Sunday, 30 September 2012

Three significant battlefield victories

War on terror revisited: Part 51

By Shamindra Ferdinando

On the morning of July 28, 1995, sea borne LTTE cadres launched a multi-pronged assault on Weli Oya. The attacking force comprised several hundred experienced cadres, both men and women, carrying an assortment of weapons. They were supported by units which moved overland, through the Mullaitivu jungles. The LTTE was all out to destroy four SLA bases, including Janakapura, and the Weli Oya Brigade headquarters. The LTTE fighting formations, assigned for the task, included some of their best units, including those involved in the killing of 700 officers and men in a lightning assault on Pooneryn and Nagathevanthurai bases in Nov. 1993.

The LTTE wouldn’t have anticipated any serious resistance at Weli Oya due to deployment of volunteers in the area. The defenders comprised volunteers, national guardsmen, artillery and some engineering units. In spite of the deployment of relatively inexperienced troops in Weli Oya, the area was under the command of the then Brig. Janaka Perera, the senior officer in charge of the Sixth Brigade.  Having received information regarding a possible LTTE raid on Weli Oya, the Sixth Brigade was ready to meet any eventuality. Within five hours, the attacking force lost almost 300 cadres, including many of those leading the assault. Suicide cadres, assigned for special missions, such as targeting artillery pieces, also failed in their task.  The SLA lost only two men, while over a dozen received injuries.

Although, the SLA initially declared that the attack was repulsed by combined security forces, within 48 hours it emerged that Brig. Perera had only volunteers under his command. However, the SLN and the SLAF responded swiftly to prevent the LTTE from moving reinforcements in support of its beleaguered units. While the SLN deployed Fast Attack Craft (FAC) to prevent Sea Tigers bringing in reinforcements, the SLAF successfully targeted two vehicles carrying support units, hence easing pressure on those defending Weli Oya. Troops deployed at Kokkilai, Kokkuthuduvai, Jayasinghapura and Janakapura fought valiantly until the LTTE retreated leaving behind many bodies.

Troops thwarted an attempt by two LTTE women suicide cadres to blow themselves at artillery pieces. The women running towards the artillery pieces were shot at by troops, forcing them to detonate explosives packed jackets prematurely (LTTE suffers heavy losses in attack on army camps with strap line 200 bodies of Tigers recovered––The Island July 29, 1995)

From Special Forces to Weli Oya

It would be important to examine the circumstances under which Brig. Perera happened to be in Weli Oya to take on the LTTE. Army headquarters had moved Brig. Perera to Weli Oya for being critical of some of his superiors during a meeting with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at Temple Trees. The senior officer in charge of the Special Forces Brigade received marching orders on May 19, 1995. Brig. Perera was replaced by Maj. Gen. Siri Peiris.

Brig. Perera accused the SLA top brass of misleading the President. He dropped a bombshell when the President called the top brass for discussions at the onset of Eelam war III in April, 1995. The SLA top brass felt that Brig. Perera was trying to score a point. They moved him to Weli Oya, believing he would remain quiet. The Weli Oya Brigade was never considered crucial for the war against the LTTE. Troops deployed there were in a defensive position, with their primary task being to protect the villages there.

The LTTE obviously knew that the SLA had moved Special Forces from Weli Oya to Jaffna ahead of Operation Leap Forward launched on June 9, 1995. The SLA called off the offensive after the LTTE inflicted heavy losses on the SLA and also shot down an attack aircraft over Sandilippai-Alaveddy area. On the directions of Brig. Perera, the SLA brought some LTTE bodies to Vavuniya, where they were handed over to ICRC representatives to be transferred to the LTTE held area (Bodies of dead terrorists handed over to ICRC––The Island July 29, 1995).

The Weli Oya defeat was the worst debacle experienced by the LTTE during the conflict up to July 1995. In fact, the LTTE at that time suggested that the SLA’s counter attack was made possible due to it receiving a warning regarding a possible raid on Weli Oya. However, at that time, the SLA believed the LTTE was making fresh preparations for major attacks on Pooneryn and Elephant Pass. In the aftermath of the Weli Oya victory, Brig. Perera was asked to take over the Special Forces. The war veteran was placed in charge of the Reserve Strike Force (RSF) consisting of Special Forces, Commandos and Air Mobile troops. Brig. Wasantha Perera was asked to replace Brig. Perera as the senior officer in charge of the Sixth Brigade.

The Weli Oya battle exposed the LTTE’s limitations. In fact, the fighting skills displayed by volunteers, as well as artillery and engineer units highlighted the importance of battlefield leadership. They proved that the so-called invincibility of LTTE forces was nothing but a lie propagated by the group as well as those supportive of its Eelam project. Troops forced attackers to drop their weapons and run for their lives. They left bodies scattered all over the battlefield.

Focus on Jaffna again

In the wake of the Weli Oya debacle, the LTTE feared the SLA would again launch a major offensive in the Jaffna peninsula. As the LTTE anticipated, the SLA moved back to Chankani on Aug 21, 1995 amidst a rapid build-up of GoSL forces in the peninsula. Chankani was within the area captured by troops of disastrous ‘Operation Leap Forward’ but abandoned shortly after the LTTE launched a successful counter attack (Troops take Chankani––The Island Aug 23). The battle for Chankani claimed the lives of 13 civilians, while at least 19 received injuries. Thousands of people were displaced.

On the afternoon of Aug 30, 1995, the LTTE destroyed two fast attack craft off Mullaitivu in two separate incidents. The SLN lost 21 personnel in one of the worst attacks on the ‘silent service.’ The loss of two Super Dvoras sent shock waves through the SLN. The SLN lost its first Dvora on Aug 29, 1993.  The LTTE resumed hostilities on April 19, 1995 by sinking Shanghai Class Chinese gunboats in the Trincomalee harbour.

On the evening of Sept 20, 1995, Sea Tigers damaged another Dvora and Lanka Muditha in a confrontation off Kankesanthurai.

The SLN found it extremely difficult to provide the required security to supply ships due to the dearth of Fast Attack Craft (Tiger suicide boats blasted: Dvora, Lanka Muditha damaged–– The Island Sept. 22, 1995). The difficulties experienced by the SLN caused anxiety among the SLA top brass planning a series of operations to regain the Jaffna peninsula. The political leadership, too, was concerned about the rapid deteriorating situation in the northern waters. The SLN was on the defensive. The LTTE intensified attacks in the Eastern Province to distract the GoSL. On the night of Sept 29, 1995, the LTTE overran the Kalkudah police station, killing 22 personnel, including some homeguards. The then government imposed a censorship on all military/terrorist related news ahead of the Jaffna offensive. Obviously, the GoSL didn’t want to call off a major military onslaught in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of terrorist attacks on the SLN and Kalkudah police station.

In the first week of Oct. 1995, troops launched ‘Operation Thunder Strike’ to liberate approximately 21 square km area. Brig. Janaka Perera was among the frontline commanders involved in the operation (Troops advance rapidly in major Jaffna offensive––The Island Oct 3, 1995). The LTTE retreated in the face of superior firepower, though it launched a massive counter attack on troops consolidating their positions at Ponnalaikadduwan-Navakkeri and Puttur west-Avarangal. The basic strategy was almost similar to the operation directed at troops taking part in Operation Leap Forward on July 14, 1995, also in the Jaffna peninsula. However, the LTTE plan went awry in Oct. 1995. Troops trapped the attackers and inflicted heavy losses on them before they withdrew leaving behind 120 bodies of men and women. Had the LTTE succeeded in its counter attack, it would have led to a catastrophic situation with the SLA forced to re-examine its plans to drive the LTTE out of the peninsula. The government censorship prevented the media from reporting losses suffered by armed forces as well as the lapses on the part of the military top brass.

Riviresa launched

In the wake of the success of Thunder Strike, the SLA launched Operation Riviresa on Oct. 16, 1995, to maximise territorial gains. Troops of Thunder Strike secured approximately 25 square kms south east and east of Palaly air base. ‘Thunder Strike’ lost 54 personnel, including two officers, while 130 received injuries. On the first day of Operation Riviresa, SLA lost 19 personnel, including one officer. The number of the wounded was placed at 157 including seven officers. On the second day, 19 personnel were killed and on the third day 14 personnel were killed. Two officers were among 42 personnel wounded on the third day.

The LTTE blew up a transport vessel in the Trincomalee harbour on the morning of Oct 17, 1995 (Black Tiger blasts transport vessel in Trinco harbour––The Island Oct 18, 1995). The vessel bearing the No 512 was targeted by a suicide cadre whose mutilated body and the damaged diving gear were found by the SLN. But alert sentries were able to kill another suicide cadre moving towards Fast Attack Craft anchored there.

On the night of Oct 20, 1995, the LTTE mounted a devastating attack on Orugodawatte and Kolonnawa oil installations (Oil storage tanks blown up by terrorist hit team––The Island Oct 21, 1995). The GoSL called for Indian help to put out the fire, while the SLA stepped up attacks.

Neerveli liberated

In spite of fierce LTTE resistance, the SLA gradually advanced towards in the general direction of Jaffna. The LTTE called for reinforcements from the Vanni to strengthen its defences. In the last week of Oct. 1995, the LTTE abandoned Neerveli, one of its strongholds in the peninsula. The SLA suffered heavy losses during the battle for Neerveli (Neerveli falls into army hands: Tiger defences crumble––The Island Nov. 1, 1995). The SLAF supported the offensive by carrying out a series of attacks, though it didn’t have either Israeli built Kfirs or MiG 27s. In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Neerveli, troops captured two important junctions, Neerveli-Kopay junction along the main Jaffna-Point Pedro road and Urelu-Neerveli junction along the Jaffna-Palaly road (Troops capture strategic junctions outside Jaffna town––The Island Nov. 2, 1995).

Close on the heels of losing Neerveli, the LTTE abandoned a large base at Iruvalai, close to Neerveli junction. By then, the LTTE was preparing to abandon Jaffna. In spite of vowing to defend Jaffna, the LTTE ordered a phased withdrawal of fighting units across the Jaffna lagoon to the Vanni mainland. In fact, it was Suresh Premachandran, Jaffna District MP, who discussed the LTTE fleeing the advancing SLA with The Island (Terrorists abandon massive Iruvalai military base––The Island Nov 3, 1995).

Having failed to stop the SLA offensive, the LTTE and its agents and a section of international relief agencies urged the government to call off the offensive on humanitarian grounds. The CBK administration rejected the plea for a truce as the SLA advanced towards Jaffna (Govt ejects calls to halt Northern offensive––The Island Nov 9. 1995). The LTTE’s call for a respite was supported by some political parties, including the Ceylon Workers Congress.

The SLA withdrew from the Jaffna town in Sept 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency.

Having rested for about a week, the SLA resumed operations on Nov 10, 1995 to bring Kopay North and Urumpirai under its control (Troops capture Urumpirai and Kopay north––The Island Nov 11, 1995).

On the morning of Nov. 11, 1995, the LTTE mounted two suicide attacks outside SLA headquarters in retaliation for the army’s offensive in Jaffna. Although the LTTE failed to cause any damage to military property, the blasts claimed the lives of a dozen civilians and wounded at least 60.

In mid November 1995, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pulled out of Jaffna as the SLA prepared for the final phase of the offensive. (UNHCR pulls out of Jaffna-The Island Nov 16, 1995). Until Nov 14, 1995, the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry hadn’t allowed the media to identify the senior officers leading the offensive. Brigadiers P. A. Karunathilake and Neil Dias commanded the two fighting formations advancing towards Jaffna along the western and eastern flanks, respectively. Brigadiers Anton Wijendra and Sarath Fonseka functioned as the deputies to Karunathilake and Dias, respectively. Brig. Karunathilake commanded the newly raised 52 Division, while Brig. Dias spearheaded the 51 Division.

By Nov. 20, 1995, troops were just 800m away from Jaffna city limits.

The LTTE shot down two aircraft, one Y 12 and one AN 32 in late Nov 1995 as troops prepared for the final assault on Jaffna town.

Despite the loss of aircraft, the 51 and 52 Divisions sustained the offensive. Having cut-off the access roads to Jaffna town, the SLA deployed the elite Reserve Strike Force (RSF) for combat operations in the town. Troops fought house to house towards the town as the LTTE collapsed. On the morning of Dec 5, 1995, the national flag was raised in Jaffna town. The SLA proved that the LTTE was not invincible.

Friday, 28 September 2012

A spate of military debacles in North

War on terror revisited: Part 50


An LTTE fighting formation on parade in Kilinochchi during Ceasefire Agreement brokered by Norway.

For want of a proper strategy, successive governments failed to meet the LTTE’s battlefield challenge. The SLA struggled in the face of LTTE tactics and combined operations launched by the Sea Tigers and others. The raids on Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai in the Vanni mainland and Mandaithivu Island highlighted the need to change battlefield tactics. The storming of SLA defences at Sandillipay-Alaveddi in Waligamam, Jaffna revealed the vulnerability of troops advancing into areas held by the LTTE. Despite on and off debacles, those in power never bothered to take meaningful measures to rectify the shortcomings.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A Court of Inquiry (CoI) appointed by the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne to probe the worst single debacle faced by armed forces during the conflict up to Nov. 1993 exposed the negligence on the part of all levels of the SLA.

The CoI headed by the then Brig. T. N. de Silva found fault with several senior officers, including the then Brig. Lionel Balagalle (Director, Directorate of Military Intelligence), Brig. S. H. S. Kottegoda and Maj. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte for their failure to thwart the multi-pronged LTTE attack. However, the CoI conveniently ignored the laxity on the part of Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne as well as the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe.

The CoI revealed the chaotic situation in the Northern Province, where the SLA was struggling vis-a-vis growing LTTE threat.

The LTTE also destroyed a nearby SLN detachment at Nagathevanthurai aborting an ambitious GoSL attempt to cut off the enemy’s main supply route/access to the Jaffna peninsula. Although the CoI didn’t make any reference to the swift collapse of the SLN patrol station at Nagathevanthurai that particular operation codenamed ‘Frog Jump’ had been directed at both Pooneryn and Nagathevanthuai. The SLA and SLN lost 700 officers and men during the Nov. 1993 battles.

Had there been a joint inquiry conducted by all three services, the then government could have rectified the deficiency in joint offensive/defence strategy. Unfortunately, the Pooneryn debacle revealed serious differences between senior officers. A case in point was the then Northern Commander Daluwatte alleging that withdrawal of five battalions under his command to facilitate elections in the Eastern Province contributed to the crisis. Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne pointed out that he couldn’t have ignored a directive issued by GOC, JOC Gen. Wanasinghe for re-deployment of troops in the East ahead of elections. Waidyaratne asserted that the Northern Commander could have done his duty with men and material available for his command. An angry Waidyaratne placed the number of troops under Northern Command at 31,370 at the time of the attack.

The CoI also revealed that disciplinary action hadn’t been taken against those responsible for the previous debacle on the night of July 25, 1993 at Janakapura, where the LTTE overran the camp causing heavy losses. The LTTE killed 42 army personnel, including an officer and wounded 29 at Janakapura. A CoI, which investigated the circumstances under which the LTTE had stormed the SLA base at Janakapura, blamed the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Daluwatte and three others for the debacle, which also resulted in the loss of arms and ammunition worth about Rs. 20 mn.

The then President D. B. Wijetunga received the CoI report titled Pooneryn debacle on Dec 31, 1993. Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne, in the report commissioned by him alleged that army officers had been very complacent with the firm conviction that no amount of indiscipline or incompetence would be held accountable (Pooneryn debacle as outlined by Cecil – The Island Nov 28, 1994).

Waidyaratne replaced

The situation continued to deteriorate rapidly in the northern theatre with the LTTE launching attacks on selected targets both in the northern and eastern provinces. The Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai debacle raised the number of personnel killed and missing in action to 1271 in 1993, the bloodiest year up to 1993. The number of the wounded was placed at 1,445. Later it was revealed that among the dead and wounded were recruits undergoing training.

On Dec 17, 1993, President Wijetunga announced the appointment of Maj. Gen. Gerry de Silva as Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne’s successor with effect from Jan 1, 1994. Interestingly, the announcement was made before Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne handed over ‘Pooneryn debacle’to President Wijetunga (Gerry appointed new army chief – The Island Dec 18, 1993).

The Second Gemunu Watch officer to command the SLA, Lt. Gen. de Silva took over the 90,000 strong force in the run-up to the Aug. 2004 elections. The ruling UNP and the Opposition SLFP didn’t care what was going on in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Both major political parties played politics at a crucial time at the expense of the war effort. A group of retired service commanders, Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis, Lieutenant Gen. Dennis Perera, Rear Admiral Basil Gunasekera, Rear Admiral Alfred Gunasekera and Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetilleke proposed the setting up of a War Council to defeat terrorism.

The move gathered momentum due to the LTTE’s impressive battlefield victory on the Vanni front. The UNP and the SLFP ignored the proposal, though the retired group of service chiefs discussed the issue with both parties. Both parties felt that such an arrangement could hinder respective political strategies. On the other hand, the ruling UNP was in the midst of a political storm with one-time UNP rebel Gamini Dissanayake having talks with President Wijetunga to come back as the leader of the party. The UNP simply ignored the crisis in the North as it strove to strengthen the party in the face of increased political threat from CBK. In fact, negotiations between Dissanayake and President Wijetunga’s camp dominated the scene, while the war effort lost its importance (Gamini’s return to UNP imminent – The Island Jan 23, 1994).

Catholic clergy in peace bid

The military leadership soon realised that the UNP wasn’t keen on a major offensive, though it received the green light to launch a limited operation off Vavuniya in late April 1994. Codenamed Operation Jayamaga, it didn’t bother the LTTE so much, though the government tried to portray it as a huge success. In the run-up to the Operation Jayamaga the Catholic clergy had talks with the LTTE leadership in Jaffna in a bid to arrange a truce between the government and the LTTE. Sarvodaya leader A. T. Ariyaratne, too, was involved in the negotiations. The SLAF flew the then Anglican Bishop of Colombo Rev Kenneth Fernando and Sarvodaya leader Ariyaratne to Palaly in the first week of Feb 1994 for talks with the LTTE in Jaffna. Their visit followed the then Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev Nicholas Marcus Fernando meeting the LTTE (Anglican Bishop, A. T. in Jaffna for talks – The Island Feb 7, 1994). In spite of all peace efforts, low intensity fighting continued in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in the run-up to parliamentary polls on Aug 16, 1994. A few hours before the polling started, the LTTE sank two ships, one belonging to the SLN and the other of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority at the Kankesanthurai harbour. The then SLFP-led PA’s victory at the parliamentary poll caused chaos in the UNP. President Wijetunga openly sided with rebel Dissanayake, who was named the UNP presidential election candidate in the first week of Sept 1994. The UNP believed that Dissanayake could face CBK’s challenge at the Nov 1994 presidential poll. The LTTE, too, seemed to have felt that a victory for Dissanayake could make things difficult for it, particularly due to his good relations with India. The LTTE assassinated Dissanayake in Oct 1994 and paved the way for yet another round of talks with the GoSL. The LTTE-People’s Alliance honeymoon lasted for about 100 days. A cessation of hostilities, which came into operation in the first week of Jan 1995, collapsed on the night on April 19, 1995 when LTTE frogmen blasted two gunboats of Chinese origin. Just over a week later, the LTTE shot down two Avro transport aircraft killing 102 officers and men. The LTTE stepped up the offensive. The SLA was struggling on all fronts. In the wake of missile attacks on the Avros, the SLAF suspended flights to Palaly. The CBK administration buckled under heavy LTTE pressure. Obviously, the SLA couldn’t thwart LTTE moves, particularly in the north, where the SLA faced the daunting task of countering raids by amphibious forces. Obviously, the SLA had not adopted remedial measures even after the Pooneryn debacle.

The GoSL faced an unprecedented crisis in the Northern Province, with the LTTE making an attempt to cut off the Jaffna peninsula. Having destroyed the isolated SLN base at Nagathevanthurai, the LTTE controlled the Jaffna lagoon, though the SLA was present at Elephant Pass. The SLA base at Pooneryn didn’t pose any threat to Sea Tigers operations in the Jaffna lagoon. Most importantly, the LTTE had deployed shoulder fired heat seeking missiles in the Jaffna peninsula. Unprecedented missile attacks on Avros in April 1995 prompted the GoSL to acquire anti-missile equipment. But the LTTE was on the offensive.

Mandativu debacle

On the night of June 1995, the LTTE struck in Mandativu island. Within 12 hours, the LTTE killed 105 Gemunu Watch (GW) volunteers, including the acting Commander Kithsiri Dharmawardene, holding the rank of Captain. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The LTTE thwarted reinforcements from moving into Mandativu. The LTTE success at Mandativu highlighted the SLA weakness, whereas the LTTE showed exceptional fighting skills as against the army’s volunteers. In spite of repeated warnings that regular troops were needed at Mandativu, the SLA ignored the danger. The SLN escaped as it pulled out its troops from Mandativu during the previous year. The 10 GW had to be replaced due to heavy losses suffered by the formation. The LTTE issued a statement from London claiming that it had lost only eight cadres, including seven ‘officers.’ Although the SLA remained silent on the issue of its personnel falling into the hands of the LTTE, the enemy captured over 30 soldiers during raids on Janakapura (July 1993) Pooneryn (Nov 93) and Mandaitivu (June 1995). The LTTE used some of the Inshore Patrol Craft seized from the SLN to carry out the attack. Later 10 GW troops claimed that fixed wing aircraft believed to be Argentine Pucaras flew over the island, though they didn’t engage the enemy (Army death toll rises to 105 – The Island June 30, 1995). Fearing LTTE missile attacks, the SLAF didn’t engage enemy targets either on the ground or boats ferrying captured arms, ammunition and equipment from Mandaitivu island to Jaffna (Mandaitivu attack: LTTE SAMs prevented air cover being given – The Island July 3, 1995). Under heavy pressure in the north, the SLA vacated some of its isolated bases in the East to reinforce northern forces. Among the vacated bases were those in the Vakarai area. Thousands of troops moved out of the Batticaloa District leaving the LTTE to regain control of the area. The SLA was under pressure both in the north as well as east.

‘Leap Forward’

On 9th of July 1995, the SLA launched its first major offensive in the north in a bid to restore civil administration in the Jaffna peninsula, but it couldn’t be sustained. At the onset of the offensive, the LTTE withdrew giving confidence to those spearheading the operation launched. On the sixth day of the operation, the LTTE mounted a multi-pronged assault targeting SLA deployed at Sandilippai-Alaveddi area forcing troops to retreat. Unable to repulse the attack, the SLA called for urgent air support. In spite of the LTTE missile threat, the SLAF launched attack aircraft from Palaly air base. An LTTE missile blew up an IA 58A Pucara, a twin-turboprop aircraft over Sandillippai forcing the SLAF to suspend operations. The aircraft was one of the four acquired at a cost of $ 11 mn from Argentina in late 1992. The SLA lost over 100 officers and men during the week-long operation, while the number of wounded was estimated at 200. The SLA initially said that adjustments would be made in the deployment to retain the newly liberated area (No pull out from liberated area – The Island July 19, 1995). A few days later, the SLA quietly abandoned that area. It was nothing but a major embarrassment for the government and the military. The SLA acknowledged that perhaps the timing of the operation had gone wrong. What it didn’t say was that the LTTE was rapidly building up its forces in the Jaffna peninsula for a major offensive. It wasn’t too difficult to realise that Palaly air base was the primary target, though there could be diversionary attacks, most probably on Elephant Pass. Amidst accelerated LTTE preparations, the LTTE intensified attacks in other parts of the country. On the morning of Aug 7, 1995, a bomb explosion outside the Office of the Chief Minister of the Western Provincial Council Susil Premjayanth killed 23 persons and wounded about 50. The bomb was hidden in a cart of king coconut which was being pushed by an LTTE operative when it prematurely exploded. (Bomb blast in Colombo kills 23, nearly 50 wounded –The Island Aug 8, 1995).

On the morning of July 30, 1995, a pressure mine blast off Valaichenai claimed the life of Brig. Nalin Angammana, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Army’s Third Division. Brig. Angammana was returning to his base after inspecting an SLA detachment which was attacked by the LTTE a few hours before. The SLA was on the defensive on all fronts, though it realised a major effort was needed to regain the initiative. But the LTTE planned to deliver a knockout blow in late July as the SLA was busy preparing for its most ambitious ground offensive in the entire conflict, Operation Riviresa to liberate the Jaffna peninsula.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Siege on Jaffna and assassination of a Navy Chief

War on terror revisited: Part 49


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Vice Admiral (VA) Clancy Fernando was assassinated on Nov. 16, 1992, around 7.45 am opposite Taj Samudra. The SLN Chief was on his way to headquarters from his Longden Place residence, Colombo 7 when an LTTE suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle into his car at near the Galle Face Green. Fernando was the only service commander assassinated during the entire conflict. Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was the only service chief to survive an LTTE suicide attack. The LTTE made its attempt on Lt. Gen. Fonseka on the afternoon of April 25, 2006, 14 years after VA Fernando’s assassination.

It would be pertinent to discuss the events leading to the assassination of a Navy Chief, who had played a critical role during an unprecedented siege on the Jaffna peninsula. The Nov. 16 assassination and a landmine blast at Araly point, Kayts on Aug 8, 1992, which claimed the lives of the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne along with COMNORTH Commodore Mohan Jayamaha caused a debilitating setback to military efforts to weaken the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula. In fact, the SLA didn’t engage in a major offensive for about a year after the Araly point tragedy.

Having beaten back an LTTE attempt to dislodge the SLA from Elephant Pass in July 1991, the SLA secured Pooneryn and Sangupiddy in an amphibious assault in late Oct 1991. The stage was set for a blockade on the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA leadership felt that the LTTE could be brought to its knees in the peninsula through an effective blockade. The SLA blocked Elephant Pass (EP), the gateway to Jaffna peninsula. The GoSL held Palaly, Kankesanthurai and Elephant Pass and the islands west of the peninsula, whereas the LTTE was in full control of the population in the peninsula. The LTTE maintained strong fighting formations in the Jaffna peninsula. All three military bases at Palaly, Kankesanthurai and EP had to be supplied by sea and air as the LTTE held all overland access routes. The SLA felt that the situation could be reversed if the SLN could effectively cut off LTTE movements to and from the Jaffna peninsula through the Jaffna lagoon. VA Fernando, who took over the SLN in July 1991 during the LTTE siege on Elephant Pass base, was given the uphill task of blocking the Jaffna lagoon. The then Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Fernando succeeded VA Ananda Silva, who relinquished duties even before Aug 1, 1991, the day he was to go on leave prior to retirement on Nov 1, 1991.

SLN moves to Nagathevanthurai

The SLN established a base at Nagathevanthurai, west of EP on the Vanni mainland with specific mission to thwart LTTE movements across the Jaffna lagoon. The SLN mounted operations in the wake of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa declaring that civilians, too, wouldn’t be allowed to cross the lagoon under any circumstances. The LTTE experienced severe difficulties due to SLN action, which also caused deaths among the civilian community. Although the government offered safe passage for civilians through Elephant Pass, the LTTE warned people of dire consequences if they used the overland route under SLA supervision. The SLN launched patrols from Nagathevanthurai to intercept boat movements. Both the SLN and Sea Tigers suffered losses in confrontations. In spite of heavy criticism by the civil society, including the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association over civilian deaths, VA Fernando pursued the strategy. Captain D. K. P. Dasanayake, who had served at Nagathevanthurai during VA Fernando’s tenure as the Commander of the Navy discussed the circumstances under which they operated (Army eyes Pooneryn as Tigers retreat on all fronts –The Island Nov 13, 2008). Dasanayake asserted that the experience gained at the isolated Nagathevanthurai base during 1991-1993 period contributed towards the subsequent formation of the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). Dasanayake said that during the north-east monsoon, supplies required by the SLA at EP base had to be brought to Comar, situated between Pooneryn and K point and then moved overland to Nagathevanthurai before ferrying them to EP in Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC). When weather permitted, supplies were brought to Vettilaikerni on the Mullaitivu coast and moved overland to EP. As the SLA controlled EP as well as Ooriyan and Kombadi crossing points, the LTTE had no option but to use the Jaffna lagoon or withdraw its units operating in the peninsula. The LTTE deployed substantial number of fast moving craft to meet the SLN challenge. It was one of the bloodiest chapters in the eelam conflict, with both sides taking losses. Amidst mounting loss of life, the LTTE ensured that it would gain by operating an exclusive boat services across the Jaffna lagoon. Those civilians risking their lives to cross the lagoon had to use LTTE boat services even if they owned boats.

LTTE retaliation

During the 1991-1993 period, Nagathevanthurai remained the most dangerous place for SLN officers and men. Although the SLN was committed to sustaining the operation, it didn’t have the capacity to conduct an effective interdiction campaign. But the SLN continued operations. In the latter part of 1992, the SLN killed Charles, widely believed to be a senior Sea Tiger leader during a confrontation in the Jaffna lagoon. The assassination of VA Fernando took place in the immediate aftermath of an SLN patrol launched from Nagathevanthurai killing Charles. VA Fernando strongly believed that the LTTE could be overwhelmed by blocking overland, sea and supply routes. Despite severe constraints, particularly shortage of required assets for such a gigantic task, VA Fernando strove to achieve what was considered impossible. The SLN comprised 9,000 officers and men and didn’t have the strength for additional deployment in the northern theatre of operations. VA Fernando’s successor, VA Mohan Samarasekera inspected Nagathevanthurai base in early 1993. The SLN sustained the operation, though the army refrained from launching major offensive action until late September 1993. In support of the SLN effort, the SLA launched operation ‘Yal Devi’ targeting Kilali boat launching point in the Jaffna peninsula. It was the first major SLA action since the Araly point blast on Aug 1992. The SLA lost 125 officers and men as well as two precious T 55 main battle tanks of Czechoslovakian origin during five-day offensive. Nearly 300 officers and men received injuries. The SLA didn’t have the strength to hold Kilaly hence ‘Yal Devi’ troops returned to EP. The then Army Chief Cecil Waidyaratne exposed severe shortcomings by launching ‘Yal Devi’ which didn’t have any specific military objective other than to reach Kilaly and then return to EP (Tiger boat yard blasted: ‘Yal Devi’ operation ends––The Island Oct 4, 1993) Immediately after SLA withdrew, the LTTE moved back to Kilaly. Within two days, Sea Tigers resumed boat operations across Jaffna lagoon. The SLA chief never explained the rationale for the costly raid on Kilaly. The SLA’s adventure further strengthened the LTTE position in Jaffna. Still the SLN persisted with the operation targeting boat movements in the Jaffna lagoon. In support of SLN base at Nagathevanthurai, a second unit was established in early November 1993 at EP also to interdict boat movements (New naval base set up to curb LTTE traffic––The Island Nov 8, 1993).

The SLN on some occasions called for close air support during confrontations in the Jaffna lagoon. Unfortunately, the SLN and SLAF failed to coordinate operations and the Sea Tigers therefore could sustain movements across the lagoon. The SLN experienced some devastating attacks. On the night of Aug 26, 1993, Sea Tigers destroyed one Inshore Patrol Craft and damaged another killing five personnel, including the Commanding Officer of one of the vessels (Navy vessel destroyed, five killed in lagoon––The Island Aug 27, 1993). The ill-fated boats operated from Nagathevanthurai, at that time the focal point of SLN operations. The Sea Tiger operation was the most successful action against the Nagathevanthurai base up to late Aug. 1993. The LTTE conducted a series of operations in the north targeting the SLN.

On the night of Aug 29, 1993, the LTTE blew up a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Point Pedro killing 12 personnel (Explosive-packed Tiger boat rams Navy craft killing twelve––The Island Aug 30, 1993). The attackers removed FAC’s main armament as well as other weapons as the SLN kept its distance from the ill-fated vessel.

The Sea Tigers destroyed Surveillance Command Ship ‘Abitha’ and an Inshore Patrol Craft off Nainathivu in May and September 1991.

The SLN withered under Sea Tiger attacks. The GoSL struggled in the wake of growing threat posed by Sea Tigers. On Sept 3, 1993, the then President D. B. Wijetunga prohibited private boats, including fishing craft in the Mannar waters as well as Trincomalee. India objected to the GoSL move on the basis it denied Indian fishermen the right of passage for Indian vessels and also denied their right to operate in Kachchativu waters.

Although the military launched limited operations and SLAF mounted air strikes, particularly in the north, the LTTE continued its build-up. The LTTE felt it could direct a knockout blow by launching a multi-pronged attack on an isolated base, while SLA was struggling in the face of heavy setbacks. It would be important to mention that operation ‘Yal Devi’ was preceded by President Wijetunga setting up a Defence Coordinating Committee under the leadership of retired Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe to spearhead war. The formation of Gen. Wanasinghe committee took place about three weeks before the launch of operation ‘Yal Devi’ at first light on Sept 28, 1993. The circumstances under which Defence Secretary Wanasinghe was placed in charge of the war effort shoud be examined.

The SLA deliberately misled the people as regards its intention and objective in operation ‘Yal Devi.’ Gen. Waidyaratne in an interview with this writer strongly defended his decision to vacate Kilali after a Special Task Force formed especially for the operation achieved its target. The outspoken officer said that the Task Force advanced 18 miles northwest of EP destroyed Kilali boat point and returned to base (Army Chief explains decision to vacate Kilali––The Island Oct 1993).

SLA conveniently forgot that operation ‘Yal Devi’ was a failure and it could influence a major LTTE operation. The military and political leadership ignored the danger. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to guess the LTTE strategy. The Tigers needed to restore main supply route to the peninsula. Having failed to dislodge the SLA from EP in July 1991, the LTTE eyed Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn base complex, which was an integral part of the overall military strategy in place in the north. The LTTE wanted to destroy a section of the ring of military bases around the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA remained inactive, whereas the LTTE was busy preparing for a massive assault. The SLA turned a blind eye to signs of increased LTTE activity and did absolutely nothing until the LTTE launched multi-pronged assault on Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn base complex.

‘Frog Jump’

In the second week of Nov 1993 the LTTE mounted multi-pronged Operation ‘Frog Jump’ targeting Nagathevanthurai SLN detachment and Pooneryn army base held by two infantry battalions and support units. The LTTE quickly overran the SLN defences at Nagathevanthurai. At the time of the raid Nagathevanthurai base comprised about 280 officers and men. Attackers seized five Inshore Patrol Craft, arms, ammunition and communication equipment and almost everything they could lay their hands on as the defenders had fled. The SLN couldn’t provide reinforcements. The SLA based at nearby Pooneryn, too, couldn’t come to the SLN’s rescue as troops there were under a fierce attack. Although a section of the troops managed to hold onto a part of the camp, the attackers quickly overran fortifications. The GoSL lost about 650 officers and men in the worst debacle experienced during the entire conflict up to that time. The losses suffered at Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn complex was greater than at Elephant Pass in July 1991. However, the LTTE, too, lost as many as 450 cadres and many wounded during confrontations at Nagathevanthurai –Pooneryn sector. In spite of being surrounded by some of the best LTTE units and reinforcements finding it extremely difficult to reach the besieged base until it was too late, troops resisted fiercely. But at the end of the day, the LTTE achieved its objective. The SLN decided against setting up a new base at Nagathevanthurai fearing it couldn’t be defended in case of another attack. The SLA re-established Pooneryn, though it couldn’t in anyway interfere with LTTE movements in the Jaffna lagoon hence an ambitious attempt to isolate Jaffna based LTTE went awry.

The Jaffna lagoon route lost its importance in December 1995 when troops engaged in Operation ‘Riviresa’ brought the Jaffna town under its control.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

FAC role in battle off Mullaitivu

War on terror revisited: Part 48

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The LTTE deployed suicide divers in 2008-2009, targeting Fast Attack Craft (FAC) operating north of Pulmoddai. The deployment of suicide cadres had been part of the Tigers’ strategy to discourage the SLN from interfering with operations launched from Sea Tiger bases situated along the coast between Nargar Kovil on the Vadamaratchchy coast to Nayaru, three kilometres north of Pulmoddai. The LTTE directed a series of operations from those bases. The LTTE had a sizeable force deployed in the north-east sector to hinder theSLN movements, particularly convoys operating between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai.

The LTTE threat to ship movements had been so high that the SLN had to receive the support of both the SLA and the SLAF to protect its convoys. At the height of the conflict, the SLN had to deploy one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 Fast Attack Craft, twenty-two Arrow Boats and two Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), while one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft, too, were assigned 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 artillery units deployed along the coast on alert to provide gun fire support, in case of an attack on an SLN convoy.

Keeping the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply route open had been one of the most difficult challenges during the conflict. The then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe explained the difficulties faced by the SLN when he testified before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). At a crucial stage of the conflict, the then COMNORTH (Senior Officer in Charge of operations in the northern theatre) Rear Admiral Samarasinghe was replaced by Rear Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake, on Jan 9, 2009.

War-time SLN chief Karannagoda also brought in Captain D. N. S. C. Kalubowila as the Commanding Officer of the 4th FAC Squadron involved in operations. Captain Kalubowila’s appointment was among the changes effected by the Navy chief during the final phase. The writer had an opportunity to observe SLN deployment off Muallaitivu in late April 2009 in the company of Captain Kalubowila onboard an Israeli built Shalldag class FAC. (Captain Kalubowila is currently attached to the SL mission in New Delhi, as the defence advisor).

In spite of having a range of assets to counter the LTTE threat, the FACs had to spearhead the battle. The LTTE too, at an early stage of the conflict, realised that the threat posed by the FAC had to be neutralised. That would have discouraged the SLN from mounting an effective blockade, primarily due to the absence of the required number of vessels. The SLN struggled to sustain its FAC operations in the wake of the loss of several FAC during the eelam war IV. Had the LTTE succeeded in hitting a few other FAC, the SLN would have experienced an extraordinary crisis. The SLN lost seven FAC, each worth about $ 7 mn, during the fourth phase with the destruction caused on Jan 19th, 2009 off Mullaitivu being the last (Pivotal importance of continuous SLN watch on Indo-Lanka maritime boundary stressed––The Island Sept 13, 2010).

Sea Tigers vs FAC fleet

Admiral Karannagoda told The Island that during the 2008-2009 period, LTTE suicide cadres had been at sea waiting for FAC to come close to them to carry out attacks. Karannagoda, who is Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Tokyo, said that the SLN had lost one craft due to an explosion caused by an LTTE suicide cadre at the closing stages of the war.

As the Task Force I (subsequently named 58 Division) gradually advanced towards Pooneryn, the LTTE had no alternative but to transfer its assets across the Vanni mainland to Mullaitivu. By late Nov. 2008, the 58 Division brought the entire Mannar-Pooneryn coastline under its control. The Sea Tigers were struggling in early 2009 to make their presence felt on Mullaitivu waters. The Sea Tigers carried out their last successful attack on FAC on Jan 19, 2009, though losing four craft in the process (Major sea battle off M’tivu––The Island Jan 21, 2009). Thereafter, the LTTE never managed to blast an FAC, until the conclusion of the conflict on May 19, 2009.

Commenting on the Sea Tiger threat at the height of the conflict, Admiral Karannagoda said that in line with their grand strategy to isolate the Jaffna peninsula, the Sea Tigers had established camps along the coastal belt from Nagar Kovil to Nayaru. "There were more than eight camps in between from which they launched attack craft and suicide boats to disturb or attack naval craft on patrol or merchant vessels carrying cargo to the North. These camps also facilitated the inflow of warlike material into the country," Ambassador Karannagoda said.

The FAC had to play a critical role in Mullaitivu waters. Sea Tiger bases between Nayaru and Nagar Kovil had the ability to interfere with SLN operations. They carried out operations to mine the sea to hinder SLN movements as well as those of merchant vessels carrying cargo for civilians in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands. They also used those bases to transfer men and material. The SLN experienced severe difficulties in countering the Sea Tiger threat, due to the absence of additional FAC for deployment. Ambassador Karannagoda said that the SLN had wanted to deploy a pair of FAC off each Sea Tiger base to interfere with their operations. But the SLN could deploy only eight FAC, two each off Nayaru, Mullaitivu, Chalai and Nagar Kovil. The FAC assigned for this particular task operated under COMEAST. As the SLN had to maintain a 24-hour surveillance on Sea Tiger bases, it was compelled to assign two dozen craft for that particular mission alone.

Although the SLN had 57 FAC for deployment, only 45 were suited for combat at sea. Those not in top form were deployed for harbour defences at Kankesanthurai, Trincomalee, Colombo and Galle. Having allocated 24 FAC for sustained blockade off Nayaru –Nagar Kovil seas, the SLN had to cover North of Mannar seas operating from Kankesanthurai and South of Mannar operating from Colombo. In addition to the primary tasks, duties such as escorting the Sri Lanka’s largest troop career ‘Jetliner ‘once a week, reinforcement in battle situations (which occurred very often), had to be met with those assigned for the sea blockade.

Ambassador Karannagoda said that as a result of heavy commitments, FAC crews were overworked. Further, the maintenance schedules of these craft, too, were disturbed often. However, the dedicated maintenance crews which included engineering officers and sailors stood up to the challenge worked day and night and kept the craft operational.

Besides, until the South of Trincomalee harbour was cleared, the threat from the Sampur area was matter of grave concern to the craft leaving and entering Trincomalee harbour. The GoSL brought Sampur under its control in the first week of September 2006. The SLA scored its first major success at Sampur at the onset of major offensive combat operations in the Eelam conflict.

The mainstay of the SLN’s fighting capability was nothing but the FAC. The SLN brought its first pair of FAC from Israel in early 1984 and two more pairs in 1986. The SLN inventory gradually increased to 93 FAC, though only 57 were available during the then Vice Admiral Karannagoda’s tenure as the war-time SLN chief. The SLN acquired FAC from the US, South Korea, France as well as Colombo Dockyard, a joint venture between Sri Lanka and Japan. Although the LTTE experienced severe difficulties immediately after the deployment of FAC, the enemy quickly developed new strategies to meet the threat posed by the SLN. The Sea Tigers deployed a large number of attack craft and stealth craft laden with explosives to overwhelm a pair of FAC, compelling the SLN to adopt similar tactics.

The SLN deployed Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) to create an environment conducive for the FAC fleet. The SLN, too, threw a large number of heavily armed small boats manned by SBS and RABS in support of FAC engaged in action, thereby making it extremely difficult for the attackers. Under the then Navy Commander’s instructions, their base at Gemunu, Welisara stepped up production of small boats for deployment in the northern, eastern and north-western seas. During the final phase of naval operations (Jan-May 2009), small boat units carried out operations along with the FAC. The SLN’s small boat operations attracted the attention of many countries, including India. The SBS had the opportunity to train with US personnel over the years, hence the top international recognition. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited the SLN production facility at Welisara on Sept. 11, 2008 to highlight the importance of the concept. The visit coincided with the completion of the construction of the 100th 23 foot ‘arrow’ type boats. Large scale deployment of heavily armed combat craft with better manoeuvrability helped overall SLN strategy. Powered by two 200 horse power outboard motors, the vessel carried a powerful range of weapons, including 23 mm weapons and a 40 mm grenade launcher. Both the Defence Secretary and the then SLN chief emphasised the importance of special operations launched against the LTTE and the Welisara project commenced in the latter part of 2006.

During the 2000-2004 period, the SLN neglected the Welisara boat project primarily due to the misconception that lasting peace could be achieved through talks facilitated by Norway. During this period the SLN produced 12 Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC). Although the in-house boat building project got underway in Feb 2000, it really attracted the attention of powers that be in 2006 (New tactics to revolutionise naval warfare––The Island Sept 12, 2008).

Turning point in the conflict

Since the conclusion of the conflict, various politicians and military leaders have attributed Sri Lanka’s victory to a variety of reasons. A former Commanding Officer of an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) on the condition of anonymity discussed the circumstances, under which the GoSL had neutralised the LTTE threat. The officer, who was privy to the execution of SLN operations on the high seas during 2007 against the LTTE floating ware houses, said the fact that the armed forces top brass and the political leadership believed that the LTTE could be crushed had made a huge difference.

Commenting on the political and military strategy, the official said that almost all previous combined security forces offensives had been hampered by lack of holding strength at crucial moments and shortage of weapons stores due to financial constraints etc. International pressure, too, had been a negative factor, he said, adding that the failure on the part of successive governments to make available required arms, ammunition and equipment, too, had contributed to previous failures.

The enhanced intelligence gathering mechanism which made available ‘real time’ intelligence provided by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Beech Craft gave GoSL forces the upper hand had stood the military in good stead, he said. Operations conducted behind LTTE lines under the auspices of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), as well as raids undertaken by the Special Forces and Commandos had caused chaos among the defenders.

Multi-pronged offensive action on a broad front compelled the LTTE to re-deploy available forces/assets, thereby denying the enemy an opportunity to initiate action on its own. The LTTE was forced to merely respond to GoSL initiatives on the ground.

Perhaps, the most important factor was the role played by tough-talking Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa throughout the campaign. Unlike his predecessors, the Gajaba Regiment veteran acted swiftly and decisively in facilitating the three services to help each other at crucial moments. A case in point was a particular service, seeking the Defence Secretary’s intervention when wanting assistance from a sister service. The Defence Secretary went to the extent of allowing field commanders on the Vanni front to speak with him direct, bypassing normal channels.

But, the war could have dragged on for some time, if the SLN had failed to cut off the LTTE supply line.

A delay on the part of the GoSL to finish off the LTTE would have given an opportunity for the enemy to somehow involve the international community to arrange a truce; the SLA would have found it difficult to advance so swiftly under heavy artillery/mortar fire; losses among ground forces would have very heavy due to concentrated artillery/mortar fire; heavy loss of civilian lives and the political fallout of troop dying in action would have paved the way for the Opposition to undermine the war effort.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

An unprecedented sea blockade off M’tivu

War on terror: Part 47


Soon after the then Rear Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake assumed the Northern Command, Kankesanthurai was quickly transformed into a fortress to face a possible LTTE onslaught. The SLN feared that KKS could be targeted by a strong raiding party comprising attack craft and explosive-laden stealth craft. On Dissanayake’s directions, every available weapon was moved to the coast. In an exclusive interview with The Island, the outgoing SLN Chief Vice Admiral Dissanayake said that he had believed in maximum fire power. The SLN had a range of about 500 ‘big’ guns deployed along Kankesanthurai coast to target enemy vessels.  

by Shamindra Ferdinando

SLN headquarters Jan 15, 2011: Vice Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake succeeds VA Thisara Samarasinghe as the 17th Commander of the silent service.

As the army made crucial territorial gains on the Vanni front, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa urged the LTTE leadership to surrender or face the consequences. The Gajaba Regiment veteran said that the SLA had cut off Kilinochchi from three sides and was poised to overrun the town. Rajapaksa recalled LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s claim that the liberation of Kilinochchi was nothing but a day dream of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Fall of K’nochchi imminent, Gota asks LTTE to surrender: Army regains Paranthan, Iranamadu junctions, poised to intensify operations east of A9––The Island Jan 2, 2009).

The SLA brought Kilinochchi under its full control on Jan. 2, 2009 as the LTTE rapidly retreated on the Vanni east front fueling speculation among the military top brass that a sea rescue attempt of the top LTTE leadership was inevitable. The SLN was under heavy pressure to ensure that the LTTE wouldn’t succeed in either breaking out through a naval cordon off Mullaitivu or taking advantage of civilians fleeing in boats. The military felt that the LTTE would mount an all out attack on SLN units deployed off Mullaitivu to facilitate the evacuation of the LTTE leadership. The SLN top brass acknowledged the possibility of a last ditch rescue attempt by the LTTE as President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ruled out a ceasefire under any circumstances. They insisted that the Tigers trapped on the Vanni east front were left with no alternative but to give themselves up unconditionally.

The then SLN Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda took a series of measures to thwart a possible LTTE breakout. The then Director General Operations (DGO) Rear Admiral D. W. A. S. Dissanayake was given the unenviable task of spearheading the operation in his new capacity as the senior officer in charge of North (COMNORTH). Dissanayake succeeded Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe on Jan 9, 2009.

In an exclusive interview with The Island on the eve of his retirement, Vice Admiral Dissanayake said that it was the most challenging task given to him during his over three decades long career. In fact, it had been one of the most difficult challenges faced by the SLN during the conflict, Dissanayake said, adding that the failure on their part to prevent the LTTE leadership from fleeing the country could have had catastrophic consequences.

Having served as the 17th Commander of the SLN in the 3-star rank of Vice Admiral since Jan 15, 2011, Dissanayake, WV, RSP & Bar, VSV, USP, ndc, will retire on Sept 26, 2012.

Shortly after the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Dissanayake received the appointment as Chief of Staff in July 2009.

Sea barrier off Mullaitivu

The writer had an opportunity to observe the naval blockade in place in the last week of April 2009. At Chalai and Chundikulam off Mullaitivu, the SLN set up temporary bases to launch small boat operations in support of Fast Attack Craft (FACs) deployed to check LTTE movements. Addressing a group of visiting journalists at Chundikulam, the then Northern Commander Dissanayake declared that LTTE leadership couldn’t have cut through the SLN cordon. Dissanayake said that the SLN was fully equipped to meet the LTTE challenge on the Mullaitivu seas, though some claimed that Prabhakaran would be able to escape. A confident Dissanayake said that the SLN had deployed a sizeable force comprising a range of craft off the no-fire zone on the north-eastern coast.

The military felt that the loss of about 500 LTTE cadres in the bloodiest single battle on the Vanni east front in the first week of April, 2009 would prompt the top LTTE leadership to flee the country. A three-day offensive launched by three fighting formations, 58 Division, 53 Division and Task Force VIII on April 1, 2009 caused the rapid collapse of the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability. Fearing a possible LTTE attempt to escape, the SLN conducted a 24-hour watch. The battle, which claimed the lives of experienced LTTE commanders, including Theepan caused irrevocable damage to the outfit. (Tiger force annihilated near Mullaitivu no-fire zone––The Island April 6, 2009).

The SLN had over 80 vessels, including Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) deployed off Mullaitivu. The SLN had to watch two fronts. On the one hand, the SLN had to ensure that the LTTE wouldn’t attempt to deploy a fast ship to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family. Two fighter jets were kept at China Bay to face any eventuality. And on the other hand, the SLN was under tremendous pressure to prevent the LTTE leadership from mingling with civilians and fleeing Mullaitivu in boats. The LTTE could also have mounted an all out suicide attack on the SLN cordon with all its remaining assets hence give an opportunity for the senior leadership to escape.

The outgoing SLN Chief said that anything would have been possible if the SLN had made the slightest mistake. In spite of severe constraints, those officers and men deployed on the Mullaitivu front had performed exceptionally, he said. The OPVs had been out at sea, whereas the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) were positioned closest to the LTTE-held land. The FAC squadron was deployed between SBS/RABS and the OPVs.

Dissanayake said that those SLN units deployed close to the LTTE-held area ensured that civilians fleeing the fighting on the ground could either move southwards off Mullaitivu or northwards to take refuge in the government-held area. The Island extensively reported the situation at the sea as well as Chundikulam. (The view from the sea dated May 3, 2009 and Sea escape not a reality––The Island April 30, 2009).

The SLN had two boat points at Chalai and Chundikulam to coordinate operations. The then SLN spokesman Captain Dasanayake had been based at Chalai. The LTTE probably abandoned its plans to evacuate its leadership and decided to go down fighting due to the effective SL cordon off Mullaitivu.

Civilian factor

Despite offensive operations against the LTTE trapped on the ground, the SLN facilitated the transfer of the war wounded out of the battle zone as well as the unloading of food stuff. Under the supervision of the SLN, the ICRC managed to evacuate hundreds of men, women and children from Mullaitivu beach until the suspension of the operation in early May 2009. The SLN operation off Mullaitivu was conducted under the watchful eyes of the international community. Dissanayake said Mullaitivu mission was irrefutable evidence that the GoSL and its forces had never targeted civilians. The GoSL’s readiness to accept presence of an Indian medical team as well as the ICRC at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee and ICRC throughout the final offensive meant that the Sri Lankan military didn’t try to hide anything.

In fact, the Tigers could have easily surrendered to the SLN through the ICRC if they had really wanted to do so. Or, they could have given themselves up to advancing troops without hoping for a miraculours escape.

Arrest of Soosai’s wife

Recalling the interception of a boat carrying Sea Tiger leader Soosai’s wife, Dissanayake said that her capture would have embarrassed the LTTE. The veteran of many sea battles said that the SLN had tried its best to treat civilians as well as LTTE combatants as best as it could during the final phase of the conflict. Like the army on the ground, SLN officers and men rescued civilians fleeing the war zone in boats even at the risk of their lives, Dissanayake said, dismissing ongoing efforts to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal as nothing but a witch-hunt. The fact that nearly 300,000 men, women and children were rescured and about 12,000 LTTE cadres survived fighting on the Vanni east front was Sri Lanka’s best defence, he said. Those who accused the GoSL and the military of indiscriminate offensive action had conveniently forgotten that those who once waged war against the State were now leading normal lives, he noted.

April 19th 1995 blasts

Dissanayake said that the war had been a tragedy due to political and strategic miscalculations until Nov 17, 2005, when Mahinda Rajapaksa became President. Recalling the resumption of hostilities by the LTTE on April 19th, 1995, after a 100-day truce, Dissanayake said that the LTTE had striven to utilise every opportunity to consolidate its power. The then Lt. Commander Dissanayake was the Commanding Officer of a Chinese built gunboat, Ranasuru blasted by LTTE suicide cadres at midnight April 19th, 1995. The LTTE blew up two gunboats, including Ranasuru. Dissanayake rescued a colleague at the risk of his life. About a week later, the LTTE shot down two Avro transport aircraft killing about 100 officers and men. Dissanayake was onboard the ill-fated naval vessel when the LTTE triggered massive explosions to begin one of the bloodiest phases of the conflict. In spite of on-and-off setbacks, sometime debilitating debacles, the military had never given up, he said. "Our fighting forces were committed, though some felt we could never defeat the LTTE, which was considered invincible. A section of the media and politicians, too, helped propagate this myth."

Dissanayake has been credited with the first successful interception of an LTTE vessel way back in 1984 north of Kankesanthurai. "We exchanged fire for about 90 minutes. At the end of the battle, four LTTE cadres surrendered, while 15 died," the SLN chief said, adding, "I was a lieutenant and had seven sailors under my command assigned to Diyakawa, a patrol craft of British origin. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to join the FAC fleet. I was chosen over and above some of those in two previous intakes."

The LTTE vessel was on its way to Tamil Nadu when Diyakawa intercepted it. Responding to a query, Dissanayake said that those onboard the enemy craft had been armed with 303 rifles, whereas they (SLN) carried semi automatic weapons. Diyakawa is still in use.

Ground reality

Dissanayake said that during his deployment in operational areas, particularly in the northern theatre, he had felt resentment of ordinary fighters towards some of their seniors. Those deployed at the frontlines always felt that they were neglected, whereas the officers depending on their seniority and ranks lived a life of luxury. They expressed their anger through verses written in bunkers, ‘bathing points’ and other places. Dissanayake said that soldiers reacted angrily due to them being deprived of even basic facilities. He referred to a verse he came across at isolated SLA base at Komari point, south of Kalmunai point, Jaffna in the late 80s. "I was the Commanding Officer of a Fast Attack Craft deployed in the northern theatre. One day I secured my vessel off the base and went to the only well available for hundreds of men deployed there under difficult conditions. A notice put up near the well directed that officers and men should utilise time allocated for them to use the well. There were four lines written just under the notice suggesting that they (ordinary soldiers) didn’t care even if the Tigers targeted the officers at the base."

Dissanayake said that was the situation all over the place at that time, though it improved subsequently. On the instructions of the incumbent Defence Secretary, security forces had taken measures to improve the conditions at bases, he said. The Defence Secretary is of the opinion that soldiers should feel at home even during their deployment in operational areas.

Similarly, officers and men had expressed their patriotic feelings through poems, Dissanayake said, stressing the importance of promoting patriotic feelings among the people, though the LTTE no longer posed a conventional military challenge. It would be a big mistake to forget the past, he said, asserting that the country should remain ready to face any eventuality.

 On the eve of his retirement, the Vice Admiral launched  Sindupathi Kavu Gee, Harshanata Liyu Gee and Irahanda Pamanai CDs and a collection of lyrics composed by him at a function held on Sept 13, 2012 at Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre with President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the chief guest. Dissanayake said that he had never expected such a launch when he began writing poems during his deployment in various parts of the country and also overseas. One of his poems written about ten days after the killing of Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009, tell us how the LTTE leader had protected his children, while using children of his community as cannon fodder. He has also written a song celebrating the Navy’s hunt for the LTTE fleet on the high seas during 2006-2007 period.

Dissanayake emphasised the importance of discipline at all levels. Responding to a query, Dissanayake said that during his tenure as the Commander of the Navy every effort had been made to improve facilities provided to both officers and men. It was the SLN’s priority at the conclusion of the conflict, he said, adding that nothing could be as important as rectifying irregularities at every level to ensure transparency.


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A delayed build-up of lethal offensive capability

War on terror revisited: Part 46

By Shamindra Ferdinando

On the eve of his retirement, as the most successful air force commander, Air Chief Marshal W. D. R. M. J. Goonetileke told The Island that the target killing of LTTE Political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvan by the SLAF on Nov 1, 2007 had demoralised the LTTE. Asked whether the SLAF had targeted the top Tiger to avenge an LTTE commando raid on the Anuradhapura air base the previous week, the soft spoken Goonetileke said: We were hunting for LTTE leaders long before the raid on Anuradhapura and Thamilselvan was on our hit list. The Intelligence Services worked on targets and on Nov. 1 we received specific intelligence regarding Thamilselvan’s presence in Kilinochchi. We assigned a pair of attack aircraft (Kfir and MiG 27) to bomb Thamilselvan’s hideout in a ‘built-up’ area. It was an extremely difficult task, but our pilots scored direct hits. The target killing increased pressure on the LTTE. The enemy never knew how we had established Thamilselvan’s presence in Kilinocchchi, thereby forcing key leaders to go underground. Their absence on the battlefield demoralised the LTTE fighting cadre. The rest is history."

Commenting on the availability of ‘real time’ intelligence, ACM Goonetileke said: "I felt data obtained from UAVs and Beech craft should be made available to political and military leaders to facilitate the decision making process. Earlier, we used to move data from Vavuniya to Colombo and by the time we had them it was always too late to take action. But during Eelam War IV, on the instructions of the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, we set up a mechanism to provide ‘real time’ intelligence to field commanders. Our ground commanders had the advantage of ‘real time’ intelligence to call on air and artillery strikes as and when required." (RG on SLAF’s pivotal role in Eelam War IV with strap line SLAF Chief steps down after illustrious career-The Island Feb 25, 2011).

Having retired on the eve of the SLAF’s 60th anniversary celebrations, ACM Goonetilike assumed office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a post he held in an acting capacity after former Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka quit the post on Dec 1, 2009, to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Goonetileke succeeded Air Marshal Donald Perera on June 11, 2006, as the 12th Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force to spearhead the air campaign against the LTTE.

At the onset of the Eelam War IV, the SLAF had about 800-900 officers and about 19,000 men. Two years and ten months later, when the LTTE crushed on May 19, 2009, the SLAF comprised about 1,500 officers and 35,000 men. With the gradual expansion, the SLAF was given additional responsibility to hold onto newly liberated territory. In addition to new deployments, the SLAF had to maintain a strong presence at Morawewa, where troops were tasked with monitoring and intercepting north/south movements of the LTTE.

LTTE aircraft spotted during CFA

Unlike the navy, the SLAF didn’t resort to unilateral action in spite of spotting two fixed wing aircraft on ground in the Vanni during the Ceasefire Agreement. Having received specific information regarding LTTE ship movements, the navy, on March 10 and June 14, 2003 intercepted two vessels in northern waters. The navy kept the then UNP led UNF government in the dark until it was, too, late.

Israeli-built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) spotted two LTTE fixed wing aircraft on the ground in the Vanni long before the outbreak of fighting at Mavil-aru in July 2006. The SLAF explored ways and means of acquiring anti-aircraft capability as part of its overall strategy against the LTTE. With the support of India, the SLAF set up an air defence network and acquired some of the armaments and equipment from several other countries. The SLAF acquired Chinese jets in January, 2008 especially to put LTTE aircraft out of action.

Until the eruption of the Eelam War IV, the SLAF always played a supportive role and threw its weight behind major offensives as well as defensive action, though it never had an opportunity to spearhead combined security forces action.

1971 role

Before further discussing the SLAF’s role in the war against the LTTE, it would be important to examine the circumstances under which the then ill-equipped Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) was deployed in support of the police and the army to quell the April 1971 insurgency. It would be pertinent to discuss the gradual evolution of the service as a lethal force since its role in battling the April 1971 insurgency. The JVP’s first attempt to grab state power through an insurrection failed due to shortcomings on its part. The JVP move took the Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government by total surprise. The government sought military assistance from friendly countries, including the UK. The British swiftly arranged for the RCyAF to receive some helicopters to hunt for insurgents operating in the provinces.

The RCyAF took delivery of six US built 47-G2 helicopters on April 17, 1971. The emergency acquisition was made in the wake of the JVP launching an insurgency on April 5, 1971. Heavy transport aircraft of the Royal Air Force touched down at the Katunayake air base carrying six choppers to boost the firepower of the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. Following a weeklong training programme, the RCyAF deployed the choppers in support of ground operations, though by late April the JVP wasn’t in a position to militarily challenge the government. The RCyAF mounted the newly acquired choppers also called bubble with 7.62 mm weapons. Subsequently, they were used for training purposes.

The Indian Air Force took over security at the Katunayake airbase and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport. The Indian deployment helped the RCyAF to re-deploy its personnel in support of the army. India also ensured that there would not be any effort to bring in outside support. This was extremely important in the context of the perceived involvement of North Korea in the 1971 insurgency. Pakistan provided a few pilots to facilitate operations. It was a clear case of both world and regional powers responding to Sri Lanka’s desperate call. Had they ignored Sri Lanka’s plea, the destiny of our nation would have been different.

Mrs. Bandaranaike also obtained help from the former Soviet Union. Sri Lanka acquired MIG (Mikoyan Gurevich) 15 UTI, the trainer version of the MIG 15 fighter along with the MIG 17, a formidable fighter aircraft which served the RCyAF/SLAF from 1971 to 1981. The Soviet era fighters joined the British built Hunting Percival Jet Provost (JP as it was known) MK 3 A acquired in 1959 to hit the JVP. JP was the first jet aircraft to join the service. Both the US and the Soviet Union came to Sri Lanka’s rescue swiftly. The government deployed jets to terrorise areas which were perceived to be supportive of the JVP. Jets screamed over areas dominated by the JVP. This terrorised the organisation and its supporters.

RCyAF renamed

The RCyAF was named SLAF on May 22, 1972, after Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The single engined Bell 47-G2s acquired to fight the JVP were in service with the SLAF until 1981.

JRJ’s government ordered US built Bell 212 which had acquired a reputation for itself during the Vietnam War. The twin-engined chopper used extensively as a helicopter gunship was inducted in 1984 and a year later the Bell 412, a four-rotor version of the Bell 212, joined the SLAF fleet. The Bell 412 is primarily used for VIP travel.

But due to negligence on the part of successive governments and the SLAF leadership, Sri Lanka failed to take the upper hand by increasing its firepower until 1995 and 1996, when Mi 24s and Kfirs joined the service. Unfortunately, even after acquiring them and subsequently adding the powerful MiG 27 in 2000, the SLAF failed to deliver for want of a cohesive war strategy and the weaknesses on the part of political leaders.

The SLAF, which had its origins as the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) with a fleet of a dozen Chipmunk aircraft is now a formidable force with over 100 different types of aircraft and helicopters, ranging from the Y 12, a light aircraft built in China, to the sophisticated F7 GS, also a Chinese product.

Over 3,000 missions in three years

Jet squadrons and Mi 24 helicopter gunships carried out over 3,000 missions during Eelam War IV. Of them, some 1,900 targets were taken mostly in the Vanni theatre under difficult circumstances due to the presence of civilians. The SLAF also transported about a million personnel, airlifted about 10 million kgs and evacuated 21,000 casualties during this period.

The LTTE and a section of the media always targeted the SLAF. They alleged that the SLAF had cluster ammunition in its arsenal, targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools, and deployed Pakistani fighter pilots in its campaign.

The LTTE had a range of anti-aircraft weapons in its arsenal, including mobile anti-aircraft guns also known as peddle guns acquired from China and surface to air missiles. The LTTE had hit some of the Mi 24s engaged in operations, but never managed to bring one down. Unfortunately, the SLAF lost one Mi 24 months after the end of the war, flying over the South.

During the CFA, the LTTE strongly objected to any form of air reconnaissance, particularly by UAVs.

The SLAF used general purpose ammunition against targets, particularly buildings, while special ammunition (deep penetration bombs), were directed at runways. To target runways, the MiGs had to dive and bomb at a height of about 100 metres flying at a speed of 1,000 kmph. Each bomb released at that height was fitted with a parachute to ensure flying shrapnel wouldn’t hit the bomber.

Although the SLAF targeted LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on several occasions, he and his family survived only to be shot on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon last May. Once, jet squadrons deployed five MiG 27s, four Kfirs and three F7s to engage two targets in the Vanni, believing Prabhakaran could be at one of the locations. Seven jets targeted an LTTE hideout at Jayanthinagar, and the remaining aircraft bombed Puththukudirippu.

Italian fighters

Sri Lanka acquired Italian-built Siai Marchettis, a light attack aircraft in 1985. It was capable of carrying just two 50 kg bombs. Argentine-built Pucaras joined the fleet in 1993, but were grounded in 1995 after the LTTE introduced shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles.

Since the acquisition of Kfirs in 1996, the multi role aircraft had played a pivotal role in the war against the LTTE. Although a computerised bombing programming system was available with Kfirs, bombs had to be released manually.

Had Sri Lanka retained a jet capability after phasing out Hunting Percival jet provost MK 3 A and MiG 15 UTI and MiG 17 instead of going for Siai Marchettis and Pucaras, the LTTE wouldn’t have lasted over three decades. This shortcoming was similar to Sri Lanka’s unpardonable failure to acquire off-shore patrolling capacity to engage LTTE ships on the high seas.

Jet operations began only in 1991. Sri Lanka acquired a pair of Chinese FT5 jet trainers, one FT7 jet trainer and 4 F7 B basic single-seater jets in 1991. Sri Lanka didn’t go for Chinese jets again until January 2008. In January 2008, the SLAF took delivery of four F7 GS, the most sophisticated jet in the country’s arsenal today with in-built air interception radar. It could also carry four heat seeking missiles and no other jet in service with the SLAF has this capability.

Before the deployment of F7 GS, the Air Tigers had carried out five raids. Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne, the then Commanding officer of the No 5 squadron comprising Chinese jets is credited with the shooting down of the first LTTE aircraft over Iranapalai with a Chinese heat seeking missile as the enemy plane was returning to its base, following the attack on Vavuniya. Following the end of the war, a part of the No 5 squadron was moved to China Bay.

Today, the SLAF is over 30,000 strong with a sizeable ground deployment in different sectors. The SLAF Regiment, now a force to be reckoned with, is responsible for security at all bases, stations and units. The Regiment includes Special Forces and is responsible for turning out a range of improvised explosives devices (IEDs) and training security forces personnel in bomb disposal.

The SLAF’s objectives could not have been realised without light and heavy transport squadrons (No 8 and No 2), No 6 Mi 17 squadron and No 7 comprising Bell 212s and Bell Jet Ranger meeting their tasks. The pilot training wings too, played a significant role to meet a challenging task. Despite severe constrains, primarily due to lack of assets, the transport squadrons helped the war effort. Perhaps their task was far more difficult than various attack squadrons. In the absence of an overland route to Jaffna since June 1990 after the LTTE smashed Army bases north of Vavuniya, the SLAF and the Navy had maintained supply routes.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Cohesive use of air power in an internal conflict

War on terror revisited: Part 45



 SLAF lost 38 pilots, 62 aircraft

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The International Alert in Feb 1998 published, Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’ and among the writers who contributed to it were one-time Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit, Rev Father S. J. Emmanuel (leader of the Global Tamil Forum), Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchchi leader R. Sampanthan, Rohan Gunaratna and Air Vice Marshal (rtd) Harry Goonetileke.

It was edited by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, the then Secretary General of International Alert, with its headquarters based at Glyn Street, London.

In a piece captioned ‘Country the costs of a weary war’, one-time Airforce Commander Goonetilike (Nov. 2 1976 to April 1981) declared that the Sri Lankan military was waging a costly and unwinnable war. Goonetilike called for immediate international intervention in Sri Lanka. He lost his eldest son, Wing Commander Shirantha, on the morning of April 29, 1995 as an Avro approaching the Palay air base was brought down by a surface-to-air missile attack. It was the second loss of an Avro within 24 hours. One hundred and two officers died (Tigers down second air force plane with strap line All 52 abroad dead––The Island April 30, 1995).

Shirantha was the Commanding Officer of the No. 02 squadron at the time of his death. Shirantha was among 38 pilots killed during the entire conflict. The SLAF lost 62 aircraft during the conflict. Goonetilike’s second son, Roshan was in the United States at the time of the tragedy. In spite of Roshan serving the Airforce, Harry Goonetileke continued to be critical of the war effort. He may never have thought Roshan was going to spearhead the SLAF campaign during eelam war IV, which was instrumental in destroying the LTTE. Despite setbacks including some debilitating ones, Roshan Goonetilike kept the air offensive on track, though some felt he didn’t have the strength to meet the challenging task. The war ended on the morning of May 19, 2009.

At the conclusion of the conflict, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited the Katunayake air base on June 11, 2009 to thank officers and men who had made victory over the LTTE possible. Addressing the gathering, the Gajaba regiment veteran said that the difference in the battlefield was made by those at the control of whatever the armaments deployed against the LTTE. The Defence Secretary paid a glowing tribute to the No. 09 squadron for providing close air support and mounting rescue missions deep inside LTTE held territory to rescue LRRP personnel. Commending the three jet squadrons for causing irreparable damage to the enemy without causing loss of civilian lives, the Defence Secretary also appreciated the ‘real time intelligence’ provided by UAVs and Beech craft. (Gota: what matters is the man at the controls of armaments––The Island June 12, 2009).

SLAF strategy

The SLAF adopted a two-fold strategy against the LTTE. It conducted both offensive and defensive operations in support of the army and the navy. The SLAF also provided transport facilities, particularly between Ratmalana and Palaly and carried out medical evacuations. Secondly, the SLAF mounted a well planned campaign of its own to destroy LTTE bases, support facilities, training camps, communication equipment and any other infrastructure belonging to the enemy.

In an exclusive interview with The Island shortly after the conclusion of the conflict, the first serving Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilike said the LTTE could have been destroyed much earlier had the government ignored the civilian factor. The soft spoken Goonetilike asserted that the LTTE had lasted two years and ten months only because the SLAF had gone out of its way to avoid civilian casualties (Air Chief: Civilian factor delayed forces’ triumph over Tigers–The Island May 29, 2009).

During eelam war IV, the SLAF experienced a severe shortage of pilots. Due to the absence of required strength, the SLAF found it difficult to conduct the campaign, though the number of pilots was increased subsequently. At one point, there were only 16 pilots to operate six Kfirs, five MiG 27s and five F7s and 20 pilots for No 09 Mi 24 attack helicopter squadron. Goonetilike acknowledged that the LTTE raid on Anuradhapura in Oct 2007 had been the worst single attack mounted against the SLAF during his tenure as the Commander, as well as the entire conflict. The SLAF lost eight aircraft, including two Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

During eelam war IV, the SLAF gradually developed a cohesive action plan to go all out against the LTTE. The SLAF launched missions on the basis of ‘real time intelligence’ provided by UAVs and Beech craft, close-air-support as requested by ground forces and coordinated bombings targeting enemy fortifications. The army would never have been able to advance, particularly on the Vanni front, without a sustained air campaign. The SLAF brought three Kfir, MiG and F7 jet and Mi 24 attack helicopter squadrons together to mount a devastating offensive to annihilate the LTTE.

No. 09 attack squadron

The Hingurakgoda-based Mi 24 helicopter squadron conducted almost 400 missions during eelam war IV. The then Commanding Officer of the squadron, Wing Commander Sampath Thuycontha, in an exclusive interview with The Island, said that the LTTE had hit Mi 24s on as many as 35 occasions during operations right across the Vanni theatre from the north-western coast to north-eastern coast. The officer attributed their success largely to freedom given to the squadron to coordinate attacks with field commanders (Mi 24s role in eelam war IV emphasised––The Island June 8, 2009).

(Thuycontha is following a course at the Defence Services Command and Staff College, Batalanda after a stint in Islamabad as Sri Lanka’s defence attaché. He holds the rank of Group Captain),

The then SLAF spokesman, Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara (May 2008 to Feb 2011), and the then Group Captain Ajantha Silva (2006-2008), strove to highlight the SLAF’s achievements. Nanayakkara and Silva now hold the rank of Group Captain and Air Commodore respectively. Their job wasn’t easy, as the army dominated the media at that time.

The No. 09 attack squadron was involved on four missions to evacuate members of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) tasked with missions deep inside LTTE-held territory. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka deployed LRRP teams both east and west of the A9 road in line with the overall military strategy to weaken the LTTE. Every effort was made to rescue LRRP personnel in case of an emergency. Thuycontha said that his squadron had carried out four rescue missions in the Vanni after the army called for swift evacuation of personnel. The chief of No. 09, who had been responsible for about 60 missions during eelam war IV, was involved in the daring evacuation of an LRRP patrol north of Thunnukai, Vanni east at the height of the fighting. Among the other evacuation missions was the one in which the No. 09 squadron landed in Vanni east to rescue LRRP personnel returning from a mission, which resulted in the death of Major Lalith Jayasinghe, a veteran of clandestine operations.

The No. 09 squadron, established on Nov. 23, 1995 with three choppers acquired on wet lease basis from Ukraine, expanded to 14 fighting machines.

The No. 09 squadron fired 19,762 80 mm rockets during some 400 missions. The 80 mm with a 3km range had a devastating effect on the LTTE, while the squadron mounted 23 mm twin barrelled system, 12.7 Gatlin, 30 mm cannon and 250 kg bombs depending on the targets defined for elimination. Regardless of the fire power, the No. 09 couldn’t have accomplished its objectives without the engineering section and electronics specialists, succeeding in their assignments.

US assessment

The US Pacific Command in Sept-Oct 2002, in line with a request made by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe examined the strength and weakness of the armed forces. The US didn’t find the SLAF capable of waging war against a battle hardened enemy. The US pointed out that the SLAF lacked aircraft and supportive equipment needed for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR capability). The US recommended that the SLAF acquire the capability to conduct operations in the night, suppress LTTE air defences and develop capacity to hit targets accurately. The US said that the SLAF should acquire spare parts, night vision goggles, upgraded avionics as well as guided weapons systems rather than new expensive aircraft to its inventory. The US asserted that in spite of having competent and committed officers and men, the SLAF experienced a critical operational shortfall, and therefore needed to rectify the shortcomings or face the consequences. The US study also found fault with the SLAF for not having a comprehensive air operational plan. The US pointed out that MiG 27s and C-130s had been acquired at the expense of other critical sectors. The US suggested that the SLAF enhance its ISR capability instead of acquiring new aircraft except for Mi 24s. At the end, the US recommended a four-phased air campaign to destroy the LTTE.

Jet squadrons

Obviously, the US underestimated the SLAF’s trust in its jet squadrons. Regardless of the US assessment, the SLAF continued to enhance its capability to launch operations by jets. The US team tasked with the study failed to see that a powerful strike force was needed to take targets through the development of ISR capability.

Close on the heels of the devastating LTTE attack on the Anuradhapura air base in Oct 2007, the SLAF executed its famous ‘target killings’ which sent shock waves through the LTTE. In fact, the LTTE leadership never recovered from the killing of its political wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan. Group Captain Sajeewa Hendawitharane, the then Commanding Officer of the No 12 jet squadron comprising MiG 27s told The Island that the killing of Thamilselvan had been one of the highpoints of the SLAF campaign. The then Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne, Commanding Officer of the No 5 F7 squadron and the then Wing Commander Shehan Fernando, Commanding Officer of the No 10 Kfir squadron, said that the three jet squadron had collectively caused irreparable damage to the LTTE.

The Island in a front-page exclusive captioned ‘Men who killed top Tiger speak’ on June 15, 2009 quoted Hendawitharane as having said: "The rising sun gave me the much needed cover to zero in on Thamilselvan’s hideout. I flew a MiG 27 with Shehan at the controls of an Israeli Kfir. We took off from Katunayake at 5.55 a.m. and carried out the bombing 25 minutes later, taking advantage of the sun, which gave perfect cover for our mission." He said that they flew in a westerly direction from Iranamadu, east of A9 and targeted Thamilselvan’s hideout with a heavy load of explosives. Responding to a query, the officer said that the then Director of Operations, Air Commodore Harsha Abeywickrema (present SLAF Chief) had been confident of Thamilselvan’s presence at that particular hideout on that day. The pair of aircraft directed eight bombs weighing 3,000 kgs at Thamilselvan’s underground hideout. It was one of the three locations identified by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), closely examined by decision makers with the help of UAV footage as well as satellite imagery. The No 12 MiG squadron comprised seven MiG 27s and one MiG 23 trainer. During the conflict, No 12 squadron carried out 854 sorties using explosives weighing 1,071 tons. Hendawitharane said that taking Thamilselvan was a retaliatory strike against the attack on the Anuradhapura Air Base.

The jet squadrons also made several attacks on locations believed to be frequented by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. A particular operation involved five MiG 27s, four Kfirs and three F7s to obliterate two targets, one at Jayanthinagar and the other at Puthukudirippu, simultaneously. Pakistan, China, India, Russia and Israel helped the SLAF to enhance its capabilities.

The No 10 Kfir and No 5 F7 squadrons carried out about 1,400 and 400 sorties, respectively. Altogether the jet squadrons carried out about 2,700 sorties during eelam war IV, hence playing a critical role in the air campaign against the LTTE. The No 10 Kfir squadron comprised ten machines and was considered one of the best offensive arms of the national military. The LTTE withered under Kfir strikes on a wide front. To meet the threat posed by ‘Air Tigers’, the SLAF in January 2008 acquired four Chinese F7 GS, the most sophisticated jet in Sri Lanka’s arsenal with an in-built air interception radar. (Sri Lanka acquired two pairs of F7s way back in 1991). The F7 GS is capable of carrying four heat seeking missiles and two 500 kg bombs or four 250 kg bombs. Regardless of an argument in some quarters that the SLAF should have enhanced the No 09 attack helicopter squadron, during the conflict, the service boosted its jet capability, which served the country well. It wouldn’t have been possible to dislodge terrorists from heavily fortified bases and forward defence lines by artillery strikes alone. Jets launched from Katunayake systematically targeted the LTTE with some sustained attacks on major fortifications with a devastating impact. Some operations involved ten jets. In fact, the war could never have been won if the SLAF had failed to do its job. Contrary to the US assessment, the SLAF achieved tremendous success, primarily due to the change of its approach. In fact, the SLAF never introduced new aircraft during eelam war IV, except for the acquisition of F7 GS in Jan 2008. The SLAF acquired F7s, Kfirs and MiG 27s in 1991, 1996 and 2000, respectively, though they had never been used the way the Rajapaksa government did during 2006-2009 military campaign which crushed the LTTE.