Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Pacific Chief visits Trinco in the wake of a US-Iran 'confrontation' in Strait of Hormuz



January 18, 2008 Trincomalee: Having toured the Trincomalee harbour on board US built Fast Attack Craft (FAC), the then US Pacific Commander, Admiral Willard is about to disembark from the vessel at Nicholson Cove Pier in Trincomalee. The then Captain Y.N. Jayarathna (Jayarathna is the incumbent Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy, Trincomalee) is pictured talking with the highest ranking US military official to visit a base in an operational area during the conflict.

Having accommodated Sri Lanka, along with India, on the Extended Relations Programme (ERP), conducted by the US Pacific Command the US and Sri Lankan personnel carried out their first Flash Style exercise in Galle, in November 1997. An eight-member team, from the US Special Boat Unit, took part in the two-week exercise, involving the SLN FAC squadron. The US team shared its experience and knowledge on what is called combat medicine with Sri Lankan counterparts. The US team trained the SLN on IV administration to injured, and Sri Lankan personnel mastered the art. An SLN officer told The Island, on condition of anonymity: "This subject was the most valued matter that we learnt as latterly the techniques we improved helped to save many lives that would otherwise have been lost at mid-sea battles. In turn, we taught them the tactics; both ours and LTTE sea Tigers, in combating asymmetric threats. We also learnt water safety survival techniques to use in saving one’s live whilst in water, sometimes using the shirt and trousers." "It was a very rewarding exchange, and we had those exchanges till 2001. Parallel to Flash Style, Balance Style was held with the SLN’s Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and US Navy SEALS at Tangalle. The SLN received a range of equipment, such as IV simulator Arms, Rubber wounds (for simulated exercises) and personal safety equipment for on-board use. During 2002 the ceasefire arranged by the Norwegians, a team from US Pacific Command visited Sri Lanka on the invitation of the then government of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. The US team included two Special Operations personnel who interacted with the SLN. The US submitted a report on ‘Order of Battle.’

by Shamindra Ferdinando

A top USN delegation, led by the then US Pacific Commander, Admiral Robert F. Willard, arrived in Sri Lanka during third week of January, 2008. The visit took place close on the heels of a confrontation between a USN flotilla and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) patrol boats on January 6, 2008, in international waters, in the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Admiral Willard was the senior most US military official to visit Sri Lanka during Eelam War IV.

The US convoy, involved in the unprecedented incident with IRGC vessels, comprised AEGIS guided-missile destroyer, USS Hopper, cruiser, USS Port Royal and frigate, USS Ingraham. (The writer had the opportunity to go on board USS Hopper, on October 6, 1997, along with a group of journalists from the Asia-Pacific region, at the Pearl harbour, exactly a month after the commissioning of the vessel. The group received a briefing from the vessel’s commanding officer, Commander Thomas D. Crowley, on board USS Hopper. Having declared that by Oct 1997, the USN had deployed 19 AEGIS guided-missile destroyers, Commander Crowley emphasized that no other country had vessels with similar capabilities).

The USN examined ways and means of countering the threat posed by heavily armed small boats in the wake of Iranian speedboats maneuvering aggressively, as they issued threats over radio that the USN ships would be blown up.

The then Commander of the USN Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral, Kevin J. Cosgriff, was quoted in the international media, as having said: "The episode was more serious than we have seen, in particular because it occurred in an important maritime choke point, vital to the global economy." Cosgriff described the Iranian action as "unnecessarily provocative."

In accordance with overall counter measures, to meet any eventuality, the USN wanted Sri Lanka to share its expertise in asymmetrical warfare with the USN. The Sri Lanka Navy readily agreed to part with its experience in fighting Sea Tigers. The US-Sri Lanka relationship should be examined in the backdrop of the world’s solitary superpower, including Sri Lanka in the Expanded Relations Programme (ERP) during the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s administration. The group of journalists, from the Asia-Pacific region, including the writer, received a detailed briefing regarding the ERP project, under which the Sri Lankan military received training. In fact, the US declared the LTTE as a terrorist organization in early October, 1997. (Sri Lanka-US relations solid - The Island, October 15, 1997).

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Oxley, who had been the Defence Advisor, at the US Embassy, at the onset of Eelam War IV had facilitated the growing US-Sri Lanka relationship. Oxley had been involved in the project, leading to USN providing accurate intelligence to the SLN, leading to the destruction of several LTTE ships carrying weapons on the high seas. Oxley’s successor, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Smith, too, worked overtime to enhance relations between the US and Sri Lankan armed forces.

The visit, undertaken by Admiral Willard, paved the way for further enhancement of relations. Although the USN delegation could have received a briefing in Colombo, Admiral Willard decided to visit Trincomlaee, the nerve center of the SLN’s battle against the LTTE. The USN delegation received a comprehensive briefing in Trincomalee as regards, Sea Tiger threat, SLN strategies, as well as its training techniques. The briefing took place at the Command Conference room, in the presence of the then Eastern Commander, Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe. The briefing was given by the then Captain Y.N. Jayarathna. The US delegation went to the extent of having a tour of the Trincomalee harbour, on board a US built Fast Attack Craft (FAC) in service with the SLN. The USN delegation was accompanied by several SLN officers, including RA Samarasinghe and Captain Jayarathna. The FAC was one of six acquired from the US, during President Kumaratunga’s administration. The USN team also evaluated the performances of the ‘primary detection equipment’ available on the FAC. The USN basically wanted to know how the SLN handled LTTE naval units. The USN believed that it could benefit from the SLN’s experience in battling high powered LTTE speed boats. The SLN relish the opportunity to be of assistance to the USN, in the wake of significant US support to Sri Lanka’s military effort against the LTTE. The then Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy, Commodore Travis Sinniah (Sinniah joined the US Embassy as its Defence Cooperation Officer after his retirement from the SLN). One of the finest officers produced by the SLN, Sinniah spearheaded the SLN task force, responsible for hunting down several LTTE ships, during Eelam War IV) and Captain Y.N. Jayarathna, the then Commanding officer of the 4th Fast Attack Craft Flotilla (4FAF) briefed the US delegation in Trincomalee. Jayarathna is the incumbent Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy. He holds the rank of Commodore.

The US government approval for 30 mm Bushmaster cannons to be deployed on 30 FACs, in service with the SLN, during the 2007-2008 period, gave the SLN the upper hand in its battle against the LTTE. The acquisition of Bushmaster cannons, as well as US Coast Guard Ship, were dealt in US: Friend or foe? (The Island, September 3, 2014).

About a week before Admiral Willard’s visit to Trincomalee, a delegation from the US House Appropriation Committee (HAC) of Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) arrived in Trincomalee to assess the utilization of US resources to meet the LTTE challenge. Having included Sri Lanka in the ERP (Extended Relations Programme), the US launched joint exercises, Flash Style andBalance Style, in 1997. The annual exercises involved the US Special Boat Unit, SLN’s 4th FAF (Fast Attack Craft Flotilla), as well as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) of the SLN and US Navy SEALs (Sea, Air and Land teams). Green Berets, too, had participated in joint exercises.

The USN invited both Sinniah and Jararathna to address officers. Jayarathna lectured at US Naval Small Craft Instruction & Technical Training School (NAVCIATTES) whereas Sinniah addressed officers based in Hawaii. Essentially, they shared the SLN vast experience in fighting Sea Tigers. At the time Sinniah and Jayarathna had addressed the USN, the SLN was under heavy pressure, on the northern as well as Eastern seas, though the LTTE had lost eight big supply ships in separate confrontations on the high seas. Soon after Sinniah returned from Hawaii, he was appointed as Flag Officer Commanding Naval Fleet, in addition to the Commandant’s appointment.

The Task Force I, commanded by the then Brigadier, was facing stiff resistance on the Mannar front, while the 57 Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, too, was struggling on the Vanni central front. Kilinochchi remained firmly under LTTE control, while, the Sea Tigers maintained their strong presence on both the northwestern and the northern seas.

It would be pertinent to mention that Al-Qaeda caused substantial damage to guided missile destroyerUSS Cole in a suicide attack, carried out in the Yemeni port of Aden, on October 12, 2000. The attack claimed the lives of 17 USN personnel and caused injuries to 39. The SLN asserted that the suicide attack, on USS Cole, was similar to operations launched by Sea Tigers, targeting the SLN, as well as merchant vessels. The SLN pointed out the LTTE’s influence in grooming international terrorism.

The Al-Qaeda operation was very much similar to the Black Sea Tiger attack on surveillance command ship ‘Edithara’ in the Kankesanthurai harbour in the middle of the 90s.

In both cases, suicide cadres targeted the waterline. The SLN had shared its experience with the US years before Admiral Willard’s visit to Trincomalee.

Sea Tigers had employed similar tactics in another successful attack on SLN vessel, ‘Abeetha’ off Point Pedro on May 4, 1991.

The US has accused Saudi-born, al-Rahim al-Nashiri, of procuring the boat and explosives, used in the USS Cole attack.

Nashiri, 46, has been in US custody since 2002 and is believed to have been subjected to water boarding and mock executions.

Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan, aka Soosai, in an exclusive interview with BBC’s Francis Harrison, during the Oslo-managed Ceasefire Agreement, had boasted that Al-Qaeda copied tactics from them. Soosai is quoted as having said that other terrorist groups should learn from the LTTE as the Al-Qaeda had already copied them.

The interview, with Soosai, recorded during the LTTE celebrations of Heroes’ Day and broadcast over BBC Television, was posted on the BBC Website’s South Asia section, under the heading, "Tamil Tigers Reveal Suicide Secrets" as a video clip. The news feature introduced the Black Tigers as "the Original Suicide Bombers of the World."

Referring to the attack on USS Cole, Soosai said, "They are using our tactics. I think in Yemen they used our strategy of suicide attack to blow up an American ship. That is exactly what we used to do."

Soosai is believed to have been killed in May, 2009, while crossing the Nanthikadal lagoon with LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his family.

One-time New Delhi-based Israeli ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mark Sofer, during an interview with the writer, said that his country was a victim of suicide bombing, pioneered by the LTTE. Sofer said that many Israeli civilians had been killed and wounded due to human bombs and Sri Lanka should be proud of achieving military victory over the LTTE.

At the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009, the then SLN Commander, Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, revealed security measures adopted to move a convoy from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai at the height of the conflict. Addressing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in late 2010, VA Samarasinghe said that the Sea Tiger threat, to ship movements, had been so high that the SLN could not undertake the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai run without the support of both the SLA and the SLAF. At the height of the conflict, the SLN had to deploy one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 Fast Attack Crafts, 22 Arrow Boats and two Inshore Patrol Crafts (IPC), while one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft, too, were assigned to protect a single Trinco-KKS run. The SLA 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.

Regardless of US decision to move a resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), at its 25th session, to pave the way for ongoing UN war crimes probe, Sri Lanka should examine the US support for counter terrorism operations here. The US gradually increased its assistance to Sri Lanka, after having accommodated the Sri Lankan military in its Extended Relations Programme, in 1995. The US decision to direct the SLN to LTTE ships on the high seas, in 2007, undoubtedly helped Sri Lanka to bring the LTTE to its knees, much earlier than anticipated. The destruction of enemy ships, during the second week of September, 2007, and the first week of October, same year, caused a debilitating setback to the LTTE. The LTTE never recovered from the loss of three of its ships, namely ‘Manyoshi’ (sunk on Sept 10, 2007 at 7 a.m), Seishin (sunk on Sept 10, 2007 at 5 pm) , ‘Koshia’ (sunk on Sept 11, 2007 at 3.30 a.m.) and the fourth ship was destroyed on Oct 7, 2007 at 9.30 a.m. Timely US intelligence made a significant impact on the overall Sri Lankan military effort, hence the US became a proud partner in Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE, is beyond question.