Exactly the Same and Completely Different 1: The Sri Lankan Way of War and Lessons for Nigeria

In June 2014 the Nigerian Defence Staff held talks with Sri Lankan Defence Staff looking to learn lessons from their successful completion of the Sri Lankan Civil War (or Eelam War)

This commentator was of the opinion that there was very little we could learn from the Sri Lankans in resolving the Boko Haram insurgency on the basis that they are very different conflicts. Upon a review of the facts can conclude that I am absolutely correct but I am also completely wrong.

We will thus examine the Sri Lankan Conflict as briefly as possible, from the strategic, operational and tactical point of view, compare it to Nigeria’s ongoing insurgency and draw conclusions and if possible recommendations.

1. The Sri Lankan Civil War:

The Sri Lankan Civil War was fought between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Cause of the conflict: Sri Lanka is an island off the Asian subcontinent divided between the majority Sinhalese (72%) and the minority Tamil (11%). Tamils are an even more significant minority in India, with 60m in the State of Tamil Nadu.

The underlying political issues that led to the conflict link back to 400BC but the recent iteration came after independence from Britain. The educated minority Hindu Tamils were marginalised by Buddhist Sinhalese, with several actions such as the 1956 Sinhala Only Act (making Sinhala the official language) effectively marginalising the Tamils (mainly Tamil and English speaking) this was exacerbated by excesses and pogroms against the Tamils such as the burning of the Jaffna Library (containing ancient historical manuscripts) and the Black July massacres in the capital Colombo. These acts and others, such as positive discrimination to allow the educationally backward Sinhala catch up with the better educated Tamils who formed the bureaucratic class during the colonial administration and the middle class after independence led to Tamil nationalism and calls for Tamil Eelam (a Tamil homeland).

It also led to mass migration particularly of the educated elite as well as forced deportation of poor ‘Indian’ Tamils. As a result of this crisis several Tamil nationalist groups sprung up, advocating either federalism, independence or autonomy each advocating different methods, some non violent, some violent. One of these was the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) was formed by Villupallai Prabhakaran in May 1976 with the aim of establishing Tamil Eelam.

2. The War:

The Sri Lankan Civil War is broken down into 4 phases

a. Eelam War 1- 1983-1987: the LTTE spent the period from 1976-1983 absorbing or eliminating rivals by attacking other Tamil (whether pro or anti government) leaders and groups and raising money through crime. Open warfare ensued after an LTTE ambush at an Army checkpoint in July 1983 killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers which led to the Black July massacres of up to 3,000 innocent Tamils by Sinhalese soldiers and civilians in and around the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. A Sri Lankan Army offensive successfully pushed the LTTE into the Jaffna Peninsula trapping the LTTE leadership and pushing cadres into the jungle.

Sri Lankan forces then hesitated due to overextended lines and fear of urban warfare, own  casualties and collateral damage. The Indian Intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) then intervened  and began training the LTTE and 55 other groups in Tamil Nadu, India as a way of maintaining influence in the Indian Ocean.

As defeat loomed the LTTE launched their first suicide attack (suicide bombers were known as Black Tigers) and India undertook unilateral airdrops of food and medicine to the LTTE, keeping them from total defeat. Despite this violation of their sovereignty the Sri Lankan Government-who were also dealing with insurgency and lawlessness in the south by the JVP, Sinhalese nationalists -agreed to a ceasefire guaranteed by an Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF).

The Indo- Sri Lankan Peace Accord signed with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 allowed the IPKF to police the north. However the IPKF rapidly found themselves in conflict with their former client the LTTE after a disagreement about political positions led the LTTE to attack an Indian rations truck and murder 5 Indian servicemen. The IPKF tried to forcibly disarm them and in 32 months lost 1,200 soldiers. In a fairly strange twist the Sri Lankan government supplied rifles, ammunition, mortars, RPGs, communication equipment and money to the LTTE to fight the IPKF in order to humiliate the Indians. The IPKF having grown from 80,000 men to 160,000 withdrew in March 1990.

b. Eelam War 2- 1990- 1995: In 1990 both sides were brimming with confidence as the Sri Lankan government had suppressed the JVP uprising and the LTTE had destroyed most of its rivals and chased out the IPKF. The war started again when a Muslim LTTE man was arrested, lading the LTTE to rapidly surround police stations and army camps overrun them and massacre surrendering prisoners,(killing 600 policemen in one day in June).

In 3 months they had virtually defeated the Sri Lankan Army driving the police and Army out of the North and besieging the 2 most important bases in Jaffna and Elephant Pass. The fort at Jaffna had to be resupplied by air and was eventually relived by an amphibious operation led by Col. Sarath Fonseka and Col. Gotabaya Rajapaksa at huge cost to the attackers and defenders. The Elephant Pass Camp was overrun with the survivors withdrawing 30km south on foot.

In May 1991 a Black Tiger suicide bombers murdered the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi (completing the LTTEs alienation of their former patrons) and 3 of the most senior Sri Lankan military officers were killed in a landmine attack in 1993. The LTTE also killed the entire political leadership of the UNP party at a political rally and the Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993.

The LTTE defeated government troops, overran bases, police station, towns and districts and committed wholesale massacres against Sinhalese and Muslim villages, including attacks on schools and children resulting in over 72,000 IDPs.

The Sea Tigers who up to this point were focused on smuggling supplies from India and beyond, began to actually seek out and fight the Navy sinking 5 boats and killing 105 sailors in Jaffna Lagoon.

A ceasefire was agreed in January 1995 ending this phase with the LTTE in the ascendancy.

c. Eelam War 3 -1995 -2002: The LTTE reinitiated hostilities by blowing up and sinking 2 Sri Lankan Navy ships in April 1995.

The new government’s policy of ‘War for Peace’ led them to attack the LTTE in Jaffna cutting the peninsula off from the island and finally secure Jaffna after 7 weeks fighting for the first time in 10 years.

The LTTE counter offensive Operation Unceasing Waves in July 1996 resulted in numerous government defeats. Suicide bomb attacks were launched against the Central Bank in Colombo and the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The Army captured the LTTE capital Kilinochchi in August 1996.

The second LTTE counter offensive Operation Unceasing Waves 2 recaptured Kilinochchi, Operation Unceasing Waves 3, retook most of Vanni Region. In December 1999 the Sri Lankan President was injured in an LTTE assassination attempt losing an eye. In 2000 the LTTE captured the Elephant Pass military complex but the Army managed to hold onto Jaffna using massive artillery barrages and resupplying the beleaguered garrison by sea.

Peace negotiations by many actors began around this period as IDPs and casualties mounted, in 2001 the LTTE attacked the International Airport in Colombo destroying military and civilian aircraft, damaging not just the war effort but the Sri Lankan economy. A Norwegian sponsored ceasefire in March 2002 led to a Peace Process guaranteed by Norway and other Nordic states.

d. Eelam War 4- 2006- 2009: between 2002 and 2006, the peace process continued with transport links to LTTE areas reopening, and several key concessions being agreed to and prisoners exchanged. However the LTTE continued stockpiling weapons, recruiting soldiers (including children) and eliminating other Tamil groups and politicians and setting up new bases.

i) Prelims: Prior to the resumption of hostilities there were 4 key preliminary events.

  • In 2004 Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharaan aka Colonel Karuna, an LTTE commander based in the East surrendered to government forces with 5,000 fighters, after falling out with Prabhakaran and fearing he would be killed as was the fate of others in a similar situation.
  • The Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004 killed over 35,000 in Sri Lanka, destroying several Tamil Tiger bases
  • An LTTE sniper murdered the well respected Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (who was Tamil) in August 2005, causing a huge loss of international support for the LTTE particularly in the Nordic States
  • The LTTE called on Tamils to boycott the General Election, causing Prime Minister Rajapaksa (who advocated a harder line with the LTTE) to win a narrow victory in the Presidential election over his more dovish opponent in November 2005.

ii) Casus Belli: In 2005, fighting increased with landmine, claymore and Sea Tiger attacks and killings of civilians and pro and anti LTTE personalities. A failed assassination of the Army Commandeer caused the final breakdown in international sympathy for the LTTE with the EU declaring it a terrorist organisation in May 2006.

In July 2006 the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru reservoir in the Eastern Province depriving over 15,000 villagers in government controlled areas of water and giving the Sri Lankan government a reason to reopen hostilities.

iii) Eastern Offensive: A ground-air offensive, Operation Watershed secured the reservoir in August. The LTTE responded by attacking the eastern naval base at Muthur with artillery and then briefly occupying part of the town until pushed out by Sri Lankan forces.

Sri Lankan forces launched another offensive in the East on 28th August to clear LTTE positions in Sampur, Kaddaiparichchan and Thoppur areas that threatened the major naval base at Trincomalee, capturing Sampur a week later.

The LTTE counter attacked causing heavy casualties to Sri Lankan forces at Muhamalai, with a suicide attack against a naval convoy killed 100 sailors. A swarm of 5 Sea Tiger suicide boats attacking Dakshina Naval Base near Galle in the south were destroyed at the cost of one sailor.

On 8th December 2006, the Sri Lankan Army and Police Special Task Force launched an offensive to clear the LTTE from Eastern Province aiming to capture Vakarai, however this offensive stalled due to the large number of civilians in the area and the monsoon. The offensive resumed in January with Varakai falling in mid January cutting the LTTE in the East off from the LTTE in the North. A new offensive in February to clear the remaining LTTE took the key base of Kokkadicholai and the A5 Highway in March, pushing the LTTE into a pocket of jungle in Thoppigala. Thoppigala Peak was captured 11 July 2007, clearing the Eastern Province of the LTTE.

iv) Northern Offensive: in August the LTTE in the North attacked Army positions in Jaffna with a combined land and amphibious assault supported by artillery, this was repulsed with heavy casualties to the LTTE.

Sporadic fighting and artillery battles in the North increased after September 2007 leading the Army to overrun the LTTEs forward defence line.

The SLA advanced in May on 3 axis; west through Mannar and the open ‘Rice Bowl’ paddy fields, centre up Highway A9 and east through the jungles to Vanni, capturing Adampan and completing the capture of Mannar District by August 2008. The LTTE counter attacked Vavuniya Air Base in an inconclusive battle.

The SLA entered Kilinochchi District in July, which by September was the final area under LTTE control. In October the SLA cut the A32 Highway surrounding the remaining Sea Tiger base at Nachchikuda. Army Task Force 1 advanced steadily capturing a string of towns and strongholds securing Pooneryn in November 2008, Army Task Force 3 attacked towards Mankulam. The attack on Kilinochchi (the LTTE de facto capital) was launched on 3 sides in November 2008, the Tigers fell back from the Jaffna Peninsula making a last stand in Mullaitiyu, the last Sea Tiger base in Chalai was captured in early February effectively isolating the LTTE.

At this point the LTTE was militarily defeated but their leadership held out in the hope that international pressure from India, the Nordic Countries or Western powers would force a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. As they withdrew LTTE forced hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilian to remain with them as human shields and to use as propaganda but also for use as forced labour to build field works. The LTTE maintained urban terror attacks throughout and in February 2 LTTE aircraft launched a suicide attack against Colombo but were both shot down fairly quickly.

v) The Cage: by the end of March 2009, 50,000 men in 5 SLA Divisions and 3 Task Forces had the LTTE pinned in Aanandapuram a small slip of land bounded by the Indian Ocean and 2 lagoons. On 30 March the LTTE attacked out, but were counterattacked by elements of the 58 Div, 53 Div and Task Force 8 who encircled them in a pincer movement with special forces infiltrating the flanks and rear destroying LTTE reinforcements. In this final set piece battle they defeated the LTTE in 6 days killing over 625 fighters including senior LTTE commanders like Land Commander Theepan.

Pressure from India led the Sri Lankan government to declare certain areas No Fire Zones in which civilians were to congregate for safety and where air and artillery fire could no longer be used except in self defence. The LTTE used the captive civilians to build a 3km long bund in the no fire zone leading 2 senior LTTE commanders to surrender in disgust over the use of human shields and conscription of children.

On 16 May, the SLA captured the last section of coastline, completely encircling the remnants of the LTTE, and the Sri Lankan President declared victory. The next day the external wing of the LTTE via its External Relations chief Selvarasa Pathmanathan admitted defeat. On the 18th Prabhakan and about 30 of his bodyguards were killed in a firefight with an SLA infantry patrol. On the 19th Prabhakan’s death was announced by President Rajapaksa following DNA confirmation and finally confirmed by the LTTE on the 24th of May.

vi) Post conflict: mopping up and skirmishes with hardcore fighters continuing until June, however the SLA’s main focus was a humanitarian programme to assist IDPs, demining of conflict areas and resettlement.

Political moves were taken with pro Tamil/ pro LTTE parties such as the Tamil National Alliance to address Tamil grievances.

Under Indian and international pressure a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was set up to review the conflict and recommend measures to prevent a reoccurrence.

3. The Sri Lankan Way of War

Sri Lankan forces that won the war emanated from the colonial Ceylon Defence Forces. In 1962 a group of Army officers planned a bloodless coup against the Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranaike a Sinhalese ultranationalist (so bloodless that they had actually arranged accommodation for the Prime Minister and school admission for her family in exile!). The discovery of this plot however led to a huge level of distrust in the military, including under equipping, under training and promotion of officers on loyalty rather than ability.

However this same force after 26 years converted defeat into total victory, without becoming a client state or bankrupting their country (although they came close).

How did they do it?

a. Strategic: the Sri Lankan victory stemmed from certain actions and decisions taken by the key political leadership as listed below

i) Political will: The overarching impetus for victory was the determination of the political leadership to end the conflict by any means necessary. All though Rajapaksa committed to maintaining the ceasefire and peace process he distrusted the LTTE and sought to prepare for the worst. This determination ‘…not to pass the problem to our children…’ manifested itself in several intelligent, pragmatic and concrete actions.

ii) Strategic planning and relationships: in order to successfully prosecute the conflict the Sri Lankans analysed their problems and identified the solutions. Having done so they then undertook intelligent pragmatic steps to mitigate them. These problems could be summarised as

  • Insufficient, poorly trained, improperly postured forces
  • General demoralisation and poor recruiting to the forces
  • External (i.e. Indian interference)
  • Political infighting
  • Poor command and control
  • Poor coordination between the services
  • Poor operational coordination
  • The inability to properly secure cleared ground
  • Support to the LTTE from the Tamil diaspora
  • LTTE’s logistic network
  • LTTE’s tactical and operational skill

Solutions to these problems came by prudent analysis and significant input from external allies. The US Pacific Command in 2002 produced a report on the insurgency with many recommendations identifying that the LTTE’s centre of gravity was its maritime logistics network and that the Sri Lankans needed a national security strategy overseen by a National Security Council. The Israelis as well as selling Dvora’s, UAVs and Kfirs also provided COIN training and the Shin Beth provided intelligence training. The UK assisted in setting up a Joint Operations Centre as well as providing SOF training through various PMCs. Partnerships with the Indians and US provided training for other elements of the armed forces.

iii) Unity of effort: Rajapaksa won the presidential election with a narrow majority compelling him to form shaky alliances in parliament with a variety of parties. He appointed his brother (retired Col Rajapaksa) as the civilian permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence (the President was Minister of Defence). This nepotic move was justified by the fact that his brother was a genuine war hero, much respected for his courage, skill, integrity and competence, the secretary to the President managed the rest of the civil service, while a third brother Basil Rajapaksa became Minister of Economics. If one can overlook the nepotism and political careerism (which fully manifested itself after the war) what it actually delivered to Sri Lanka was a coalition with complete unity of purpose. It can be argued that that purpose was to cement the Rajapaksa dynasty in power using victory over the LTTE as the vehicle but unlike others who simply occupied the position as rent seekers to milk as much off the crisis as possible this arrangement presented a benefit to Sri Lankans.

iv) Disciplined/ clarified chain of command: the new regime in Colombo set out to reduce the inter service rivalries and disputes which led to each service generally conducting operations independently of each other without coordination or towards a higher strategic intent. The British and Israeli Joint Operations Centre (JOC) was set up in 1985 to coordinate military, intelligence and police efforts. The National Security Council (NSC) was set up in 1999 to centralize political command and control. In 2006 these structures came into their own. Command and Control was solidified in the lead up to and during Eelam War 4, with, weekly NSC meetings every Wednesday with the Air Force, Navy and Amy Chiefs as well as the Intelligence and police chiefs and occasional specialists. Each service chief would give a presentation followed by a general intelligence brief. The NSC was chaired either by the President, a new Army commander General Sarath Fonseka was appointed who had a reputation for discipline and competence.

v) Procurement: one of the most important actions by the Sri Lankans was the setting up of Lanka Logistics Ltd. This government owned limited liability company took over procurement and resourcing for the armed forces and police eliminating corrupt middlemen who had previously enriched themselves through improper and inadequate procurement. Lanka Logistics Ltd not only ensured that procurement was transparent and cost effective but brought the domestic arms industry into its fold. Sri Lankan forces were finally properly equipped with personal protective gear, communications equipment, heavy weapons and so on despite the massive expansion of the forces.

vi) External relations: as a small island nation, external relations are vital to Sri Lankan security, these were the crucial ones.

  • India: LTTE links to Tamil Nadu in India meant that whenever they were under pressure politicians in India would put pressure on Colombo. In Eelam War 1 this enabled the LTTE and Prabahakans survival but their bloody war against the IPKF and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi lost them a most of their political (but not popular) support. As India is the only country with the means, motive and opportunity to effectively intervene in Sri Lanka; keeping them onside became the diplomatic priority for the Sri Lankans.                                                                                                                         A mechanism was set up to circumvent normal diplomatic channels and protocols with the Sri Lankan Secretary of Defence, Secretary to the Government and Minister of Economics and the Indian former National Security Advisor, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary forming a ‘troika’. The Indians were fully briefed on Sri Lankas actions and operations, even procurement and internal political manoeuvres, allowing them temper or pre-empt reactions from Tamil Nadu politicians that could affect the ruling coalition.
  • China: China with their general ‘no questions asked’ arms dealing policy, supplied the vast majority of Sri Lankas weapons, including aircraft, artillery radar etc. However the key strategic relationship was the Sri Lankans buying into the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ maritime strategy and providing them a port in Sri Lanka, which in return got them loans and credits, more arms and crucially the Chinese veto on the UN Security Council, thus ensuring they were immune from any UN sanctions.
  • USA: had its usual quixotic relationship with nonaligned countries. During the cold war they supplied helicopters solely to match a USSR shipment of Mig 17s. However the normal round of censure, criticism and lukewarm relations followed. However the US did provide artillery radars, a US Coastguard ship and other armaments and also crucially in 2002 an extremely lengthy and detailed analysis of the conflict with key recommendations which the Sri Lankan gratefully took on board. Post 9/11 they adopted what can be described as diplomatic nonchalance, issuing the usual calls for restraint but not actively interfering.
  • UK: the links with Britain through the Commonwealth and as the former colonial power were strong. British influence through the military but also crucially through schools which for the elite were based on UK private schools were significant. However relations with the UK was countered by the strong and well organised Tamil diaspora in Britain who ensured that their wealth and organisation had a disproportionate effect on British politicians. This also came to the fore in the last days of the LTTE when thousands of young Tamils descended on Parliament Square in protest. Ultimately beyond concerns about human rights and pleasing Tamil donors and voters in Britain, military and intelligence support continued to the end.
  • Nordic States: as guarantors of the peace treaty, these states particularly Norway were generally highly critical of the Sri Lankan government and ready to overlook ceasefire violations on both sides (although the LTTE was by several hundreds the greater violator). The Nordic states well intentioned efforts in essence bought time for the LTTE much to the exasperation of the Sri Lankans, however by the end, even they lost patience with the LTTE. The Sri Lankans did not so much manage these relationships as tolerate them.

vii) Military expansion: the political leadership decided to massively expand the military. This was done with a comprehensive recruitment and PR campaign that made military life seem attractive and convince the populace the war was winnable. This successfully brought in 3-5,000 recruits per month in the last 2 years of the conflict, increasing the Army from 9 divisions to 20, 44 brigades to 71 and 149 battalions to 284 a total of 230,000 men, the Navy expanded to 74,000, with hundreds of small boats and land forces including a Special Boat Service (SBS) and Rapid Action Boats Service (RABS). The Air Force expanded to 40,000 men, with UAVs and Attack helicopters, there were 85,000 policemen and 42,000 civil defence. These expanded services properly and uniformly equipped with basic PPE and standardised weapons, enabled the military to consolidate and hold onto its gains for the first time, and gave strategic flexibility to operate in Northern or Eastern Sri Lanka at will. Military welfare was also improved with treatment and compensation for wounded soldier increased.

viii) Naval action: the LTTE was one of the best equipped insurgencies in the world, with a Navy, Air Force, artillery and armoured vehicles including tanks, this was sustained by a large, complex and extremely efficient logistics network. The LTTE owned several boatyards in Thailand and other parts of Asia where they stored weapons. Large merchant vessels known as Sea Pigeons transported weapons and other supplies to just outside Sri Lankan waters where they transferred their cargo to smaller fishing trawlers to take to shore.

By correctly identifying the sea and the maritime logistic network as not just a strength for the LTTE but a key vulnerability, the Sri Lankan Navy focused on developing a full spectrum capability to defeat them. The Deep battle involved defeating the Sea Pigeons, and other LTTE smuggling operations, the Close battle involved taking the fight to the Sea Tigers, defending Sri Lankan Navy bases and the Rear battle involved using special forces on land and inland waterway boat squadrons to destroy Sea Tiger bases.

ix) Maintenance of momentum: despite initial defeats, LTTE counter offensives on land and at sea, assassination attempts and urban terrorism the Sri Lankans maintained their resolve. This included internal political problems such as narrow votes but just as crucially pressure from India when LTTE propaganda and the desperate plight of refugees in The Cage aroused international condemnation.

x) Information/Media Ops: the Sri Lankans understood the importance of not just countering LTTE propaganda but informing and motivating the pro government population. To boost recruitment a local ad company designed a PR campaign to not only glamourise and promote the military but to emphasise that victory was possible. The LTTE TamilNet website carried news and LTTE propaganda with video, still and other media which the government countered with their own website, defence.lk. Positive combat images from the war as well as movies, documentaries and TV series also helped make it seem glorious and winnable to the war weary populace

b) Operational: at the operational level, the war was won by innovation, structure and joint/ coordinated operations

i) Naval actions: there were several key naval tasks, resupplying isolated troops, defeating the Sea Tigers, cutting off LTTE supplies from India and the Sea Pigeons. To attack the Sea Pigeon’s the Navy needed a blue water capability, so Sri Lanka utilised its available resources such  as its OPVs, donated US Coastguards ships and then retrofitting tankers and merchant ships as replenishment ships. This allowed them to sail as far as the Australian Cocos Islands to engage the Sea Pigeons. The first was sunk in 2006, with 8 more being sunk by the end of the conflict. The Sri Lankans were aided by US and Indian naval intelligence in finding the vessels. The smuggling routes to India were interdicted with Israeli and Chinese fast attack craft. To resupply and rotate troops a cruise ship was purchased allowing them to transport 3,000 troops and 40tons of cargo a week, in heavily armed convoys. To defeat the Sea Tigers ‘swarm’ tactic of attempting to fix the small fast craft and overwhelm them whilst faster explosive packed suicide boats attacked bigger targets the Navy built or bought hundreds of small fibreglass Inland Patrol Craft, armed with either 23mm cannons of 40mm grenade launchers based near strategic targets who operated in huge packs as well, thus out numbering and outmanoeuvring the Sea Tiger swarms.

ii) Clear and hold: in the previous phases of the war the military failed to win as many battles as the LTTE, yet even when they did they were unable to consolidate or exploit their success. By expanding the military the Sri Lankan forces not only took territory but held it. In order to relieve pressure on the Army, battalions of the Sri Lankan Army Volunteer Force (equivalent to the UK Army Reserve and US National Guard) were mobilised and personnel from the Navy, Air Force, Police and Civil Defence were drafted in to garrison cleared areas and perform mop up operations. This prevented the LTTE from utilising their usual tactics of infiltrating cleared areas and cutting off government troops, or isolating certain bases and attack it in the knowledge that the military would have to divert all resources to deal with it. By using all armed and uniform personnel in this manner front line troops were able to maintain the tempo and momentum of operations, with secure rear areas and supply lines

iii) Joint fires: majority of Sri Lankan casualties in the war were from artillery and mortar fire. The Sri Lankans countered this by using counter artillery radar batteries achieving total coverage by 2008, preventing LTTE artillery (which was considerable) from achieving concentrated and sustained bombardments that had previously wreaked havoc. Support to ground forces also depended heavily on Attack helicopters, there were backed up by dedicated ground attack aircraft like the Pucara. Deep strike and strategic targets were hit by fast jet like the Mig 27 and Kfir however they were also used in the ground support role. Special Forces teams were used to direct artillery or air strikes deep behind LTTE lines or in conjunction with Army offensives. This allowed the Sri Lankans to counter LTTE artillery and use their attack helicopters for both close and deep operations.

iv) Special Forces Action: The Sri Lankan developed several Special Forces units during the war with each service producing SF peculiar to them, their use particularly after 2006, were devastating to the LTTE. The Army had a Commando Brigade of 4 Commando Regiments trained and organised along UK SAS patterns. The Special Forces Brigade had 5 Special Forces Regiments originally trained by the Israelis and finally a Special Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol Brigade consisting of one Commando and one SF Regiment. They not only performed in the typical ISR role, calling in fires but were also used as shock troops to counter LTTE infiltrations and counter attack and attrite the LTTE and harry their flanks when regular units were under attack or siege. The Police formed a Special Task Force (STF) originally trained by ex British SAS, operating in the East of the country, they performed in a classic guerrilla/ counter insurgent small unit role, deploying to recently cleared areas alongside the regular police but operating to the front of own troops and behind LTTE lines, disrupting their operations. The Navy’s Special Boat Service mainly provided surveillance of LTTE naval assets and riverine or coastal positions but also conducted or directed strike operations of their own. The Air Force Regiment SF unit focussed on base defence and rescuing downed pilots but the air forces main role was in supporting other SF operations with ‘hot extractions’ of beleaguered or injured SF troops and fire support. Interestingly virtually all SF insertions in the Sri Lankan war were on foot as opposed to heliborne or paradropped. After 2006 these diverse SF units all operated under a national joint strategy rather than independently with all their actions supporting a single unifying effort. Just as importantly regular infantry units formed Special Infantry Operational Teams that acted in a similar manner with small teams pushing 1-2 km ahead of own troops disrupting the LTTE operations causing them casualties and confusion. This combination of strategic and tactical SF groupings and practices, completely outmatched the LTTE.

v) Combined ops: a key characteristic of the Sri Lankan forces was the petty interservice rivalries that permeated the services and General Staff. The animosity between the Navy and Army Commanders was such that the Air Force Commander had to sit between them to mediate (apparently they went to rival schools). Different services would launch operations independently, for example in October 2006 the Army launched a disastrous offensive in the north, without telling the National Security Council or any of the other services, which cost the Army 300 KIA and 4 tanks and 8 armoured vehicles in less than 2 hours. This was an instructive lesson for all services and was used by the political leadership to emphasise the need for combined ops. All operations were then coordinated properly, with the Navy tightening the noose by destroying the Sea Tigers, the Air Force providing close and deep air support and the Army slogging it through the jungles and rice paddies. Interservice cooperation did not reach perfection, for example soldiers didn’t use the Navy to outflank LTTE when they had them pinned in The Cage however a good example of the interservice cooperation came when the LTTE pinned down in Puthumathalan attempted to break out with 50 Sea Tiger boats and were destroyed at sea with airburst salvos from Army Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL). By coordinating operations, the Sri Lankans maintained pressure on the LTTE at their most vulnerable points prioritising earth moving equipment which was used to build berms and fortifications which slowed up the Army advance and caused casualties over strategic targets such as radars.

vi) Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance: the Sri Lankans utilised intelligence derived from a variety of sources however the main assets were special forces and UAV’s as well as the organic sensors on aircraft, ships and fast attack craft. On land these assets reduced LTTE freedom of movement and allowed intelligent planning and targeting. At sea assistance from US and Indian ISR assets allowed the Navy to target Sea Pigeon logistic ships.

vii) Joint intelligence: Intelligence was streamlined with a clear chain of command under the Ministry of Defence, despite the main Intelligence organisation; the State Intelligence Service being dominated by policemen. Under the Chief of National Intelligence, Foreign and Local intelligence from the police and military were collated. Every Tuesday there was an Intelligence Coordination meeting in the Ministry of Defence. Intelligence was collected using a variety of methods but the main emphasis was on human intelligence with technology used in a secondary role. Training and assistance was provided by the Israelis, but the main foreign collaborators were India, the US and occasionally Britain.

viii) Tactics, training and procedures: The Sri Lankans evolved from a poorly trained force led by incompetent officers, to a large well led credible fighting force.

  • Tactics: The Army learnt from its mistakes and adapted to the peculiarities of their enemy. The Army copied and improved the LTTE’s combined conventional and asymmetric tactics but in their case outnumbering and outmatching them. Special Forces penetrated deep behind lines, calling in air strikes, ambushing LTTE commanders and vehicles with artillery, small arms and mines, harrying their flanks and rear areas. Main forces also adopted SF tactics with the SIOT teams who operated just to the front of own troops, harassing LTTE forces tying up their reserves and hampering their movements, making it easier for the main body to advance. Advancing Infantry moved in smaller bounds and formations presenting less of a target for artillery and ambush. Fire support was prioritised, with counter battery radar suppressing LTTE mortars and artillery whilst neutralising LTTE positions. The LTTE built huge earthworks and fortifications, these were breached by soldiers tunnelling up too them, or else using Bangalore torpedoes. Eventually the Army took to using 122mm MBRL rockets in direct fire mode against the berms. The Navy developed innovative tactics to defeat Sea Tiger swarms, by creating even larger swarms which advanced in a V shape ensuring all weapons could be brought to bear and any Sea Tiger attempting move to their flanks was exposed broadside or in 3 columns. UAVs and picket patrols were used to maintain overwatch.
  • Training: training standards were improved, with skills from a variety of militaries mainly Britain, Pakistan and India adapted to local conditions. Jungle fighting techniques were honed to world class standards. Leaders were well trained with emphasis on a better quality of recruits with the education and confidence to make intelligent tactical decisions, supporting the commanders’ intent (known in the British Army as mission command). Training was not reduced or contracted to fit wartime exigencies but sensible decisions were made, thus sailors who failed SBS training were transferred to the RABS, ensuring that the time and effort spent training them was not wasted.

4. Conclusion: the Sri Lankans fought a long war against an innovative and extremely competent enemy that utilised all the tools, tactics and procedures of a conventional army as well as those of guerrillas and terrorists. The LTTE was able to purchase arms, ships, and aircraft, fabricate armoured vehicles and submersibles mobilise and motivate a huge diaspora and keep fighting for 30 years. They could have credibly won an autonomous state for Tamils if not an independent state if they had negotiated a reasonable peace at the pinnacle of their strength.

The Sri Lankans destroyed the LTTE as a fighting force after 3 decades of failure in 3 years through a long hard organic process in the next instalment we will look at the lessons of Eelam War 4 and how the Sri Lankan experience relates (or not) to Nigeria.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Counter insurgency, Defence, Peace support, Peacekeeping, Stabilisation, Terrorism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Exactly the Same and Completely Different 1: The Sri Lankan Way of War and Lessons for Nigeria

  1. wocon45 says:

    This post is very informative, I didn’t have much clue about the intricacies of the Sri Lankan civil, this post is a starting point. The brief historical background sounded familiar to what happened in Nigeria especially after independence.

  2. Pingback: Exactly the Same and Completely Different 2: The Sri Lankan Way of War and Lessons for Nigeria | Vox Peccavi

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