Right-sizing the Sri Lanka Army

by Major General Boniface Perera, Ph.D., Daily Mirror Opinion, Colombo, November 29, 2022

[Also Time to make the Sri Lanka Army leaner and meaner – Hard talk | Daily Mirror]

  • The prime responsibility of the Army is to provide protection to the citizens and safeguard territorial Integrity and Sovereignty
  • The veteran Indian diplomat turned security expert says that between 1983 and 2009, 80,000 to 100,000 people, including combatants from both sides, lost their lives. Among them were 30,000 to 50,000 civilians, 27,693 LTTE cadres, 23,962 Sri Lankan army personnel, and 1,155 men of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)
  • If Sri Lanka is to be rescued from the economic morass through an IMF bailout, it needs to reduce its military spending, which stands at 410 Billion Rupees

The size of the armed forces is a topic of perennial interest and debate, as each year’s Budget sets in. The number of military personnel in each Service is directly related to how many units of various types they can deploy for use in operational missions. The number of military personnel also affects the cost of the military. More personnel require additional funding for their pay and benefits; combined into units, they require additional funding for training, operations, equipment, maintenance, and travel. The number of military personnel also has a long-term impact on the country’s economy and taxpayers.

The concept of military power takes into account both the quantity of Stateʼs resources and its level of economic development. The size of the Army is mainly determined by analyzing the internal and external threats the country is facing in addition to various other factors like natural and man-made disasters, population density, size of the country, neighbourhoods, foreign policy etc.

The prime responsibility of the Army is to provide protection to the citizens and safeguard territorial Integrity and Sovereignty. Taking into consideration the past experiences including the civil wars the Country had to fight in the South and North and numerous factors, the necessity of a Sizable and effective Army is of utmost importance.
Sri Lanka Army was born on 10th October 1949 as the Ceylon Army at the end of the Second World War and the dawn of independence to the country.

Ceylon was under three colonial powers: Portugal, Holland and Britain were responsible for the Defence of the country. The severing of the colonial connection brought this to an end in 1948. That was the time, the founding fathers of the new nation-state gave their minds to the Defence needs of the country. Decolonization after world war 11 was taking place rapidly but communism was supplanting imperialism, particularly in South East Asia. With this threat perception in mind, a decision was taken to raise professional armed forces to supplement the already existing Volunteer forces of the Army and the Navy. In the interim period of the build-up of these forces to professional standards, a Defence pact with Britain was negotiated and signed in 1947. This pragmatic arrangement not only ensured Defence against external aggression or internal strife but also provided for the professional training of the personnel and the supply of equipment for the nascent forces. From then onwards there were numerous occasions in which the Army in particular was called out in aid to the civil authorities especially in 1956 with the promulgation of “Sinhala “only as the official language.

1971 JVP insurrection

In 1971, there was widespread youth unrest and for the first time, the Army and the security forces had to face an Armed enemy who also used explosive devices in their operations. The Army was widely deployed and the Government had to request foreign assistance for manpower and equipment. The assistance requested from friendly nations was generously provided and the uprising was brought under the control in a few months.

1.    1976 Non-Aligned Summit Conference

In 1976, Non – Aligned Summit of over 90 Heads of state or Government took place in Colombo. The Army was very much involved in this event which was perhaps the largest “Peacetime” operation carried out by the Army and other forces. The tremendous success of this conference and the arrangements made for it were a morale booster to the nation and the Army earned high encomiums.

2.    1983 Black July 

On 23 July 1983 at around 11`30 pm, the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE; also known as the Tamil Tigers) ambushed the military patrol in Thirunelveli, near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. A roadside bomb was detonated beneath a jeep that was leading the convoy, injuring at least two soldiers on board. Soldiers travelling in the truck behind the jeep then dismounted to help their fellow soldiers. Subsequently, they were ambushed by a group of Tamil Tiger fighters who fired at them with automatic weapons and hurled grenades. In the ensuing clash, one officer and twelve soldiers were killed. A number of the rebels were also killed.

(The writer at this time was a young officer in the rank of second Lieutenant who served the Sri Lanka Army Sinha Regiment as a Platoon Commander. The writer with his platoon carried out a night patrol the previous night of the deadly ambush along the same route and was lucky enough to survive as the terrorists’ ambush was not ready to launch.)

Strategic mistake made by the then President

The Army—including its commander, Tissa Weeratunga—decided that the funerals of those 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna shouldn’t be held in Jaffna because of the high likelihood of disturbances at multiple locations. The decision was made to hold the funerals, with full military honours, at Kanatte Cemetery, Colombo’s main burial ground, instead.

Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, fearing violence, was against holding the funeral in Colombo, but was overruled by President J. R. Jayewardene. The President, the Prime Minister, and the rest of the Cabinet were to attend the funeral, which was to take place at 5 p.m. on 24 July. This arrangement went against the standard procedure of handing over fallen soldiers to their families for burial in their home villages.

Preparations were made for the funeral, including putting the riot squad at the police station in nearby Borella on standby; but by 5 p.m. the bodies hadn’t arrived in Colombo. The soldiers’ families wanted the bodies handed over to them and to be buried according to tradition. Due to procedural issues, the bodies were still at Palali Army Camp near Jaffna. The bodies were eventually moved from Palali Air Force Base shortly after 6 p.m.

Whilst this was occurring, tensions were growing at Colombo General Cemetery because of the delay. A large crowd, including around 1,000-1,500 people started gathering at the cemetery, angered by news of the ambush, which was magnified by wild rumour.

The Avroe plane carrying the bodies arrived at Ratmalana Airport at 7.20 p.m., by which time the crowd at the cemetery had swollen to more than 5,000. The crowd wanted the bodies to be handed over to the families rather than to be buried at the cemetery.

Violence broke out between the crowd and the Police, and the riot squad was summoned. The riot squad then fired tear gas at the crowd and baton-charged them before handing control of the situation over to the Army.
The pilot who landed in the Jaffna Fort rescue mission, Flying Officer Lasantha Waidayaratna was one of the eyewitnesses of the incident. The President then decided to cancel the military funeral and hand the bodies over to the families.

However, the initial wrong decision of the then President has been openly criticized by many intellectuals as it was identified as the main reason to spark the series of incidents of black July. As a result, hundreds of innocent Tamil civilians were killed.

The economic cost of the riots was estimated to be $300 million. The NGO -International Commission of Jurists-described the pogrom as a genocide in a report published in December 1983.

Sri Lankan Tamils fled to other countries in the ensuing years, and a large number of Tamil youth joined militant groups. Black July is generally seen as the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka.

LTTEʼs 26-year brutal war cost us $200 billion.

The United Nations estimated a total of 80,000–100,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankanʼs, mainly minority Tamils, displaced as refugees inside the country and abroad.

Sri Lankaʼs 26-year internal war had cost the country around US$ 200 billion according to India’s former National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary, Shivshankar Menon. In his book Choices: Inside the Making of India Foreign Policy, Menon says that this estimate does not include the “opportunity cost” to Sri Lanka which was once the fastest-growing and the most open economy in South Asia.

About deaths, the veteran Indian diplomat turned security expert says that between 1983 and 2009, 80,000 to 100,000 people, including combatants from both sides, lost their lives. Among them were 30,000 to 50,000 civilians, 27,693 LTTE cadres, 23,962 Sri Lankan army personnel, and 1,155 men of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).

The final stages of the war had created a little over 300,000 refugees or Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The war had also left 1.6 million land mines in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The socioeconomic impact of the unnecessary war was good enough to understand the price we as a nation had to pay due to the wrong strategic decision of the then President.

I also should mention that LTTE lost the 26-year civil war mainly due to strategic mistakes Prabhakaran as the leader made including the killing of Indian former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

SLA -Citizens still respect

In 2006, just before the start of the conflictʼs final phase, retired Indian Lieutenant General A.S. Kalkat in 2006 declared that there was no armed resolution to the conflict. Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against Lankan Tamil insurgents.”

The Sri Lanka Army, together with his sister services disproving General A.S. Kalkatʼs prediction, defeated the LTTE gaining control of the territory held by it and with the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and capturing all the areas held by it.

Since the start of Eelam War 1 at Tirunelveli in Jaffna and its end at Nandikadal, Sri Lanka Army played the most difficult and a pivotal role.

During the 26-year-long civil war, 23,962 brave soldiers in Sri Lanka Army gave away their lives and one can understand the number of sacrifices made by the soldiers.

The army being the land force had to bear heavy casualties and the role played is unparalleled throughout the civil war. They brought peace to this island and with the dawn of peace could be seen the glow of happiness and hope for the future on the faces of every citizen. Soldiers have a special place in every citizensʼs heart in this country.

The Navy needs new equipment

Sri Lanka being an island nation much emphasis should be paid to equip the Navy due to the following justifications. It was evident that during the separatist war, Tamil militants were using the sea to get their weapons from other countries. The Sri Lanka Navy was given a chance to show its value only during the last phase of the war in 2006-2009.

Naval actions in this period proved to be invaluable. Navy with limited resources sailed 4000 km deep into the International sea and destroyed 8 LTTE warehouses which carried 100,000 each of 122, 130 and 155mm Artillery Ammunition and 60mm and 81mm Mortar Ammunition. This was the turning point of the war. Sri Lanka is yet to realise that threats to it are not from within its land area but from the sea. Sri Lanka has no land border with any country. Terrorists, smugglers of drugs and humans, pirates and illegal fishers, the new threats, emanating from the sea. There is also a vast Exclusive Economic Zone to safeguard. But the navy is ill-equipped to face these threats, Navy should be equipped with long-range reconnaissance aircraft to carry out reconnaissance of the vast ocean around the island in addition to a long-range radar system. Given the emergence of new forms of warfare, Sri Lanka has to reorient its thinking and put emphasis not on manpower so much but on the acquisition of new skills and equipment. The Indian army as well as China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) have taken steps to make their forces “leaner and meaner.”The Indian Agnipath Scheme for temporary recruitment and the modernization schemes envisaged by China’s Central Military Commission is geared toward achieving that goal. It’s time Sri Lanka followed suit.

Allocation of the defence budget

The Ministry of Defence has been allocated 410 billion rupees, with the army getting 209 billion rupees, the Navy 75 billion rupees and Air Force 66 billion rupees and a multi-task force getting 9.8 billion rupees.

The Ministry of Public Security has been allocated 129 billion rupees with 116 billion going to the Police. The Police and military have received 539 billion rupees. In an attempt to understand Sri Lankaʼs current economic crisis, some have pointed to Sri Lankaʼs high military spending as one cause of the country’s financial crisis.

As Sri Lanka embarks on this difficult economic recovery, it must rein in military expenditure and address the more dire needs of a suffering population. Sri Lanka which ranks 58 according to the size of its population and ranks 65 in terms of GDP, has the 17th largest military in the world. As a percentage of GDP, Sri Lanka spends nearly 2% on military expenses, an extraordinarily high amount for a country that does not face an existential security threat.

In addition, unlike other countries, Sri Lanka does not have a military-industrial sector that produces weapons or ammunition, either for itself or for export. Therefore, much of the capital expenditure incurred by the military is primarily for imports that hardly create any economic activity within the country other than for commissions for a selected few.

Many intellectuals are of the opinion that, even 13 years after the end of the separatist conflict, the military has not significantly reduced its numbers, nor restructured itself to suit the different challenges and realities of a post-conflict, democratic country.

The Tri Forces and paramilitary groups such as the home guards total more than 350,000 according to publicly available data.

They further argued that as Sri Lanka faces its worst economic crisis in history, it is essential to drastically curtail military spending and prioritise expenditure to ease the burden on the public, by providing them essential welfare such as education and health and reducing the tax burden by reducing unnecessary spending. The 2023 Budget should have more seriously considered the impacts of the economic crisis and difficulties faced by the majority.
Some argue that the army size is far too big

Scholars have pointed out that Sri Lanka has an Army far too big for its size and population, and has a military that is ill-suited to meet the new strategic needs. It is further noted that, despite this assessment, no meaningful steps have been taken to rationalise the size of the army which is bigger than the British Army in size and expenditure pattern.

About deaths, the veteran Indian diplomat turned security expert says that between 1983 and 2009, 80,000 to 100,000 people, including combatants from both sides, lost their lives. Among them were 30,000 to 50,000 civilians, 27,693 LTTE cadres, 23,962 Sri Lankan army personnel, and 1,155 men of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF)

The evolution of a military doctrine suited to emerging threat scenarios is also not evident. Also, the concern is the size of the military in terms of the number of personnel, their salaries and pensions in light of the fact that the separatist war ended 13 years ago.

Then there is the related issue of the militarization of the civilian administration that is raised by the civilian society.
If Sri Lanka is to be rescued from the economic morass it finds itself in through an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, it needs to reduce its military spending, which stands at 410 Billion Rupees for the year 2023.

Sri Lanka needs to carry out a Strategic Defence and Security Review to reduce its military spending and remove the military from engaging in commercial activities, that Sri Lanka meets the criteria required for the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus, and Sri Lanka re-engages with the United Nations Human Rights Council process and fully implements resolution 30/1; “and calls upon the Government to implement targeted sanctions. Sri Lankan politicians fear that even a significant reduction could trigger another insurgency which the country cannot afford. And traditionally, the armed forces have been used to aid the civil administration in Sri Lanka even in fuel rationing, de-hoarding, traffic control and tackling civil unrest. This is a factor militating against reducing the size of the forces. But there is a pressing need to reduce. Australian National University (ANU) National

Security College Senior Research Fellow Dr David Brewster told The Morning in September: “Sri Lanka’s armed forces are far too large and do not have the right focus or equipment. There are way too many soldiers, meaning that money is spent on personnel costs rather than equipment. “In order to modernise and refocus on current threats, the Sri Lankan armed forces (principally the Army) will need to be reduced in size, with much greater spending on the Navy and Air Force, with military personnel having much greater technical expertise. Sri Lanka is an island state, but its armed forces do not currently reflect this. Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore points out that despite the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Lanka’s defence budget has not seen a significant decline or any major change in its composition. The budgets appear to have no relationship to the emerging strategic environment and risks, and it can be observed that despite the radically altered strategic environment since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, defence expenditure keeps on rising annually which is a burden to the citizens, especially at a time of economic crisis. The share of government pension expenditure accruing to military personnel has risen from 14.5 per cent to over 17 per cent in just three years. Sri Lanka spent around US$1 billion on pensions, so military pensions cost the taxpayer approximately US$170 million per year. In the entire Asian continent, only Nepal and Tajikistan spend a greater share of their defence spending on personnel.
Another reason for the higher expenditure on personnel, according to scholars is that Sri Lanka does not have reserves.

President Gota’s policies deepened the crisis

Many policies of the administration of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa led to the aggravation of the economic crisis. The tax cuts given in 2019, when Sri Lanka was already seeing low tax revenues, led to larger fiscal deficits, resulting in international rating agencies downgrading Sri Lanka, effectively shutting the country out of international capital markets. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a fall in tourists and remittance sent home by Sri Lankans working abroad, further exacerbated the situation. The chemical fertilizer ban was another mistake, as admitted by the former president himself, which led to agricultural output decreasing significantly.

The provision of 100000 jobs in the Government sector was another politically motivated but unwise decision by the former president. Fixing the currency exchange rate at 203 Sri Lankan rupees to the U.S. dollar by using up foreign reserves and deferring engagement with the IMF led the economic crisis to spiral out of control.
But a large share of the blame lies in the structural issues of the Sri Lankan economy. Macro risk factors, such as a 26-year-long civil war, cultural predispositions against foreign direct investment, public scepticism about privatization, populist policies, and low taxes have all led to where the country is at the moment.

What needs to be done?

Key Economic Reforms Needed for Sri Lanka include right-sizing the public sector including Armed Forces, Army in Particular.

According to Talal Rafi and Sirimal Aberatne, Sri Lanka requires wide-ranging economic reforms for long-term sustainable growth to service its debt obligations and to emerge from this crisis stronger. A stable monetary policy is important to keep macroeconomic stability and confidence in the local currency. The current economic crisis Sri Lanka is facing makes it very evident that an independent Central Bank is of the utmost importance. An independent Central Bank that can refuse to print money can force the Treasury to take fiscal consolidation seriously. Having more professionals in Central Bank committees and giving them a fixed term can allow them to make long-term policy decisions on interest rates and reserve requirements without political interference.
Tax reforms are essential for revenue-based fiscal consolidation, another prerequisite for economic sustainability. Instead of merely increasing taxes, the government should widen the tax base and implement a system to efficiently collect taxes.

Reform is needed to rein in state expenditure as well. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a colossal drain on the state coffers. This has resulted in a deepening fiscal deficit. The management of state-owned enterprises is inefficient as the ruling parties use SOEs for short-term political gains, resulting in a loss of focus on a long-term sustainable strategy for SOEs. As the chairperson and the Board of Directors of SOEs are appointed by the relevant government ministries, they tend to be political party loyalists. This leads to failures and Malpractices in almost all SOEs.

Public sector

In Sri Lanka, just over one in six of the country’s total workforce is employed by the state. The total state sector workforce amounts to 1.4 million employees, which resulted in 86 per cent of the government tax revenue in 2021 going to paying the salaries of state sector employees. To make matters worse, a staggering 71 per cent of government revenue goes to paying the interest on Sri Lankaʼs sovereign debts. Paying the salaries of state sector employees and interest costs alone results in a large fiscal deficit, which is managed by more borrowing and quantitative easing. This also leaves very little room for government investment in healthcare, education, and other development projects.

Right-sizing – army in particular

Although right-sizing the Public sector, Armed Forces and Army in particular is a need of the hour, politicians are hesitant to openly discuss it as it can raise controversial questions and is a matter of debate. Furthermore, it is not very practical now in view of the local Government election scheduled in March 2023.

The Peopleʼs Liberation Army planned to reduce its 2.3 million strong Army to two million and definitely to reform a leaner and mightier force. Indian Army too planned to size down in areas which are not of operational importance due to budgetary constraints. It was thought practical to not only increase the budget allocation but to right-size the Indian Army.

The Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence needs to appoint a high-level study to determine and recommend a tooth-to-tail ratio, a military term that refers to the amount of military personnel it takes to supply and support (tail) each combat soldier (tooth).

The utmost important aspect of economic reform will be the right sizing of the 1.4 million public sectors, the armed forces and army in particular within the next 5-10 years without harming them and their families. It cannot be done hastily but need a scientific approach. Without this economic reform will only be a distant dream and no one cannot prevent Sri Lankaʼs situation from going from bad to worse.

The writer is an International Research writer carried out research, analyzing the defence expenditures and threat perspective in Japan, Sweden, Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, China, India, Bangladesh, and Israel to Sri Lanka. It was evident that Sri Lankaʼs defence expenditures were only second to Israel’s.

But in terms of GDP Sri Lanka was at the bottom and the threat perspective was very minimal at present other than an uprising of the local population against the Government due to economical hardship.

Finally, taking into consideration the factors and justifications given above President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government of Sri Lanka will have no other alternative or substitute other than right-sizing the public sector, Armed Forces and Army in Particular.

The writer is the former Security Forces Commander (Wanni), the competent authority for internally-displaced persons in the North, the Colonel Commandant of Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment, the world top-ten in National Defence Studies (China), a Doctor in Economics and Architect of Wanni Bogaswewa Resettlement Project with 36 years of active military service, presently working as an international writer and researcher. The writer being an infantryman fought the same war against the LTTE for more than 20 years.

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