Milestone on the high seas for Sri Lanka Navy

By Our Defence Correspondent
This week’s sinking of an LTTE arms supply ship by a Sri Lankan warship marked an important turning point in the history of the Sri Lanka Navy, being its first battle on the high seas in more than 50 years of its existence.

Although the navy is the first line of defence in any island nation, the Sri Lanka Navy has lacked the necessary deep-sea going warships to effectively patrol the deep seas, and its frequent battles with the Sea Tigers have mostly been confined to the coastal areas off the Northeastern Province in relatively shallow waters, with small gunboats and attack craft taking on large numbers of LTTE boats.

Monday’s action 240 nautical miles east of Point Pedro, was a short, sharp fight which ended with the frigate SLNS Sayura blasting the LTTE ship to destruction, together with 11 Sea Tigers. One navy officer and three sailors were wounded and the Sayura was slightly damaged.

The most significant aspect of Monday’s battle was that the LTTE was unable to do anything to help its arms ship, since the battle took place too far away and it would have taken Sea Tiger reinforcements at least six hours to get to the scene. Any such reinforcements would also have had to fight their way through a large number of gunboats and Dvora fast attack craft which quickly took up positions close to Sea Tiger bases on the east coast in order to prevent any such attempt. With the interception of the arms ship taking place in broad daylight, any Sea Tiger reinforcements would also have been open to attack from the Sri Lanka Air Force, if necessary. With the LTTE ship having only 12.5 millimetre guns (commonly known as five-zeros because they fire a half-inch bullet), the Sayura with its 40 millimetre gun made short work of it.

To put the sinking in context, an LTTE arms ship carries several thousand tonnes of arms and ammunition, enough for the LTTE to fight the armed forces for up to six months, depending of course on the severity of fighting and the rate of usage of ammunition. It would also have been carrying heavy weapons systems such as large artillery guns and mortars, which would have greatly boosted the military capabilities of the Tigers. There is also the possibility that the cargo would have included sophisticated items such as radars, advanced communication equipment, and missiles.

In one single clash, the Sayura nullified all of this, and would have set back the LTTE’s re-arming programme by many months. Even worse, the Tigers would have lost millions of dollars, since global arms manufacturers sell weapons to terrorist organizations strictly on a cash-and-carry basis. This is at a time when the LTTE’s finances have been drying up due to lack of funding for it internationally.

The LTTE as expected condemned the sinking, trotting out excuses of its ship being in international waters, and that the attack by the Sayura was unprovoked. The Tigers made some rumblings about the future of peace talks, with Velupillai Prabhakaran even cancelling a scheduled meeting with Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen and generally acting like a spoiled child who has had his cookies taken away from him. But in the end, there is nothing that the LTTE can do about the sinking, since it did not contravene any part of the Ceasefire Agreement, and the Tigers have agreed to continue with the peace talks, since they have no option.

The battle was a clear vindication for a section of officers in the navy who have been clamouring for a decade or more for the navy to acquire a large fleet of heavy warships which can withstand the wear and tear of spending long periods in the rough seas hundreds of miles away from land.

The navy’s programme to acquire large warships has been dogged by controversy, with accusations that the few ships purchased were too expensive, or that they were too old. With second-hand ships being much cheaper than brand new ones, the navy has mostly acquired used ships, which been breaking down constantly and spent much time undergoing repairs.

The navy actually had a high seas capability back in the fifties and sixties, when ex-Royal Navy vessels were in use. As late as the early eighties, the navy acquired to Offshore Patrol Vessels, Sagarawardena and Jaya Sagara (named after President J. R. Jayewardene). However, with Sagarawardena being sunk by the LTTE in September 1994, and the constant breaking down of a newly acquired Chinese Sub-chaser warship SLNS Parakramabahu, the navy lost its high seas capabilities. Sayura and two Israeli ships were bought during the last three years.

In addition, the Sea Tigers mounted a grave threat in coastal waters, with large numbers of fast, small craft taking on navy warships, making it necessary for the navy to acquire more and more smaller gunboats and fast attack craft in order to maintain control of the coast.

Another factor is that the navy, which has been used to operating close to the shore, simply hasn’t used its large ships effectively. One reason was that the top brass was nervous to send these more expensive warships to operational areas, since the LTTE was known to be quite keen on sinking them. Parakramabahu in particular became known as a white elephant because the top brass insisted on sending several Dvoras with it as escorts, and there are too few Dvoras as it is. As a result, Jaya Sagara, the 68- metres long Parakramabahu, Sayura (a 101-metres long ship which was previously serving in the Indian Navy) and the two 58-metres long Israeli SAAR-4 class missile gunboats Suranimala and Nandimithra, spent far too much time undergoing repairs, or patrolling safe areas off the western and southern coasts.

What navy officers didn’t fully realize is that these large ships don’t need to go close to Sea Tiger coastlines, where they are targets for the faster Sea Tiger boats, and can’t use their heavy guns to optimum effect. In fact, Sagarwardena was sunk while anchored close to shore off Mannar, by Sea Tigers divers who planted a mine on its hull. What these large ships are ideal for is to patrol the high seas hundreds of miles away from the shore, which they are able to do for weeks at a time. Even bad weather doesn’t affect them much, since the larger the ship, the less it is bounced around by the waves. Smaller boats, on the other hand, get tossed about and break down if they stay far out at sea for too long, and in case don’t have the range of thousands of miles that large warships do without refueling.

However, despite their high cost, it is quite clear that the navy needs more and more large warships. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga herself is on record as having publicly said that if the navy was able to prevent LTTE arms ships from coming in, the war would have been won many years ago.

For more than a decade now, Sri Lanka has relied on the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard to intercept LTTE ships on the high seas. The MV That was surrounded by Indian warships in 1997 and the Sea Tigers on board, led by LTTE Deputy Leader Colonel Kittu, blew up the ship. Similarly, the MV Mari Amma was surrounded by Indian warships near the Andaman islands in the eastern Bay of Bengal in 2000, but when the Indians requested that the Sri Lanka Navy send warships to capture it, there were no warships capable of making the long journey. That ship too was destroyed by the LTTE itself.

There was cheering news this week with reports that the United States government would soon be gifting the Sri Lanka Navy a large warship from the US Coast Guard. The gifting of the 64.2 metres long cutter Courageous is a clear signal from the US government that it is fully supporting the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and that increased military aid such as this warship can be further expected. The US government has never made such a strong gesture before. In fact in the past the Sri Lankan Navy purchased fast attack craft from private American shipbuilders, with little or no help from the US government.

The Courageous is a Reliant class vessel, first built in 1968 by the American Shipbuilding Corporation. It has two Alco 16V-251 diesel engines of 6480 horsepower that are capable of a maximum speed of 18 knotts (nautical miles per hour). But what is more important is that it is capable of a range of 6100 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 14 knotts. It was refurbished in March 1990, and is intended to have a crew of 75.

Another interesting point is that Monday’s battle clearly showed the urgent need to reactivate the navy’s Air Wing. Had Sayura been equipped with a helicopter, it would have been able to quickly airlift the four wounded sailors to hospital, instead of having to wait until Dvoras came out to it, transfer the wounded men to them in mid-sea, and have them brought back to Trincomalee, all of which took many hours.

In addition, a helicopter-equipped warship is far more effective at search missions, since a helicopter can quickly find any other ship within a radius of several hundred miles, while Sayura’s crew could only see ships within about a dozen miles.

The navy actually embarked on a programme to have its own Air Wing under its last commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, and Sayura, Suranimala and Nandimithra all have helipads on board. The helicopters were actually ordered from an Indian manufacturer. However, the present commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, cancelled the project, although the navy had already identified several retired air force officers to head the project.

Interestingly, even the Courageous has a helipad, and with four warships having helicopter capabilities, it would be very easy for the navy to have its own air wing. In fact, all modern navies do so, including the Indian Navy. Even the Indian Coast Guard is fully helicopter equipped. It would certainly serve the nation better if the top brass of the Sri Lanka Navy would make up their minds to make their service something a little better than a coast guard. The Sri Lanka Air Force has no pilots trained in landing and taking off from warships, which is more difficult than operating from land. The SLAF also lacks the small helicopters which specialize in this purpose.

The battle was also further evidence that the navy’s current strategy of blockading the coastline off the Mullaittivu district by having small warships patrolling close to the shore, continues to be a dismal failure. This strategy, known as Operation Waruna Kirana, has been going on for nearly two years now, and has been a massive drain on the navy’s sparse resources. It has little to show for it, other than a lot of wear and tear on warships. This column has repeatedly highlighted the failure of Waruna Kirana, and revealed that the Tigers have repeatedly managed to get arms shipments through, either off other stretches of coastline which are unguarded due to Waruna Kirana drawing off so many warships, or directly through the Waruna Kirana blockade itself.