SLN to boost offshore capability with five more OPVs

* Post war security


By Shamindra Ferdinando

 Navy Chief Vice Admiral (VA) Jayanath Colombage yesterday said that the government was in the process of working out modalities to enhance the SLN’s offshore patrolling/surveillance capability.

VA Colombage said that the SLN intended to acquire five Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). "We are having discussions with relevant parties to the transaction.

Of the five vessels, two will be acquired from one source and the rest from others," he said. The SLN Chief was responding to a query by The Island yesterday.

A smiling Colombage said that a MoU as regards the acquisition of two ships could be worked out soon. He recalled Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s address to the last Galle Dialogue, where he emphasized the importance of strengthening the SLN.

"Strengthening of OPV capability," VA Colombage said would be a post-war priority. In an exclusive interview with The Island yesterday, VA Colombage said that it would be a grave mistake on their part to neglect the SLN during the post-war period. "We now have six vessels in the OPV category. But additional assets are needed to meet the challenging task of policing Sri Lankan territorial waters as well as exclusive economic zone. We should be also aware of the extension of Sri Lanka’s continental margin in line with a UN’s Law at the Sea rules. Gradual build-up of naval assets will be a prerequisite for taking up new challenges."

Sri Lanka’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone extend 12 and 200 nautical miles from the coastline, respectively.

The current SLN OPV fleet comprises SLNS Sayura (acquired from India), SLNS Sagara (India), SLNS Samudura (US), SLNS Nandimithra (Israel), SLNS Suranimala (Israel) and SLNS Jayasagara (Colombo Dockyard Limited). Except for SLNS Jayasagara, all other OPVs took part in SLN operations on March 10 and June 14 2003, Sept 16, 2006, Sept 10 and 11 2007 and Oct 7 2007 to destroy LTTE’s floating warehouses.

Asked whether the SLN would phase out the existing OPVs when it took delivery of new ships, the VA said that they could be used, though they were old. The SLN Chief said that he wasn’t in a hurry to replace any of the vessels in the current fleet. According to him, some ships could be used for even 30 or 40 years.

Responding to a query regarding post-war deployment of Fast Attack Craft (FAC) and other assets, other than the OPVs, VA Colombage said that the deployment pattern was very different from the pre-May 2009 period. He said that now that the war was over, they could save vessels’ running hours. "However, the SLN will continue patrols, though at a much scaled down level. Ongoing efforts to prevent the launch of trawlers carrying bogus refugees, too, will continue. On the other hands, the SLN is also involved in operations to prevent the smuggling of narcotics."

When pointed out that the posts of Chief of Staff and the Deputy Chief of Staff remained vacant for some time, VA Colombage expressed confidence that both positions could be filled soon with the blessings of the Defence Secretary.

Following the new SLN chief’s appointment, Rear Admiral (RA) Thusith Weerasekera sent in his retirement papers. At the time of his decision to seek early retirement, RA Weerasekera, one –time Deputy Chief of Staff, functioned as the Commander of the Volunteer Naval Force, a position previously held by an officer in the rank of Captain.

Since taking over the command recently, VA Colombage moved RA Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne to the Eastern Naval Command from the North, whereas RA D.S. Udawatte assumed command in the North. RA Wijegunaratne succeeded Colombage as the Eastern Commander. VA Colombage said that he didn’t see any requirement to effect changes in other major commands immediately.

In spite of the conclusion of the conflict, there was provision for 55,000 strong regular and volunteer forces, the VA said.

The SLN Chief said that the SLN could always explore the possibility of launching choppers from its UAVs. "Three of our OPVs are capable of carrying choppers. We can discuss with the SLAF how the two services could work together to deploy choppers on our platforms. There are special versions of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which can be launched from ships," VA Colombage said.

The SLN Chief emphasized that they would have to be on alert always to face any emergency situation. He recalled how swift action taken to take both operational and non-operational ships and craft at the Trincomalee harbour to sea on Dec 26, 2004 saved 30 to 40 vessels. The VA said that contrary to reports, the SLN at Trincomalee had no prior warning of the impending Boxing Day tsunami. "I was the No 2 at Trincomalee at that time. The COMEAST RA Upali Ranaweera was away. At 9.05 a.m. we observed the water level unusually going up. I briefed the then SLN Chief VA Daya Sandagiri over the phone and immediately ordered all types of vessels out to sea. Within 20 minutes tsunami struck the Eastern Province. The SLN didn’t suffer any losses."

In the North, two SLN personnel died, though no damages were caused to vessels.

The VA said that today the SLN was prepared to meet any eventuality. "We have a Rapid Response, Relief Squadron. We also work closely with the National Disaster Management Centre. The squadron operates from all major bases to ensure the SLN remains on alert to meet emergency situation."

Had the SLN failed to act swiftly in spite of not having solid evidence of the impending disaster, vessels deployed in the East could have been lost and the service would have found itself in an extremely difficult situation when war erupted, the VA said.

At the height the war in 2008 on the Vanni front, cyclone ‘Nisha’ ravaged the northern region, causing heavy damage to the SLN. Five FACs attached to the Northern Command were damaged due to ‘Nisha.’

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