Friday, 31 August 2012

CFA and US assessment of Sri Lanka’s military capabilities

War on terror revisited: Part 37

SLNS Sayurala, an Off Shore Patrol Vessel acquired on Aug 23, 2008 was commissioned at the SLN Dockyard, Trincomalee on August 28, 2009. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa attended the commissioning parade, the first since conclusion of the conflict in May, 2009. The former Indian Coast Guard Ship Vigraha joined the SLN on Aug. 23, 2008 and was assigned Pennant Number P 623. Since then it has been returned to India. The SLN deployed three Indian OPVs against Sea Tigers.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decision to invite the US to conduct a Professional Military Education (PME) for Sri Lankan military at the onset of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in 2002 should be examined against the backdrop of SriLanka’s invitation to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) representative to advise the local intelligence community. The controversial move paved the way for US representative to sit with senior representatives of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) and Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) at weekly discussions.

One-time Director General of Intelligence, Senior DIG (retired), Merril Gunaratne earned the wrath of the UNF government for expressing concern over US representative sitting at intelligence meetings. Gunaratne felt that it could cause unnecessary complications. The Prime Minister and his key advisors dismissed Gunaratne’s concern.

RW–Bush meet

Before discussing the circumstances leading to the US being invited to scrutinise both military and economic establishments, it would be important to mention that Norway, which crafted the CFA, felt that the GoSL had no option but to depend on the international community, in the face of the conventional military capability of the LTTE.

An expensive post-war study commissioned by Norway captioned ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka 1997-2009’ has asserted that Wickremesinghe and his advisors pushed for the internationalisation of the peace process, as they believed the LTTE couldn’t be defeated militarily. According to Norwegian and British NGOs, which prepared the report, the GoSL was of the opinion that both the United States and India would throw their weight behind the GoSL in case the LTTE resumed hostilities. The publication of the report commissioned by Norway as well as the PME assessment on the Sri Lankan military revealed the extent of international military involvement here. The Norwegian-led Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) had the backing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), to verify intelligence, including information provided by Indian intelligence through informal channels, according to the Norwegian study.

On the invitation of the GoSL, the US carried out a comprehensive study of the three armed forces as regards their weaknesses, strength, capabilities etc vis-a-vis the LTTE, during 2002. It would be important to keep in mind that the assessment was done in the wake of the CFA. This followed the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting US President George W. Bush in Washington (Ranil-Bush talks to centre on peace agenda, security matters––The Island July 12, 2002).

The US study highlighted the pathetic situation as regards the three armed forces and the failure on the part of successive political and military leaders to face the LTTE challenge. The US faulted the GoSL for not providing required arms, ammunition and equipment as well as for a severe shortage of armaments. In fact, the US assertion didn’t surprise the military. It was nothing but a demoralising report, which said that the GoSL, in spite of having a well-equipped army would face ‘probable defeat in the North and possible defeat in the East, if the conflict with the LTTE renews.’

Sri Lanka’s Peace Co-Chairs comprising Norway, the US, EU and Japan took the US assessment seriously. India, too, would have been guided by US findings. The GoSL felt that the US assessment couldn’t have been wrong as those tasked with examining the capabilities of the military had access to all relevant information pertaining to deployment of frontline troops and equipment. But interestingly, the US failed to identify the main difficulty faced by the military. Those who conducted the study didn’t realise or conveniently forgot that the primary reason for the GoSL’s failure to destroy the LTTE was nothing but lack of ground forces capable of holding onto captured territory, while the army pushed ahead with operations aimed at regaining the entire Northern and Easter Provinces.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that expansion of the military was a political decision. The President authorised the expansion of the army by 100,000 officers and men and that was the key to our success, the Gajaba Regiment veteran said. The Navy and Air Force, too, were authorised to increase their strength, while the police, including the elite Special Task Force (STF), and Civil Defence Force (CDF), also recruited additional men.

Former Army Commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, too, has said the doubling the strength of the army helped defeat of the LTTE.

US recommendation on

53 Division

Having studied the ground situation, the US made a series of recommendations, which if implemented, could have had severe repercussions. One was that the 53 Division should be removed from the Jaffna peninsula. The US further recommended that armour and artillery assigned for 53 Division should be allocated to other Divisions deployed in the peninsula. The US told the GoSL to stand down the Division and use staff for other duties, including at training facilities and military school. At that time, it had been deployed as a reserve division in the Jaffna peninsula. Army headquarters quite rightly ignored the recommendation. The division comprised Army Commandos, Special Forces and the Air Mobile Brigade which was undoubtedly one of the finest fighting formations ever deployed against the LTTE. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle said that it would have been foolish to pull out 53 Division from Jaffna, knowing the LTTE’s determination to seize the peninsula at any cost. Although army headquarters assigned some of 53 Division’s troops for operations elsewhere under different commands depending on the ground situation, the division remained in the peninsula. During the absence of regular units assigned for 53 Division, army headquarters always made available experienced formations to the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 53 Division. The 53 played a crucial role in Jaffna’s defence in the second week of August 2006, when the LTTE launched a multi-pronged attack on Jaffna frontlines. Two years later, as the battle on the Vanni east front was reaching its climax, the 53 and 55 Divisions fought their way southwards to join 57, 59 and 58 Divisions and two Task Forces conducting operations on the Vanni mainland. The final phase of the operation on the Vanni east front involved 58 Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva and 53 Division commanded by Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne. The 53 Division grabbed the limelight for its role in the liberation of the Jaffna peninsula in Dec 1995. Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya explained the circumstances under which the elite division was brought down for ‘Jayasikurui’ (Victory Assured) operation and then again re-deployed in the peninsula for offensive action, though the LTTE launched a pre-emptive strike.

There couldn’t have been a dispute over continuous deployment of 53 Division in the peninsula, particularly after the LTTE demolished 54 Division headquartered in Elephant Pass after a series  of battles in early 2000. The Elephant Pass debacle was the worst defeat experienced by the army during the conflict. A fully fledged division plus a brigade collapsed, paving the way for the LTTE to make a bid to overrun Jaffna in April 2000.

Addressing the media at army headquarters on April 24, 2000, the then army chief, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya claimed that delay on their part to vacate the base would have probably trapped thousands of men and armaments. A dejected Weerasooriya said that the LTTE offensive targeting Elephant Pass had begun on Dec. 11, 1999 with the overrunning of its southern defences at Paranthan (Pass withdrawal purely military, says Army chief––The Island April 25, 2000).

The US couldn’t have been aware that the army would jeopardise its contingency plans for the defence of Jaffna by withdrawing the frontline fighting formation. At that time, Jaffna was home to two other formations, 51 and 52 Divisions, which along with 53 Division had brought the Jaffna peninsula under army control in Dec 1995. The US recommendation to pull out 53 Division came in the wake of the GoSL agreeing to substantially reduce the number of troops in the Jaffna peninsula in line with the CFA. The then Defence Secretary Austin Fernando revealed that the GoSL had decided to reduce the number of camps in the peninsula from 152 to 88. In a well informed article captioned, The Peace Process and Security Issues, Fernando accused the LTTE of instigating public protests in Jaffna against GoSL efforts to shift camps as part of its strategy to reduce troop presence in the peninsula (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons – edited by Kumar Rupasinghe.

Sea Lanes of Communication

Commenting on the difficulties faced by the Navy in meeting the requirements of three army divisions deployed in the peninsula and that of its own, the US asserted that the Trincomalee –Kankesanthurai sea supply route wouldn’t be viable unless troops secured the area south of the harbour. The US recommended strengthening the SLN presence and deployment of required assets to facilitate the operation and a range of other measures to meet the LTTE challenge.

The LTTE further strengthened its positions south of Trincomalee by deploying artillery and mortars. The LTTE took advantage of the CFA to reinforce its presence south of Trincomalee harbour, while the then administration targeted COMESAT (senior officer in charge of eastern theatre) Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda for taking up the issue on the advice of Navy chief Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. The LTTE build-up and GoSL response triggered a major political battle leading to a section of UNP demanding that security given to th then MP Lakshman Kadirgamar be either drastically reduced or withdrawn as he took up the issue and briefed New Delhi and the media on the danger of LTTE concentration in the East.

Even if the GoSL had strengthened the southern defences of Trincomalee harbour, it wouldn’t have undermined the LTTE capability to mount attacks on sea movements north of Pulmoddai. The Sea Tigers had freedom of movement along the coast, north of Pulmoddai right up to Vadamaratchchy coast, to launch boats and stealth craft laden with explosives. Admiral Karannagoda’s successor, the then Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe explained the difficulties experienced by the SLN in keeping the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai route open, even after the liberation of the entire Eastern Province and the capture of Mullaitivu town on Jan 25, 2009. The LTTE threat on ship movements had been so high that the military had to deploy OPVs, one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 Fast Attack Craft, twenty-two Arrow Boats, two Inshore Patrol Craft (IPCs), one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft to protect a single Trinco-KKS run. This was revealed by Vice Admiral Samarasinghe before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The army had to place the artillery along the coast on alert to provide gun fire support in case of an attack on an SLN convoy.

Had the war lasted a little longer, the LTTE underwater fighting craft (submersibles), would have posed a grave threat to the Trinco-KKS supply route.

So the need was to launch an offensive at the first available opportunity to destroy the LTTE’s conventional fighting power in the Vanni mainland, clear the Eastern Province and go for the LTTE’s floating warehouses.

US on Indo-Lanka


Citing an instance, in which the GoSL and India to hunt down an LTTE ship the US suggested that there should a formal Indo-Lanka agreement to combat clandestine sea movements between the two countries. Given Tamil Nadu’s hostility towards Sri Lanka as well as its direct involvement of its fishing fleet in Sea Tiger operations, such an agreement would never have been possible. Nevertheless, the US proposed that Indo-Lanka combined exercises, which would benefit both nations, could be the answer to the LTTE threat. The US went on to suggest sharing of assets as well as expertise. The SLN felt that joint co-ordinated patrols could be effectively deployed against the LTTE, though political factors prevented such cooperation. However, three Indian Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) acquired by the SLN on different terms and conditions and the former US Coast Guard Cutter ‘Courageous’, played an important role in crushing the LTTE’s seagoing arm.

Closure of Vanni Sevaya

The UNF government’s decision to close down the army-run Vanni Sevaya, too, attracted the attention of the US. While highlighting serious shortcomings in the GoSL’s propaganda efforts, the US confirmed The Island reports of the UNP forcing the army to close down radio stations it operated for public service announcements and psychological operations. The US rightly asserted that the GoSL had denied itself ‘a low-cost, but highly effective medium to win public support.’ The US recommended that the GoSL reverse its decision to shut down the army-operated AM/FM radio stations. The US emphasised the importance of taking tangible measures to strengthen the army’s psychological directorate and explore ways and means of ‘targeting’ frontline LTTE fighting units. They stressed that the GoSL needed to do a lot more to meet the LTTE offensive on the media front. However, the US ignored controversy over the GoSL and Norway facilitating the LTTE to upgrade its Voice of Tigers (VoT) transmission. ‘War on terror revisited’ series deal with the issue on June 11, 2012 (Censorship of a different kind). Although the LTTE had lost its conventional fighting capability, it remained confident that its media offensive could still undermine the Sri Lankan state.

The Island on several occasions reported the closure of the Vanni Sevaya and the GoSL move to stop army headquarters from releasing daily situation reports. At one point, the GoSL directed the army to submit its situation reports to the Peace Secretariat for approval, before being released to the media.

 (Next installment on Aug 31 will focus on the creation of an elite police force to meet the LTTE threat. The US report didn’t examine the STF and police role in spite of them being part of the overall GoSL strategy)