Sunday, May 09, 2010

Strategic Analysis of Sri Lankan Military’s Counter-Insurgency Operations

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

FDI Associate

12 February 2010


Sri Lanka’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in
May 2009, offers interesting insights and lessons in confronting an
intractable and formidable insurgency. To achieve victory, Sri Lanka
transformed its military and adopted new tactics. The role of defeating
the LTTE was primarily assigned to the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), which
mobilised its resources for the largest military campaign in the
country’s history.


Service Transformation

The Sri Lankan military’s process of transformation began in earnest
with the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse in November 2007.
He immediately appointed the pragmatist and reformer Gotabaya Rajapakse,
a retired Lieutenant-Colonel (also his brother) to the key position of
Defence Secretary. Subsequently, as quoted in Business Today, Gotabaya
Rajapakse adopted measures to restructure the military that markedly
differed from those of his predecessors:

‘The hallmarks of the new radical approach included the appointment of
tried and tested commanders; leaders who were brave and had battlefield
experience, purchasing of new weaponry alongside an increased and fervent
recruitment and training agenda.’

Accordingly, General Sarath Fonseka (at the time a Lieutenant General
and, most recently, the Chief of Defence Staff), was appointed to command
the army, which led to the implementation of reforms. Infantry training
doctrine was revamped to emphasise section level small unit infantry
operations (the traditional platoon concept was dropped). Instead, the
Special Infantry Operations Team (SIOT) concept was now standardised.

SIOT operated in eight-man teams and was first introduced by General
Fonseka in 2002. The SIOT training programme involved a one-month basic
commando endurance course. Soldiers who passed were subsequently given
18 weeks of additional training in jungle warfare, explosives handling,
medical training, and the use of signals communications to act as
spotters for the co-ordination of artillery and air strikes. SIOTs were
then deployed to offensive formations, with each rifle company being
allocated six reconnaissance teams that also acted as field instructors
to uplift infantry standards and impart SIOT skills.

By late 2006, the numbers of SIOT-trained soldiers had increased to
around 6,000 from approximately 1,500 prior to the start of hostilities.
In some cases, entire infantry companies were SIOT trained. According
to General Fonseka:

‘They were very well trained soldiers who could operate independently
for a imited time. When the war started, we could push them into
jungles effectively, supported by Special Forces and Commandos, which
put the LTTE off-balance on the ground.’

Cumulatively, these measures saw a major transformation in the army’s
ethos, organisation and doctrine, which prepared it to absorb the
challenge of full scale hostilities.

Eastern Province

After sustained tensions, full-scale hostilities commenced in August
2006, when the LTTE forced a major confrontation by closing the Mavil
Aru sluice gate in the Eastern Province, depriving over 20,000 farmers
in government-controlled areas of irrigation waters. In response, the
government launched a limited military operation to capture the sluice
gate. The LTTE further escalated hostilities, however, by launching a
major offensive against five military bases south of Trincomalee harbour
to distract the military from securing its objective, to isolate and
render the Trincomalee naval dockyard inoperable and to sever the
vital maritime logistical link to nearly 50,000 garrison troops defending
the Jaffna Peninsula. Despite its best efforts, the LTTE was defeated at
Mavil Aru, and its offensive to the south of Trincomalee harbour was also
repelled, which enabled the army to bring reinforcements and launch local

It transpired that the failed LTTE offensive in the Eastern Province was a
prelude to another major LTTE offensive on the Jaffna Peninsula. The LTTE
commenced its attack on 11 August 2006, with a massive artillery barrage
on the Muhamalai defence line followed by amphibious attacks at other
strategic locations. Apart from initial gains, the army held its ground and
launched counter-attacks, which rapidly evicted the LTTE from its lodgements,
but at Muhamalai heavy fighting continued until the army recaptured its
original positions on 26 August.

The failure of the LTTE’s main offensive demonstrated the limitations of its
military power and capabilities, which boosted the confidence of the military
in regaining the initiative. As a result, the army went onto the offensive in
the Eastern Province to exploit its initial successes. Commando and Special
Forces units operating either in four-or eight-man teams were used extensively,
and enhanced the army’s real-time battlefield intelligence capability.
Irregular army units frequently infiltrated LTTE controlled areas, by sea or
through the jungle, which dominated large tracts of the Eastern Province, and
acquired targets for artillery and air strikes, jammed communications, attacked
listening posts and mortar positions and ambushed reconnaissance teams, convoys
and field commanders. Over a period of time, key LTTE-controlled areas started
falling into army hands, such as Muttur and Sampur, then Verugal Aru and
subsequently Vakarai, its last urban stronghold in the Eastern Province.
Similarly, the Sri Lanka Police (SLP) paramilitary arm, the Special Task Force,
overran 12 LTTE camps in the southern recesses of the province, which had
channelled LTTE guerrilla units towards the remote Toppigala jungles, the last
LTTE redoubt in the Eastern Province.

From the outset of hostilities in the Eastern Province, the implications of the
2004 split between the LTTE and Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias Karuna
Amman), who broke away with 3,000 fighters and was subsequently referred to as
the Karuna Group, were felt.

The Karuna Group disbanded its army and went underground with 500-600 fighters,
defected to the government and was heavily active in operations against the LTTE.
Due to fears of infiltration, the LTTE could no longer rely heavily on the
loyalties of eastern ethnic Tamils and consequently recruitment markedly
diminished. Hence, when hostilities erupted in 2006, the LTTE’s strength in the
Eastern Province never regenerated to more than around 4,000 fighters. Most LTTE
senior commanders in the Eastern Province were northern ethnic Tamils who lacked
local knowledge and understanding of the region’s dynamics. The LTTE could not
compete with the Karuna Group’s intimate local knowledge of the population and
terrain, which enabled it to harass LTTE supply lines and attack isolated

Increasingly, the LTTE in the Eastern Province operated more like a conventional
army of occupation, rather than an insurgent force, often arresting, torturing and
killing dozens of Tamil civilians on suspicion of being Karuna Group loyalists or
informants. While ethnic Tamils were bitterly divided between loyalties to the LTTE
and the Karuna Group, for the LTTE, its situation in the Eastern Province was
further compounded by demographic obstacles, where large populations of ethnic
Sinhalese and Muslims were strongly against the LTTE. Unlike the Northern Province,
which is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Tamils, the Eastern Province turned
into an increasingly hostile environment for the LTTE.

The army was able to exploit these inherent advantages and drove the LTTE from
zone to zone throughout the Eastern Province and channelled retreating LTTE forces
towards the Toppigala jungles, which were overrun by August 2007. The army’s victory
in the Eastern Province led to the recapture of an estimated 6,500 km2 of territory
previously controlled by the LTTE. It also destroyed the conventional military
capability of the LTTE in the region and left it unable to conduct anything more
than low intensity operations. Thereafter, the Eastern Province was largely held
by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), SLP and the Civil
Force militia (formerly known as the Home Guard), in collaboration with the Karuna
Group, which enabled the army to withdraw and concentrate its troops for the
looming campaign in the Vanni.

Vanni Operation

The Vanni campaign, which took place in an area that comprises most of Sri Lanka’s
Northern Province, began in March 2007, six months prior to the fall of Toppigala,
while LTTE forces in the Eastern Province were progressively encircled and reduced.
Due to the army’s continued growth, the 57th Division was raised and deployed
north-west of Vavuniya for the “Vanni Operation”, the main campaign against the
LTTE. The 57th Division, which consisted of three infantry brigades and a Special
Forces regiment, forced the LTTE to divert much of its forces from other fronts to
contest its advance. As General Fonseka stated:

‘The LTTE for the last so many years had been holding onto this land and
believed in not giving even an inch of land. They thought they had developed
a conventional army capability. They never wanted the army to come and
capture even a small village. We were like two armies fighting. In Vavuniya,
to capture some small villages we fought for about eight months without

Indeed, throughout most of 2007, the LTTE successfully repelled five major assaults
and, in June 2007, even launched a series of counterattacks that forced the 57th
Division to fallback six kilometres from its original positions.

These successes, however, proved to be short lived. As on several other fronts, the
years 2006 and 2007 were militarily disastrous for the LTTE, which faced growing
manpower shortages, logistical problems and heightened commando and Special Forces
activity in rear areas. The loss of the Eastern Province, for instance, with the
deaths of many experienced LTTE fighters was, from a recruitment and retention
perspective, a critical blow to its finite manpower resources. This may explain
why most of the remaining LTTE fighters in the Eastern Province, estimated to be
around 600-800, were ordered to return to the Vanni.

In addition, the spectacular SLN successes against the Sea Tigers over the same
period led to the destruction of 11 LTTE trawlers and six warehouse ships,
containing large consignments of weapons, ammunition and equipment. Although the
LTTE had massive stockpiles of artillery and mortar ammunition at its disposal,
the SLN achievements had a major long-term impact that became noticeable as the
campaign escalated.

Moreover, even while the Eastern Province campaign intensified, commando and
Special Forces units were extensively used behind LTTE lines and were engaged in
Long Range Patrols (LRP) and Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP). These
operations led to the interception and elimination of numerous LTTE field
commanders, guerrilla groups and fortifications. The impact of these operations
forced restrictions on the movement of LTTE field commanders, compelling it to
redeploy manpower resources – sorely needed at the frontline – to undertake sweeps
and force protection duties in rear areas.

To compensate for its strategic deficiency, the LTTE used its nascent air wing,
the Air Tigers, to project force across the island and, in addition, heavily used
suicide bombers and assassins to wage a deadly low intensity campaign throughout
Sri Lanka, targeting key politicians, government officials, military commanders
and critical infrastructure. The military, however, adopted stringent security
measures to contain and intercept LTTE cells, aided by increasingly successful
intelligence gathering operations, which drastically reduced the incidence of
suicide terrorism.

In anticipation of a prolonged and bloody military campaign it is likely that
these considerations influenced the LTTE leadership to primarily adopt a defensive
military strategy and rely on a series of static defence lines. General Fonseka
confirms that:

‘Earlier we had eight-man teams operating very effectively, infiltrating LTTE
lines and hitting them from the flanks and rear and inflicting a lot of
casualties. In the jungle they also found that our soldiers were hitting them
from all directions. So they found it very uncomfortable in the jungles.
Sometimes they used bulldozers to clear the jungles to create a field of fire
to ensure that we didn’t have cover to hit them from the flanks or rear. So
wherever there were large open areas the LTTE constructed bunds [earthen
embankments] and fire positions and a lot of artillery fire was targeted onto
the area in front of the bund. The whole area in front of the bund was fully
mined, a large amount of anti-personnel mines, even anti-tank mines, and so
it becomes like a killing ground.’

Three metre high earth bunds and ditch-cum-bund (DCB) fortifications were built
by the LTTE using civilian labour. Often stretching for several kilometres in
length, they were designed to forestall or delay the army by inflicting heavy
casualties. The army encountered numerous such obstacles, most notably the 55th
Division, which overran 14 earth bunds after it recaptured the Jaffna Peninsula
and advanced down the north-eastern coastline. The largest of the LTTE’s DCB
fortifications were a 22 kilometre stretch from Nachchikuda to Akkarayankulam
and a 12 kilometre long DCB ring in defence of Kilinochchi.

Equally concerning for the LTTE was the unexpectedly rapid growth of the
military, particularly the army, which capitalised on its unbroken string of
major victories that included withstanding the LTTE attacks on the Jaffna
Peninsula, defeating the LTTE in the Eastern Province and the capture of two
strategic Sea Tiger bases: Silawathurai and Arippu, south of Mannar. As General
Fonseka attested to Business Today:

‘Earlier we would recruit approximately 3,000 per year, but now [in
December 2008] we are achieving targets of 3,000 per month. Immediately
after Mavil Aru in August 2006, we managed to recruit 6,000 in a single
month. In 2007, the total number of recruits was 32,000 and this year [2008]
we have already recruited 34,000. So we have sufficient reserves now. I
created 50 new battalions.’

As a result, in 2007-2008, new offensive formations were raised, including: the
58th Division (initially known as Task Force 1) in September 2007, the 59th
Division in January 2008, Task Force 2 in November 2007, Task Force 3 in November
2008, and Task Force 4 in December 2008. In the same period, the Commando Regiment
expanded from three to five regiments; the Special Forces Regiment also grew from
three to five regiments and the artillery expanded from five to eight regiments.
Furthermore, by December 2008, over 30,000 infantrymen were SIOT trained, which
meant that as the campaign progressed, the LTTE faced increasingly well-trained
infantry in the field. The army’s numerical superiority was a major reason why it
was also able to continuously maintain the initiative in spite of heavy casualties.
From 2006-2009, the army claims to have lost 191 officers and 5,082 other ranks
illed and 901 officers and 27,221 other ranks wounded (an approximate killed to
wounded ratio of 1:6). In fact, officer casualties were so high that over 1,500
Sergeants and Corporals were commissioned as officers to meet shortages and
operational exigencies.

The raising of the 58th Division, which consisted of two infantry brigades and a
commando regiment deployed to the north-east of Mannar, adjoining the
north-western coast, forced the LTTE again to divert forces and enabled the 57th
Division to make gradual inroads into LTTE territory.

In January 2008, the Vanni Operation entered a decisive stage with the deployment
of the 59th Division, north of Trincomalee, along Sri Lanka’s north-eastern
seaboard. These three divisions were deployed to undertake the bulk of the fighting,
which forced the LTTE to sustain increasingly heavy casualties and stretch its
resources across four fronts, as General Fonseka affirms:

‘With one division only [57th Division], north-west of Vavuniya we were
killing about 10 terrorists a day. When we inducted the Mannar division [58th
Division], then again they were also killing about seven to eight LTTE [per
day], so then we were killing over 15 LTTE a day. When I inducted the
eastern flank division [59th Division] in 2008 January, they were also killing
about seven to eight cadres a day, so it went up to about over 20 a day.’

The army strategy demonstrated that the capture of territory, while important,
was secondary. Instead, the main objective shifted to inflicting high attrition
rates on the LTTE and maintaining the initiative by launching continuous offensive
operations along multiple thrust lines, to divide and destroy LTTE forces piecemeal.
This was in large measure enabled by the supplementary firepower and air support
provided by the SLAF, in the form of aerial reconnaissance, close air support and
casualty evacuation, all of which greatly assisted the army’s operations.

The LTTE was forced to simultaneously defend four strategically vital approaches
with each division having a broader strategic objective: the 58th Division focused
on sealing the north-west coastline and opening a direct road link to the Jaffna
Peninsula; the 57th Division’s main goal was the capture of Kilinochchi, the de
LTTE capital; and the 59th Division set its objectives on sealing the north-eastern
coastline from Weli Oya and to capture Puthukudirippu (PTK), the LTTE command and
logistical headquarters. Finally, the 53rd and 55th Divisions, which had previously
garrisoned the Jaffna Peninsula, forced the LTTE to commit forces to prevent a
breakthrough on its northern frontage. Sealing the north-western coastline applied
major pressure on vital LTTE logistical operations from Tamil Nadu, a transhipment
hub for the smuggling of arms, ammunition and other accessories into the Vanni.
Furthermore, the advance along the north-western seaboard also reduced the
prospect of thousands of refugees fleeing to Tamil Nadu and prevented potentially
serious political fallout with India.

The LTTE only belatedly realised its growing military predicament, namely that it
lacked the manpower and material resources to face a massive and sustained
conventional campaign on such a scale. Its increasingly tenuous sea lines of
communication with Tamil Nadu and the outside world meant that the LTTE maritime
and logistical wings found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate
the SLN cordon and, therefore, supplies such as artillery and mortar ammunition were
no longer available in the quantities required.

Additionally, the SLN defeated the Sea Tigers, killing nearly one thousand of
guerrillas and destroying over 300 enemy boats. The large attrition rates inflicted by
the army, which eventually overran 20 Sea Tiger bases, forced the LTTE increasingly to
deploy the Sea Tigers in ground operations and also contributed to the weakening of its
operational capabilities. Hence, the only option for the LTTE was to force into service
tens of thousands of children and adults, including men over the ages of 40-50. The
LTTE also suffered from a worsening manpower shortfall due to the steadily higher
casualties inflicted by the army, which saw increasing numbers of LTTE field
commanders and veteran guerrillas killed in action; losses that were irreplaceable.
In 2006, the army claims to have killed over 1,700 LTTE fighters; in 2007 the figure
was over 4,800; in 2008 it was over 8,300 and, finally, in 2009 it exceeded 7,200.

Apart from inflicting casualties, the army’s first pivotal strategic victory occurred
when the 58th Division sealed the north-west coastline and linked with troops on the
Jaffna Peninsula, effectively severing a critical supply line with Tamil Nadu. Thereafter,
in the western Vanni, the 58and 57Divisions’ rapid advance reached its limit outside the
heavily defended DCB ring around Kilinochchi.

While the battle of Kilinochchi raged for over two months, the 58th Division’s flanking
advance towards Paranthan, a key road junction to the north, threatened to encircle
LTTE forces in Kilinochchi. Simultaneously, the 59th Division supported by three new
formations in the central and western Vanni (Task Forces 2, 3, and 4), had, by
December 2009, threatened to overrun the vital LTTE command and logistical nerve-
centre at PTK. The LTTE opted to withdraw its remaining forces from Kilinochchi and
the Jaffna Peninsula to avoid encirclement and conducted a fighting retreat towards
PTK, resisting significant pressure from seven army divisions and task forces
advancing on all fronts at a rate of nearly one kilometre per day.

As the battle shifted to the north-eastern Mullaitivu jungles, the LTTE resorted to
desperate delaying tactics that included the use of CS (tear) gas and blasted the
Kalmadukulam Tank (reservoir) embankment, releasing torrents of water. It also
attempted, but failed, to blow up the Iranamadu Tank embankment. These delaying
actions, however, could not prevent the army advance which, by late January 2009, had
steadily pushed the LTTE into a small area referred to as the “Vanni Pocket”, in the
general area surrounding the urban stronghold of PTK.

The Vanni Pocket

From late January to April 2009, the LTTE launched at least four major counter-attacks
interspersed by numerous smaller local counter-attacks, to break through army lines and
enter the Mullaitivu jungles. Anticipating such a move, one infantry division and four
Special Forces squadrons were deployed behind Task Forces 2, 3 and 4, as strategic
reserves to counter LTTE penetrations. In one major attack, the LTTE successfully
pushed back Task Force 4, astride the 59th Division, by around four kilometres from its
original positions. The thick jungle terrain in the Mullaitivu district, studded by
rivers, inlets and lagoons, enabled small LTTE groups to infiltrate behind army lines.
Often many LTTE guerrillas merged with tens of thousands of fleeing civilians
over to army lines at night. Initially, the LTTE infiltrations caused problems,
the army had sufficient troops in rear echelon areas to rapidly eliminate those groups.
In late April, at the battle of Anandapuram, near PTK, the army inflicted the worst
battlefield defeat against the LTTE of the entire insurgency, killing over 600 veteran
fighters and forcing the LTTE to retreat into its last stronghold, the
government-demarcated Civilian Safe Zone.

After a desperate effort had failed to influence India’s Lok Sabha parliamentary elections
in March-April 2009, the LTTE lobby heavily relied upon the diplomatic intervention of a
number of Western countries to prevent its imminent defeat. Regardless of the immense
international pressure against Sri Lanka to halt its final offensive, the political
leadership did not relent and the military remained focused on eliminating the LTTE. At
that point, due to the heavy presence of civilians around 70 highly trained and
experienced army snipers were used to neutralise LTTE targets. In the final weeks,
snipers often accounted for overall daily tallies averaging between 30-60 confirmed
kills (between 2006 and 2009, army snipers claim to have accounted for over 2,800
enemy combatants). Frontline infantry units supported by commandos and Special
Forces, clinically reduced the Civilian Safe Zone, segment by segment, evacuated
hundreds of thousands of stranded civilians and deprived the LTTE of its human
shield. By 19 May 2009, the army finished mopping up the few remaining pockets of
resistance and succeeded in eliminating the LTTE senior leadership, long with the
majority of its remaining hardcore fighters, to decisively end the insurgency.

The defeat of the LTTE was the result of strong political will and public support
that was uniformly consistent with the military’s strategic and operational
objectives. The army had, in the process, demonstrated its prowess in jungle
warfare, small unit-and night-operations. Its Commando and Special Forces Regiments
had acquired considerable experience in covert operations, namely LRP, LRRP and
large-scale hostage rescue situations.

After nearly thirty years of experience in high and low intensity counter-insurgency
warfare, the Sri Lanka Army is likely to rank among the most combat experienced
armies in the world.

About the author: Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is an analyst who has published widely
on South Asian and Indian Ocean political and security issues.

This SAP is a revised and expanded version of the original, which was first
published as ‘Good Education: Sri Lankan Military Learns Insurgency Lessons’
in Janes Intelligence Review (December 2009).