Monday, March 9, 2009

Special Forces and Navy Turning the Tide

By Sanjeewa Karunaratne

If you want to defeat a terrorist organization, talk in a language they understand as done by the Sri Lankan government. In civility, it is difficult and seems “war time excess” or even as a violation of “human rights,” of course, scores of innocents daily killed by suicide attacks may not come within the purview of “human rights,” according to some experts. But desperate times call for desperate measures. It is ludicrous for countries harnessing terrorist’s supports to advocate peaceful settlements with single-minded terrorists, who would neither settle nor compromise. SL Government with over twenty five years of experience in warfare understood this simple fact and met eye-to-eye with the LTTE. This is a story about two innovative military tactics that changed the course of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

The deployment of special forces (SF) units by the SL Army to attack the enemy within its territory created chaos in the insurgency. Confronted by an enemy adept at using terrain to mask movement thereby leaving conventional forces blind to their intentions, it was only natural that the military should create a capability to monitor and disrupt deep within the enemy-held territory. From saturation patrols along the de-facto LTTE-held border to near-suicide missions and compromised positions in the always dangerous LTTE heartland, these units unflinchingly “walk the razor’s edge” every day and has became one of the most respected and most feared illusive battalion in the history of the of the separatist war.

Infamously called the Deep Penetration Unit (DPU)—later reformed as the Mahasohon brigade, following a politically motivated exposure—mirrored terrorist’s strategies. When, in the other parts of the country, LTTE was freely eliminating Tamil and Sinhalese leadership, these small, highly-trained, heavily-armed squads took the war to terrorist’s backyard. LTTE leaders such as Charles (head of military intelligence), Amaran (deputy head of sea tigers), Shaker (head of air tigers), Nizaam (head of the LTTE’s Batticaloa-Amparai political wing) and Mano (eastern zone communications chief) were killed, while Balraj (deputy military commander of the LTTE who later died of a heart attack), S.P. Thamilchelvan (political wing chief who was later killed by a precision air strike) and Susai (head of sea tigers) escaped miraculously.

Success of the special forces was the single most reason LTTE resumed peace talks in 2002.

Change is taking place in the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) as well. Two new units were created: the SBS (Special Boats Squadron) and the RABS (Rapid Action Boat Squadron). Theses are SLN’s elite forces, possessing high levels of physical fitness and advanced training in both land and sea warfare tactics.

New and improved SLN was no match for the LTTE’s sea tigers. In 2006, the SLN had 21 encounters with the Sea Tigers, with up to 30 craft on each side engaged in battles lasting up to 14 hours. A year later, number of encounters had fallen to 11; in 2008 just four encounters with the Sea Tigers were registered by the SLN.

The Small Boats Concept effectively copied the Sea Tigers’ asymmetric tactics (swarm tactics of overwhelming Dvoras by a fleet of smaller suicide boats), but on a much larger scale. The SLN started to use large numbers of small high-speed, heavily-armed inshore patrol craft (IPC) to outnumber the LTTE suicide boats and overwhelm them during battle. Hundreds of indigenously produced armed fiberglass IPCs have been built by the SLN within months to apply this strategy.

Although the Small Boats Concept proved essential in beating the Sea Tiger battle units along the coast of Sri Lanka, a significant quantity of military hardware was supplied to the LTTE by its floating warehouses—ships which had no name, national flag or port of registry. These ships loiter about 1,500–2,000 km from Sri Lanka and then advance to within 300–400 km of the coast to transfer armaments to LTTE-operated fishing trawlers, which were escorted by the Sea Tiger fighting cadres and suicide boats.

Using human and tactical intelligence, the SLN uncovered the locations of eight warehouse ships and engaged them using OPVs (Offshore Patrol Vessels) with improvised weapons. SLN destroyed the first warehouse ship on 17 September 2006, 120 nautical miles east of Sri Lanka. A further three warehouse ships were sunk in early 2007. Operations against the warehouse fleet culminated in a mission that saw an SLN force steam 1,620 nautical miles southeast, close to the Cocos Islands off the coasts of Australia and Indonesia, to destroy three ships on 10–11 September 2007 and a fourth ship, which had escaped the initial action, three weeks later on 7 October. SLN finally got rid of eight floating warehouses and eleven logistic trawler fleet maintained by the LTTE.

With the Small Boats Concept finding success in sea battles against the Sea Tigers, use of Dvora FAC (Fast Attack Crafts) squadrons to gain sea control and deployment of OPVs to attack warehouse ships, the SLN successfully outperformed the LTTE. Says Vice-Adm Karannagoda, “It was one of the major turning points of the war that has been going on for the last 30 years.”

We, as a nation, are grateful to the valiant soldiers of the Army Commando Regiments, Army Special Forces Regiments, the Navy Special Squadrons, the Air Force Special Force and the Police Special Task Force, who went on near-suicide missions to bring peace to the country. All of these are small organizations, full of carefully selected strong, well-trained and resilient men (and a few women) that delivered a serious blow to the LTTE.

Source: Jane’s Navy International

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