Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Kilinochchi Battle will be Archetypal Military Disaster for Sri Lankan Army

by A., Wales, October 31, 2008

Furthermore, a brief overview of the LTTE's current deployment potential will make clear their strategic objectives for the future.

  • The rate of LTTE military actions around Jaffna has gone up.
  • Attacks on the East, Colombo, Hampanthoddai and Moneragala show that the LTTE maintains sufficient elite cadres in the east and south to continue with its military activities.
  • In defending Vanni, the LTTE has mounted three counterattacks on Mugamalai, and has engaged in more interception attacks on Divisions 57, 58 and 59.

The LTTE has kept away most of their Special Force brigades from the defensive battle, saving them for future counterattacks. In addition, the external political environment is gradually changing against the Sri Lankan state.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake assured the Sinhalese on August 18, "We are very close to Kilinochchi, which is not far from our sight." But heavy battles are continuing until now (58 days later), indicating that capturing Kilinochchi will not be an easy task. The battle is continuing from Vannerikkulam to Akkarayan, where positions held by the Army’s 58 and the 57 Divisions converged. Both Divisions are suffering heavy casualties. Troops are still 16 kilometres away from Kilinochchi.

According to government statistics, over 1,098 soldiers have been killed and more than 8,281 injured in the battles during the past nine months of this year, with the worst of the battle clearly yet to come as the military delves into the heart of Kilinochchi. By releasing figures minimising the casualties suffered by the military, without the 'Missing-In-Action' and 'Deserters' figures, the government has been able to hide the true face of the war.

Signs are that the military analysts' predictions are coming true. The number of soldiers killed each month in combat has seen a gradual increase over this year. By the end of the Ceasefire Agreement, the government had started full-scale war against the Tamils. The danger was that the war had begun out of miscalculation, misperception and escalation by the government, rather than by design.

By the end of the last decade, the army had nine divisions, but now it is organized into 13 divisions (thirty-six infantry brigades with more than eighty battalions) and several independent brigades. Each brigade has a number of infantry battalions, support arms (Artillery, Engineers and Signals) and service arms (Service Corps, Engineering Services, Ordnance Corps, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) under its command. There is one mechanized infantry brigade, one airmobile brigade, four independent Special Forces regiments with 16 Squadrons (four battalions), one commando regiment with three battalions, five armed reconnaissance battalions, and an artillery regiment of seven battalions.

The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) for the last six years have been slowly increasing its capabilities to counter mass waves and its support fire. Air strikes are being used to support the ground troops and, as well, destroy LTTE defences and installations. But these random attacks from the air mainly affect innocent civilians. Nowadays the SLAF is using guided bombs and fuel-air explosives (FAEs). Thousands of people who have lost their lives, homes, land and whole villages to the Sri Lanka armed forces still live in desperation.

During this decade, the SLAF purchased four F-7GS fighter aircraft, four MiG-27M fighters, two PT-6 aircraft and two Blue Horizon II unmanned aerial vehicles, two JY-II mobile radars, two AN-32B transports, four Mi-17V5 helicopters and three Mi-24/35 helicopters, and two K-8 aircraft and day/night cameras for the Beech King aircraft. Furthermore, they upgraded five Mi-24 helicopters and repaired the Y-12 transport aircraft fleet, three Mi-24 helicopters, two AN-32B aircraft and one Mi-17 helicopters.

Th government is intending to establish a Mi-17/Mi-24 helicopter repair facility and is proposing to acquire two Beech King aircraft fitted with maritime surveillance radar and day/night television cameras. Sources say the government strongly favours obtaining the MiG-29 jet fighter, but this has so far been resisted by the Ministry of Defence due to funding concerns.

In 2007 the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) replaced almost all the ZU-23 23mm cannons on Typhoon Mounts on SLN Fast Attack Craft with the Bushmaster Mk44 30mm cannon and established a Special Boat Squadron with a hundred small speed boats. The SLAF and the SLN have been ably supporting the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) in the advance towards Kilinochchi.

The SLA has almost triple the amount of artillery assets and fire-locating radars than it previously had during the early 2000s. The most notable of the additional was the 122mm RM-70 MBRL.

In the northern operations, the government forces launched a four-pronged attack on the LTTE-controlled areas comprising the full districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and parts of Mannar and Jaffna. The plan was to gradually encircle Kilinochchi - the current LTTE's administrative capital - from all sides.  Simultaneously, the SLA has been deploying its 'deep penetration units', operating under the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, to ambush and at the same time gain field intelligence.

The Sri Lankan had deployed ground forces comprising thirteen Divisions with 140,000 troops (120,000 active troops). Of these, Div. 21, 58 are in the Mannar front, 51, 52, 53 and 55 are in Jaffna, 56, 57, 61 are in Vanni, 59, part of Div. 22 is in Trincomalee north, facing Weli Oya, 23 in Batticaloa and the 11th Division is in a logistics, training, staff support mission. This means eleven out of thirteen Divisions are positioned facing the LTTE's heartland, comprising the Vanni and the southern parts of the Jaffna peninsula.

The army has concentrated almost four divisions for the defence of Jaffna since December 1999. Batticaloa, by contrast, was held with less than half a division (Div. 23 in Welikanthai), and was deployed with the Special Task Force (STF) and paramilitaries. Ideally, each of these divisions should have at least seven to nine thousand troops, including supporting artillery and amour units. Therefore, in theory, the army should have 80,000 – 90,000 troops deployed against the Tigers in the north at the moment.

The current strength of the LTTE against these divisions is not symmetrical, but independent sources say that the hardcore manpower of the LTTE is around 12 to 15 thousand. The auxiliary forces (Makkal Padai) raised in the Vanni by the Tigers since 2000 are estimated to number at least 40 -50 thousand. Reports from the Wanni indicate that the Tigers have mobilized at lease twenty-five percent of the population there into the semi-conventional militias. Their strength is calculated not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of factors such as sophistication of equipment, training and morale.

Actually, there is an asymmetry if one calculates the armed strength of the Sri Lankan state and that of the LTTE in terms of their military assets and access to war resources, but quality is far important than quantity.

Previous large military offensives aimed precisely at causing critical damage to the LTTE's military assets. These offensives failed, if winning a war means the destruction of the enemy's military assets and their will to fight.

In Eelam War IV, again, the Sri Lankan state made the decision between making another concerted attempt to cause critical damage to the LTTE's strategic assets in the north and preventing the Tigers from taking the offensive initiative.

The LTTE took this war to another phase when they demonstrated their air strike capability on March 26, 2007. Tamil Elam Air Force (TEAF) aircraft dropped bombs at the SLAF's main base at Katunayake, which is close to the Bandaranaike International Airport. This was the air attack which was recognised by Sri Lankan government as a first attack, but TEAF had previously targeted Palaly military base on August 2006.

After the Katunayaka air attack, the Sri lankan government enhanced its anti-aircraft capability with the help of India, Pakistan, China, Ukraine and some of the Western countries. But the TEAF successfully targeted several economically and military important installations such as Palaly military base, and the Kolonnawa and Muthurajawela oil installations, the Manalaru 22 Division brigade headquarters, Anuradhapuram air base, Trinco navel base, Vavuniya army headquarters, Mannar Army headquarters and Kelanitissa power installation without having to worry about losses over more than one year.

Small, fixed-wing aircraft operating on the modern battlefield will be exposed to anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, small arms fire, armed enemy helicopters and massed artillery. The shift from a low level threat environment to higher intensities indicates the need for more advances in survivability technology. Survivability of combat aircraft is directly related to minimizing the likelihood of being detected.  Direct line-of-sight acquisition requirements can be exploited tactically by training aircrew to fly at avery low level using terrain-masking techniques to minimize detection.

An aircraft has five distinct signatures by which its presence can be detected:  visual, acoustic, radar, infrared, and electronic. Obviously, visual detection capabilities are degraded at night or during weather that produces marginal visibility. Low altitude flight operations afford ground clutter that can degrade a radar system's capability to track and distinguish targets. Flight profiles that off-set enemy detection capabilities often require advanced aircrew skills.  Training programs that support tactical survivability concepts are essential. Acquisition and engagement may further be reduced through the use of an integrated early warning system that is tailored to sense specific threat systems.

The continuous air attack of the TEAF gave a big surprise to the Sri Lankan government regarding their night attack capability and survivability technology. The LTTE air strike capability means the defence establishment will have to evolve counter measures to secure military assets at sea and on land, troop transport ships, VIP residences and economically important installations. To a nation that is reeling under an economic crisis, such measures would be a costly burden.

However, India offered Indra-II radars and technicians for the Sri Lankan forces as a gift; some sources say that these technicians not only help the SLAF with electronic detection of the TEAF aircraft, but are also helping in the SLAF bombing campaigns in Vanni. These rumors were proven during the TEAF assault on Vavuniya military complex on September, 2008.

The Sri Lankan state, government, leadership (President Rajapakse) and ruling party are clearly conscious, unlike the UNP government of the 1980s, of the imperative for excellent relations with India.  For this, the best example was the presence of Indian forces at the SAARC summit. If they had not been present, the Sri Lankan armed forces would have had to be diverted from the Vanni operation. However, it has become fairly clear that the LTTE has not been acting on behalf of any foreign power inimical to India's interests.

From the end of 2005 until September 2008, according to government figures, the army lost more than 3,500 soldiers ( independent sources say it was more than 5,000), with more than 20,000 wounded. Desertion has plagued the army throughout the past three years. By 2008 approximately 15,000 soldiers had deserted.

The SLN has lost nine FACs, a supply ships and a few water jets.

The SLAF has lost twenty-nine planes and four helicopters in this war. Compare this with the last decades when they lost twenty-eight airplanes and nineteen helicopters (two planes and two helicopters during Eelam War II and twenty-six airplanes and sixteen helicopters during Eelam War III).

The most significant event was a special LTTE Black Tiger commando’s attacked on the Sri Lankan Air Force Base in Anuradhapuram. The “AirForces” magazine (December 2007 issue) stated that the LTTE commandos destroyed and damaged twenty-seven planes (three Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), seven PT-6s, one US-built Beechcraft 200HT, six Chinese-built K-8s, six Cessna-150s, four Italian-built Siai Marchetti Warriors) and three helicopters (one-Mi-17, two Mi-24s). In addition, a Bell-212 helicopter that came to the assistance of the SLAF in Annuradhapuram from Vavuniya also crashed and was destroyed.

Following this attack, the TEAF bombed the same Sri Lankan Air Force Base. The cost of the losses at the airbase could be anything above an estimated US$ 30 million. The first air and ground combined operation of the LTTE crippled the SLAF reconnaissance and training missions. Clearly, he Sri Lankan military loss in Eelam War IV has been significant.

Images of Georgian infantry moving under fire and Russian tanks on the attack show that the days of like armies fighting one another on battlefields are far from over. However, armies trained to fight conventional warfare need to quickly and effectively shift to special operations. Those are the real-time war tactics. For many states, Special Forces are now seen as the key tool in future conflicts, against both small group threats, as well as conventional forces. The Arurathapura air base attacks clearly showed these modern warfare tactics which have now been adopted by the LTTE.

Furthermore, a brief overview of the LTTE's current deployment potential will make clear their strategic objectives for the future battle.

  • The rate of LTTE military actions around in Jaffna has gone up.
  • Attacks on the East, Colombo, Hampanthoddai and Moneragala show that the LTTE maintains sufficient elite cadres in the east and south to continue with its military activities.
  • In defending Vanni, the LTTE has mounted three counterattacks on Mugamalai, and has engaged in more interception attacks on Divisions 57, 58 and 59.

The LTTE has kept away most of their Special Force brigades from the defensive battle, saving them for future counterattacks. In addition, the external political environment is gradually changing against the Sri Lankan state.

The LTTE's ability to comprehensively wreck the heartland of the Sri Lankan state is now well recognised. Destroying the enemy's military assets and their will to fight is the defining aim of all wars.

The SLA invaded Vanni with the intention of drawing the LTTE forces into a decisive battle, but the LTTE adopted a strategy of retreat-in-depth, pulling back rather than engaging in offensive battle with the massed army, and destroying any supply lines that will be a breaking point for the future counter assault. Therefore, the LTTE counterattack in Vanni will be hammering the final nail into the Sri Lankan coffin in the Northern front.