Ex-Sri Lankan navy chief Colombage narrates how the US helped destroy LTTE floating armories
Former navy chief Adm. Jayanath Colombage, in his recently published book Asymmetric Warfare At Sea: The Case of Sri Lanka, debunks the general impression among Sinhalese nationalists about the war.
COLOMBO: Former Sri Lankan navy chief Adm. Jayanath Colombage has, in his recently published book Asymmetric Warfare At Sea: The Case of Sri Lanka, described how the United States helped the Sri Lankan navy destroy the LTTE’s “floating armories” by supplying vital satellite images of the location of these ship-borne warehouses.
The destruction of the floating armories helped the Sri Lankan navy win Eelam War IV in the sea, which in turn helped the Sri Lankan army win the war on land and the Air Force take on ground targets without fear of being shot down.
Based on his doctoral dissertation submitted to General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University here, the book helps debunk the general impression among nationalist Sinhalese that the US was out and out pro-LTTE, and that all that it did during Eelam War IV was to put pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to stop the war so that the Tiger chieftain, Prabhakaran, and his aides could be whisked away to a safe place.
The destruction of the “floating warehouses” had helped cripple the LTTE’s arms and ammunition supply network as these on-sea warehouses had come to play a critical role in the group’s survival in the context of the menacing encirclement that was taking place in the war zone on land – an encirclement which was constantly reducing the land area available to the LTTE to store its munitions.
In the asymmetrical land war that was going on in Sri Lanka, with the LTTE out-manned and out-gunned, the LTTE was using ammunition and area weapons-like artillery and mortars liberally to strike terror in the heart of the enemy.
It did not show the restraint and conservatism conventional armies generally show in using their ammo. For the LTTE, firing had to be well-targeted and also exceptionally heavy, to make up for the shortage of men and artillery pieces.
As Seelan, a former 'Sea Tiger' said: “When army fired a shell, we fired about 20 shells. We fired a lot of shells like mortars and artillery.”
The heavy shelling from the LTTE did have a devastating effecting on the Sri Lankan army. A former Army Commander said: “Casualties due to artillery and mortars were the heaviest on our side. I think it was more than 50 percent”.
US Help Sought
Thus, it became very important for the Sri Lankan navy to cut off the LTTE’s ammo and weapons supply. And when it was discovered that the LTTE was storing its ammunitions in floating warehouses in international waters away from the main shipping lines, the help of the US Ambassador and the US Defense Attache was sought making use of the US Global War on Terror.
“They (the US embassy officials) agreed to provide necessary target information after verifying the tactics and methods used by the SLN (Sri Lankan navy) to attack these floating warehouses,” Adm.Colombage writes.
“The US side wanted assurance that we will not attack any innocent ship or civilians unless they are 100 % LTTE combatants. Once the procedure was explained, they were satisfied and positioned a satellite onto the probably area that we gave them.”
“Then one day, in September 2007, we got an intelligence report saying that they (the Americans) had detected some suspicious vessel in the area,” Adm.Colombage says.
But this posed a major challenge to the SLN. The question was how to reach that distant place, stay there for a while, and sail back to base.
"The OPV (Offshore Petrol Vessel) fleet was ready to go after the LTTE floating warehouses even to distances they have never been. But endurance was the main issue,” a former navy commander pointed out.
There had to be enough fuel, food, and ammo onboard. Long sojourns out at sea become problematic for vessels which are old, and the Sri Lankan OPVs were second-hand. Rough seas could also lead to wear and tear. Refueling in foreign ports could not be considered for fear of leaking information to the LTTE.
The OPVs were therefore placed on the Equator where the sea is calm and arrangements were made to keep them supplied there, when needed.
Given the lack of large caliber guns and anti-ship missiles, the OPVs used the available armaments on them. To supplement these, the OPVs carried boats of the Small Boats Squadron (SBS). The SBS boats would be sent to take on the LTTE ships. Getting close to the LTTE vessel, the SBS men would get into Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC) and fire Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) to sink the targeted vessels.
Between September 10 and 11, 2007, three LTTE vessels were destroyed. On October 17, another one was sunk. Earlier in 2006, an LTTE gun runner was destroyed off Kalmunai in South East Sri Lanka, and in early 2007, another vessel was brought down off Dondra in South Sri Lanka.
With successes close to home, the navy was encouraged to go out further into the sea to hunt for such vessels and went 1,500 nautical miles as far as Indonesia. But actionable intelligence was needed to make the venture worthwhile. Hence the appeal to the US for intelligence in 2007.
According to a former Director of Naval Intelligence, the destruction of the floating armories deprived the LTTE of a large quantity of 152 mm, 130 mm and 122 mm artillery shells and 122 mm mortar rounds among other ammo. MV Koshia, destroyed in September 2007, had 29,000 artillery shells. The LTTE also lost electronic warfare and communication equipment; high powered outboard motors; water scooters; jet skies; swimmer delivery vehicles; radars; GPSs and other war-like material. MV Matsushima had torpedoes, bullet proof vehicles, light aircraft and tons of explosives besides artillery shells.
The destruction of the floating armories did not raise a storm internationally because the world knew that the SLN had only destroyed gun-runners and not innocent vessels, Adm.Colombage notes.