Indra, the god of war in Hindu mythology whose chariot thunders across the rain clouds, must be smiling as the torrential northeast monsoon rains brought the Eelam War in Sri Lanka to a near halt last week. The northeast monsoon, the main source of rainfall in Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka, intensifies during the months of October and November and peters out in December. The average monthly rainfall in the peak period is about 300 mm.
The entire domain of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north will be affected by monsoon rains at least for the next five to six weeks. And rains in rough terrain with poor communication are the night mare of troops on the offensive. They make the axes of advance a mess of slush and mire. Equally they could ring death knell to troops manning the defences as well, as rains often flood the bunkers and weapon pits. Thus the tempo of war is likely to be subdued with intermittent spurts of fierce activity during sunny spells. Needless to say, the plight of the population displaced by the ravages of war and caught in the open or under makeshift arrangement would be terrible. Even political protests against the war could be dampened due to heavy rains as it happened in Tamil Nadu.
The defence spokesman in Colombo blamed the wet weather for the security forces’ failure to carry out the much awaited capture of Kilinochchi. The heavy rains had made troop movements slow and difficult, he said. However, the Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka appear to have factored in the weather in his plans; as his troops claimed to have eaten into some more of the LTTE defences in three fronts when the rains gave way to some clear weather now and then. The security forces reported making some progress beyond Nachikuda in the Task Force I sector; 57 Division also succeeded in capturing parts of LTTE defences around Akkarayankulam on way to Kilinochchi. In the Mullaitivu east, 59 Division also made progress ahead of Janakapura capturing Gajabapura. The LTTE also appeared to be ready to overcome adverse weather and fight the advancing troops.
How far does weather really affect operation when it is in the crucial ‘breakthrough’ phase? Generally in monsoon rains slows down offensive operations of both warring sides, reduces fire power, hampers close air support, and eats up more time in carrying out every task. And the ruthless justice of weather equally applies to both sides. Thus in the active monsoon period both sides would probably spend more energy to retain their tactical advantages in mire and slush and than fight a high intensity war. In other words the war will be a slow crawl through the mud with fights moving from bunker to bunker.
During monsoon rains three factors – the weather, terrain and troops morale – together affect the soldier. Even when it is not raining and the skies are overcast visibility becomes poor. This makes combat management difficult. Heavy weapon and artillery fire at long ranges become less reliable. Artillery observers will also find it a little more taxing to bring down accurate fire. Mortar bombs are less effective in mud and slush. Air reconnaissance and air transportation are also affected. Close air support for land operations become more difficult.
Though modern fighter aircraft fly above rain clouds, sorties could become fewer as met conditions are favourable for shorter periods only. This applies to support from gun ships as well. More over, ground support operations for aircraft and artillery maintenance, and loading, replenishment of ammunition etc. become more cumbersome. These limitations will apply more to the security forces as they have greater fire power. For the LTTE, spotting and shooting down of aircraft from ground becomes more difficult unless missiles are used. In order to compensate lesser fire support the security forces will be required to use more troops on the offensive. That could translate into more casualties.
Similarly monsoon weather also affects naval operations along the coast and inshore areas as war ships prefer to be out in the high seas than face the turbulence on the coast line. Visibility in monsoon seas is poor. This could affect naval operations in support of troops operating along Mullaitivu coast. The lighter Sea Tiger craft are probably better placed to sneak in closer to naval ships taking advantage of monsoon conditions Landing of troops by sea also becomes tricky and time consuming. This could reduce options available to the security forces in offensive against Pooneryn.
The second aspect is the terrain in bad weather which invariably decides the winner and the vanquished. When the down pour comes, roads are inundated and tracks get flooded; muddy paddy fields could become deathtraps of tanks and trucks. Seasonal streams turn into rapids. Though modern armies have their own engineer units to construct bridges and roads, the havoc caused by rains could outstrip their capability. As vehicles get bogged down, labour units will have to be mustered to carry vital battlefield requirements. Overall the terrain conditions make both launching of attacks and counter attacks equally time and resource consuming.
The third and more important factor is the cumulative effect of bad weather and terrain on morale of fighters. Prolonged operations with long marches through slush and mud in wet weather sap the strength, efficiency and demoralize the troops. Thus even a small setback could have high impact on the psyche of troops. Troops become more vulnerable to mines which get shifted due to the flow of rain water. Fording of even small streams could become tricky when they turn into deep currents. With the weather playing truant, battle field evacuation of casualties becomes difficult both by land and air. During the offensive troops caught in the open will find it more difficult to dig down. Overall the security forces are probably at a slight disadvantage over the LTTE which is fighting probably from well drained bunkers.
However the LTTE would also find the weather restrictive in fighting a classical defensive battle. Pulling back to fall back positions before reinforcing the next line of defence can become a costly exercise. The LTTE would also find the same problem as the security forces in preparing new defensive positions. Its plans to counter attack could also flounder in the face of adverse weather conditions with problems of mobility, support fire and casualty evacuation. It would also face problems of logistic support in meeting battle field needs. Its combat engineering resources are marginal and mostly improvised. That will have its own positive and negative fall out.
Both sides will find it more difficult to carry out deep penetration and commando operations. For the security forces, problems of mobility by air, sea and land could reduce the range of Special Forces operations. Special boat operations would also become more risky. This has relevance if Special Forces are to be used for operations in Pooneryn with naval support.
Assessing military operations in Vanni when the weather is fickle is a difficult proposition. However, considering the overall setting of the battle zones, any northern offensive of 53 and 55 divisions will perforce be restricted to a narrow frontage along Muhamalai-Elephant Pass axis as the lagoons and marshy land on both sides of would be water logged. Particularly the approach along Nagarkovil salient would become unsuited for operations. The Task Force I offensive towards Pooneryn could make better progress than the offensive of 57 Division towards Kilinochchi. Task Force II operations towards A9 highway between Mankulam and Puliyankulam would also probably make some more progress though it will be across the grain of the terrain. 59 Division dominating the area between Gajabapura and Nayaru lagoon in Mullaitivu east would probably make slow progress only. In this difficult terrain the operations will be time consuming with a lot of jungle bashing by foot soldiers.
Given these conditions, whichever side can maintain better morale and ensure effective leadership at platoon level is likely to succeed. The security forces have more troops, larger options, better technology, more victories and lesser casualties to help their morale. On the other hand, the rains and the LTTE have managed to stall their advance to Kilinochchi. The LTTE on the other hand is fighting a battle of survival with a highly motivated band of cadres. Perhaps it will be more realistic to assess the impact of poor weather on the morale of troops on both sides after they are exposed to say three more weeks of intense fighting in wet weather.
The looming possibility of Indian ‘intervention’ and its political aftermath in Tamil Nadu and India would have had its impact on both the warring sides.
Prabhakaran in his interview to Nakkeeran a Tamil weekly has expressed his happiness at the protests in Tamil Nadu. He has said these sentiments added to the LTTE strength. On the other hand the clear statement of Indian Foreign Minister Pranabh Mukherjee on India distancing itself from the Eelam War would have warmed the hearts of the security forces. Thus the confrontation is now literally eyeball to eyeball. And it will depend upon who blinks first. The weatherman is perhaps unwittingly better suited now to assess the course of operations more accurately in the near future as it is interwoven with good weather.
(Hariharan’s Intelligence blog)