The LTTE deployed suicide divers in 2008-2009, targeting Fast Attack Craft (FAC) operating north of Pulmoddai. The deployment of suicide cadres had been part of the Tigers’ strategy to discourage the SLN from interfering with operations launched from Sea Tiger bases situated along the coast between Nargar Kovil on the Vadamaratchchy coast to Nayaru, three kilometres north of Pulmoddai. The LTTE directed a series of operations from those bases. The LTTE had a sizeable force deployed in the north-east sector to hinder theSLN movements, particularly convoys operating between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai.
The LTTE threat to ship movements had been so high that the SLN had to receive the support of both the SLA and the SLAF to protect its convoys. At the height of the conflict, the SLN had to deploy one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 Fast Attack Craft, twenty-two Arrow Boats and two Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), while one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft, too, were assigned to protect a single Trinco-KKS run. This was revealed by Vice Admiral Samarasinghe before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The army had to place artillery units deployed along the coast on alert to provide gun fire support, in case of an attack on an SLN convoy.
Keeping the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply route open had been one of the most difficult challenges during the conflict. The then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe explained the difficulties faced by the SLN when he testified before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). At a crucial stage of the conflict, the then COMNORTH (Senior Officer in Charge of operations in the northern theatre) Rear Admiral Samarasinghe was replaced by Rear Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake, on Jan 9, 2009.
War-time SLN chief Karannagoda also brought in Captain D. N. S. C. Kalubowila as the Commanding Officer of the 4th FAC Squadron involved in operations. Captain Kalubowila’s appointment was among the changes effected by the Navy chief during the final phase. The writer had an opportunity to observe SLN deployment off Muallaitivu in late April 2009 in the company of Captain Kalubowila onboard an Israeli built Shalldag class FAC. (Captain Kalubowila is currently attached to the SL mission in New Delhi, as the defence advisor).
In spite of having a range of assets to counter the LTTE threat, the FACs had to spearhead the battle. The LTTE too, at an early stage of the conflict, realised that the threat posed by the FAC had to be neutralised. That would have discouraged the SLN from mounting an effective blockade, primarily due to the absence of the required number of vessels. The SLN struggled to sustain its FAC operations in the wake of the loss of several FAC during the eelam war IV. Had the LTTE succeeded in hitting a few other FAC, the SLN would have experienced an extraordinary crisis. The SLN lost seven FAC, each worth about $ 7 mn, during the fourth phase with the destruction caused on Jan 19th, 2009 off Mullaitivu being the last (Pivotal importance of continuous SLN watch on Indo-Lanka maritime boundary stressed––The Island Sept 13, 2010).
Sea Tigers vs FAC fleet
Admiral Karannagoda told The Island that during the 2008-2009 period, LTTE suicide cadres had been at sea waiting for FAC to come close to them to carry out attacks. Karannagoda, who is Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Tokyo, said that the SLN had lost one craft due to an explosion caused by an LTTE suicide cadre at the closing stages of the war.
As the Task Force I (subsequently named 58 Division) gradually advanced towards Pooneryn, the LTTE had no alternative but to transfer its assets across the Vanni mainland to Mullaitivu. By late Nov. 2008, the 58 Division brought the entire Mannar-Pooneryn coastline under its control. The Sea Tigers were struggling in early 2009 to make their presence felt on Mullaitivu waters. The Sea Tigers carried out their last successful attack on FAC on Jan 19, 2009, though losing four craft in the process (Major sea battle off M’tivu––The Island Jan 21, 2009). Thereafter, the LTTE never managed to blast an FAC, until the conclusion of the conflict on May 19, 2009.
Commenting on the Sea Tiger threat at the height of the conflict, Admiral Karannagoda said that in line with their grand strategy to isolate the Jaffna peninsula, the Sea Tigers had established camps along the coastal belt from Nagar Kovil to Nayaru. “There were more than eight camps in between from which they launched attack craft and suicide boats to disturb or attack naval craft on patrol or merchant vessels carrying cargo to the North. These camps also facilitated the inflow of warlike material into the country,” Ambassador Karannagoda said.
The FAC had to play a critical role in Mullaitivu waters. Sea Tiger bases between Nayaru and Nagar Kovil had the ability to interfere with SLN operations. They carried out operations to mine the sea to hinder SLN movements as well as those of merchant vessels carrying cargo for civilians in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands. They also used those bases to transfer men and material. The SLN experienced severe difficulties in countering the Sea Tiger threat, due to the absence of additional FAC for deployment. Ambassador Karannagoda said that the SLN had wanted to deploy a pair of FAC off each Sea Tiger base to interfere with their operations. But the SLN could deploy only eight FAC, two each off Nayaru, Mullaitivu, Chalai and Nagar Kovil. The FAC assigned for this particular task operated under COMEAST. As the SLN had to maintain a 24-hour surveillance on Sea Tiger bases, it was compelled to assign two dozen craft for that particular mission alone.
Although the SLN had 57 FAC for deployment, only 45 were suited for combat at sea. Those not in top form were deployed for harbour defences at Kankesanthurai, Trincomalee, Colombo and Galle. Having allocated 24 FAC for sustained blockade off Nayaru –Nagar Kovil seas, the SLN had to cover North of Mannar seas operating from Kankesanthurai and South of Mannar operating from Colombo. In addition to the primary tasks, duties such as escorting the Sri Lanka’s largest troop career ‘Jetliner ‘once a week, reinforcement in battle situations (which occurred very often), had to be met with those assigned for the sea blockade.
Ambassador Karannagoda said that as a result of heavy commitments, FAC crews were overworked. Further, the maintenance schedules of these craft, too, were disturbed often. However, the dedicated maintenance crews which included engineering officers and sailors stood up to the challenge worked day and night and kept the craft operational.
Besides, until the South of Trincomalee harbour was cleared, the threat from the Sampur area was matter of grave concern to the craft leaving and entering Trincomalee harbour. The GoSL brought Sampur under its control in the first week of September 2006. The SLA scored its first major success at Sampur at the onset of major offensive combat operations in the Eelam conflict.
The mainstay of the SLN’s fighting capability was nothing but the FAC. The SLN brought its first pair of FAC from Israel in early 1984 and two more pairs in 1986. The SLN inventory gradually increased to 93 FAC, though only 57 were available during the then Vice Admiral Karannagoda’s tenure as the war-time SLN chief. The SLN acquired FAC from the US, South Korea, France as well as Colombo Dockyard, a joint venture between Sri Lanka and Japan. Although the LTTE experienced severe difficulties immediately after the deployment of FAC, the enemy quickly developed new strategies to meet the threat posed by the SLN. The Sea Tigers deployed a large number of attack craft and stealth craft laden with explosives to overwhelm a pair of FAC, compelling the SLN to adopt similar tactics.
The SLN deployed Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) to create an environment conducive for the FAC fleet. The SLN, too, threw a large number of heavily armed small boats manned by SBS and RABS in support of FAC engaged in action, thereby making it extremely difficult for the attackers. Under the then Navy Commander’s instructions, their base at Gemunu, Welisara stepped up production of small boats for deployment in the northern, eastern and north-western seas. During the final phase of naval operations (Jan-May 2009), small boat units carried out operations along with the FAC. The SLN’s small boat operations attracted the attention of many countries, including India. The SBS had the opportunity to train with US personnel over the years, hence the top international recognition. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited the SLN production facility at Welisara on Sept. 11, 2008 to highlight the importance of the concept. The visit coincided with the completion of the construction of the 100th 23 foot ‘arrow’ type boats. Large scale deployment of heavily armed combat craft with better manoeuvrability helped overall SLN strategy. Powered by two 200 horse power outboard motors, the vessel carried a powerful range of weapons, including 23 mm weapons and a 40 mm grenade launcher. Both the Defence Secretary and the then SLN chief emphasised the importance of special operations launched against the LTTE and the Welisara project commenced in the latter part of 2006.
During the 2000-2004 period, the SLN neglected the Welisara boat project primarily due to the misconception that lasting peace could be achieved through talks facilitated by Norway. During this period the SLN produced 12 Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC). Although the in-house boat building project got underway in Feb 2000, it really attracted the attention of powers that be in 2006 (New tactics to revolutionise naval warfare––The Island Sept 12, 2008).
Turning point in the conflict
Since the conclusion of the conflict, various politicians and military leaders have attributed Sri Lanka’s victory to a variety of reasons. A former Commanding Officer of an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) on the condition of anonymity discussed the circumstances, under which the GoSL had neutralised the LTTE threat. The officer, who was privy to the execution of SLN operations on the high seas during 2007 against the LTTE floating ware houses, said the fact that the armed forces top brass and the political leadership believed that the LTTE could be crushed had made a huge difference.
Commenting on the political and military strategy, the official said that almost all previous combined security forces offensives had been hampered by lack of holding strength at crucial moments and shortage of weapons stores due to financial constraints etc. International pressure, too, had been a negative factor, he said, adding that the failure on the part of successive governments to make available required arms, ammunition and equipment, too, had contributed to previous failures.
The enhanced intelligence gathering mechanism which made available ‘real time’ intelligence provided by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Beech Craft gave GoSL forces the upper hand had stood the military in good stead, he said. Operations conducted behind LTTE lines under the auspices of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), as well as raids undertaken by the Special Forces and Commandos had caused chaos among the defenders.
Multi-pronged offensive action on a broad front compelled the LTTE to re-deploy available forces/assets, thereby denying the enemy an opportunity to initiate action on its own. The LTTE was forced to merely respond to GoSL initiatives on the ground.
Perhaps, the most important factor was the role played by tough-talking Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa throughout the campaign. Unlike his predecessors, the Gajaba Regiment veteran acted swiftly and decisively in facilitating the three services to help each other at crucial moments. A case in point was a particular service, seeking the Defence Secretary’s intervention when wanting assistance from a sister service. The Defence Secretary went to the extent of allowing field commanders on the Vanni front to speak with him direct, bypassing normal channels.
But, the war could have dragged on for some time, if the SLN had failed to cut off the LTTE supply line.
A delay on the part of the GoSL to finish off the LTTE would have given an opportunity for the enemy to somehow involve the international community to arrange a truce; the SLA would have found it difficult to advance so swiftly under heavy artillery/mortar fire; losses among ground forces would have very heavy due to concentrated artillery/mortar fire; heavy loss of civilian lives and the political fallout of troop dying in action would have paved the way for the Opposition to undermine the war effort.