Learning from Our Enemies: Sri Lankan Naval Special Warfare against the Sea Tigers

By: LT Malaka Chandradasa, Sri Lankan Navy

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was one of the most effective—and brutal—insurgent movements of recent times. With the strategic goal of seceding from Sri Lanka and establishing a separate state to be known as "Tamil Eelam," the LTTE waged a bloody war for 30 years, until the Sri Lankan military finally defeated it in May 2009. The LTTE notably was one of the very few insurgent groups to develop operational sea capabilities.1 Its ability to dominate the sea routes to south India, which provided the closest external sanctuary for LTTE fighters, and which enabled it to reinforce its operations by sea, proved crucial to the group's longevity. The Sea Tigers, LTTE's naval wing, was formed in the early 1980s and was highly effective, especially in its use of the Black Sea Tiger element, a waterborne unit of the Black Tigers, the LTTE's elite, highly trained suicide force. In the contest at sea between the Sea Tigers and the Sri Lankan Navy, both sides learned lessons from each other and adapted accordingly. This article will describe this interactive learning process and how the Sri Lankan Navy ultimately defeated the Sea Tigers.

LTTE: Adaptations at Sea

The supreme leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, formed the Sea Tigers in the early 1980s under the leadership of Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan, a tactical and strategic mastermind who went by the alias "Colonel Soosai." The Sea Tigers started off using small boats and ferries to transport supplies and troops across the waters separating northern Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu province in the south of India, where the LTTE was widely supported.2 The LTTE also owned its own international shipping network, which provided the equipment and logistics needed by the group's fighters, known as the Tamil Tigers

Initial attempts by the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) to hinder these operations using its fleet of offshore patrol vessels were somewhat successful, but those efforts led the Sea Tigers to adapt. The insurgents locally manufactured their own fiberglass fast-attack craft, equipping the larger boats with four 250-horsepower, outboard engines and the smaller boats with two engines. These faster craft, with their more powerful engines, allowed the Sea Tigers to outrun the slower SLN patrols. The Sea Tigers' boats were mainly the 45-kilotonne "Thrikka," with four crew members and a machine gun; the 10-kilotonne "Sudai," carrying a single machine gun; the 45-kilotonne "Muraj" or "Waverider," with a crew of 10; and the "Idayan," a 45-kilotonne suicide craft. The Muraj was used mainly as a command vessel and is comparable in most ways to the SLN's own inshore patrol craft.

The Sea Tigers lacked their own harbors or secure launching sites, so they adapted by engineering a method of launching their boats using tractors and trailers. This enabled them to launch from any beachfront location they could access. The LTTE would hide the craft inshore, sometimes more than 10 kilometers away from the beach, and would launch only when necessary. This gave the LTTE mobility, flexibility, and the element of surprise.

The Sea Tigers' most successful innovation was their use of the "wolf pack" tactic.3 Once the Sea Tigers identified a target, five or more of their small boats would approach the target craft, engage it from all directions, and prevent it from fleeing the area. While these small boats engaged the target, a suicide craft would move toward the target boat using the cover of the larger command vessels. These suicide boats were usually small, fiberglass boats manned by a single Black Tiger. The hull of the boat was packed with high explosives and rigged to a pressure trigger located at the craft's pointed prow, set to detonate the explosives when the suicide pilot rammed the target vessel.

Sri Lankan Navy: Not Equipped for Sea Tiger Fight

The Sri Lankan Navy began as a ceremonial force left behind by the British Empire, and was predominantly used as a logistics support element of the Sri Lankan Army. In the 1990s, the SLN had only large ships, mostly inherited from the Royal Navy or gifted by friendly nations. While these were well-suited for blue-water patrolling operations to safeguard against unauthorized fishing or smuggling, they definitely were no match for the heavily armed, small-boat, coastal operations conducted by the Sea Tigers. In other words, the LTTE boats were the ideal asymmetrical match for the SLN's large, less maneuverable, conventional fleet.

By the early 1990s, the Navy understood that it needed to adapt and become a more aggressive fighting force to dominate the lagoon/mangrove swamps of the Jaffna peninsula and eastern areas, and counter the mounting threat posed by the Sea Tigers. Consequently, in 1993 the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) formed the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), modeled after the British Navy's elite Special Boat Service and the U.S. Navy's elite SEALs, under the command of then-LCDR Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunarathne (presently RADM and the Northern Area Naval Commander). The SBS carried out its first operation in November 1993, when it played an integral part in the recapture of a Navy camp in Pooneryn, which had been attacked and overrun by terrorists.

At sea, the Sri Lankan Navy's first line of response were Israelibuilt Dvora craft.4 In an interview, Admiral Wasantha Karrannagoda, former commander of the Sri Lankan Navy, said that in its search for the right platform to counter the Sea Tigers, the SLN found that "the Israeli Navy was facing a similar threat and were using Dvora fast-attack craft as a response." The Dvoras provided an effective response to the LTTE's logistics boats, which were used by the insurgents mainly to transport supplies from their ships operating in international waters, and to smuggle supplies and personnel in and out of south India. The Navy's 4th Fast Attack Flotilla, also known as the Dvora Squadron, was at the forefront of the fight against the Sea Tigers, protecting both naval and civilian transport vessels. The Dvoras, however, proved vulnerable to the LTTE's wolf pack attacks because of the Dvoras' limited close-contact capabilities and maneuverability. The Sea Tigers managed to engage these boats successfully, sinking more than 20 of them.5 The Sea Tigers also continued their successful attacks against larger vessels, sinking transport ships and gunboats at will, and attacking civilian ships bearing supplies to the north and east.

Sri Lankan Navy: Not Equipped for Sea Tiger Fight

The Sri Lankan Navy began as a ceremonial force left behind by the British Empire, and was predominantly used as a logistics support element of the Sri Lankan Army. In the 1990s, the SLN had only large ships, mostly inherited from the Royal Navy or gifted by friendly nations. While these were well-suited for blue-water patrolling operations to safeguard against unauthorized fishing or smuggling, they definitely were no match for the heavily armed, small-boat, coastal operations conducted by the Sea Tigers. In other words, the LTTE boats were the ideal asymmetrical match for the SLN's large, less maneuverable, conventional fleet.

By the early 1990s, the Navy understood that it needed to adapt and become a more aggressive fighting force to dominate the lagoon/mangrove swamps of the Jaffna peninsula and eastern areas, and counter the mounting threat posed by the Sea Tigers. Consequently, in 1993 the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) formed the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), modeled after the British Navy's elite Special Boat Service and the U.S. Navy's elite SEALs, under the command of then-LCDR Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunarathne (presently RADM and the Northern Area Naval Commander). The SBS carried out its first operation in November 1993, when it played an integral part in the recapture of a Navy camp in Pooneryn, which had been attacked and overrun by terrorists.

At sea, the Sri Lankan Navy's first line of response were Israelibuilt Dvora craft.4 In an interview, Admiral Wasantha Karrannagoda, former commander of the Sri Lankan Navy, said that in its search for the right platform to counter the Sea Tigers, the SLN found that "the Israeli Navy was facing a similar threat and were using Dvora fast-attack craft as a response." The Dvoras provided an effective response to the LTTE's logistics boats, which were used by the insurgents mainly to transport supplies from their ships operating in international waters, and to smuggle supplies and personnel in and out of south India. The Navy's 4th Fast Attack Flotilla, also known as the Dvora Squadron, was at the forefront of the fight against the Sea Tigers, protecting both naval and civilian transport vessels.

The Dvoras, however, proved vulnerable to the LTTE's wolf pack attacks because of the Dvoras' limited close-contact capabilities and maneuverability. The Sea Tigers managed to engage these boats successfully, sinking more than 20 of them.5 The Sea Tigers also continued their successful attacks against larger vessels, sinking transport ships and gunboats at will, and attacking civilian ships bearing supplies to the north and east.

Sri Lankan Navy Makes Successful Adaptations

The realization that the heavier Dvoras were no match for the small, fast-moving, and lightly-crewed boats of the Sea Tigers in shallower seas came at a high cost. The SBS experimented with smaller, lighter craft, including rubber combat-reconnaissance craft, but most were too small and slow, and proved highly ineffective against the Sea Tigers. At this point, the Sri Lankan Navy appeared to be at a dead end, unable to match or counter the naval capabilities of the Sea Tigers.

This changed in 2006, when a Sri Lankan Navy SBS operation, led by LCDR Mudiyanselage Bandula Dissanayake (who was injured during a LTTE attack in 2009 and retired from the Navy in 2012), discovered where the LTTE was manufacturing the 16-foot boats its forces used for their wolf-pack attacks. SBS personnel found a boat buried in the ground at the site, which was later recovered and brought to the Navy dockyard at Trincomalee. Navy engineers reverse-engineered a version of this boat, which became the SLN's first 16-foot Arrow Boat. The small, highly maneuverable boat was fitted with a 12.7 mm main gun and an automatic grenade launcher on the stern. Two 115-horsepower outboard engines propelled it to speeds in excess of 25 knots.

With the guidance and encouragement of then-SLN Commander VADM Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy engineers continued to experiment with different configurations of this base model. The experiments yielded two more versions of the Arrow Boat, the 18-footer and the highly successful 23-foot model, which went into mass production. The 23-footer was manned by four people: a coxswain, main gunner, stern gunner, and side gunner. It could be fitted with a 12.7 mm, 23 mm, or 30 mm main gun (some even were equipped with twin cannon versions); a 12.7 mm or automatic grenade launcher stern gun; and two 7.62 mm Chinese multi-purpose machine guns at the sides. Powered by two 250-horsepower engines, the boat boasted speeds of up to 35 knots.

During the period from 2007 to 2009, 200 of the 23-foot Arrow Boats were produced at the Navy's dockyard in Welisara.6 These boats, though small, are capable of operating in conditions up to Sea State-4.7 The boats' significantly shallower draft allows mobility in extremely shallow waters, while the comparatively narrow beam presents a smaller target at sea, and makes targeting from land almost impossible.

Making Gains against Insurgents

The combination of high firepower with a maneuverable, high-speed platform gave these Arrow Boats the ability to engage the smaller Sea Tiger boats on their own terms, fighting one-on-one at close quarters.8 The most credible testament to the success of these small Arrow Boats came from the Sea Tigers themselves, who described the difficulties of countering the SLN's new fleet of small boats.

While the Arrow Boats provided the much-needed platform to counter the Sea Tigers, the Navy's training, operational, and tactical doctrines also underwent drastic changes. The Navy introduced the operational concept of four layers of "defense barriers." This concept made use of the Navy's flagship and larger offshore vessels in the outermost layer, gun boats in the next layer landward, the Dvoras in the second layer from land, and the Arrow Boats as the first line of defense in coastal waters. This layered system offered protection and offensive capability against the movements of the Sea Tigers, and helped prevent the Sea Tigers from bringing in troops and equipment from ships in international waters, or from southern India to the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. It also prevented the LTTE leadership from escaping Sri Lanka by sea during the latter stages of the conflict.

The SBS also developed a specific tactical formation for using these Arrow Boats. The formation was led by one command boat, either a Waverider or an inshore patrol craft, equipped with electro-optical devices and radar capabilities.9 This command boat served as the eyes and ears of the smaller boats when patrolling and monitoring the Sea Tigers' movements. Because the smaller boats did not have radar capability and their personnel had only limited vision, particularly at night when the crew members had to rely on night-vision goggles, the command boats played a vital role in detecting and engaging the Sea Tigers.

When encountering larger enemy craft that were operating individually, the Arrow Boats imitated the swarming tactics of the Sea Tigers. For smaller enemy craft, the Arrow Boats would engage in close-quarter fighting, sometimes closing within 20 meters of the enemy boats, in what could be compared to dogfights between fighter jets. The possibility that the Sea Tiger boat formations included suicide vessels made every episode of close contact a potentially deadly ordeal. The attack patterns of the Sea Tigers from 2006 to 2009 clearly illustrate the success of the SLN's operations. In 2006, Sea Tigers engaged the Navy offensively more than 21 times. In 2007, the number of confrontations was 12. In 2008, there were fewer than five confrontations, and finally by 2009, the Sea Tigers were defeated.



NOTES:

1. Arabinda Acharya and Nadeeka P. Withana, "Groups with Maritime Terrorist Capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region," in Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean Region: Critical Issues in Debate, ed. V. R. Raghavan and W. Lawrence S. Prabhakar (New Delhi: Tata McGraw–Hill, 2008), 204–7; Peter Lehr, "Asymmetric Warfare in the Indian Ocean: What Kind of Threat from What Kind of Actor," in Raghavan and Prabhakar, Maritime Security, 173, 178–79; Rohan Gunaratna, "The Asymmetric Threat from Maritime Terrorism," Jane's Navy International, Oct. 1, 2001.

2. While there is a vast amount of conflicting literature regarding the involvement of India and Tamil Nadu with the LTTE, many in the region are sure that the Tigers enjoyed strong support among the population and politicians of Tamil Nadu.

3. The Sea Tigers also developed new tactics and operations using suicide submersibles, floating sea mines, and suicide divers.

4. The Dvora or fast attack craft were initially purchased from Israel and later from the United States. The Colombo Dockyard also manufactured these craft.

5. The numbers are taken from reports in "Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis: July 2006–May 2009," from the Ministry of Defence, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, July 2011; retrieved from http://www.defence.lk/news/20110801_Conf.pdf. These figures include only naval vessels destroyed by attacks. Some underwater suicide divers are known to have used submersible vehicles.

6. By the end of 2009, the Navy's dockyard in Walisara had completed 200 Arrow Boats. The Defense Secretary of Sri Lanka put the 100th boat under way ceremonially on September 11, 2008. Dhaneshi Yatawara, "SLN launches 100th Arrow Boat" Sunday Observer, Sept. 14, 2008; retrieved from http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2008/09/14/sec02.asp/.

7. Sea state is the general condition of the sea's surface, with respect to wind, waves and swell at a certain location and moment. Sea State-4 is classified as moderate seas with swells of 1.25 to 2.5 meters.

8. These boats carried no armor to provide defense. The weight and other constraints associated with armor proved to be a hindrance in the battle space.

9. Waverider is a larger patrol craft that was designed and manufactured by the Navy Dockyard. This was modeled after the "Indumathi" craft captured from the LTTE. Inshore patrol craft are boats smaller than the Dvora, manned by about 12 people, with the ability to carry radar and EOD systems.

Average (0 Votes)
The average rating is 0.0 stars out of 5.
No comments yet. Be the first.