Maritime Counter-Terrorism and the Sri Lanka Navy

The recent and spectacular successes of the Sri Lanka Navy [SLN] in countering the maritime wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE], the Sea Tigers, serves as an interesting example of maritime counter-insurgency.

2nd Nov 2009


Maritime Counter-Terrorism and the Sri Lanka Navy

The recent and spectacular successes of the Sri Lanka Navy [SLN] in countering the maritime wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE], the Sea Tigers, serves as an interesting example of maritime counter-insurgency. Since the recommencement of full scale hostilities in 2006, the SLN steadily dismantled the once formidable power of the Sea Tigers and played a significant role in the defeat of the LTTE.

Sri Lanka’s separatist Tamil insurgency, known as the ‘Eelam War,’ began in 1983. Formed in 1975, the LTTE ascended to become the dominant militant group among Tamil separatists, notably after the strategic withdrawal of the Indian military (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in 1990 in the face of joint Government-LTTE opposition. This pre-eminence came about largely through the military proficiency, discipline and ingenuity of the LTTE, as well as its fanatical belief in an ethnically pure Tamil state, Tamil Eelam.

Sri Lanka’s porous North-western maritime borders, which run parallel with the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, have always presented a major security challenge. Tamil Nadu has a 1,076km coastline, and a fishing industry that sustains an estimated 800,000 people, which offers hundreds of possible embarkation points and tens of thousands of vessels to cover infiltration. LTTE maritime operations were initially limited to smuggling and shuttling missions between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, but in 1984 the LTTE formed a dedicated maritime wing, the Sea Tigers, and sought to rapidly build and enhance its maritime capabilities. The importance of establishing a maritime wing was once affirmed by the LTTE supreme leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran: “Geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas. It is only when we are strong in the seas and break the dominance of our enemy [that] we will be able to retain the land areas we liberated and drive our enemies from our homeland.”

During the 1990s, the Sea Tigers stepped up their activities in the seas surrounding the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, most notably off the Mullaitivu District coastline. At its peak, the Sea Tigers could call on an estimated 6,000 guerrillas. The formation of the ‘Black Sea Tigers’ sub-unit in 1990 for suicide operations against SLN vessels, and the introduction of swarming tactics, gave the Sea Tigers a deadly advantage in combat. The indigenous boatbuilding and seafaring expertise of northern Sri Lankan Tamils also enabled the LTTE to manufacture a variety of its own sea craft. These included:-

  • The 10m Muraj – the principal attack boat, and also used for amphibious operations. It is capable of 40 knots, carries a crew of ten, and has three machine gun mountings.

  • The 8m Sudai – capable of 10 knots, it carries a crew of six and one machine gun.

  • The 6m Thrikka – capable of 45 knots, with a crew of four and one machine gun. It is often used for “frogmen” operations.

  • The 6m Idayan – fitted with explosives specifically for suicide operations. It is capable of 45 knots, and carries a crew of two.

Also, the Sea Tigers played a role in amphibious operations by deploying guerrillas in LTTE offensives against the military bases of Pooneryn (1995), Mullaitivu (1996), Elephant Pass (2000) and the Jaffna Peninsula (2001). By the mid-to-late 1990s, the Sea Tigers emerged as a significant threat to maritime traffic in the North-western and North-eastern waters off Sri Lanka. The area ranked fifth in the world for incidents of maritime crime. In September 1997, the Maritime Intelligence and Counter-Piracy Centre affirmed that, “Sri Lankan waters continue to remain an extremely dangerous area for maritime traffic.” During the period of the Norwegian moderated ceasefire (c.2002-2006), the Sea Tigers embarked on an unprecedented process of expansion, modernisation and experimentation which included indigenously produced stealth boats and semi-submersibles.

However, the LTTE activities at sea did not go unchallenged, and the SLN has since played a major role in the overall success of the Sri Lankan military’s counter-insurgency campaign. Formed in 1950, the SLN underwent a re-invention after 1983, its mission evolving from anti-smuggling and anti-illicit immigration operations to combating maritime terrorism, and its manpower undergoing a parallel increase over the years from 2,960 officers and sailors in 1983 to 52,000 in 2009. According to its former commander, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, the SLN has “…transformed from a small ceremonial unit to a fully fledged compact fighting force.”

The SLN made important changes in its approach when hostilities recommenced in 2006. To effectively counter the Sea Tigers’ dominance of inshore operations, the SLN employed over 250 locally-built, high-speed and heavily armed inshore patrol craft. Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse explained their use: “Earlier, they [the SLN] used fast attack crafts, Dvoras. This time, they introduced the small boat concept. The result is evident when the LTTE put out five boats, we put 20 boats out to take them on.” Sea Tiger combat losses were heavy in consequence. In 2006, there were 21 major engagements with the SLN; in 2007 there were 11; and in 2008 only two. The SLN significantly curtailed the Sea Tigers’ operational flexibility to launch attacks and amphibious operations, while simultaneously minimising LTTE smuggling operations between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.

Equally important has been the destruction of the LTTE logistical system. Between September 2006 and October 2007, the SLN succeeded in destroying eight large LTTE warehouse ships containing over 10,000 tons of war-related material. “These vessels,” explained Admiral Karannagoda, “were carrying over 80,000 artillery rounds, over 100,000 mortar rounds, a bullet-proof jeep three aircraft in dismantled form, torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles. There were also a large number of underwater swimmer delivery vehicles and a large quantity of diving equipment. There was radar equipment as well as outboard motors with higher horse power.” The SLN deployed its largest ships, three offshore patrol vessels, Sayura, Samudura and Jayasagara, supported by old tankers, merchant vessels and trawlers to sink the warehouse ships as far as 3,400km from the South-eastern shore of Sri Lanka, near the Indonesian and Australian Exclusive Economic Zones [EEZ]. The impact on the LTTE was severe, drastically reducing the ammunition and warlike material available to sustain high intensity conflict and led to a major reduction in its fighting efficacy.

The joint effects on the subsequent counter-insurgency campaign are worth highlighting. Facing fewer artillery and mortar attacks, the Sri Lanka Army [SLA achieved rapid operational success with far less casualties. Moreover, as the SLA recaptured LTTE-controlled areas, they effectively dismantled the land-based Sea Tiger infrastructure, including boat construction yards and Sea Tiger bases on the North-western and North-eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, in tandem with the SLA encirclement of the LTTE in North-eastern Sri Lanka, the SLN enforced a tight four-tier naval blockade that consisted of inshore patrol craft, fast attack craft, offshore patrol vessels and gun boats which trapped and destroyed any remaining Sea Tiger boats.

Clearly, Sri Lankan sea power has played a decisive role in defeating the insurgency and bringing the end to the separatist conflict. Although the Sea Tigers are unlikely to pose a major threat to the Palk Straits, Gulf of Mannar or Bay of Bengal, LTTE attempts to infiltrate from Tamil Nadu using Indian fishing trawlers might pose a threat in future. To meet this threat, the SLN has resorted to laying minefields to deter LTTE cross-border operations but, more vital to long-term security, Sri Lanka has also indicated an interest in formulating an effective long-term post-conflict maritime policy. Recently, Sri Lanka and India agreed to greater maritime security co-operation and intelligence sharing, which has led to bi-annual meetings between the SLN, Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard. Such cooperation is already bringing results, but with 1,340km of coastline, 21,700km2 of territorial waters and 465,800km2 of EEZ to protect, there is no doubt that the responsibilities of the SLN will continue to expand. Proud to be known as the ‘Golden Fence,’ the SLN has become a credible and effective force. Additional orders for new patrol vessels will do much to enhance its role and capabilities.

For situations and conflicts around the world, the lessons which can be drawn from Sri Lanka’s experience suggest that in order to combat maritime terrorism a concerted all-out effort is required, both at sea and on land. Terrorism can morph into piracy and vice versa, and given that the terrorists/pirates are often well-armed and usually ruthless, the only practical way to defeat them is to strike decisively interdicting their personnel, bases, infrastructure and supply lines. As the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary said: “…when the LTTE put out five boats, we put 20 boats out to take them on,” in what was a policy of massive retaliation. This would indicate that piecemeal efforts are largely ineffective, as destroying only a few bases and boats leaves them the facilities to regroup and strike again. Given the sharp rise in maritime security related incidents around the world, notably in the waters off the Horn of Africa, Red Sea and in the Malacca Straits, Sri Lanka’s response model and decisive example of combating unconventional maritime security threats are worthy of serious consideration.

APDR at a glance