The Sri Lankan Civil War has been raging for decades with tens of thousands of people killed on each side. Ethnic Tamil separatists have been fighting for a racially exclusive country in the North and East of the island. Developments since 2004 have seen the Liberation Ligers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE lose almost all of their territory in the East of the island, while minor losses have been suffered on the Western coast as well. Splits within the rebel organization and a modernized Sri Lankan military has pushed the LTTE to the brink of destruction and what could be the final stage of the war is on the horizon. The remaining LTTE forces have been surrounded in the Northern part of Sri Lanka, called the Wanni. This region includes the rebellion’s capital city of Kilinochchi and is defended on several fronts by long lines of trenches, bunkers, and minefields. Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, has sworn to take control of the Wanni by the end of 2008, and fierce trench warfare has resulted in tremendous losses on both sides.
The total collapse of most of the LTTE controlled territory in the past few years has allowed Sri Lanka the opportunity to end this long war once and for all.
However, Sri Lankan Military advances have stalled on all fronts in the Wanni. While minor advances continue on the Mannar, Weli Oya, Vavuniya, and Jaffna fronts, these advances are measured in yards. Initially, general Fonseka did not want to capture territory. His objective was to kill as many LTTE fighters as possible to degrade their military force ahead of a major offensive in the months between rainy seasons. With over a month of good weather already lost since the Northern Offensive began, there has been a disappointing lack of progress into LTTE territory. This can be attributed to four key factors:
- The No-man’s Land between Sri Lankan and LTTE trenches have been heavily mined, as have areas within LTTE defenses.
- Public Opinion holds back a major offensive because many people fear the heavier upfront casualties that such an offensive would entail.
- General Fonseka is acting too conservatively for various military reasons.
- Economic considerations limit Sri Lanka’s capacity to wage war.
In this first of another two part series, the question of clearing the minefields that are largely responsible for the stalled Sri Lankan advance will be addressed
The large number of anti-personnel mines and a fewer number of anti-tank mines are a serious threat that impedes Sri Lankan advances. Several solutions exist to combat the minefields, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Defining and implementing a strategy to break through these minefields and any future minefields with relative speed and effectiveness should be one of the highest priorities of the military, if not the highest. Four main possible solutions, each with with unique benefits and drawbacks, will be discussed here.
The Sri Lankan military has used low-tech methods for eliminating mines for decades.
The first option is the oldest solution to land mines in existence. Often referred to as the “Poke and Pray” method, this is the simple act of having an individual walk into an area thought to be mined and start poking the ground with a knife or stick. When they hit something metallic or hollow, they carefully dig it up and dispose of it, all the while praying that the mine doesn’t explode in their face. This method is very slow and would take too long to be a viable option for clearing a path into the Wanni. The use of hand held metal detectors is a derivative of this method.
A flail system was the first effective method of quickly clearing a safe path through a minefield.
A second option is to used a modified bulldozer equipped with swinging chain flails in place of the standard blade to “rake” the minefield. This method is much faster than the previous solution and workers are protected from the dangers of anti-personnel mines. It does suffer from two big setbacks though.
Terrain can greatly limit where a bulldozer can go. The thick jungles of the Wanni and any rocky terrain can limit the bulldozer’s effectiveness and even prevent access all together. This allows the LTTE to know well in advance where this system can punch a hole for a military advance, and they have had a long time to prepare strong defenses in these bottlenecks. An ideal solution would allow the military to break through the minefield at a greater number of locations, preventing the LTTE from catching soldiers in a vulnerable bottleneck. The whole of the Jaffna Front is testament to this problem.
The other issue is the bulldozer’s vulnerability to enemy fire. These slow lumbering targets are easy to hit with RPGs, mortars, rockets, and even artillery. While escorts can and must be assigned to each bulldozer, by the nature of their task, they must be exposed to enemy fire more than any other unit. This gives bulldozer units a high casualty probability and these prospects make this an undesirable solution, though they will probably be used anyway, where possible, due to necessity.
A third option that has been considered in the past but has proven to not be very reliable is the bombardment solution. The general idea is to saturate a minefield with artillery, mortar, rocket, and even cluster bomb air strikes to blast a hole through the mines. Despite it being the safest, since no one has to actually enter the minefield or brave hostile fire, four issues make this solution a dead end.
First, the imperfect nature of carpet bombing means that there is no way to be sure that a path is clear. Next, unexploded munitions add risk to soldiers on the march, replacing many of the mines that would have been destroyed. The last purely military problem is that the hours or days of bombardment would be a pretty obvious giveaway that the SLA plans to move through this particular chunk of real estate. This gives the LTTE plenty of time to prepare for Sri Lankan advances. On an economic note, the price for the munitions needed for such an attempt would be beyond Sri Lanka’s economic capacity, assuming they plan to fight the rest of the war after breaking through. Given that their ability to pay for the Northern offensive is already in doubt, this kind of spending is a get out of jail free card for the Tigers.
Using a chain of explosives to clear a path through a minefield has proven to be very effective in recent conflicts, including the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Another solution that has possibly the greatest potential for success is the use of explosive chains fired into a minefield to blast a hole path for soldiers to exploit. This method is used by most well to do military organizations, such as the Chinese and the NATO states. Gaps varying in size from enough for a single file line of infantry to wide gaps for tank columns can be made depending on the power of the explosives and can clear a path hundreds of yards long. These explosives use shock waves to detonate the mines as if they had been stepped on, and as a result of using shock waves that pass through the air and ground, the trees and stones that might limit a bulldozer are no longer sufficient protection for the mines. By firing a chain of explosives from a certain distance, the mine clearing units are more protected from enemy fire than a bulldozer would be, while the unit is never at risk from the mines they are seeking to clear. The effectiveness and superior safety of this design make this the preferable solution on a purely military level. The only serious drawback is the cost, not only in building the contraptions but in munitions that bulldozers don’t spend. Looking at cost in this way, though, is not the right way to go about assessing value. These costs must be compared, not just to the cost of modifying a bulldozer, but also to the price of replacing destroyed bulldozers and the cost in lives that more dangerous methods entail, as well as the cost in tactical military capabilities, since a bulldozer is limited in where it can advance, giving the LTTE clear indications of SLA routes of advance.
The basic conclusion is that bulldozers should be used in cleared areas where mines remain, and in areas where explosive chain units are not available, but that these explosive chains should be used as extensively as possible on the front lines.
Now an odd reaction seen from many Sri Lankans when it comes to military hardware is “who can we buy these from” and this is another example of this. It then opens up the debate on how Sri Lanka can afford to buy such units and this has become the killing stroke for many ideas for military reforms. This is a bizarre reaction. This is a dangerous mindset that should be discouraged. The LTTE are masters of innovation and the Sri Lankan military should seek to emulate them in this regard. Explosive chains are just packages of explosive material, chained together, thus the name. The rest of this engineering marvel is building an industrial grade blowgun with “bomb on a rope” tied to the end. If the blowgun method proves to be too problematic, the SLA could always just remove the warhead from a mid-range rocket from one of the MBRLs and use it. They might even use the MBRL itself and not even have to build a separate unit for mine clearing. Regardless, this is not science only attainable by world superpowers.
This is just one example of Sri Lanka’s bad habit of seeking to buy what they can make, but that’s a story for another time.
(History and War)