Feature Article

Do Sri Lanka's defense forces have conventional warfare capability?- Taraki

[TamilNet, Friday, 20 May 2005, 00:34 GMT]
In an article in the Colombo-based Tamil daily, Virakesari, on March 27, 2005, Dharmaretnam Sivaram, analyzed the history of Sri Lanka's defense forces and argued that from the very beginning, the Sri Lankan forces' mission was to confront internal crises that the country's ruling elite feared as grave threats, without the strategic thinking required for conventional warfare or to confront external threats.

Mr.D.SivaramSri Lanka's three defense forces have been engaged in a war against the Tamil liberation struggle for more than a quarter century. Detailed studies of the history of the three forces are, however, rare. To my knowledge, the fiftieth anniversary (1949-1999) commemorative volume of Sri Lanka's armed forces published in 1999 is the only publication that provides a detailed study of the history of the forces. Nonetheless, there is a dearth of analytical studies focusing on the warfare conducted by the three forces.

What is surprising is that even the British forces, which were instrumental in creating and training Sri Lanka's defense services for a long period, have made no effort to write such a history. Even the library at the Royal Military Academy in Sandurst, Britain's elite military college, has only pieces of information here and there for any military analysis on Sri Lanka's defense forces. When I asked an officer at the library who assisted me in my search about the reason for this lack, he offered that the study of Sri Lanka forces has probably not been of paramount importance to the British forces.

The recent publication of a handbook on Sri Lanka forces' military history 1949-2004 by Mr.Brian Blodgett, titled "Sri Lanka's military: The Search for a Mission," assumes significance in this context. Mr. Blodgett is a United States career military intelligence officer and an adjunct professor at the American Military University (in Manassas Park, Virginia).

Mr. Blodgett has collated and edited the military analysis of Sri Lanka's forces made by Indian, American and British military analysts in his handbook.

The main reasons for nations to have armed forces are: protecting the nation from external aggression, defeating threats to the country's resources and any threat to the path of movement of goods and services to and from the country. The military analysts quoted in Mr. Blodgett's handbook point out that Sri Lanka's armed forces' missions have for long deviated from such roles that their missions cannot be considered in the context of a conventional warfare.

It is for this reason that big countries have hesitated to use armed forces for extended periods in internal conflicts and guerrilla wars. A country's law and order are maintained by the Police. Countries with well developed armies and historical experiences in warfare use the Police, and if it is beyond the capability of the Police, then Special Auxiliary forces, to tackle violent internal conflicts.

Militarily powerful countries exercise care when using their conventional armed forces in internal conflicts because in such conflicts there are many political issues and issues of warfare strategies that complicate the action of the forces.

Internal conflicts have political dimensions that inevitably affect the armed forces personnel directly or indirectly. The political or social conflicts underpinning such internal conflicts and insurgencies will unavoidably find their way into the armed forces, thus eroding the coherence of the command structure of the forces. When (the late Prime Minister of India) Indira Gandhi sent the Indian Army into the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, there were many disturbances within the Sikh regiments of the Army.

The missions of the conventional forces should be oriented toward defeating another conventional force. Without such an ability to confront and defeat another conventional force, the forces can never safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from external threats. If a conventional military force is deployed for protracted periods in internal conflicts or insurgencies within a country, that force will lose its capability to conduct conventional war. It is for this reason that India uses its conventional army only in a limited way even in Kashmir and Nagaland, where insurgencies are continuing.

Many big countries have for years used the war strategy of promoting insurgencies in other countries and encouraging the use of conventional forces in such conflicts to weaken the fighting capability of such forces.

Military analysts in New Delhi are unanimously of the opinion that Pakistan is using several internal conflicts in India to weaken the fighting capability and war readiness of the Indian defense forces.

Many American military analysts used to say that America's conventional defense forces got confused for a long time after being caught up in the internal conflict in Vietnam and that had to be changed. These analysts held that conventional forces should be used only in a conventional war with well-defined political goals. To support their claims, these analysts quoted the founder of Western Military Science, Carl Von Clausewitz. The result of this change was seen in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The same principle was used in the second war against Mr. Hussein in 2003, with clearly defined goals about where to attack and how to conclude the war. But American forces have become caught up in the Iraq insurgency in ways they never expected. It is for this reason that the US is making a concerted effort to hasten the creation of Iraqi police and counter-insurgency forces and to take US forces out of counter-insurgency.

It is against this backdrop that we have to consider the significance of Mr. Blodgett's analysis. Currently the US forces are being increasingly deployed in many nations, and it is important for US forces to get educated about the military history and strategies of the forces of these countries, and that is why, Mr. Blodgett says that he wrote the handbook..

Though that is Mr. Blodgett's rationale, if we look at his core opinions, based on other information available to us on the military history of Sri Lanka's forces, some important truths emerge.

Mr. Blodgett argues that from its very inception, Sri Lanka's forces had no clear idea of their conventional military role and from time to time, they were confused about their role. Let us look the validity of this argument.

Independent Sri Lanka's Army was formed on October 10, 1949. The first permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defense at that time, Sir Kandiah Vaidyanathan, was a key proponent of building up Sri Lanka's Army. He was instrumental in choosing the location for the first SLA base in Panagoda and for constructing it.

The first Prime Minister of Independent Sri Lanka, Mr. D.S. Senanayake firmly believed that any military threat to Sri Lanka would come from India. He was not prepared to trust the assertions of Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru that there would be no such threat from India. He feared India would try to annex Sri Lanka as another province. He signed a joint defense agreement with Britain, according to which Britain would come to the defense of Sri Lanka in the event of an external threat to Sri Lanka.

Thus the Army's plans at that time were based on defending Sri Lanka from any threat from India until such time as Britain would come to its defense. It was a clearly defined conventional role to defend the country from external threats.

Aside from this defense agreement, the Sri Lankan government considered in 1963 about the idea of defense forces leading a guerrilla war from the jungles in the hypothetical event of aggression by a powerful foreign country. The impetus for this was that in the previous year, the defense forces faced an internal coup. Even as the coup was crushed, the government faced a crisis from the massive strike protests by the leftist trade unions. It was in this context that the fear of foreign invasion arose, and the conventional military attempted to transform itself to conduct a guerilla war.

Sri Lanka Defense officers were sent to Singapore, Malaysia, Yugoslavia and Britain. Available documents do not make it clear which powerful country evoked such fear of aggression but there is reason to believe that it was likely the Soviet Union.

Except for these two instances, the historical truth is that the military planning of Sri Lanka forces was never geared to face external aggression or conventional warfare. Confusion over conventional warfare's purpose has pervaded Sri Lankan military's strategic planning.

Before looking at its consequences, let us briefly look at the history of this confusion.

When the law was drafted in 1949 to constitute the armed forces, Mr. Sennayake and Sir Vaidyanathan laid the foundation for deploying the military for controlling internal civil disturbances. According to Section 23 of this law, when there is a disruption in supplying the fundamental needs of the citizens of Sri Lanka, such as food, water, fuel, or transport, electricity and telecommunication, the military could be deployed. Section 23 has greatly affected the military's self-identity, it development of a military doctrine and thinking. According to Mr. Blodgett, this law laid the foundation for the military's continued focus on internal conflicts, oblivious of any external threats.

Many Sri Lanka military commanders, especially at the early stages, started to think that the military's role was only to assist the Police. Thus, from the very beginning, the Sri Lanka military thought of itself as a more heavily armed special division of the Police. The fact that Sri Lanka's Sinhala ruling classes in the 1950s thought of three internal challenges-the trade union action and protests by workers, the liberation struggle by the Tamil people, and the immigration through the Jaffna and Mannar coasts of people from Tamil Nadu-as major threats to their power was consistent with this thinking.

Instead of focusing on developing conventional military capability and military planning to protect the country from external aggression, the military focused on internal affairs. Between 1950 and 1960, there were seven deployments of the military in internal affairs.

The first such mission, "Operation Monty" (a reference to Montague Jayewickrema), in 1952, was started in Mannar against the immigrants from Tamil Nadu and continued for a long time. Second such action was in 1953, to crush a major work stoppage protest by trade unions. The third mission was in June, 1956, against the Tamil farmers in Thurai Neelavanai, who protested the illegal State-sponsored settlements of Sinhala criminals in the Southwest border of the Batticaloa district. When the Sinhala-only law was introduced in 1956, again the military was deployed to assist the Police to maintain law and order. When there were massive floods in 1957, the military was deployed in relief work. When anti-Tamil pogroms were held in 1958, the military was again deployed to assist the Police in maintaining law and order. The seventh deployment was for destroying illegal cannabis cultivations.

In the first decade of its existence, none of the military's deployments gave it an opportunity to develop its conventional military capability. The military regulations drafted and issued for the creation of the Army divisions by the first commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Brigadier Anton Mutucumaru, reflected the thinking that Sri Lanka military's challenges were internal.

The Army would have three commands, he said. The first command division would comprise the Northern, Eastern and North Central provinces, and the main challenge to this command was from the Tamils, said Mr. Muthucumaru, himself a Tamil.

The second division would comprise the Central,Uva and Sabragamuwa provinces. Wrote Mr. Muthucumaru in his memoirs: ".The likely threat for this division would arise from the plantation Tamils of Indian origin. I have planned to post an infantry brigade at Diyatalawa, located at the center of this region."

The third region would comprise North-Western, Western, and Southern provinces. The main threat to the armed forces in this region came from the trade unions, said Mr. Mutucumaru.

The growth of Sri Lanka's defense forces has been focused on internal conflicts. As a result, from the very beginning, the military's policy, strategic planning, its mission plan and arms purchases all lacked the aspects of conventional forces.

Mr. Blodgett evaluates the three forces' capabilities in every decade since 1949 and stresses the point that the Sri Lankan forces lacked the capability to confront external threats. He says that in the event of the peace process with the LTTE leading to a permanent solution, this situation could change.

This lack of any capability to confront external threats was evident in 1987 when Indian Air Force planes breached Sri Lanka's air space, and there was a threat of invasion by Indian forces. Sri Lanka's defense forces were then incapable of doing anything to confront it.

The difficulties the Sri Lankan forces faced when the Liberation Tigers developed their conventional capability have to be seen in this context. The missions that dictated the growth of the armed forces was a major impediment to their thinking and capability as a conventional forces.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the parochial interests of Sri Lanka's ruling classes were the main reason for Sri Lanka's defense forces to grow into a "Police" force, albeit one with artillery, naval attack crafts and bombers.

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