Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The US: Friend or foe?



January 17, 2008: Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Robert F. Willard meets Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Ministry of Defence, Colombo. He was accompanied by US Ambassador Robert Blake.

The SLN sought the blessings of St. Anthony, the saint who looks after the sea, before launching a highly risky project to track down floating LTTE arsenals on the high seas. Some of those, who had been involved in the operation, prayed at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, seeking the saint’s intervention to ensure the return of the ageing SLN fleet after having delivered a deadly blow to the Eelam project.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

In the backdrop of the Sri Lankan government hiring several expensive US public relations firms, consequent to the Obama administration moving a resolution against the country, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March, a review of US military support to Sri Lanka, during the conflict, particularly during Eelam war IV, would be relevant.

Sri Lanka, however, has employed costly US PR firms, even before the UNHRC adopted the resolution at its 25th session. Had they succeded, the US wouldn’t have given leadership to the move in Geneva. Now that a UN investigation is underway, in accordance with the Geneva resolution, PR firms will not be in a position to influence the US decision. The government must realize that the US had thrown its weight behind Sri Lanka’s war efforts, though its partners, involved in the Geneva project, particularly the UK, Canada, France, as well as Norway, are backing external war crimes probe.

The bottom line is that even the US cannot decide on its own on the Geneva operation.

In spite of current US efforts to undermine the Sri Lankan government, it would be necessary to examine the US contribution towards Sri Lanka’s victory.

Although the US had been reluctant to throw its weight behind the then President JRJ, when India intervened in Sri Lanka in the early 80s, the super power ensured two of its closest allies, Israel and Pakistan, provided the required support. Israeli and Pakistani instructors shared the experience with the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), whereas the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) received Israeli built Fast Attack Crafts (FACs) in the early 80s. The SLN could never have met the daunting challenge, posed by the Sea Tigers, without its FACs.

Israel and Pakistan remained two key allies throughout the conflict. Israelis contribution can never be matched, though their equipment never came cheap and sometimes overpriced. The Jewish state provided a range of armaments, from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to Fast Missile Vessels (FMVs).

During the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency in 1997, the US sold six Trinity Marine FACs built at Equitable Shipyard in New Orleans. They were the only US vessels available to Sri Lanka until the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government concluded a deal for the acquisition of US Coast Guard Ship (USCGS) ‘Courageous’ in early 2003, about a year after the signing of the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) (SL acquires US coastguard ship-The Island, March 13, 2003).

SLN takes delivery of US vessel

Sri Lanka took delivery of USCGS Courageous, subsequently commissioned as P 621 SLNS Samudura, on April 21, 2005, as the country was heading towards Eelam war IV.

For want of a clear policy, in dealing with major acquisition of armaments, the armed forces experienced severe difficulties, thereby giving the enemy an unwarranted battlefield advantage. All three services paid a very heavy price for not having the required weapons systems to meet the growing terrorist threat.

The inordinate delay in upgrading the weapons system on FACs caused controversy. In fact, the issue sharply divided the Wickremesinghe’s administration, with the then Lands Minister, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, lambasting those pushing for separate deals to acquire 15 weapons systems each from the US and Israel.

Dr. Senaratne batted for the US deal (Guns for Navy deal runs into heavy weather-The Island, August 24, 2003). There had been subsequent developments as the cabinet took up the issue (Committee to scrutinize Navy deal-The Island, August 27, 2003,) and (Treasury Chief to evaluate Navy deal-The Island, August 28, 2003). Minister Senaratne went to the extent of accusing a section of the SLN of favouring a system (KCB Oerlikon cannon) far inferior to US product, Mark 44 Bushmaster Cannon (Navy chief backing shady weapons deal: Rajitha-The Island, August 31, 2003).

The deal divided the Navy with Dr. Senaratne representing a section of the SLN.

SLN acquires US 30 mm guns

The project was meant to replace the 23 mm cannon, mounted on FACs, with 30 mm cannon, in accordance with an overall strategy to meet the Sea Tiger threat. The SLN had no option but to acquire 30 mm cannon and fire control system due to the Sea Tigers installing 23mm cannon on some of their attack crafts. In spite of a damaging fight, within the UNP-led UNF administration, as well as exchanges with the People’s Alliance (PA), the SLN wasn’t given the green light to go ahead with the project.

Finally, the SLN received authorization from President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to accept the US offer. The US acted swiftly and decisively to provide 30 units of 30 mm Mark 44 Bushmaster Cannon, manufactured by the ATK, to the SLN on a staggered basis. The US provided the required ammunition from its own stocks as the SLN was desperate to deploy the new weapon against the Sea Tigers.

The deployment of new long range guns greatly strengthened the SLN capability. The US went ahead with the project, regardless of strong lobbying by those who represented the interests of the Tamil Diaspora, supportive of the LTTE. It would be pertinent to mention that the US product had been very much cheaper than the KCB Oerlikon cannon.

The controversial KCB Oerlikon deal had been subsequently investigated by a presidential commission headed by a Supreme Court judge.

During a visit to Chalai, off Mullaitivu, in late April, 2009, to observe a naval blockade, on Puthumathalan, meant to prevent the LTTE leadership from fleeing the country, the writer had an opportunity to speak with naval gunners who explained the advantage of having 30 mm cannon.

Had the US deal failed to materialize, it could have caused a debilitating setback to the SLN. The US made available all 30 units during the war, thereby making an unparallelled contribution to the SLN’s success. The SLN installed the weapon system during late 2007 and early 2008 as the supplier didn’t want to carry out the task. Although the SLN had 52 FACs, acquired from Israel, the US, Colombo Dockyard Limited, as well as South Korea, Bushmaster cannon, were mounted on only 30 crafts, primarily fastest Israeli-built vessels (ASD type). In spite of a section of the SLN having concern over mounting Bushmaster cannons on Trinity Marine vessels, the then SLN Chief, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, ordered the installation. The SLN also installed Bushmaster cannon on the latest FACs acquired from the Colombo Dockyard.

Plan to deploy US 25 mm goes awry

The SLN felt the need to replace the 23 mm cannons as early as 1999. The SLN pushed for 25 mm Bushmaster cannons at that time, though the project never materialized. Had the US deprived Sri Lanka of Bushmaster cannons, the SLN would have found it extremely difficult to face the Sea Tiger threat. Having superior main armament, the FAC Squadron caused irreparable damage to the Sea Tigers in a series of engagements. As the army advanced into the last LTTE stronghold, in the Mullaitivu district, the SLN threw a barrier off Puthumathalan, with FACs mounted with 30 mm Bushmaster cannons taking up positions, along with Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). The writer was fortunate to visit those deployed there in late April 2009, a few weeks before the LTTE fighting cadre collapsed.

Vice Admiral Karannagoda deployed SLNS Samudura, formerly of the US Coast Guard, for the first successful attack on an LTTE merchant vessel, off Sangamankanda, at the onset of Eelam war IV. SLNS Samudura spearheaded the September 16, 2006 attack. Although the SLN assigned 11 vessels, including two stand-by craft for the operation, SLNS Samudura and SLNS Ranajaya took part in the actual action, while Israeli Kfirs launched from Katunayake air base, too, bombed the LTTE ship.

The vessel went down approximately 120 nautical miles east of Kalmunai at 4.30 pm on September 16, 2006.

The Kalmunai hit was the first after the SLN called off ‘Operation Waruna Kirana,’ a special operation launched in May 2001. ‘Waruna Kirana’ was meant to intercept large LTTE supply vessels heading towards Chalai and Mullaitivu, about 100 to 150 nautical miles off land.

SLNS Samudura again teamed up with three other vessels to track down and destroy three LTTE vessels, about 2,800 kms southeast of Sri Lanka, on September 10 and 11, 2007. The SLN destroyed the remaining LTTE vessel about 2,600 kms south of Dondra head, on October 7, 2007. Although, SLNS Samudura, hadn’t been involved in the final operation, the US provided the intelligence required by the SLN to carry out the operation. The US intelligence led to the destruction of four LTTE vessels in separate confrontations, on September 10, 11 and Oct 7, 2007.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly acknowledged the US backing the destruction of the LTTE fleet following the conclusion of the conflict.

Blake moves from Delhi to Colombo

Robert O. Blake, Jr presented his credentials to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on September 9, 2006. Having served at the US diplomatic mission, in New Delhi, as Deputy Chief, Blake played a crucial role in ensuring continued US support to the Sri Lankan military. Sri Lanka acquired Bushmaster cannons under the auspices of Ambassador Blake. Sri Lanka also received crucial intelligence from the US to hunt down LTTE ships (also during his time), though it would never have materilized without the support of the US Pacific Command. Perhaps, Ambassador Blake hadn’t been happy with the relationship between the SLN and the Pacific Command, though he didn’t make an issue out of it.

Ambassador Blake stressed his country’s commitment to assist the Sri Lankan military on September 19, 2006, less than a week after the SLN deployed an ex-US Coast Guard ship to destroy an LTTE vessel, allegedly carrying artillery rounds as well as anti-aircraft missiles among other armaments. Addressing the media at the Cinnamon Grand, Ambassador Blake explained US actions intended to assist Sri Lanka’s efforts to eradicate terrorism. Blake discussed the circumstances under which the FBI had carried out a successful sting operation targeting LTTE operatives during the previous month (US-Tigers not willing to give up violence-The Island September 20th, 2006).

FBI entraps LTTE

The FBI operation caused an irreparable damage to LTTE efforts to acquire a range of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, night vision, as well as sniper guns. The FBI also revealed the LTTE intention to bribe a senior US State Department official to the tune of US 1 mn in a bid to remove the group from the list of proscribed organizations.

If the LTTE wasn’t trapped by the FBI, it could have bought required armaments, particularly anti-aircraft missiles, to neutralise the SLAF’s jet squadrons at the onset of Eelam war IV. The LTTE had been eying SA-18 to be used against jet squadrons.

The US also investigated Raj Rajaratnam, founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund, for his alleged relationship with the LTTE. US action crippled Rajaratnam to a large extent during the conflict leading to his eventual conviction for conspiracy and securities fraud in one of the biggest insider-trading cases in the history of Wall Street in early 2011.

It would be pertinent to, at least briefly, examine the events leading to destruction of four LTTE ships on September 10, 11 and Oct 10. The change of command at the US Pacific Fleet in early 2007 herald an unprecedented change in the US approach.

Unprecedented support from US Pacific Command

Admiral Robert F. Willard succeeded Admiral Gary R. Roughead, on May 7, 2007, as Commander of the US Pacific Fleet. The appointment couldn’t have taken place at a better time for Sri Lanka. Having taken the upper hand in the Eastern Province, the SLA opened a new campaign on the Vanni front. The newly raised 57 Division was struggling on the Vanni (central front) since it launched operations in March 2007. Admiral Willard paved the way for unprecedented US support for SLN efforts to hunt down floating LTTE arsenals on the high seas. In fact, the SLN task force assigned to destroy four LTTE ships had been in its way to the ‘targets’ as Ambassador Blake met VA Karannagoda in Colombo. Among the vessels included in the task force, which sank three LTTE ships on September 10 and 11, was former USCGS Courageous. A senior serving SLN official recalled the support extended by the then US Defence Attache here.

The officer was succeeded by Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, who continued the excellent relationship with the Sri Lankan military. Responding to queries by The Island, the SLN, speaking on the condition of anonymity, stressed that the US was impressed with the high profile SLN operations carried out in international waters over a period of time. Commodore Travis Sinnaiah, who had functioned as the task force commander, joined the US Embassy in Colombo, after having retired from the SLN. Sinnaiah could have served the country for many more years, though he opted to leave ‘silent service.’ His departure caused a big loss.

Much to the credit of all those involved in these fleet operations, the country didn’t face any allegations as regards violations of international laws.

During the third week of January, 2008, Admiral Willard visited Colombo as the Sri Lankan military was still battling the LTTE on the Vanni front. Admiral Willard visited the Trincomalee Naval base, the nerve center of the SLN campaign against the LTTE, to meet those spearheading the operations. Among them were the Commanding Officers of the Fast Attack Squadron and the Special Boat Squadron. In Colombo, Admiral Willard called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

The US delegation also inspected the radar-based maritime surveillance system and the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBS), provided by the US, under Section 1206 of the US National Defence Authorization Act. The RHIBS project was meant to enhance SLN’s ability to detect hostile activity. The US embassy estimated the equipment worth US 11 mn would be of critical importance to overall Sri Lankan efforts to neutralise terrorist threat.

Interestingly, the US visit took place in the wake of President Rajapaksa dumping the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on January 2, 2008. It was the first high level visit since Sri Lanka signed the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), in 2007, though some of UPFA constituent partners strongly opposed the move (High level US military visit underway as Army steps up offensive with strap line Jets bomb Jayapuram LTTE meeting point frequented by senior cadres-The Island, January 18, 2008.

During a banquet at the SLN headquarters, Admiral Willard congratulated SLN for its success against the LTTE, particularly the high profile sinking of four LTTE floating warehouses in September and October 2007. The SLN was told how the Pacific Command had monitored the SLN action on the high seas and the excitement among officers (US to beef up SL’s maritime surveillance capability-The Island January 20, 2008).