Feature Article

US's strategic interests in Sri Lanka- Taraki

[TamilNet, Saturday, 30 July 2005, 18:45 GMT]
What are the US government’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka? If the US has specific strategic interests in the island, then what are the means and modes by which it was and is securing them? Dharmaretnam Sivaram, popular military analyst and senior editor at TamilNet was working on this feature when he was abducted and killed on 28 April 2005.

The US government’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka are intertwined with its military objectives in South Asia and Asia.

Therefore a brief overview of the strategic objectives of the US in Asia in general and South Asia in particular is necessary to identify and understand the development of US army and intelligence interests in Sri Lanka.

Central to the US strategic objective in Asia is the desire to “preclude the rise of a regional or continental hegemon.” The objective is considered important for two main reasons:

  • “To prevent the United States from being denied economic, political and military access to an important part of the globe.
  • “To prevent a concentration of resources that could support a global challenge to the United States on the order of that posed by the former Soviet Union.”

The US believes that no nation in Asia poses such a threat to it at the moment. But it believes that China, India and Iran have the potential to develop into continental hegemons either on their own or as partners of regional coalitions including Russia that could threaten US interests in Asia and, in the long run, in the world.

A declassified section of a study commissioned by the US Department of Defence discusses three ways in which the US can preclude a country from becoming a regional or continental hegemon. A fourth method is also pointed out here.

  1. Convince the country in question that its security interests are best served by letting the US maintain an active military role in the region.
  2. Build military alliances with other countries of the region with a view to eventually acquiring the power to shape developments in the region by expanding USAF basing opportunities for projecting US power in the region to deal with a wide range of "scenarios and operations."
  3. Prevent the country from “bandwagoning” with other potential regional powers “to undercut critical US strategic interests in Asia.”
  4. Build political and economic relations with countries in the region least likely to challenge US strategic interests with a view to support the formation of ad hoc or US led UN operations to deal with challenges posed by the ‘potential regional hegemon’ that might concern the US and its allies.
In this context, the chief concerns of the US in South Asia are to:
  • Preclude or dissuade India from developing its nuclear and ballistic missile capability.
  • Preclude India from ‘bandwagoning’ with either China or Russia or both or with France to undercut US strategic interests in Asia. The US seeks to do this by, among other things, propagating the impression of and/or by actually developing close relations with, India.
  • Eventually convince New Delhi that its interests are best served by letting the US look after the overall strategic stability of the subcontinent. To do so the US has to enhance and consolidate its strategic presence in the South Asian region while ensuring that the Indian military remains stretched to the maximum so much so that Delhi cannot set aside any military surplus to project power or preserve its vital interests in the neighbourhood. Boosting Pakistan’s military status is key to this approach.
Today India’s mutual defence treaty with Russia has been watered down and hence is no longer a deterrent to the projection of US power in the region. However, land warfare in the subcontinent cannot be part of projecting US power in the region today, as it would involve high casualties amid limited tactical possibilities and forward basing facilities for US expeditionary forces on a scale required to fight the Indian army.

The strategic deployment of the USAF with support from the US pacific fleet has therefore become the main means of projecting US power in the subcontinent now. And more importantly, it would also be the main component of enhancing and consolidating America’s strategic presence in South Asia.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) studied and identified basing requirements in the region – requirements that could be expected to arise over a wide range of scenarios and operations, chief among which were full-scale war between India and Pakistan and Indian military ‘aggression’ into neighbouring countries.

It was also decided to increase reconnaissance activities by sending “additional surveillance assets” to the area. The US army was mainly tasked to provide these “assets” which included the enhancing the presence of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Sri Lanka. Intelligence preparedness for all possible scenarios was as important as developing basing opportunities for US expeditionary forces in South Asia.

This was done also with a view to monitoring the nuclear and missile development facilities in peninsular India. Currently the eastern littoral of the subcontinent and most of peninsular India is monitored from Thailand and Singapore where the US Defence Intelligence Agency and the NSA have considerable electronic intelligence and ‘other’ (mostly humint access) assets. The NSA base in Thailand monitors, among other things, LTTE communications in Sri Lanka – for ex: the Voice of Tigers is made available in English to Washington HQ in less than an hour of broadcast by NSA translators at the agency’s station in Thailand.

A declassified section of a US DoD study of basing opportunities to support USAF operations in the subcontinent notes that they are "somewhat limited in this part of the world." The study observe further, “Diego Garcia is the permanent US outpost nearest the subcontinent, but we use the term ‘near’ advisedly – for that base lies approximately 2500 nautical miles from Islamabad. (The base is approximately the same distance from Kashmir…) and 2200 nautical miles from New Delhi.”

Map of Indian Ocean territories

The study identifies three general regions for basing opportunities around India. They are east, west, and north of India.

The first region is east of India. "This region has limited facilities and relations between Burma and the United States are stressed," the authors say. Finally given the proximity of this region to China, opportunities for close military relations may be limited in the event of heightened tensions." "The second region consists of Central Asian republics. Improved access to South Asia could grow from enhanced relations with these former "Soviet republics." The study notes that Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan could serve as valuable entrepots to the Subcontinent.

“The third region is the Middle East, and it is here that we see the most prominence for conducting operations in South Asia. As was shown during the Gulf War, the air base facilities in this region are second to none, and the governments in the region are relatively stable, often with national interests that align with those of the United States."

With regard to geography, Oman is closest to the Indian-Pakistani border – about 500 nautical miles. Relations between the government of Oman and United States are good, and Oman has shown itself to be a steadfast ally. In addition the basing infrastructure is well developed. Two bases – Seeb International and Masirah Island – are particularly well suited for the conduct of USAF operations”. (This part of the document provides a guideline to a similar but still classified study of USAF basing opportunities in Sri Lanka. See below for further details)

The other bases available to the USAF for operations in South Asia are in Thailand and Singapore. The US has a long-standing defence treaty relationship with Thailand and use of a Royal Thai naval air station in U Tapaho. It has a similar defence treaty arrangement with Singapore. But the above-mentioned US DoD study notes that New Delhi is 1600 nm from Bangkok bases in central Saudi Arabia and 2600 nm from Singapore.

Therefore the US began to actively look for and seek basing opportunities in countries closer to India from 1990. In this process, the US availed itself of intelligence, military, diplomatic and economic leverage and access enjoyed in the target countries by its main security partners i.e., Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore.

It should be noted in this context that the US is only seeking and looking for basing opportunities in South Asia but not constructing new military installations for USAF operations.

According to the DoD study, “The identification of bases that are currently capable (or nearly so) of supporting USAF operations has both political and financial advantages. There appears to be little appetite, either in the United States or in the region, for the construction of additional American military installations…The bases identified in this analysis should not require significant upgrades that could be costly in terms of either USAF budget dollars or American political capital.”

The study focused on five key attributes: the length of the runway(s) at the facility, runway width, the amount of ramp space, the number of fighter sized parking spaces available, and whether or not weapons storage is available. It also looked at pavement loading characteristics (which are critical to operating large heavy aircraft such as air-lifters), the availability of fuel and ‘other factors’.

The US “access strategy” for the Indian subcontinent, according to the DoD study, is centred on “increasing opportunities for deployments and exercises and on the development of contingency agreements with potential security partners in the area” – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal. It should be noted here that the “access strategy” also includes plans to significantly increase “electronic and other intelligence assets” in the territories of potential security partners in the region.

Sri Lanka was a prime candidate for two reasons:

  1. “The central position of the island between the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz”. The US DoD study observes that Sri Lanka’s “infrastructure for basing opportunities are excellent”. The USAF, DIA team that visited Palaly, China Bay, Sigiriya, Koggala and Kuda Oya in 2001 did a brief update regarding Sri Lanka of the RAND study “The US and Asia: Toward a New Force Posture. (A public version of the study is available at the RAND Corp. It does not give the true picture) The research for South Asia project was sponsored the US Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations, US Air Force and the Commander of the US’s Pacific Air Forces. A classified version of this update on Sri Lanka was given to the Sri Lanka Air Force and Army headquarters and DMI for comments. It was basically about improving Palaly, China Bay and advantage of building new international dual-purpose airfield in Kuda Oya. If the update is read together with the RAND report it gives a clear picture of US strategic aims in developing Palaly, Trinco, Kuda Oya.

  2. Sri Lanka’s military and intelligence services had long-standing and close institutional relationship with the British MI6, MI5, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The MI6 provided the main component of the training program for the Special Branch, which became the NIB in 1984 (and currently known as the Directorate of Internal Intelligence).
The CIA and MI6 second work to the NIB on specific matters and have access to its registry on formal request. The official from CIA’s Colombo station who liases with the NIB (usually through the NIB’s additional director although there is a section head in there who deals with foreign missions) holds the position of ‘regional security officer’ – an ‘unlisted post’ in the US embassy.

(The CIA station chief in Colombo is the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US embassy) The CIA station in New Delhi also liases with the DII on specific projects.

The world’s largest intelligence organization, the National Security Agency (NSA), has a presence in Colombo and works through the US army/Defense Intelligence Agency office in the US mission in Colombo. The level of its operations is not clear.

The DIA/NSA stations report direct to their headquarters in Washington DC. The CIA is under the purview of the Ambassador.

NSA/CSS representatives work on State Department or US army postings in US diplomatic missions abroad. Some former second secretaries in the Colombo mission appear to have been NSA/CSS personnel, seconded through the state department.

The CSS – Central Security Service – is an arm of the NSA, which, among other things, manages the agency’s listening posts and operations in countries other than the primary security partners of the US. (The NSA has its own ‘ambassadors’ called Special US Liaison Officers – SULOs – in the capitals of America’s primary security partners – London, Ottawa, Tokyo, Bangkok, Canberra, Wellington, Seoul and Singapore).

The Defence Special Missile and Astronautics Centre – DSMAC, another arm of the NSA, which is tasked to do “initial analysis and reporting on all foreign space and missile events”, stepped up its monitoring activities and resources on India in the last six years. The NSA came under particular pressure to enhance its ‘surveillance assets’ in the region after it failed to report in advance India’s nuclear tests in 1999.

Any perspective on the NSA’s operations in Sri Lanka has to take into account the fact that the US had developed a ‘substantial intrastructure facility’ in the Voice of America station on the island’s west coast in the mid eighties and that similar VOA facilities in other parts of the globe “also accommodate NSA’s electronic surveillance assets.”

The MI6 is represented in Colombo by the Deputy High Commissioner of the UK mission. The British Military Intelligence and the MI6 liase with the NIB also through the second secretary of the mission. The MI6 had its own station in Colombo headed by an officer holding the rank of first secretary until 1994. The station has coalesced with the MI6’s regional station in Jakarta since then.

The British have a mutual defence and intelligence treaty with America. The UK’s traditional military and intelligence relationship with Sri Lanka has therefore been beneficial to the US. (Until 1997 the cream of the Sri Lankan aarmy’s officer corps was trained in UK. All the commanders of the SLA until Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya were graduates of the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, UK.)

It has to be noted here that all the primary security partners of the US have direct access to Sri Lanka’s intelligence establishment. Officials from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) station in Singapore are regularly briefed by the DII in Colombo. The Australian mission’s Deputy High Commissioner (who actually holds the rank of second secretary) liases for the ASIO in Colombo.

By focusing on very close military to military and intelligence-to-intelligence relations with primary security partners since World War II, the US was able to preserve most of its strategic interests from being affected by pressures from the political and public domains of those countries. The US intelligence assets in the UK, Australia, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand are little or not accountable to the political establishments of those countries.

For example, the Australian Parliament has no access to the NSA’s installations in that country (the matter was last raised in 1999) and the US intelligence priorities in Canadian immigration policies which were channelled and implemented through the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) were not accountable to that country’s Parliament until recently.

This has helped the US defence establishment in pursuing its global strategic interests and goals with little or no interference caused by changes in the political domain of its primary security partners. Canadian immigration policy historian Reg Whitaker (author of ‘Double Standard’) said that the Canadians let Tamils settle in large numbers from late eighties in deference to US interests. He asserted that its was in tune with US strategic motives which the CSIS accepted as routine.

In developing and cementing close military to military relations with potential security partners in the neighbourhood of regional powers the US takes special care not to provoke adverse reactions from the American public and from the government of the target country. The US aims to ‘permeate’ the security forces system of the ‘potential security partner’ to make it eventually malleable, obviating thereby the political pressure and red tape which usually stymie or delay the cementing of strategic ties. The ‘permeating’ silently takes place over the years by gradually increasing joint exercises, training (locally and in the United States), advice, supply of military equipment, active intelligence support etc,. The process is specifically aimed at bringing elite units and intelligence in the army, navy, air force and the Police within the ‘fold’ – the US military brotherhood.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) are the US military’s most effective instrument for cementing the gains of the close relationship developed with a potential security partner. The SOFA and ACSA constitute the basis for ‘flexibility’ in projecting US military power into regions where potential ‘hegemons’ are located. Their ‘informal nature’ draws little publicity in the region, in the US and in the country with which it is signed while giving the ‘key’ to the US army to open doors and ‘permeate’ the host military.

In 1999, US army signed the ACSA with the Philippines and Nepal, both in regions considered important for current USAF global access strategy – Western Pacific and South Asia. The US has politically, diplomatically and economically manoeuvred to exploit specific internal circumstances in the target country to cement the ACSA or SOFA at the right conjuncture.

Philippines offers an interesting parallel to Sri Lanka. The USAID set about developing the particular Mindanao harbour and its surroundings which were eventually ceded to the US when it signed the ACSA with Manila. Norway facilitated peace talks between New People’s Army and Manila which eventually had the effect of reducing the threat of anti US NPA guerrilla activity around the harbour region in Mindanao. USAID and Norwegian facilitation had helped pacify the harbour region by the time ACSA was signed.

Relations between the US and the Philippines reached their nadir in the mid 1990s following the closure of the Subic Bay base. The US military had several points of leverage to re-establish a close institutionalised relationship with the Philippines. The Philippine military was under constant pressure from the Islamic militancy in Mindanao, which was being covertly funded by Saudi Arabia, a US military ally. US Special Forces training and joint exercises aimed at honing and modernizing the Philippine army’s counter insurgency capability were therefore welcome. The traditional links between the two militaries made the process smooth, culminating in the ACSA. Economic and diplomatic instruments were also deployed to cajole the political establishment of the country for a consensus on the treaty.

The US would complete its strategic positioning in the Subcontinent once it signs the SOFA or ACSA with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives.

The ‘management’ of the ethnic conflict, among other things, is also important for the US to “sufficiently” expand and consolidate its military and intelligence relations with Sri Lanka as an important security partner in the region. The escalation of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers has offered the US Pacific Command a wide range of opportunities to do so.

The structure of the Sri Lanka army and its war doctrine underwent remodelling along the lines of the US military since relations started to expand from 1993. The emphasis on the greater role of airpower in the SLA war doctrine has largely been due to US input and assistance. Special training programs for the SLAF by the USAF have focused on developing strategic airpower as opposed to a counter insurgency related tactical air fighter fleet.

This witting or unwitting shift of emphasis on airpower in the Sri Lanka’s war doctrine in 2000-2001 increased the need to enhance its facilities.

In this context it is interesting to note what a US DoD study says of potential security partners such as Sri Lanka. “In the near term, access strategy for Asia should centre on increasing opportunities for deployments and exercises and on the development of contingency agreements with a number of potential security partners in the area.

Depending on the closeness of the resulting relationship, this could include measures to tailor local infrastructure to USAF operations by extending runways, improving air traffic control facilities, repairing parking aprons and the like.”

A USAF team has already carried out at least two preliminary surveys of basing facilities in the island. Met some members of the team for lunch at DA’s residence in February 2001. Questioning was largely about LTTE’s ability to attack Palaly, India’s response if LTTE were to overrun the base.

A member of the team who was introduced only as Mr. Smith (no rank) is currently working with the US de-mining group in Jaffna called RONCO.

Smith is alleged to have liased with local journalists questioning about a) whether LTTE is planning to instigate refugees at some point to enter high security zones in Jaffna, mainly the Palaly-KKS region. b) How serious is LTTE infiltration in settlements allowed near HSZ periphery c) What is LTTE’s political cadre strength in army controlled areas of Jaffna.

Stabilizing the Sri Lanka state was considered critical for the US at this juncture to consolidate and cement its strategic interests here. The LTTE was a stubborn impediment to achieving this end – particularly the constant threat to Trincomalee and Palaly.

Containing the Liberation Tigers and making them more malleable were also identified as priorities.

A CIA regional analyst in Washington said in July 2001: “containing the LTTE while stepping up pressure on the civilian population under its control by stepping up ‘terror’ bombing might create conditions for unseating Prabhararan”. In April 2001, the DIA obtained an End User Licence of an LTTE arms shipment through its Indonesian counterpart. The document was traced to Bulgaria. The DIA spoke to the Bulgarians, got a history of earlier dealings, and stopped further sales. This, according to DIA chief in Colombo, was expected to turn the screws on the LTTE to negotiate.

However, both US and British intelligence ‘specialists’ regret that gaining any kind of direct leverage on the LTTE seems impossible. Several US directed actions in the home territories of America’s main security partners to turn the screws on LTTE operations there did not secure the expected response.

Related Articles:
30.07.05   Sri Lanka’s Peace Efforts: The View from a Distance

External Links:
TamilNation: Geo-Strategic Implications of Sethusamudram- by Taraki


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