.

Offshore Petrol craft (OPC) Varaha was released to the Sri Lanka Navy as SLNS Sagara (P 622) by the Indian government in 2007. The Indian Coast Guard Ship (CGS) Varaha [Vishnu has ten incarnations in different forms - Vishnu's third avatar was Varaha, Avatar or the Boar incarnation] was in service in Sri Lanka while the Indian build SLNS Sayura was undergoing refurbishment in India. CGS Varaha was the third such vessel in the possession of the Navy with a deep sea capability. All three vessels (Sayura, Samudura and Varaha) had the ability to carry one or two helicopters on board and leave the option open for the establishment of the naval air wing, which has been put off on several previous occasions due to monetary considerations. CGS Varaha is a Vikram class OPC which was commissioned in 1992. At the time of construction it was designed to be in service for 20 years till 2012. However, after some modifications the vessel is expected to be in service for approximately 26 years.

SLNS 'Sayurala', an Off Shore Patrol Vessel acquired in August 2008 was commissioned at the Sri Lanka Navy Dockyard, Trincomalee 28 August 2009 by the Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law & Order Mr.Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former Indian Coast Guard Ship 'Vigraha' joined the Sri Lanka Navy fleet on 23rd August 2008 and was assigned Pennant Number P 623. The OPV was built by Mazagon Dockyard Ltd, of Mumbai in India in 1990. With a length of 74.10m and breath of 11.40m, it has a speed of a maximum 21.5 Knots. Its draft is 3.58m maximum. The Net registered tonnage is 750 Tons and Gross registered tonnage is 1247 Tons. The Vessel is equipped with Marine Surveillance Radar and Communication equipment for the assigned role in Sri Lanka's Exclusive Economic Zone. SLNS Sayurala was the third of the offshore patrol ships acquired from India and one of four in the fleet that all have helipads on the stern deck capable of hosting light helicopters. The offshore patrol vessels headed naval task forces that sailed deep into the Indian Ocean to chase and sink rebel arms supply vessels from which the Tigers used smaller craft to bring ashore stocks from time to time. The loss of the rebel 'floating warehouses' as they were called seriously eroded the Tigers' fighting ability and has been described as the navy's biggest contribution to defeating the rebels.

Two vessels, Indian Coast Guard Ship (CGS) Varaha [in service with the Sri Lanka Navy as SLNS Sagara (P 622)] and CGS Vigraha [aka SLNS 'Sayurala' P 623], equipped with helicopters and rapid-fire machine guns, were leased out when Colombo was preparing for the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). By late 2009 the Indian Coast Guard was uncertain about getting back the two warships that it had leased out to the Sri Lankan Navy in 2007 on an annually renewable contract.

The Sri Lanka Navy's largest passenger craft "Jetliner" was acquired from the Indonesian company from PT Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia (PT Pelni - the national ferry company) in 2006. The "Jetliner" transport vessel served as a life line between the North and East during the Humanitarian Operation. The Jetliner passenger vessel played a pivotal role in ferrying thousands of security forces personnel, civilians and goods between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai ports until the main land supply routes were cleared and restored after the dawn of peace. The costly naval operation to move supplies, security forces and civilians to the Jaffna peninsula involved about ten cargo and passenger ships. Jetliner holds the record for carrying more than three thousand security forces personnel at once; a necessity at the time of need in June 2008.

A fleet of Navy Dvoras were ready for these missions, to clear the path for the ship, removing all fishing trawlers in the path. The LTTE made a major attempt to attack the Jetliner on August 01, 2006 as it was heading towards Trincomalee harbour. Another vessel Pearl Cruise II carrying 700 troops came under an LTTE attack on the eve of Vesak Poya in the same year, but the Navys support craft foiled the LTTE mission.

The Jetliner set sail on a new journey at the launching of Jetliner Nautical Enterprise venture since 22 January 2010 at the Port of Colombo. The Nautical Enterprise under the theme 'Visit Sri Lanka 2011' is a joint venture between Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority and the Jetliner will chart the waters as a recreational cruise ship, taking onboard weddings, receptions, corporate events, parties and other social functions. The ship is redressed and equipped to cater to the needs of the new clientele and is manned by a well disciplined and highly trained professional Naval crew who are in par with the best in the hospitality industry.

Sri Lanka Navy held commissioning ceremony at the Colombo port on 22 August 2019 for China-gifted frigate "P625", renamed "Parakramabahu". Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva, Ambassador of China to Sri Lanka Cheng Xueyuan, Defense Attache of the Chinese Embassy Senior Colonel Xu Jianwei and Sri Lanka senior military officers and government officials attended the ceremony. President Sirisena handed over the commissioning warrant to the captain of the frigate and later went around the vessel showing keen interest in its equipment. He thanked the Chinese government for donating a capital ship with advance sensors and weaponry to the Sri Lanka Navy.

Named after a great Sri Lankan King Parakramabahu, the frigate is 112 meters long and 12.4 meters wide, has a full displacement of 2,300 tons and can carry 110 officers and sailors. The new vessel will be attached to the Eastern Naval Command of Sri Lanka Navy based in Trincomalee, in eastern Sri Lanka. The ship will be utilized as an offshore patrol vessel for patrol and surveillance missions in the deep seas around the island, providing the maritime security and assistance to search and rescue operations. The frigate was handed over to Sri Lanka Navy at Shanghai in June and arrived in Colombo on 08 July 2019. The Type 053 frigate was commissioned into China's People's Liberation Army Navy in 1994 as the Tongling. The 2,300-tonne warship was decommissioned by the PLA Navy in 2015, after which it entered service with the Coast Guard. The Chinese Navy held a two-month-long professional training drill with more than 110 Sri Lankan naval officers and sailors in Shanghai, according to a statement by the Chinese embassy in Colombo.

In 2018, former Sri Lankan Navy chief Admiral Jayanath Colombage, authored of the book titled "Asymmetrical Warfare a Sea", advised Sri Lanka to exercise caution in accepting gifts as the ageing vessels come with high maintenance costs. "Old naval vessels, gifted or bought, would have finished their service with their mother navies. Given their age, the engine and other equipment on board, and the hull will have to undergo frequent maintenance and repairs," said Colombage. According to Colombage, the vessels provided by India have served Sri Lanka the best despite being old due to Sri Lankan centric modification by India.





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Page last modified: 24-08-2019 13:47:05 ZULU