The regular Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) was founded in 1910 although a reserve volunteer force had existed since 1881. The CDF came under the command of the British Army. It was mainly British officered and the other ranks were Ceylonese. An exception was the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps, which was made up of Europeans. This rifle corps took part in the South African war of 1899 – 1902, as did the Ceylon Mounted Infantry. During the Great War many Ceylonese of all races volunteered to join the British Army fighting in France. Ceylonese units served in Egypt and in the Gallipoli campaign. During the Second World War the regular units came under the control of Britain’s South East Asia Command, headed by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The island was fortified extensively in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. In April 1942, for example, Japanese bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, mounted a large-scale surprise attack on Colombo and on a nearby Royal Air Force base, knocking out eight Hurricanes. Ceylon’s colonial forces deployed to occasional exotic garrison duties in the Seychelles, and also in the Cocos islands (where it had to put down a small Trotskyite mutiny among its own ranks; three soldiers were court-martialled and hanged, making them the only ‘Commonwealth’ soldiers executed by the British during the war). By 1945 the CDF numbered around 20,000.
After the war the CDF, in one case supported by British Royal Marines, countered left-wing strikes. On independence, technically the colonial force was disbanded but it was reconstituted into a new regular and reserve force structure. The formal foundation of the post-independence army dates from 9 October 1949 (now celebrated annually as army day; the navy and air force celebrate different foundation days). In contrast with the rapid mobilization of 1939 – 45, the CDF was reduced to around half its previous size. A defence agreement of 1947 offered the new colony British protection in the event it was attacked by a foreign state. British military advisers were provided and in effect a British brigadier commanded the fledgling army. Promising young Ceylonese officers were sent to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and more senior officers were trained at the British Staff College at Camberley. Some officers were sent to accompany the British Army of the Rhine for cold weather, and Cold War, experience. The emphasis on foreign military training was to continue as a hallmark of staff-officer education into the twenty-first century, though Britain was to give way to the US, China, India and Pakistan. Likewise, insignia, rank structure and officer ethos were long influenced by the British Army, though the dictates of ethnic war transformed some of the rules and standards taught at Sandhurst and Camberley. Ironically, Sri Lanka much later offered to instruct NATO armies in jungle-warfare skills.
The Ceylonese army, now under an indigenous comma nder, led its first major operation (Operation MONTY) to stop the influx of illegal South Indian immigrants smuggled into the country. The army co-ordinated with what was then the Royal Ceylon Navy. The army was busy in support of the police throughout the 1950s during strikes and domestic riots. Trade union and left-wing parties were active in much commercial disruption, most notably the 1961 Colombo port strike which caused major food shortages. Against this background of left-wing agitation a number of officers planned the 1962 coup. It was squashed just a few hours before it was due to be enacted. Fear of military intervention undermined political confidence in the forces for decades. The immediate result was the reduction of the military. In 1972 the three main services were renamed to reflect the republican status. From 1983 the main focus of the army was COIN against the Tamil insurgencies, although the two JVP Sinhalese insurrections (1971 and the late 1980s) also demanded extensive military operations. Few armies have had to fight a series of civil wars for over three decades. The ruling politicians were forced to learn to love their armed services and pump men and money into them – just to survive.
Like many developing countries Sri Lanka contributed to UN peacekeeping operations, in the early 1960s in the Congo and then, after 2004, a series of missions in Haiti. The average Haitian deployment was around 1,000 personnel. In 2007 over 100 members of the mission, including three officers, were accused of sexual misconduct including child abuse (though the latter related to women under eighteen paid for sex). The UN investigation found all the accused Sri Lankan military personnel guilty of the charges, although in Colombo nationalist politicians talked of an international conspiracy, related to criticisms from NGOs involved in the Tamil insurgency at home. Colombo promised an official inquiry and prompt punishment while replacing the offending regiment with 750 troops from the Gemunu Hewa Regiment. In 2010 – 11, small deployments were also sent to Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Western Sahara, while maintaining its major mission in Haiti. In November 2010 a mechanized infantry company (around 150 troops) was sent to join UN forces in Lebanon.
Structure and size
The army’s organization is based on the British Army model. And, like the Indian army, it has maintained in particular the regimental system inherited at independence. The infantry battalion, the basic unit in field operations, would typically include five companies of four platoons each. Platoons usually had three squads (sections) of ten soldiers each. In 1986 a new commando regiment was formed. Support for the infantry was standard – armoured regiments, field artillery regiments, plus signals and engineering support etc. In addition to commando forces, of interest were the special forces and a rocket artillery regiment.
Official and unofficial Sri Lankan figures and ORBATs (orders of battle) tend to differ from the standard Western data provided, for example, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The IISS put the current strength of the army at 117,000 comprising 78,000 regulars and 39,000 recalled reservists. That is a big army for a small country (with a population of just over 20 million), but not in the context of a long war. The army was certainly much larger, however, during the intense fighting in 2006 – 09. Interviews with a range of officers at or above the rank of brigadier all confirmed that the immediate post-war strength was around 230,000. Many senior officers insisted that the army should not be reduced, despite the potential post-war peace dividend, although they accepted, grudgingly, that natural wastage would reduce their ranks. When the same officers were asked their guesstimate of the size of the British Army, they all opined that it was much larger than theirs. They were stunned to discover that it was just over 100,000 and being reduced to 80,000. They then stopped complaining about possible reductions in the Sri Lankan army. The 1983 strength was roughly 12,000 regulars. Aggressive recruitment followed the outbreak of the Tamil war.
Today’s high figure of about 200,000 includes nearly 3,000 women. In 1979 the Army Women’s Corps was formed as an unarmed, non-combatant support unit. Inspiration and early training came from the British Women’s Royal Army Corps. Women in the British Army – except medical, dental and veterinary officers and chaplains (who belonged to the same corps as the men) and nurses (who were members of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps) – were in the WRAC from 1949 to 1992. Initially the Sri Lankan equivalent was similar to its British parent. Enlistment involved a five-year service commitment, (the same as men) and recruits were not allowed to marry in this period. They did basic training and drill, but not weapons and battle training. Females, however, were paid at the same level as the men, but were generally limited to communications, clerical and nursing duties. The long war prompted the expansion of the Women’s Corps; two women reached the rank of major general. By 2011 the Women’s Corps comprised one regular and four volunteer regiments.
Since Sri Lanka forces were all-volunteer – that is, there had been no conscription – all personnel had volunteered for regular or reserve service. Conscription had been regularly debated and since the 1985 legislation the government has had the legal power to enforce national military service. Economic pressures, patriotism, religious nationalism and local, familial or caste traditions had managed to fill the ranks, however. Recruitment was in theory nationwide, though this did not apply in the northern and eastern provinces during the war (some Tamils, however, joined pro-government militias as well as the regular forces). After the war, plans were announced to form a ‘Tamil regiment’ to promote integration in the army. (Another exception was the Rifle Corps which recruited from a specific area.)
The Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force (SLAVF) was the main volunteer reserve of the army. It was the collective name for the reserve units as well as the National Guard. The SLAVF was made up of part-time officers and soldiers, who were paid the same as the regular forces when on active duty. This was in contrast to the Regular Army Reserve, which comprised people who had a mobilization obligation for a number of years after their former full-time service in the regular army had been completed.
Operational command varied according to the tempo of the COIN war. The Army General Staff had been based at the Army HQ. Troops were deployed to protect the capital – which suffered a series of major terrorist attacks. Troops to defend the capital were based at Panagoda cantonment, the headquarters of a number of regiments, as well as a major arsenal and military hospital. The majority of infantry troops were deployed into the northern and eastern provinces during the war; they were placed under six commands known as Security Forces Headquarters: in Jaffna (SFHQ-J); Wanni (SFHQ-W); East (SFHQ-E), Kilinochchi (SFHQ-KLN); Mullaitivu (SFHQ-MLT) and South (SFHQ-S).
For officer training Sri Lanka largely adopted the British model. The local equivalent of Sandhurst was the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA) based in Diyatalawa, where the young officer cadets trained for ninety weeks, much longer than their UK equivalents. Following the British model (set up in the UK in 1997) middle-ranking officers from all three services were educated at the Defence Services Command and Staff College. Just outside Colombo, the Kotelawala Defence University was established in 1981, as a tri-service college for young cadets (aged eighteen to twenty-two) to pursue a three-year course. Foreign senior-officer training migrated from the UK to more friendly, or generous, allies in Pakistan, China, Malaysia, the US and more recently the Philippines. More covert was the COIN training received from the Israelis, who have had a close intelligence and procurement relationship with Sri Lanka since the mid-1980s. In the early period the Israelis assisted with instruction in FIBUA (Fighting In Built-Up Areas).
The army’s equipment was initially British Second World War surplus, although some post-war armoured fighting vehicles such as the Saladins, Saracens and Ferrets were also added to the inventory. By the 1970s the USSR, Yugoslavia and China had displaced Britain; Chinese support was the most consistent. Modern counter-insurgency demanded modern military hardware, including heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 106mm recoilless rifles and 60mm and 81mm mortars as well as up-to-date sniper rifles and night-vision equipment. Armoured mobility was also needed. The old Saladins and Ferrets and the like were too vulnerable to anti-tank weapons let alone mines. China provided an array of tracked and wheeled armoured personnel carriers (APCs) including the Type 85 amphibious variant. From Moscow came forty-five of the BTR-80 APCs to replace the trusty old BTR-152s. After 1985 South Africa provided Buffels which had proved very effective in apartheid’s bush wars, especially against land mines. Sri Lanka then developed its own variants, the Unibuffel (300 were locally manufactured) and the Unicorn. The Soviet Union provided nearly 300 infantry fighting vehicles (variants of the BMP). The Czechs shipped in around eighty T-55 medium battle tanks, while China matched the supply of tanks (Type 59s). The army also used Chinese Type 63 amphibious tanks. Sri Lanka claimed it had sixty-two MTBs (Main Battle Tanks). Much of the imported kit was obsolete or obsolescent, but it was refitted and often proved useful in combat.
Artillery came largely from China, especially 122mm, 130mm and 152mm howitzers introduced from the mid-1990s. From 2000 the deadly offspring of the ‘Stalin Organs’, 122mm multi-barrel rocket launchers, were deployed. Colombo acquired around thirty RM-71s from Czechoslovakia and a handful of BM-21s from Russia. Rocket artillery may not be very accurate but it can have a devastating effect, physically and morally, at the receiving end. The army was also well equipped with the standard array of mortars, from 60mm light mortars to 120mm towed versions — all courtesy of Beijing. It also used fairly sophisticated radar counter-battery equipment, the US-designed AN/TPQ-36 Firefinder at first. But the American system was old and the Sri Lankans had problems with spare parts. Then the Chinese stepped in with better equipment. When I asked the army commander, Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, what he regarded as his most useful bit of kit, he did not hesitate: ‘Artillery locating radars. We could locate friend and foe. That was the most important. We had five of them [systems]. With interlocking systems, we had total coverage. From 2008, it was in position. ’ Most of the army casualties had been from LTTE mortars and artillery.
A senior artillery expert in the army, Brigadier A. P. C. Napagoda, summarized the 2006 – 09 campaign thus:
From the battle of Marvil Aru to the final battle at the Nandikadal lagoon the artillery brigade employed a sufficient number of light field medium guns, MBRL [multi-barrel rocket launchers] and locative radars … which facilitated the creation of high gun density over any given area.
The Sri Lankans patched together local and imported signals systems. Perhaps the most important was the provision of live feeds from unmanned drones to the army HQ and divisional HQs. The other primary means of communication were radio and CDMA (code division multiple access technology); the latter allowed commanders at all levels secure and interactive full ‘duplex’ communication. VHF and UHF jammers were deployed to disrupt enemy networks. The army also used locally manufactured manpack bomb jammers to nullify LTTE improvised explosive devices.
Sri Lanka acquired a wide range of infantry weapons. The Beretta M9s and Glock 17s were frequently used handguns. The communist-sourced AK-47 assault rifles were very common, and, from the West, Heckler and Koch G3s, FNs and American M16s. Machine guns were varied too: ranging from the classic British Sterling to German MP5s and also Israeli Uzis. The vintage FN MAG gun was a traditional and reliable workhorse. The Chinese versions of the Russian RPD (Type 56 LMG) were also in evidence. Grenade launchers arrived from South Africa and Germany as well as the M-203 from the US. Many of the RPGs (man-portable rocket launchers) came from China and anti-tank missiles were sourced from Pakistan.
On land and sea the government forces fought conventional war unconventionally, sometimes aping and mastering the asymmetric tactics of the insurgents. Above all they used small-group long-range tactics by special forces to destabilize the enemy rear. The Commando regiments were set up in 1980, but the most effective troops were the special forces (SF) set up in 1985.
The special forces comprised around 5,000 troops in five regiments. They trained originally with the Israelis, mainly in urban warfare, but soon the Sri Lankan SF became arguably the best jungle fighters in the world. They fought in eight-man teams, although sometimes two teams of eight would combine, especially in an emergency or for logistical purposes. For example, one surveillance team might overlap with a team establishing a forward-supply cache (usually of ammunition, water and medicine) and then join forces if they met hostile elements. The SF did not use helicopters for insertions, partly because of the jungle terrain and partly because of stealth. They would walk in and often penetrate up to forty to fifty kilometres behind the lines. The air force was used only five times in emergency casevacs, usually by Mi-24 choppers. Nor did the SBS or navy work directly with the army SF. The SF commander told me: ‘We did no landings by sea – ground penetration was safer for us.’ Paradrops were not considered, not least because of the Indian army debacle in Jaffna.
The long-range patrols (LRPs) could last up to a month. They would act as spotters for air and artillery strikes. They would also disrupt LTTE movement not least by targeting their leaders and communications. The SF were also used defensively to plug successful LTTE counter-attacks or to staunch the occasional LTTE spectacular. For example, on 29 September 2008, the LTTE elite Black Tigers hit an air force base in the rear of army operations. Two Tiger aircraft also bombed the base. SF squadrons were rushed in to halt further LTTE exploitation of the surprise attack.
Interestingly, the special forces did not utilize captured insurgents, partly because many Tigers took suicide pills rather than surrender. Even when they were captured, the SF were extremely reluctant to accept any ‘turned’ insurgents. Despite the widespread and effective use of so-called ‘turned terrorists’ in the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, itself based upon British ‘pseudo-gang’ techniques applied in Malaya and Kenya, the Sri Lankan SF deployed only a handful of Tamil-speaking former Tigers and then very reluctantly and very occasionally. According to SF sources, there was only one example of a pseudo using his insurgent knowledge and the Tamil language to enable SF troops to disengage from a position where they were vastly outnumbered.
The army’s massive recruitment drive – attracting 3,000-5,000 men per month in the last two years of the war – allowed for attack and defence in depth. Combined services provided two or three infantry lines to prevent the previous LTTE tactic of outflanking or penetrating the lines, and then attacking from the rear. This would imply an unimaginative linear type of mentality. In fact, the ethos of the SF and commando long-range patrols were applied throughout the infantry in the focus on small-unit initiative. Special Infantry Operations Training (SIOT) – the initial courses were forty-four days – allowed the small units to carry out complex operations in often difficult terrain. The insurgents knew their own territory and so the army sought infantrymen who had been born and bred in the villages and who might also possess the same familiarity with jungles and endurance as the guerrillas they encountered. The small group approach from the SF down to the ordinary infantry created flexibility and often area dominance. Ability, not least from NCOs, was rewarded; promotion of good NCOs to officers was also encouraged. Mission command was to be seen at most levels, certainly best practice in COIN.
A close observer of the war, Dr David Kilcullen, an acknowledged authority on COIN, commented on the final stages:
The Tigers chose to confront the government in a symmetrical way, in terms of open warfare. In response, the Sri Lankan army destroyed them with a combination of conventional and counter-guerrilla tactics that denied the Tigers a comparative advantage while the tempo of operations prevented the Tigers from regrouping.
The basic approach of the LTTE was to combine guerrilla warfare, positional defence and IEDs to slow down and inflict heavy casualties by indirect fire – artillery and mortars. The LTTE erected numerous ditches and bunds which were often heavily, and randomly, mined. Army sappers had to devise all sort of means of dealing with these fortifications, including the use of improvised Bangalore ‘torpedoes’. An independent bridging squadron was also formed as part of the combat engineering effort. On a smaller scale, the infantry used spring-loaded ladders to deal with bunds. Engineers modified tractors to compensate for the lack of roads, especially during heavy monsoons and flooding. Often rations had to be airdropped. The much larger army required a massive logistical back-up.
One engineering challenge was met by installing steel mesh in the Iranamadu and Udayar Kattu reservoirs to protect against underwater Tiger infiltrators. Water was also a challenge for the Army Medical Corps. Near drowning, an unexpected type of casualty, was encountered when the LTTE blasted the bund around the Kalmadukulam Tank (reservoir). Frontline medics had to deal with 60 per cent of casualties from mortar and artillery blasts and 40 per cent from gunshot wounds. They also had to treat tropical diseases, especially Hepatitis A. Post-traumatic stress disorders also took their toll.
In short, tactical flexibility plus the massive numerical superiority (as well as air supremacy) allowed the army to dominate and then overwhelm the Tigers towards the end of the campaign.
As befits an island in the middle of crucial sea lanes, naval defence has always been a major security issue. In 1937 the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force (CNVF) was set up. The Second World War meant a rapid absorption into the Royal Navy. In 1950 a small nucleus of officers and men forged the Royal Ceylon Navy, to change its name, as with the other services, when the country became a republic. Initial naval expansion depended upon purchase of ex-British and Canadian ships. The navy suffered perhaps even more than the army from the fallout from the 1962 coup conspiracy. Ships were sold off and manpower reduced, as was training in the UK. The navy was therefore ill-prepared for the first JVP insurrection and the beginning of the Tamil revolt. The immediate stopgap was the gift of initially one of the more advanced Shershen-class torpedo boats from the USSR and purchase of the unsophisticated Chinese Shanghai-11-class fast gunboats for coastal patrols and port protection. New bases were built primarily to interdict smuggling operations from southern India. The navy also developed a land component for base defence, becoming known later as Naval Patrolmen and capable of offensive operations. The navy also replicated the British SBS – the Special Boat Service. As the LTTE war expanded – and the Tigers relied on extensive overseas procurement – Sri Lanka developed a blue-water strategy capable of sinking large ships, even just outside the territorial waters of Australia.
The naval HQ was based in Colombo; this controlled six naval command areas. After the war some of the coastal defence was transferred to a newly formed Coast Guard.
The 2012 fleet consisted of over fifty combat, support ships and inshore craft, sourced from China, India, Israel and, more recently, from indigenous build.
The IISS put the size of the navy as 9,000 personnel, both active and reserve, but this appeared to be an underestimate. Probably the more accurate figure was 48,000, of whom approximately 15,000 were dedicated to land deployment. Women served in regular and reserve roles. Initially women were limited to the medical branch but the tempo of war led to females serving in all branches. A female doctor reached the rank of commodore in 2007.
The navy’s weapons
The navy boasted about 150 vessels, but the core consisted of around fifty combat and support ships. In addition, the navy rapidly manufactured 200 small inshore patrol craft. The majority of the larger vessels came from China, India and Israel, though the Sri Lankans began building their own bigger ships. The largest warships were five offshore patrol vessels, with the SLNS Jayasagara built in Sri Lanka (and commissioned in 1983). All the blue-water vessels could operate naval helicopters (but insufficient funding and air force opposition prevented any such deployment). The offshore patrol ships played a vital role in interdicting and finally sinking the major Tiger supply and storage ships. In 2001 two Israeli Saar 4-class fast missile boats were procured. Dubbed the Nandimithra class by the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN), they carried Gabriel 11 anti-ship missiles as well as a range of guns which augmented the conventional warfighting capability.
The workhorse of the navy – involved in regular coastal combat – was the fast attack flotilla. It was formed in the early 1980s with Israeli Dvora-class boats to counter LTTE gun-running in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. Two Dvoras were purchased in 1984 and another four in 1986. Around twenty-five metres long, and displacing about forty-seven tons, able to reach 45 knots and bristling with rapid-fire guns, they were able to deter the ‘swarming’ wolf-pack tactics of the Sea Tigers – a major element in asymmetric naval warfare. Small fibreglass Sea Tiger suicide craft would attack naval and civilian convoys. The fast-attack flotilla also patrolled the many creeks and landing points in LTTE territory to disrupt smaller boats securing resupply from the larger blue-water Tiger ships. The flotilla was made up of a variety of fast-attack craft types: four heavier Israeli Super Dvora (Mark 11) were delivered in 1995 – 96. The navy also used the Israeli Shaldag-class design to construct its own Colombo class. Ten other fast-attack craft originated in China.
Compared with their counterparts in other navies, the SLN fast-attack craft were much more heavily armed. They started with two or three machine guns but became more heavily armed to counter the arsenals fitted on Sea Tiger craft. Eventually, the fast attack craft had Typhoon 25 – 30mm stabilized cannon as the main armament. They were connected to day-and-night, all-weather, long-range electro-optic systems. The recent Colombo class was equipped with an Elop MSIS optronic director and the Typhoon GFCS boasted its own weapons control system. They also sported fancy surface search radar systems. In addition they carried weapons such as the Oerlikon 20mm cannon, automatic grenade launchers and PKM general purpose machine guns. This sounds over-armed but heavy firepower was required to protect the crews from suicide Sea Tigers trying to ram them or explode themselves close by. The fast-attack craft typically had eighteen crew members and operated in group patrols, usually, but not always, at night. The Tigers fought very hard and would not retreat; occasionally the flotilla had to withdraw from engagements. A fast-attack captain said, ‘Flak jackets were no good, except for bits of shrapnel; the heavy calibre [Tiger] guns would tear people in half.’
Inshore patrol craft were much smaller (fourteen metres long). They were used for harbour defence and amphibious operations. In addition, the seven-metre-long Arrow class were heavily armed speedboats manufactured in Sri Lanka and used by the SBS and its variant, the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). The SBS, formed in 2005, comprised around 600 men. Those who passed the tough training for the SBS but who were not good enough for the final selection phase could join the RABS, which numbered around 400 men.
To support larger amphibious operations the SLN had a tank landing ship and other utility craft. The Yuhai-class ship could transport two tanks and 250 troops. There were also smaller Chinese-made landing craft. The SLN had several auxiliary vessels for personnel transport and replenishment.
During the war the navy had no dedicated air assets or UAVs. Afterwards, the embryonic fleet air arm based on the offshore patrol ships started experimenting with HAL Chetak (the Indian revamp of the venerable French Alouette III) and HH-65 Dolphin choppers, used extensively by the US Coast Guard in short range air-sea rescue roles.
Most of the naval assets and SBS units were based during the war at Trincomalee, one of the best and most attractive harbours in the world. It was attacked consistently during the war, from and under the sea, and from cadres who had infiltrated the nearby wooded hinterland. Any British visitor to the base would be struck by its colonial heritage: the streets and junctions are named after Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus. Monkeys clamber over verandahs of Seymour Cottage in Drummond Hill Road. It is very orderly, very Royal Navy, including the smart waiters in the mess/wardroom serving up a perfectly chilled gin and tonic in the sticky heat.
It is very rare for an insurgency’s naval forces to reach parity and even on occasions outmatch the conventional COIN power’s force. The naval war was long, active and intense: it involved the biggest tonnage of ships sunk since the Falklands war of 1982. To defend the 679 nautical miles of coastline the navy grew to nearly 50,000 (including 15,000 Naval Patrolmen for land-based security), almost the same size as the Indian navy. But for most of the war the Sea Tigers proved more flexible and destructive especially with their swarming tactics mixing suicide and attack boats. They sank a Dvora fast attack craft in August 1995 and another in March 1996. The Tigers filmed their sea victories for their propaganda outlets. They destroyed a further six of other classes of fast attack craft. After the ceasefire ended in 2005, the Sea Tigers sent out larger and more craft, mixing suicide craft among the wolf pack. The Black Tiger suicide crews and boats were difficult to detect, with their low profiles and 35 – 40 knot speed.
Just as the army developed the small-group concept, the navy advanced its own small boat variant. They tried to ‘out guerrilla’ the guerrillas. The navy copied the Sea Tigers’ asymmetric swarm but on a much larger scale. Hundreds of small inshore patrol craft were built from fibreglass; the smallest was the twenty-three-foot Arrow. Large fourteen-metre and seventeen-metre variants were also built. The larger boats had double-barrelled 23mm guns and a 44mm automatic grenade launcher (the latter acquired from Singapore). The fast-attack craft had more endurance, reach and firepower, but they were unstable in heavy seas and often needed to be augmented by the small boats to defeat swarms. The inshore patrol craft (IPCs) were based in strategically important locations ready for rapid-reaction forays against surprise assaults by the Sea Tigers. Although much of the fighting was at night, the navy had to maintain twenty-four-hour surveillance. Several squadrons could unite to form an anti-swarm of sometimes up to fifty or sixty boats. Echoing infantry tactics on land, they used an arrowhead formation to expand the arc of fire. Or they would attack in three adjacent columns in single file to mask their numbers and increase the element of surprise.
The SBS operated in four- or eight-man teams, deploying in Arrow boats or rubber inflatable boats for covert insertions. The SBS provided vital surveillance but also took part in land-strike missions. SBS basic training was for one year, with the majority dropping out before the end. Their training was said to be augmented by Indian Marine Commandos, as well as US special forces, including SEALs. The RABS manned the large number of anti-swarming boats, a tough and dangerous role.
The navy’s lacklustre performance was much improved after 2006. It contributed immensely to the government’s war effort by coastal interdiction of arms supplies to the Tigers, then it went further by adopting an extended blue-water strategy by sinking eight ‘Pigeon’ ships, the LTTE floating warehouses. Crucially, it also provided the umbilical supply line to the garrison in Jaffna. Towards the end of the war it prevented escape by sea of the surviving Tiger leadership, as well as engaging in humanitarian missions for civilians fleeing the fighting.
The keys to LTTE logistics were the unflagged merchant ships which would loiter 1,600 kilometres from the island, and then advance to 150 or so kilometres off the coast to liaise with LTTE fishing trawlers, escorted by armed Sea Tiger boats. The navy initially attacked the logistic trawler fleet, sinking eleven in the first year of renewed fighting. With the help of Indian and, sometimes, US intelligence, the navy sought out the LTTE Pigeon ships. The navy deployed its most up-to-date offshore patrol vessels, the Sayura (ex-Indian navy, re-commissioned in 2000) and Samudura (formerly the USS Courageous, transferred from the US Coast Guard in 2004); it quickly converted old merchant ships and rust-bucket tankers as replenishment vessels. The long-range fleet sank the first floating warehouse on 17 September 2006, 1,350 nautical miles from Sri Lanka. A further three were sunk in early 2007. Then audaciously the navy extended itself 1,620 nautical miles southeast, close to the Australian territory of the Cocos Islands off the coast of Indonesia, to destroy three ships in September 2007 and a fourth in early October.
Vice Admiral D. W. A. S. Dissanaayake, the naval commander, was sitting in his splendid office in Naval HQ in Colombo, with a fine view of the sea and the lighthouse built by the British. He was a poet and songwriter in his spare time. ‘We are not a big navy – we don’t have frigates. We improvised,’ he said. ‘But we went nearly all the way to Australian waters and sank the last four vessels.’
The Pigeon ships did not possess heavy-calibre weapons but they would open up with machine guns, mortars and RPGs when challenged by the navy. The Vice Admiral explained how – after initial resistance – the LTTE seamen did not offer to surrender. They either swallowed their cyanide tablets or simply drowned. On both sides in the naval war, there were few stories of capture at sea or rescue of survivors. Little or no quarter was given in littoral or deepwater combat. Because the LTTE vessels were rogue ships, naval officers claimed the right to protect themselves when they came under attack from the Pigeons. The loss of their supplies of weapons, ammunition and medicines was a major logistical defeat for the Tigers.
The Vice Admiral was equally voluble about the navy’s logistical achievements, especially the supply to Jaffna. The city was an icon to both sides in the war. The Tigers occupied it in 1986 and the Indian forces managed to briefly and precariously occupy it in 1987; it returned to rebel control from 1989 to 1995. The army regained the city in 1995. Thereafter its long siege was as symbolic to the Colombo government as Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was to the Soviets in the Second World War. It had to be held at all costs.
The navy escorted a converted cruise ship they dubbed the Jetliner to resupply the city. It took five to six hours to pass LTTE controlled coastline on the dangerous journey from Trincomalee up the northeast coast to Jaffna. The western route is not navigable, except by very small boats or hovercraft. The Jetliner, heavily armed itself with machine guns, was typically escorted by over twenty ships and boats, to deter Sea Tiger raids. Beechcraft aircraft and UAVs tracked the convoy. It left early in the morning and, once in Jaffna, had to organize a very quick turnaround, thirty minutes, so as to traverse the LTTE coast before dark on the return journey. Over forty tons of cargo and approximately 3,000 troops were transported once or twice a week. The whole of the navy and indeed most of the top brass in defence HQ would be on alert until the convoy sneaked past the dangers of LTTE artillery and sea attack. Jaffna was also supplied by air but only the navy could provide the heavy lift of sufficient men and equipment to keep the city in government hands.
‘If the ship had gone down, we would have lost the war,’ the navy commander admitted.
The navy was also proud of its actions during the final phases of the war. The Vice Admiral insisted the navy did not use any naval gunnery to attack the LTTE remnants in the Cage, but it did take extensive risks from last-ditch suicide boats to rescue thousands of civilians from the beaches as they tried to flee Tiger punishment squads and the Sri Lankan army envelopment.
The navy endured heavy fighting — some sea battles lasted fourteen hours — and many early reverses in ships sunk. The navy leadership was also targeted by Black Tiger squads. On 16 November 1992 the head of the navy, Vice Admiral W. W. E. C. Fernando, was killed in Colombo by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle who drove into the Admiral’s staff car. In October 2007 a truck bomber killed an assembly of 107 off-duty sailors, one of the most deadly suicide attacks of the war. In all, the navy lost over a thousand of its personnel in the conflict. Nevertheless, it finally achieved sea dominance because of its small-boat concept in defeating the Sea Tiger swarms, and the major interdiction of LTTE supplies. It was a four-dimensional war – a land, air and sea and underwater fight. The navy did not develop a sophisticated anti-mine warfare capability, however. The Tigers used frogmen with mines and semi-submersibles to destroy navy ships. The Tigers were trying to develop submarine warfare; various crude prototypes were captured by the army in the last stages of the war.