An expert team from the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) in late 2002 asserted that the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) lacked what it called maritime patrol capability to thwart LTTE re-supply efforts.
Although the SLN could thwart LTTE’s re-supply efforts in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, it couldn’t foil the transfer of arms within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), at a range in excess of 80 nautical miles. The US emphasised that the LTTE mid sea transfers took place outside the SLN’s interdiction range. The US asserted that the SLN didn’t possess required asserts to meet the LTTE threat. The US recommended acquisition of ships capable of launching helicopters to carry out surveillance, at least over the sea lanes within Sri Lanka’s EEZ and dedicated surveillance aircraft as part of the overall strategy to thwart LTTE’s efforts to replenish its arsenal. The US also proposed the acquisition and deployment of Electronic Warfare (EW) measures along with air, shore as well as ship based radar, joint operations with the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard and lastly paving the way for the SLN’s largest ship, SLNS Sayura (formerly of the Indian Navy) to carry a helicopter on its deck. The US also faulted the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) for failing to provide air surveillance in support of naval operations.
Commenting on an acquisition plan for the SLN, the US pointed out that the SLN didn’t have the capability to go on the offensive against the LTTE shipping fleet. The US asserted that the SLN had what it called basic vessels, equipment and weaponry just to hold the LTTE in check. The absence of an effective intelligence structure above tactical level, too, contributed to the SLN’s woes.
The USPACOM expert team comprised 24 experts in the fields of operations, intelligence, counter-terrorism, fire support, engineering, logistics, communications, conventional and naval special operations, psychological operations etc. The report was based on the findings made during a comprehensive study conducted in Sri Lanka from September 12, 2002 to Oct. 24, 2002 on the invitation of the then UNP government.
50 % Fast Attack Craft non-operational
The UNP had no intention of at least maintaining existing capabilities let alone upgrading the military. The UNP neglected the military as it felt the Norwegian-led peace process was moving in the right direction, though the LTTE continued to smuggle in arms, ammunition and equipment under the nose of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The Sri Lankan military was in dire straits. The US assessment revealed the pathetic situation due to shortage of arms, ammunition and equipment, particularly in the SLN. On the basis of its inquiries, the US said that 50 per cent of the Fast Attack Craft (FAC) fleet was non-operational and even those deployed found it extremely difficult to meet the threat posed by the Sea Tigers due to failure on the part of the SLN and the government to upgrade the main armament mounted on the FACs. Hadn’t the government at that time played politics with national security, the Fast Attack Craft would have been fitted with 30 mm Bushmaster cannon, a quality US product. The Island discussed the issues at length, though various interested parties suggested that it was better to leave it alone (Guns for navy deal runs into heavy weather-The Island Aug 23, 2003), (Committee to scrutinise navy dead-The Island Aug 27, 2003),(Treasury Chief to evaluate navy deal-The Island Aug 28, 2003), (Navy Chief backing shady weapons deal: Rajitha-The Island Aug 31, 2003), (Defence Minister replies without naming Rajitha––The Island Sept 7, 2003), (Navy Commander reiterates backing for Israel transaction––The Island Sept 7, 2003). But, in spite of severe operational difficulties, the SLN made a tremendous effort to sustain operations, particularly targeting LTTE logistical vessels bringing in armaments. Big LTTE ships always eluded the SLN, though there had been instances where India facilitated the GoSL to destroy LTTE vessels.
The SLN’s longest running naval blockade ‘Operation Waruna Kirana’ launched in May 2001 to intercept LTTE vessels about 100 to 150 nautical miles off Chalai and Mullaitivu, failed to realise its objectives due to the absence of credible intelligence. In spite of a demoralising US report, the military believed that right leadership, tactics and effective intelligence could change the situation on the ground. The military felt that credible intelligence could offset other shortcomings and give them the advantage it needed to challenge the LTTE conventional fighting capability.
First exclusive SLN operation
Former Navy Commander, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda said that until the SLN destroyed two LTTE vessels on March 10, 2003 and June 14, 2003, there had never been exclusive successful GoSL operations targeting LTTE ships, though many trawlers, fibre glass dinghies and vallams had been destroyed. Although the US felt that the SLN couldn’t target big LTTE merchant vessels, during the then Navy chief Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri’s tenure, the SLN carried out two successful hits using available resources. Rear Admiral Karannagoda, who executed both operations in his capacity as the COMEAST (senior officer in charge of the Eastern theatre) had to depend on assets available at that time, namely SLNS Sayura and an assortment of Fast Gun Boats (FGBs) and Fast Attack Craft, though the majority of them weren’t involved in the actual confrontation. The operation conducted on June 14 involved SLNS Nandimithra, a Fast Missile Vessel (FMV) formerly of the Israeli Navy. It had been acquired in 1993, along with another FMV commissioned as SLNS Suranimala.
Admiral Karannagoda said that the SLN had experienced severe difficulties in the aftermath of the sinking of two vessels. “The destruction of an LTTE vessel on March 10, 2003 sent shock waves through the political establishment. The government reacted angrily. We were accused of acting against the Norwegian-led peace initiative. None of those critical of the SLN bothered to take up the issue with the LTTE. No one dared to ask what an LTTE ship was doing off Mullaitivu. In spite of political pressure, we remained on the alert. We felt the LTTE efforts to boost its firepower had to be thwarted regardless of the consequences. When we received credible intelligence courtesy the Directorate of Military Intelligence regarding an LTTE ship approaching the north-east coast, we readied to sink it. In fact, there was absolutely no ambiguity on the part of the SLN to intercept it. Although we lacked resources to undertake major operations on the high seas, once the Directorate of Military Intelligence made available credible intelligence, we believed in taking action. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle made available intelligence regarding the ship movement in June 2003 directly to me.”
Admiral Karannagoda recalled how a section of the state-run media had targeted him in the wake of the destruction of two LTTE vessels. Karannagoda incurred the wrath of the government briefing the Opposition with regard to an LTTE build-up, which threatened the strategic Trincomalee navy base (Navy backs Kadir’s claims of LTTE Trinco threat––The Island Sept 7, 2003). The Admiral said that the SLN couldn’t have kept quiet regarding the LTTE build up and headquarters felt the need to brief the Opposition. “The failure on our part to raise the issue could have had catastrophic consequences”, the one-time service commander turned diplomat said. “Instead of taking tangible action to meet the LTTE threat, the government attacked me. The state-run media vilified me. Those behind the campaign didn’t realise that the LTTE was the common enemy and I was merely performing my duties as an SLN officer.”
According to him, trouble started shortly after he briefed the then presidential advisor Lakshman Kadirgamar on the continuing LTTE build-up. He said: “The briefing took place on Aug.4, 2003. Shortly after the briefing, a section of the media targeted me. On Sept 5, 2003 a state-run television station aired a programme defamatory of me and I decided to take legal action.”
Kadirgamar received the briefing on Aug 4 at the President’s House. Although some portrayed it as a secret meeting, Kadirgamar was joined by VA Sandagiri and Lt. Gen. Balagalle as well as presidential Defence Advisor Chandrananda de Silva. Karannagoda based his presentation on intelligence obtained by the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Naval Intelligence as well as aerial reconnaissance (COMEAST to sue on Trinco issue––The Island Sept 14, 2003)
Although the government strongly countered the SLN’s assertion, the US assessment quite rightly acknowledged the impending threat to the Trincomalee base. The US went to the extent of making recommendations to counter the LTTE threat, though the government ignored even the US assessment. It stressed that it had a contingency plan to meet any LTTE threat, whereas on the ground, the LTTE gradually increased its influence. Admiral Karannagoda said that in spite of the absence of political backing, the armed forces had been prepared to meet any eventuality.
Ageing fleet on the offensive
In the wake of the US assessment that the SLN lacked resources, expertise as well as the required intelligence even to go on the offensive against vessels bringing in arms, an operation on the high seas as far as 2,600 km seemed incomprehensible. But the SLN surrounded the LTTE’s largest re-supply vessel 2,600 km south of Dondra on the morning of Oct. 7, 2007. The Naval Task Force deployed for the operation comprised two Offshore Patrol Vessels, SLNS Sayura (formerly of the Indian Navy acquired in 2000) and SLNS Sagara (formerly of the Indian Coast Guard in service with the SLN since 2007) and Fast Missive Vessel (FMV) SLNS Suranimala (formerly of the Israeli Navy acquired in early 90s). The SLN deployed two logistic vessels, A 520 and A 521 in support of the operation. Although it was the largest vessel and the last to go under water during the final major arms interdiction operation on the high seas before the conclusion of the conflict on May 19, 2009, it would be important to mention that the SLN conducted a far more complex operation in Sept 2007. I
The US intelligence helped the SLN to track down not only the LTTE’s biggest ship which was sunk on Oct. 7, 2007, but three other vessels destroyed in separate confrontations on Sept 10 and 11, 2007. The September operation involved four vessels, namely SLNS Sayura, SLNS Suranimala, SLNS Samudura (formerly of the US Coast Guard acquired in 2005), and SLNS Shakthi (Chinese Landing Ship Tank in service with the SLN for many years before eelam war IV).
The September operation was conducted 2,800 km southeast of Dondra head. The Task Force initially detected two LTTE vessels on Sept 10, 2007. “The first to go down was ‘Manyoshi’ at 7 a.m. It was followed by ‘Seishin’ at 5 p.m. also on the same day. ‘Seishin’ was hit by a series of explosions before it finally went down. But the third vessel, ‘Koshia’ eluded us until the following day,” Admiral Karannagoda said.
The SLN trapped ‘Koshia’ after a four-hour chase and sank it. The former Navy chief said that the SLN had been given access to a group of Sea Tigers in Maldivian custody in May 2007, thus helping the GoSL to execute operations in Sept and Oct., 2007 (The issue was dealt with in a previous piece in ‘War on terror revisited series’).
Responding to a query, Admiral Karanagoda pointed out that contrary to all assertions, the SLN had been able to rapidly extend its capability to conduct operations far away from land, consequent to the destruction of an LTTE vessel 120 nautical miles (225 km) off Kalmunai on Sept. 17, 2006. Having destroyed two LTTE vessels on March 10 and June 14, 2003 on its own, the SLN had to wait three years and three months to intercept another big ship. It couldn’t be too difficult to imagine the amount of arms, ammunition and equipment brought in during this period, though Fast Attack Craft made a spate of successful detections.
The next LTTE ship was sunk on Feb 28, 2007 365 nautical miles (675 km) south of Dondra.
It was followed by an another operation on March 18, 2007, which resulted in the destruction of two LTTE vessels 825 nautical miles (1525 kms) southeast of Arugambay.
Admiral Karannagoda said that as the SLN gained experience, it pushed ahead with operations leading to confrontations 2,800 nautical miles southeast of Dondra in Sept. 2007. “We proved that success didn’t entirely depend on new equipment and extra firepower.”