SPECIAL REPORT : Part 278July 9, 2019, 8:01 pm
The latest addition to SLN’s fleet, a missile frigate, used by China, on arrival at the Colombo port on Monday (June 8).
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka is in the process of building a 20-ship Navy by 2025—a highly ambitious project crucial to ensure the nation’s maritime rights and interests. The navy is confident of achieving the daunting task though it seems beyond Sri Lanka’s reach. A decade after the successful conclusion of the war, Sri Lanka is pursuing ‘SLN’s maritime strategy 2025 ‘ a task gravely undermined by the unprecedented current turmoil.
The project was launched during then Vice Admiral R.C. Wijegunaratne’s tenure as the Commander of the SLN (July 2015 - Aug 2017). Wijegunaratne now serves as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
The ongoing controversy over the Acquisition of Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed in early Aug 2017, and the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) seem to be causing quite a problem, in addition to a range of other issues, particularly the Easter Sunday attacks, mounted by the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ). The country is still struggling to cope up with the coordinated bombing campaign that caused a debilitating setback to the current dispensation.
SLN’s maritime strategy 2025
Can a project, as big as ‘SLN’s Maritime Strategy 2025,’ be sustained in time of turmoil? It would be the responsibility of political parties, represented in parliament, to ensure continuation of projects vital to national security, political stability and prosperity. Having caused so much disruptions, since the last presidential election, in January 2015, and the subsequent parliamentary election, eight months later, it would be the collective responsibility of those political parties, represented in parliament, to work towards a consensus on at least matters of national importance.
Sri Lanka’s foreign relations appears to be in chaos with major domestic political powers pulling in different directions. Their disagreement is certainly not limited to ACSA in operation and planned SOFA and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact.
Sri Lanka first entered into ACSA in early March 2007 at a time the then government was yet to launch the Vanni offensive. Parliament wasn’t at least informed of the Rajapaksa administration’s decision until the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed it on Sri Lanka’s behalf. Ambassador Robert Blake signed for the US.
Amb. Teplitz assures no US
base in Lanka
In a special message issued by US Ambassador in Colombo, Alaina Teplitz, to mark the 243rd Independence Day of the US, the envoy addressed several contentious issues, including alleged setting up of a base here, as well as transferring of US vessel to Sri Lanka. Ambassador Teplitz is on record as having said: "The sea lanes that pass beside Sri Lanka are important for many nations, which is why the United States is helping Sri Lanka’s capacity to protect its coast and waters. In June, I joined President Sirisena at the commissioning of SLNS Gajabahu, the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest vessel. A gift from the American people, the former US Coast Guard Cutter represents the United States’ commitment to strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to protect its security and prosperity....Just like the gifting of the USCG Cutter, our military cooperation is open and mutually beneficial. Every joint exercise, every training in disaster response, is done at the invitation of our Sri Lankan hosts. The United States has no intention of building a base here. Instead, we are building relationships that help keep both our countries safe."
Navy Chief Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva, in an exclusive interview with the writer, last weekend, discussed current developments, including the expansion of the service in line with the ‘SLN’s maritime strategy 2025.’ Having joined the ‘silent service’ in 1984 as an officer cadet, De Silva acquired expertise in explosive ordnance disposal diving during the war and received appointment as the Commander of the SLN on January 01, 2019.
VA De Silva said that Sri Lanka really got an opportunity to explore ways and means of building a larger fleet, capable of meeting maritime challenges after the end of the conflict. De Silva explained the difference in SLN’s priorities, during the conflict and after, as well as ongoing efforts to modernize the service, in line with ‘SLN’s Maritime Strategy 2025’
A case for a bigger Navy
The writer posed several questions as regards the post-war developments. The Island: How many Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) SLN acquired since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009? VA De Silva: "We took delivery of three - two new advanced OPVs namely SLNS Sayurala and SLNS Sindurala built in India, and one from US Coast Guard. Advanced OPVs were built in Goa shipyard in terms of an agreement signed in Feb 2014. Advanced OPVs SLNS Sayurala and SLNS Sindurala cost Sri Lanka taxpayer USD 66 mn and were commissioned in Aug 2017 and April 2018, respectively. In addition to Indian built OPVs, Sri Lanka, in June this year, commissioned High Endurance Cutter Sherman, taken delivery from the USCG. US Ambassador Teplitz referred to the commissioning of High Endurance Cutter Sherman as SLNS Gajabahu.
A vessel gifted to SLN, by China, reached the Colombo port, on July 08, though it was to come the previous day. The ‘Jangwei I’ class missile frigate was previously the ‘Tongling’ in the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and served until 2015. The vessel acquired from China will be commissioned next month."
VA De Silva said that he headed the teams, tasked with inspecting Tongling and USCG Sherman in 2015 and 2017, respectively. The SLN chief said that China gifted the vessel whereas Sri Lanka paid for upgrading of USCG Sherman, required spares and training.
The Island: Why do you need a peacetime fleet bigger than one available during the conflict? VA De Silva: "We are pursuing a strategy meant to meet present and future maritime surveillance, patrolling as well as search-and-rescue needs. Port of Colombo is the best connectivity port in South Asia. Colombo port, currently holding the 13 slot in global best connectivity rankings, whereas it has been ranked as the world’s fastest growing port from among the top 30 container ports for the first half of 2018. We should be really proud that 20 mainline operators, currently use Colombo, and there cannot be any dispute over the need to maintain highest standards. Colombo is capable of serving what we call ‘Triple E’ class (Economy of scale, Energy efficient and Environmentally improved) ships – a facility not available at all ports. With transshipment trade continuing to grow with ship movements east to west and west to east as well as other challenges, such as smuggling narcotics, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, marine pollution, protecting fisheries industry, oil/chemical spills, human smuggling et al. There is consensus even in the absence of war, we need a larger fleet to guarantee our maritime rights and interests and also to meet our international obligations. Our SAR (Search and Rescue) region is nearly 27 times that of land area therefore an expanded fleet is necessary to meet the requirements."
VA De Silva said that more shipping means more shopping and more shipping demands a higher level of security of uninterrupted sea lanes of communications. He acknowledged that Sri Lanka found it difficult to concentrate on some issues during the conflict. However, since the end of the conflict, efforts were being made to pursue a naval strategy, though difficulties existed.
Many years ago, the Jane’s Fighting Ships quoted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as having said "If we had upgraded our Navy earlier, the problem of Tamil separatist terrorism would not have taken the present form." Kumaratunga made this assertion at a time her Navy was struggling to block LTTE sea supply route. A costly operation, called ‘Varuna Kirana’, launched in May 2001, to detect LTTE movements towards Chalai and Mullaitivu, never succeeded in achieving its primary objectives though two LTTE vessels were sunk off Mullaitivu on March 10 and June 14, 2003. Having succeeded VA Daya Sandagiri, VA Wasantha Karannagoda terminated ‘Varuna Kirana’ and undertook an unprecedented operation to hunt down LTTE floating arsenals.
In the wake of wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa signing the first ACSA, VA Karannagoda, on a request made by him to then US Ambassador in Colombo, Robert Blake, the US provided the required intelligence to successfully hunt four enemy vessels – three in September 2007 and one in the following month. The vessels sunk on US intelligence were among eight floating arsenals destroyed during VA Karannagoda’s tenure (Sept 2005 to July 2009) as the Commander of the Navy. Karannagoda was followed by VA Tisara Samarasinghe (July 2009 to January 2011), Somathilake Dissanayake (January 2011 to Sept 2012), Jayanath Colombage (Sept 2012 to June 2014), Jayantha Perera (July 2014 to July 2015), Ravi Wijegunaratne (July 2015 to August 2017), Travis Sinniah (August 2017 to Oct 2017) and Sirimevan Ranasinghe (Oct 2017 to Dec 2018). Piyal de Silva received his appointment as the Commander of the Navy on January 01, 2019.
The Island: What were SLN priorities after the end of the conflict? VA De Silva: In accordance with overall post-war government objectives, the SLN played a significant role in meeting the civilian needs in war torn areas. Infrastructure development, such as construction of jetties in Jaffna islands, were part of the initiative.
We took measures to curb attempts to bring in narcotics into Sri Lanka, human smuggling, IUU fishing and also concentrated on humanitarian assistance, search-and-rescue, as well as transferring sick sailors sea to shore. The SLN is also continuously engaged in capacity building and maintaining available assets, in addition to enhancement of power to meet combat requirements.
VA De Silva emphasized even at the height of the war in spite of severe constraints, the Navy always committed its precious assets to fulfill tasks outside military missions/purposes. The SLN Chief underscored the pivotal importance of introducing upgraded training modules to meet present and future requirements. The naval veteran said that regardless of the environment, the military operated, the significance of ensuring welfare and well being of officers and men were paramount.
The Island: Against the backdrop of controversy over ACSA and SOFA, can you explain the SLN relationship with US-led US-Japan-India alliance? VA De Silva: "We maintain cordial relations with all countries. Throughout the war, Sri Lanka received armaments, training and support from various countries. We continue to receive foreign support. Sri Lanka receiving USCG Sherman and Chinese frigate proved continuing international support to our endeavours."
Chinese Ambassador, in Colombo Cheng Xueyuan with Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva at a ceremony to mark the arrival of the vessel. China provided a range of arms, ammunition and equipment throughout the war.
The Island: Sri Lanka’s relations with Australia in the maritime domain seem to be continuously improving. Can you explain the current status? VA De Silva: "We have collaborated with Australian efforts to curb human smuggling operations, originating from Sri Lanka. We have been able to neutralize several smuggling syndicates over the years. Australia included Sri Lanka in a large scale military exercise ‘Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019’ this year. In recognition of our efforts to curb human smuggling, Australia in 2014, gifted two Bay class patrol boats previously used by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS). They were commissioned as SLNS Mihikatha and SLNS Rathnadeepa. Early last year, Australia donated two main engines to replace those of SLNS Mihikatha. In January this year, Australia gifted three stabicraft. In addition to Sri Lanka received 10 combat rubber raiding craft."
In spite of criticism of Sri Lankan military, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, Australia continuously backed Sri Lanka, primarily due to the latter extending unrestrained support to the controversial Australian project to curb human smuggling. Human smuggling is a highly contentious political issue there with consensus on punitive measures to curb unauthorized entry. Australia regularly advertise, both on print and electronic media, as part of its overall measures to discourage would be immigrants.
The Island: Since the end of the war in May 2009, the SLN took delivery of four vessels - two from India, one US and one China. Will you be acquiring more vessels of similar types within the next couple of years? VA De Silva: Certainly, we need to acquire more ships in accordance with the SLN’s Maritime Strategy 2025. We have received proposal from Colombo Dockyard PLC, an experienced ship builder, to build two OPVs. However, contract in this regard is yet to be finalized.
CDL is a Board of Investment of Sri Lanka registered, Colombo Stock exchange listed company operating in collaboration with Onomichi Dockyard Co. Ltd Japan. CDL supplied Fast Attack Craft (FACs) to the Navy though the CDL built craft couldn’t match those procured from Israel or the US.
VA De Silva said that the SLN was also examining the possibility of acquiring a new floating dock to carry out maintenance of OPVs.
The Island also sought an explanation as regards the deployment of Fast Attack Craft (FACs) in time of peace. During the war, the FACs played a significant role in eradicating Sea Tiger power. VA De Silva: In spite of the absence of hostile craft out at sea, we need FACs to respond swiftly and decisively in case of an emergency. FACs continue to engage in anti-human smuggling operations, surveillance IUU fishing as well as search-and-rescue operations. There is no requirement to enhance FACs. However, we intend to maintain FAC existing units.
VA De Silva also discussed the difficulties caused by large groups of Indian fishing craft crossing the maritime boundary, regardless of the presence of Indian and Sri Lankan naval as well as Coast Guard. Although a range of measures had been discussed at different levels over the past several decades to tackle poaching, the relevant parties were yet to reach consensus on an action plan. "We take tangible measures to discourage poaching, particularly by large multi day fishing trawlers".
The Island: The SLN undertook Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) building project a long time ago. Ten years after the successful conclusion of the war, what is the status of this particular project? VA De Silva: We are continuing to build IPCs for our own use as well as other agencies, both local and abroad. In Feb 2019, Sri Lanka gifted two 14.85 m long IPCs to Seychelles at the Sri Lankan Navy shipyard Rangala Institute in the Colombo Port. President Sirisena participated at the event. The construction of two IPCs were undertaken following President Sirisena’s official visit to Seychelles in Oct 2018.
VA De Silva said that Seychelles, subsequently ordered two IPCs on payment. The Navy Chief revealed plan to build a 20-meter long vessel for SLN duties.Commenting on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) projects undertaken by the SLN, VA De Silva said that the SLN was in the process of installing water treatment plants (Reverse Osmosis plants) in areas badly affected by the kidney disease. The SLN’s Research and Development Unit launched this project in Dec 2015 during the then Navy Commander VA Wijegunaratne’s tenure. Since the commencement of the project, the SLN provided approximately 650 RO plants.
VA De Silva also explained the other major project undertaken by Research and Development Unit to provide Thalassemia Infusion Systems to patients. The medical equipment were provided free of charge.
The Navy’s Research and Development Unit invented the device in 2010. Further improvements were made to improve the standard and it is now being used in line with the Health Ministry guidelines at Government hospitals. In 2012 the system won the Engineering Excellence Award from the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka for its manufacturing excellence.
VA De Silva said that the SLN also engaged in beach cleaning and tree planting as part of its efforts to protect the environment.
An overwhelming task
The wartime Navy struggled, almost on a daily basis, to keep open treacherous sea supply routes to Kankesanthurai, in the absence of Overland Main Supply Route (MSR). The Army lost MSR way back in June 1990. The MSR was restored in early 2009 following the liberation of Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi in quick succession. Regular suicide attacks on convoys between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai couldn’t break the supply route though Sea Tigers managed to cause severe disruptions. The SLN sustained regular movements to enable off duty personnel to leave the Jaffna peninsula and also return to their northern bases. The SLAF couldn’t have, under any circumstances, maintained sufficient flights between Ratmalana/Katunayake and Palaly to meet the demand. At the height of the war, the Jaffna deployment comprised at least 50,000 officers and men. During the early stages of the war, the Navy conducted large scale amphibious assaults on enemy-held beaches to enable large scale rescue operations. Operation Balavegaya is a case in point. Balavegaya troops saved those trapped in the Elephant Pass base during the Eelam War II. Towards the end of the Eelam War IV, the Navy mounted the largest ever blockade of the Mullaitivu seas to prevent LTTE leaders and their families trying to reach India. The then VA Karannagoda’s successful blockade achieved desired results - the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran perished on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the morning of May 19, 2009.