Let us recall celebrated role played by ‘silent service’


At the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, the SLN built a monument at the entrance to the Welisara base in memory of officers and men who paid the supreme sacrifice

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lanka Navy recently earned the appreciation of the Australian Premier, Tony Abbott, for backing his efforts to curtail illegal migration.

Premier Abbott went to the extent of boarding Sri Lanka’s flagship, SLNS Sayura, at the Colombo Port where he announced plans to gift two Bay Class patrol vessels to the SLN. The unexpected announcement was made on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo during the third week of November, 2013.

The SLN celebrates its 63rd anniversary today (Dec 9) close on the heels of the unprecedented Australian commendation. It was, perhaps, the major peacetime achievement, not only the SLN but the entire country could be proud of. During the conflict, the SLN lost 773 officers and men, both on land and out at sea and 368 disabled. Except for those who made the supreme sacrifice, it would be of pivotal importance to honor officers and men who served the ‘silent service’ at the risk of their lives.

In spite of the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009, Sri Lanka will have to invest more on its navy. In fact, the navy will need additional assets to meet post-war challenges.

Since the end of the war, the navy has thrown its weight behind the government’s efforts to develop the economy, tourism and even clearing waterways in the city and its suburbs. But its priority should be sustaining the wherewithal to meet fresh threats. Under Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage’s leadership, the navy is pursuing post-war objectives, in accordance with the government’s overall security and political strategy.

Had Sri Lanka strengthened its navy and adopted a cohesive strategy to deny terrorists freedom of movement at sea across the Palk Straits in the 80s, Tamil terrorism wouldn’t have survived for over 30 years. Although successive governments acquired a range of vessels over the years, the absence of an overall security strategy caused periodic setbacks. The failure on the part of the navy to effectively patrol the seas had a catastrophic impact on the entire war effort.

But nothing could be as bad as what the UNP did, following the Norwegian-arranged CFA in Feb., 2002. The ill advised UNP leadership went to the extent of denying the SLN spares for its fighting craft, as it turned a blind eye to LTTE build-up.

Several years ago, the Jane’s Defence quoted former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as having said "If we had upgraded our navy earlier, the problem of Tamil separatist terrorism would not have taken the present form."

A total appraisal is necessary to ensure each service acquired what it really required, while taking measures to sustain existing capabilities. For want of adequate assets, the navy, instead of hunting down enemy vessels on the high seas, sustained the Trincomalee-Kankesanturai sea supply route for almost 20 years - a daunting task indeed.

When the SLN finally decided to take the battle to the high seas, at an early stage of Eelam war IV, the navy had a few ageing vessels with OPV capability. In fact, these vessels had to be refueled at mid-sea as Sri Lanka couldn’t depend on any external power. The fleet comprised vessels acquired from India, US, China, Israel and two back-up vessels, including one seized from human smugglers.

To the credit of the navy, it correctly identified the LTTE vessels and destroyed them without pouncing on ordinary merchant vessels. In fact, the External Affairs Ministry hadn’t been happy with the plan to conduct operations on the high seas, though the navy pressed for permission. In the end, the navy engaged enemy vessels on the basis of right for self-defence.

Testifying before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) last September, Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, explained the extremely difficult conditions, in which the SLN had to maintain the sea supply route between Trincomalee and Kankesanturai during Eelam War IV. The SLN had to sustain the sea supply route after the SLA lost a long stretch of the Jaffna-Kandy road, north of Vavuniya, in 1990.

The overland road was restored by the Army in the first week of January, 2009. To the credit of the SLN, the sea supply route was maintained, in spite of losing men and craft in LTTE attacks.

Had the war lasted a little longer, LTTE underwater fighting craft (submersibles) would have posed a grave threat to the Trinco-KKS supply route. The LTTE had carried out its first suicide attack on an SLN vessel on May 4, 1991, in Jaffna waters.

The LTTE brought in a range of weapons, including heavy artillery, though the SLN made on and off detections. Massive LTTE arsenal was evidence of the SLN’s failure to intercept LTTE supply ships and the failure on the part of intelligence services to thwart the likes of ‘KP’, who ran arms procurement operations, with impunity.

An overall change in tactics, in 2006, aimed at destroying LTTE ships gave the SLN a clear-cut advantage over the Sea Tigers. Former Commander, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, did away with Operation Waruna Kirana, launched in May 2001, to detect/intercept LTTE ships bringing in arms, about 100 to 150 nautical miles from land. Operation Waruna Kirana was basically a waiting game with ships deployed without specific intelligence on LTTE ship movements. Instead, the SLN went after the enemy on the high seas as far as 2,600 km south of Dondra head during Eelam War IV, while targeting trawlers bringing in armaments from India. Fighting LTTE trawlers close to Indo-Lanka maritime boundary had been difficult due to presence of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters. But the SLN caused heavy damage to Sea Tigers crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary, though a section of the Indian political establishment tried to hinder naval operations by accusing the SLN of attacking Tamil Nadu fishermen.

The SLN destroyed two LTTE ships off the east coast, on March 10, 2003, and June 14, the same year during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as Premier. But operations weren’t credited to the Waruna Kirana Task Force. The LTTE hit back by wiping out Chinese crews of two fishing craft on Mullaitivu waters believing they had tipped off the SLN. They were the most serious incidents blamed on the government during the CFA.

The change in tactics revolutionized the SLN giving it a strategic offensive posture. New tactics adopted by not only the SLN but other services, too, wouldn’t have been possible without the blessings of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who ensured continuation of the military campaign amidst growing international pressures.

The destruction of eight LTTE ships, categorized by the SLN as floating arsenals, in four separate forays on the high seas, delivered the enemy a knockout blow. According to the SLN, the ships, which were between 45 to 75 meters in length, had the capacity to carry 1,000 to 1,500 tons of cargo each. The seven ships sunk in 2007 and the vessel destroyed on September 17, 2006, off Kalmunai, had been loaded with several thousand tonnes of military cargo. The SLN had access to some of those involved in the transfer of LTTE armaments when the Maldivian Coast Guard intercepted an Indian trawler commandeered by the LTTE carrying arms in Maldivian waters, in May 2007.

The Navy was also successful in curbing the Gulf of Mannar supply route by increasing patrols in the region. The LTTE’s efforts to move supplies, in many instances with direct or indirect involvement of Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to Vidathalthivu-Pooneryn area on the west coast, were thwarted by stepped up naval operations.

Had there been a realistic assessment of the LTTE and its global arms procurement network immediately after the withdrawal of the IPKF, in March 1990, the government could have taken appropriate measures. Unfortunately, there had been absolutely no effort on the part of the establishment to identify the threat and take counter measures. Both the government and Navy top brass failed to tackle the LTTE procurement network. Their strategy had remained the same over a long period of time. They felt that FACs could intercept arms smuggling trawlers on the northern and eastern waters. Although the cutting edge of the Navy is its FAC squadrons, they couldn’t do it on its own. The political and military leadership wrongly assumed that the FACs alone could effectively block arms replenishment efforts.

Success couldn’t have been achieved without exceptional team efforts which facilitated the Navy to meet the threat with available resources. Targeting floating warehouses had been a critical part of the action as the LTTE obviously managed to procure vast quantities of armaments from various sources. Their ability to procure Chinese arms from companies which incidentally also supplied weapons to Sri Lankan security forces is a case in point.

There is no doubt that the Navy has been largely successful in thwarting major LTTE arms replenishment efforts. Blocking of LTTE sea movements between their bases in the northern and eastern provinces during the height of the battle for the eastern province beginning Aug. 2006, had been a major task. The Navy thwarted several major attempts to move both men and material in support of LTTE units deployed in the East. The Navy also thwarted attempts to evacuate wounded cadres.

The Navy met the challenge admirably deploying most of its assets to maintain the Trincomalee-Kankesanturai sea line of communications. Since the government lost control of the overland main supply route to Jaffna, in 1990, the Navy had to meet the challenge of moving supplies to the peninsula. Although supplies meant for civilians in the peninsula were moved overland during on and off peace negotiations, the Navy had a daunting task. Since the closure of Muhamalai entry/exit point in August 2006, the Navy has been forced to keep the sea route intact. The Nordic sea monitors quit in May 2006 after the LTTE targeted a convoy carrying two monitors.

The SLN’s role in recovery of arms, ammunition and explosives, particularly the seizure of over 1000 kgs of explosives laden vehicle at the height of the war, and a hitherto unknown type of suicide device during a raid on a kovil at Velani, Kayts, emphasized the importance of intelligence-oriented ‘work.’ The SLN Intelligence has been credited with a series of successful operations and one of the most important could be the SLN’s contribution to trap the LTTE ring operating in the UK.

Several projects undertaken by the Navy during the war, while geared to meet the growing requirements of a rapidly expanding force saved funds as in the case of construction projects. The Navy has been also involved in an ambitious project to upgrade firepower of fighting vessels. It is no secret that the Navy’s failure to upgrade the main armaments onboard its FACs as planned due to negligence and corruption had caused serious problems. The Navy acquired modern sensors. The effective deployment of radar to cover coastal areas has greatly improved the decision making process with real time data available at various command locations which will facilitate tactical decision making. During the war, the SLN’s Research and Development Section made significant progress, which facilitated the action against the LTTE.

The Navy is credited with some daring amphibious landings with the largest ever conducted in the middle of 1991 to spearhead the assault to relieve the besieged Elephant Pass base. Had the Navy failed to carry out the landings, the LTTE would have overwhelmed Elephant Pass. The fall of Elephant Pass in 1991 could have had a devastating impact on isolated security forces bases in the Jaffna peninsula, with they being primarily confined to Palaly complex and KKS. Had that happened the LTTE could have taken the upper hand in the North.

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