by Taraki, March 23, 2005
The cease-fire is under increasing strain. One can discern nothing in the darkening horizon that might ease the pressure on the fragile truce.
Naturally, in these circumstances, the main question will be about the strategic equilibrium between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces today.
The near unanimous opinion in the south is that the LTTE has used the ceasefire to enhance its military strength. Now we have a very reliable report that a top-level defence committee has concluded that the Tigers are weak. This is professional opinion. Not politically motivated hearsay.
The finding of the defence committee goes against the grain of accepted wisdom in the south that the Tigers have diabolically exploited the ceasefire to boost their military might to unprecedented levels. They have even developed an air wing it is said. (Despite the fact that the Sri Lanka Army's much celebrated Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols killed Shankar, the chief of LTTE's nascent air force, four years ago)
Therefore, how can one say the Tigers are militarily weak?
The issue need not be a contradiction between what is accepted as an axiomatic truth by the majority of informed persons in the south and the assessment of the defence committee, if we take the right perspective.
If the Sri Lankan armed forces have increased their overall strength more than what the LTTE has been able to do during the last four years, then it means the Tigers are weaker.
Now let us look at some facts and figures (based on a recent assessment by a US military intelligence officer)
The SLAF bought 10 Mi-35s export versions of the Mi-24 helicopter gunship and 10 transports. The SLAF has thereby increased its attack helicopters to 24.
The Army nearly doubled its artillery, from 97 in 2001 to 187 in 2002.
The Army increased its Armoured Personnel Carriers by approximately 70 percent, from 158 to 204.
In 2001, shortly before signing the present ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in February, the Army purchased 40 new battle tanks in addition to the 25 (of which at least 18 were then operational) that it possessed.
The Air Force remained at 10,000 airmen until 2002 when it nearly doubled its size to 19,300 airmen.
In 2002, the Army's official strength increased dramatically - from 95,000 to approximately 118,000 soldiers.
In 2001, the Sri Lanka Navy increased its manpower by 80 percent to 18,000 sailors. By 2003, the Navy had approximately 20,600 sailors. It has now acquired a US coast guard cutter too.
Basically, the LTTE is completely outgunned by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
By all accounts the LTTE is known to have about six artillery pieces (including two 122 mm howitzers seized from Mullaithivu, a 152 mm gun captured from Elephant Pass) and about two batteries of 120 mm mortars. The Army has hundred and eighty seven artillery guns. The Tigers are absolutely no match for the Sri Lanka Army's firepower in a conventional war.
We all know that artillery pieces are so heavy that it is virtually impossible to transfer them to barges or floating platforms at mid-sea. The Army had to use the special heavy duty cranes at the Prima Mill dock in Trincomalee to lift its 130 mm artillery from the ships in which they were delivered. All those who tirelessly harp on the refrain that the LTTE is using the ceasefire to bring weapons to the Vanni to augment their fire power miss the main point in their amateurish military discourses.
The LTTE had no artillery or armour in its arsenal until these were captured from the Sri Lankan armed forces. A small multi-barrel rocket launcher and a heavy calibre mortar are all that the Tigers were able to acquire from outside during the war. No amount of smaller weapons that the Tigers may bring into the Vanni can have an impact on the balance of forces or on the course of a conventional war today.
And who said two or three Czech built Zlin Z - 143 aircraft can alter the course of conventional engagements?
Therefore, in terms of sheer firepower and air and naval capabilities the Sri Lankan armed forces are much stronger today than they ever were. Despite the hype and panic about the supposedly enhanced military capabilities of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan armed forces have established their position as the most superior military force in Sri Lanka.
The strategic balance in this island is quite clearly in their favour when we carefully weigh all the tangible, physically quantifiable military assets of each side.
While the Sri Lanka armed forces have nothing to report except their successful expansion and hardware acquisitions, the Tigers had to grapple with the loss of more than three thousand trained troops and weapons in the east with Karuna's defection.
And it is unanimously believed in defence and diplomatic circles that the Sea Tigers lost a substantial part of their coastal installations and naval assets.
The Sri Lankan armed forces have not been afflicted by calamities of such proportions during the last three years.
So how can one assert that the LTTE has made itself strongermilitarily during the ceasefire years?
If we are to go by these facts, the Tigers are actually much weaker than they were when they signed the ceasefire agreement with Ranil Wickremesinghe's government three years ago.
Therefore the dominant impulse driving the Sri Lankan government's priorities in the 'peace process' is inevitably shaped by the need to maintain this military advantage while denying all avenues for the LTTE to enhance its military power. This in turn would inexorably dampen the Sri Lankan state's will to come to any sort of accommodation with the Tigers, including the joint mechanism for tsunami reconstruction.
The dominant impulse in President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government is to press this 'perceived military advantage' until the LTTE becomes much weaker than it is today.
A paradox of sorts presents itself here. On the one hand the Sri Lankan state perceives a clear military advantage over the Tigers. On the other, President Kumaratunga's government and sundry armchair strategists who ceaselessly pontificate on how to rid this island of the Tigers want foreign powers to intervene militarily against LTTE forces if war breaks out again.
We read and hear numerous suggestions as to how the armies of Pakistan, the US or India should be persuaded to join the battle against the Tigers. One strategist speaks of a joint USAF-SLAF air exercise over the LTTE's so called airstrip in Iranamadu. The clamour for strong defence agreements with India and Pakistan betrays this strong desire to get a foreign army to fight the LTTE in case of another war.
If the Sri Lankan armed forces have a tangibly patent military advantage over the Tigers, how does one account for this harping on foreign intervention?
It can only mean one thing. The main ingredient in the military advantage that an army may enjoy is the trust that the people for whom it is fighting repose in its martial prowess - the confidence that a people have in their army's ability to fight the enemy. Martial self confidence is the unquantifiable but indispensable ingredient of military advantage.
The actions and pronouncements of President Kumaratunga and the clamorous intellectual cohorts of neo-Sinhala nationalism show that self-trust remains the missing ingredient in the 'perceived military advantage' which the Sri Lankan armed forces seem to enjoy today.
Posted March 25, 2005