Feature Article

Massive rise in Sri Lankan firepower amid peace

[TamilNet, Saturday, 04 December 2004, 19:01 GMT]
Sri Lanka’s armed forces substantially expanded their offensive capability after the ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers was signed in February 2002, a book published by a senior United States military analyst says. The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) has doubled its manpower and acquired twenty new aircraft, while the Army (SLA) has tripled its tanks and doubled its artillery firepower.

In a book titled "Sri Lanka’s military: The Search For A Mission" published this year, Brian Blodgett, a career United States Army intelligence officer and an adjunct professor with the American Military, examines the historical evolution of Colombo’s armed forces.

"While peace negotiations were occurring, the SLA increased its armour, APCs (armoured personnel carriers) and artillery," Blodgett says.

"The SLAF bought 10 Mi-35s [export versions of the Mi-24 helicopter gunship] and 10 transports," he says. The SLAF has thereby "increased its attack helicopters to 24."

MI 35 in Sri Lanka
Mi-35 Combat-Transport Helicopter in Sri Lanka

"The army nearly doubled its artillery, from 97 in 2001 to 187 in 2002," Blodgett writes. "The army increased its APCs by approximately 70 percent, from 158 to 204."

Furthermore, in 2001, shortly before signing the present ceasefire agreement with the LTTE in February, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) 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," Blodgett says. "The air force continues to have high recruitment since the majority of airmen never face combat."

"In 2002, the SLA’s [official] strength increased dramatically … from 95,000] to approximately 118,000 soldiers," Blodgett says.

However, "it was impossible to determine the [SLA’s] exact strength due to the large number of desertions," he adds.

"Recruitment to the SLA is extremely difficult [and retention] is poor," Blodgett says, adding that some of the increased strength was due to returning deserters.

Sri Lanka’s Navy, which began a major expansion shortly before the ceasefire, continued after negotiations began.

"In 2001, the SLN increased its manpower by 80 percent to 18,000 sailors. By 2003, the navy had approximately 20,600 sailors," Blodgett says.

Unlike the Army, the Navy "did not have any problems recruiting or retaining sailors" in this period, he adds.

The naval expansion came because in 2000, the Sri Lanka government “decided the Navy needed to be the first line of defence against the LTTE.”

The government believes "if the navy could stop the flow of weapons and ammunition to the LTTE, the army could defeat them," Blodgett says.

Meanwhile, "after losing Elephant Pass to the LTTE [in 2000] and having its subsequent [Agnie Khiela] offensive [in 2001] stopped after only 72 hours, the SLA decided that it needed additional firepower to defeat the LTTE," Blodgett says.

Perhaps in response to SLA officers’ arguments that "jets are unnecessary because they are too fast and come from too far," the SLAF may be shifting its doctrine in favour of rotary wing instead of fixed wing close support, he says.

But "due to a dearth of pilots and limited training establishments [in Sri Lanka], most of the trainees are undergoing advanced flight training in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh."

As a consequence of the purchase of new equipment, "the SLA appears to be prepared to carry on the war against the LTTE," he feels.

But despite the military’s expansions, Blodgett feels Sri Lanka is underprepared to engage the LTTE.

The current ceasefire has "forced troops back to their barracks where they are losing their edge. Deserting is rampant throughout infantry units [which form] the largest percentage of SLA troops," he feels.

“The emergence of a more heavily armed LTTE at the start of this decade caught the SLA by surprise (once again) and it is likely that the LTTE is continuing with its training and equipping,” he adds.

"[The present military] remains incapable of protecting the island from internal threat and is unprepared and ill-equipped for an external threat," he says.

"The emergence of a more heavily armed LTTE with dedicated soldiers fighting for a clear objective proved that the military forces had met their match,” Blodgett argues.

"[The army’s] forces are incapable of defeating the LTTE with either conventional or unconventional tactics," he says further.

By contrast, "the military of the 1980s proved it could fight an unconventional war, and by wantonly killing anyone it perceived a threat, it could win a war," Blodgett says, in reference to the crushing of the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana insurgency.


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