Posted on March 30th, 2020


Examination of war history should focus on the transformation of the Navy and the Air Force with the former achieving 100 percent success by destroying LTTE’s floating arsenals in international waters while the Air Force achieved strategic bombing that caused massive losses on the enemy, including prized Tigers killed in their hidden lairs, said Shamindra Ferdinando. The Army and the Navy are yet to release their own versions of their work, he observed.

The navy was in an unfortunate position during Eelam wars II and III     said, analysts.  Jayanath Colombage has this to say.”I believe that there was a clear lack of policy coming from successive governments towards the Navy that made it difficult to develop, empower, and enhance the Navy. Being an island nation, we should have given priority to the Navy.

Throughout the war, there were many governments and many naval commanders. Promotions and appointments in the Sri Lanka Navy were given on seniority alone. Once you acquire particular seniority at the early stages of your career, you carry it forward. There’s no threat from anyone else. Seniority was based on academic work but not on performance in battle.

There was no grand plan incorporating maritime strategy in a substantial manner. We had mostly ad hoc strategies. These strategies were shortsighted. That is not the best way to go about winning a sustained fight,  said Colombage

Because there was no strategy, nobody had the courage to develop the Sri Lanka Navy in a substantial manner. Mostly, the development of the Sri Lanka navy was reactive. When the Sea Tigers would do something or improve their capacity, we would try to come up with a solution. When they increased their speed, we increased our speed. When they acquired more guns, we did the same. The initiative was with the LTTE. They were calling the shots, continued Colombage

We also did not use highly advanced technology and equipment, like sensors and automatic fire control systems. We were quite happy with what we had, and we never thought of making a quantum leap to acquire better technology. This hampered our early efforts.

Another drawback was our lack of proper intelligence. We were dependent on other sources for intelligence. The police, army, and air force all had their own intelligence apparatuses, but maritime intelligence is different. Not everybody can understand the ocean. In the maritime intelligence domain, we were quite low. We really did not know what was happening around our coast until the LTTE came and hit us, continued Colombage

The Sri Lanka Navy was raised, trained, and developed as a conventional navy. You are trained to fight another conventional navy that has ships and guns. Now here we had a totally different enemy. LTTE was an unconventional enemy using asymmetric tactics which we did not understand, explained Colombage.

We underestimated the enemy quite a bit. We thought the Sea Tigers were a small organization that could not become a threat to the country. We thought they would not be able to succeed in their overall mission. This goes along with, not understanding the potential of the asymmetric maritime threats, he said.

 Then with the change of government in 2005, there came a change of attitude in the Navy. We decided that we had to start considering merit, performance, and not only seniority when promoting officers and giving appointments and then rewarding them. That gave an opportunity for the real battle leadership to emerge, said Colombage.

We had, up until 2005, depended a lot on foreign suppliers to give us ships, weapons, systems, everything. We did not do much research and development work. We now remedied this and experimented with electronics, with communication, with gun mounts, with guns, with fire control systems. These were serious innovations.

LTTE underwater saboteurs were targeting the ships in the harbour. We developed a system called throwing scare charges into the sea. Sound travels in the water much faster than light or electromagnetic waves, so when you create an explosion underwater sound travels much faster. If a diver hears the explosion, his eardrums would burst, and he would get disoriented.

The main tactic used by the LTTE at sea was the ‘swarm attack’ of 20-25 boats with 5-6 suicide craft and sophisticated equipment. Each boat had about 15 persons, with each combatant donned in the helmet, body amour and carrying a personal weapon. Swarms were used to attack isolated naval craft, to escort LTTE craft coming from deep-sea carrying ammunitions, and terrorists moving along the coastline.

To counter this, the Navy decided to create its own ‘swarm’. Three types of small boats including arrow’, and ‘wave rider’ .were built at Welisara where there were facilities for boat building. We manufactured these boats through day and night because we needed them quickly .150 boats were manufactured in three years.   

There were over one hundred ‘arrow’ type, 23 feet long, fiberglass  boats, powered by  Japanese 200 horsepower outboard motors, and equipped with weapons, including cannon and automatic grenade launchers. The naval technicians were able to build and equip one boat including installing weapons in eight days.  Road engines were also used. The boats could operate in varying sea conditions. ‘Arrow’   was very effective in shallow water where Dvora could not go. They were manned by sailors from elite units, such as the Special Boat Squadron.

In 2007 the navy was able to launch a flotilla of arrow boats that outnumbered the LTTE boats. When LTTE launched 20 boats, the navy launched 40. It was ‘swarm against swarm’. Earlier there were long drawn out naval battles, some as long as 12 hours. But with the arrival of these small boats, the encounter became shorter.  In 2008 there were only three such encounters. The Sea Tiger capabilities declined dramatically with this they were not allowed to close in on valuable targets. Sri Lanka’s ‘small boats’ were given an unprecedented 6 page write up in the prestigious ‘Jane’s Navy International”.

We also monitored the fishing, who goes out, who comes in, how many are outboard motors, whether they are carrying anything illegal. The Navy was successful in curbing the Gulf of Mannar supply route by increasing patrols in the region. The LTTE’s efforts to move supplies, with the help of the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to the Vidathalthivu-Pooneryn area on the west coast, were thwarted by stepped up naval operations.

But perhaps, the most difficult and dangerous operation sustained by the Navy was moving the converted passenger vessel Jetliner between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai during Eelam War IV.

The Jetliner passenger vessel played a pivotal role in ferrying thousands of security forces personnel, civilians and goods between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai ports during the war, since the land routes were closed.

The army acquired passenger craft “Jetliner” from an Indonesian company in 2006 and used it as a transport ship, ferrying thousands of security forces personnel, civilians and goods between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai ports. Jetliner holds the record for carrying more than three thousand security forces personnel at once.

This costly naval operation to move supplies, security forces and civilians to the Jaffna peninsula involved about ten cargo and passenger ships. The Jetliner left Trincomalee harbour with troops by first light (before 5 am) and returned to Trincomalee by 6 pm. The preparations started 12 hours before the departure of “Jetliner” by deploying over 16 FACs, 4 FGBs and 2 OPVs the previous evening to sweep the path to ensure that there are no floating mines, suicide boats disguised as fishing boats waiting in ambush, etc.

After they give the all-clear signal   Jetliner left the harbour escorted with 8 to 10 FACS. The craft/ships that left the harbour, the previous evening, maintained their positions along the route until the “Jetliner” returned to the Trincomalee harbour in the evening.

The entire Navy got involved in this operation. All the Area Commanders, including the Southern Commander, were present in the operations room from 3 am until the task was over. Katunayake-based jet squadrons were on alert on the days Jetliner carrying 3,000 officers and men moved between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai.

Defeating the LTTE would never have been possible without the unprecedented success achieved by Karannagoda’s navy, said Shamindra. Under Karannagoda, the navy discarded its obsolete weapons and replaced them with the latest high technology product. Navy lost its defeatist mentality and by 2007 they were very active.

No other Navy Commander in any part of the world has encountered the experiences and challenges Admiral Karannagoda had faced as he fought the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world, which used explosives, IEDs and suicide bombers to destroy their targets and achieve their goals, said Nimal Lewke.

Nimal Lewke also praised Wasantha Karannagoda’s role in destroying the LTTE weapons ships. His planning was methodical, precise. He was able to obtain assistance from USA.This was the turning point. The excellent rapport he had with the US Embassy and Ambassador Robert Blake and winning their confidence to assist the Navy is a huge achievement of Admiral Karannagoda, Lewke said.

His planning to get to the targets, selecting the correct personnel to handle difficult and important tasks, monitoring, supervising the plan and making alterations at required junctures, were ample examples of his real, committed and positive leadership. Why I highlight this operation regarding eliminating LTTE floating armories in the blue waters is because it was one of the major turning points in the victory of the war against terrorism, said Lewke.

Nimal Lewke said, ‘when I was the Senior DIG in-charge of the Northern Province during the last stages of the war, I was involved in interrogating many hardcore LTTE members who were arrested or surrendered to the forces.

During this time, I questioned Daya Master the LTTE spokesman. I said your leader Prabhakaran was a fool to get all the people into a limited area. His reply was: Sir, we did not have sufficient arms and ammunition to defend large areas and Prabhakaran was compelled to pull back as all our arms supplies were destroyed by the Navy.” I immediately conveyed to Admiral Karannagoda and congratulated him.

Kamal Gunaratne had attended the Tokyo defense forum in Japan after the Eelam War ended and senior officers of the UN Marines had praised the brilliant operation and the capabilities of the Sri Lanka Navy.

Admiral Karannagoda, on his own succeeded in securing vital US intelligence which enabled the Navy to destroy LTTE weapons stores on the high sea, said Shamindra. Karannagoda re-deployed available assets to hunt down floating LTTE arsenals on the high seas. Acting on information received from the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), the US, as well as its own, the Navy, within a matter of months, crippled the once-powerful LTTE sea supply route.

The destruction of eight LTTE ships, categorized by the Sri Lanka Navy as floating arsenals, in four separate forays on the high seas, delivered the enemy a knockout blow. According to the Sri Lanka navy, the ships, which were between 45 to 75 meters in length, had the capacity to carry 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of cargo each. The seven ships sunk in 2007 and the vessel destroyed on September 17, 2006, off Kalmunai, had been loaded with several thousand tonnes of military cargo.

A vessel, without a name, was destroyed 120 nautical miles off Kalmunai on Sept 17, 2006. The SLAF carried out an attack in support of the Navy.MV Kiyoi was destroyed 365 nautical miles south of Dondra on Feb 28, 2007. MV Seiyoo and another unidentified vessel were destroyed 825 nautical miles southeast of Arugambay on March 18, 2007. MV Manyoshi and MV Seishin were destroyed 2200 km southeast of Dondra on Sept 10, 2007MV Koshia was destroyed southeast of Dondra on Sept 11, 2007. MV Matsushima was destroyed 2600 southeast of Dondra on Oct 7, 2007.

An unknown vessel northeast of Mullaitivu was destroyed on Dec 20, 2008. By late Dec 2008, the LTTE lost its wherewithal to sustain sea supply routes to Chalai-Mullaitivu, as well as between north of Mannar and Tamil Nadu.

The LTTE used to stockpile their ships in Indonesia and other parts of the ASEAN region.  ships would come about 200 nautical miles from the coast of Sri Lanka, and then they would use small boats to transfer the weapons to the country. Until about 2005, we were trying to prevent these small boats from landing the weapons. When we apprehended one small boat, another ten would get through, said Colombage.

So we realized that this strategy was not going to work. We wanted to attack the logistic network at sea, and that meant going after the warehouse ships. This was a major strategic development. And then, when we started attacking their logistic network within the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka, the LTTE moved further from the coast. The navy focused on following them further away. That was a major game-changer. In September and October of 2007, the Sri Lanka navy went all the way to the edge of Australian territory, and we destroyed all four of the LTTE ships, concluded Colombage.

The army was looking for Prabhakaran while busy fighting the LTTE at Vellamullivaikal in May 2009, In the meantime, Navy mounted massive operation involving over 100 vessels and smaller craft to thwart LTTE leader Prabhakaran fleeing the country. The SLAF stationed a pair of jets at the China Bay airbase, Trincomalee to engage foreign vessels in case the LTTE mounted an operation to evacuate Prabhakaran.

The navy showed considerable dedication to this matter.  During this final blockade, Navy staff did not want to go on leave till they had finished off the LTTE.  The sailors had to stay in great discomfort on the seas, in small boats filled with equipment, with hardly any room to move. They had to swim to get there and stay in their wet clothes all night. They endured all this discomfort willingly, to ensure that Prabhakaran did not escape by sea.  

The navy blockade was, in my view primarily a deterrent but the army did not think so.   The army did not like the fact that the navy had done a cordon to prevent Prabha from fleeing. They wanted the credit of taking Prabha themselves. He must die at the hands of the army, said Kamal Gunaratne.

 The Army commander had seen the battle images captured by UAV and had noticed a large group of naval vessels gathered off the coast of Pudumathalan. He wanted to know from Kamal Gunaratne, what was going on. His tirade was not fit to be repeated, said Kamal. Sarath Fonseka ordered the army to forget about advancing and close up all escape routes.  The army completely blocked the east coast. Navy’s chance of capturing Prabha also disappeared. 

Eelam war IV succeeded because, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, worked in tandem. Gotabaya was also able to secure the cooperation of the service commanders, Lt. Gen Fonseka, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke.   These three gave unparalleled leadership to the forces under their command. And the three forces, too,   gave unstinted support to the war cause.

But there was one flaw. The Army commander, Sarath Fonseka, and the naval Commander, Wasantha Karannagoda did not like each other. Both openly displayed their dislike and the rivalry was public knowledge.

This affected coordination in the war.  It almost led to a hostile battle between the army and the navy at Kytes. Army said enters Kytes and the navy said nothing doing. There was a standoff that was settled by the intervention of senior officers and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But the army and navy did not let this matter affect the outcome of the war.  The armed forces were very careful on this matter. Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa mediated when necessary and the war was won.

Of the two, Sarath Fonseka seems to have come in for the most criticism. Kamal Gunaratne said in his book that he received incessant phone calls from Fonseka. This interrupted his work and also disturbed everyone else.  Calls turned into lengthy discussions. During the Muhamalai war Army commander was phoning regularly and this was a nuisance at times.

 Army commander Sarath Fonseka was in China from 16-19 May 2009. Before he left for China, he visited Vanni and advised us to go slow in our attacks advance just 100 meters a day. Earlier he had wanted us to advance at terrific speed, so this was a surprise, said Kamal Gunaratne. I felt that he wanted us to slow down as he did not want the war to end while he was in China. Troops wanted to finish it off.

Fonseka was not   there when they killed Prabha. That was done by Kamal Gunaratne’s team and Kamal was hoping to keep Prabha’s dog tag. But Fonseka asked for the dog tag as a souvenir and Kamal had to give it to him.

The air force has had a book written about itself. ‘The Aerial Tribute: The Role of Air Power in Defeating Terrorism in Sri Lanka’, authored in Feb 2014 by Nirosha Mendis.  The book extensively dealt with the air campaign during Eelam War IV and the extremely difficult circumstances under which the Sri Lanka Air Force conducted the campaign. I have not seen this book.

 In Eelam War IV, the air force has been very supportive. Young fighter pilots waited impatiently till we gave them their targets, if we did not they called and begged for targets. They were unafraid, said Kamal Gunaratne.

That was at the very end of the war. Before that, the Air Force had found it very difficult. Air Force declared that it had been stretched to the limit and that what it had achieved with available resources was tremendous. The Indian Air Chief had admired the way they had used its limited resources.   

Pilots performed under trying conditions. They carried out 1000 missions in the Vanni, amidst civilians. They had to airlift 500 army personnel using helicopters meant for 30 persons. They underwent much hardship. When they were short of pilots, available pilots went up 3 and 4 times a day. ‘This is very tiring for a pilot.’ Surveillance pilots risked safety to obtain real-time imagery. They burnt the midnight oil peering into the screen to catch enemy moves on the grounds.  They were on surveillance for 6-7 hours at a stretch. Pilots bravely went as low as 7000 feet to attack targets. Around 38 pilots and 430 other officers and rankers died, around 350 were wounded.

The engineers and technicians also responded magnificently. They forgot about 24 hours notice. In an emergency, the time available for the technician was counted in seconds.  Aircraft were returned to the flight lines in record time. If a plane was to fly at 6 am the technicians started loading bombs around midnight. For each jet, they had to load eight bombs each weighing 500kg.

Technicians worked round the clock to patch up damaged aircraft.  They sometimes worked continuously for 3-4 days. They innovated when spare parts were delayed. Battle damage and unserviceability did not deter them. They once took a badly damaged helicopter which was going to be destroyed and repaired within a few hours. They coaxed tired engines back into fighting mode. They took a life expired engine, stripped it, and put it together again. The electronics specialists kept the electronic systems going despite logistical and maintenance problems.  (Continued)

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