Military Matters

Once bitten twice bloodied

Army’s sudden rush of blood, to discard tried, tested and proven tactics, sheds more of it in its latest fiasco

Coconut plantations, paddy fields, sparse vegetation and patches of sand, not to mention the two km wide and 25 km long lagoon, mark the terrain across the 12 km wide southern neck of the Jaffna peninsula.
To the east of this stretch is the blue sea and to the west is the lagoon.

The Forward Defence Lines (FDL) of the military and the LTTE, run across Kilali on the west, Muhamalai in the middle and Nagarkovil towards the east. The lines are extended, not only across the neck but also, a small distance up and down along the lagoon and sea, to prevent an amphibious attack by the enemy.

The location is not suitable for offensive military operations, as there is no chance of assailing the flanks of the enemy or reaching its rear depth.

Also, the terrain is not very suitable for military operations, given the limited manoeuverability in the open stretch.
On top of that, with the North-East monsoonal showers lashing the area, the stretch has become very boggy, making Main Battle Tanks and even Infantry Carrying Vehicles (ICVs) difficult, if not impossible, to be deployed.

Muhamalai an Army graveyard
The weather is also not conducive for ground attack Mi 24 gunships of the air force to take on the enemy.
It was in this backdrop that a large-scale raid was undertaken by the military on Wednesday, November 8. Incidentally, today marks the 13th month anniversary of the army debacle in Muhamalai on October 11, 2006, when the military launched a similar offensive.

Some 175 security forces personnel perished and 400 more sustained injuries in last year’s military operation just before the monsoon set in.

The Tigers’ offensive at Muhamalai on August 11, 2006, also turned out to be a disaster on its side.
The moral of the lesson from the two attempts last year suggests that this particular stretch is better suited for defence than offense.

The military’s advantage in air and armoured support could not be made use of.
In recent months, Senpathi has warned that the accuracy of the Tigers’ artillery strikes was a matter for the security forces to worry about. Even Security Forces Commander (Jaffna) Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri was unsuccessfully targeted a few months back, while the Mechanised Infantry Brigade Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Ralph Nugera was successfully targeted early this year.

More than anything else, the battle theatre is an open stretch, making retreating soldiers easily vulnerable to Tiger artillery and mortar fire.

In this backdrop, why did the military undertake the operation on Wednesday, despite the adverse weather conditions the security forces had to grapple with?

Various reasons are trotted out from different quarters, for the military operation this week.
But, before we get to them, let us consider another important development.

The military has been consistently claiming that all its actions were counter operations to LTTE offensives or at least pre-emptive, to prevent Tiger strikes. This Wednesday, too, the military propaganda centre wanted to take the same path.

The truth and not the whole truth
But, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was keen on proclaiming the truth, admitting that the military undertook the operation. The reason: It was too obvious that the whole affair could not be concealed. Previously, the LTTE posted pictures of security forces personnel taken hostage, guns and other military equipment left behind on its websites. These exposures only undermine the credibility of the security forces. This time too it posted pictures of arms and ammunition left behind by the security forces.

The Defence Secretary also knows that the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) is almost a dead letter in terms of violations and the respective lines of control. Hence, no qualms about violating the CFA.

But, unknown to Rajapaksa, there is another development. The whole operation is made out to be a political blunder, by ordering an operation on that scale, to, hopefully, announce at the Budget, a new line of control along this neck.

On a previous occasion, too, the current administration has sought to obtain political mileage out of a military operation. The announcement of the completion of the Sampur operation in September 2006 was also delayed by a few days till the SLFP Party Convention for maximum mileage.

To coincide with the deadline for abolishing the Executive Presidency, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government ordered Operation Leap Forward that returned to base faster than it took off.

Learning from the lessons following the first misadventure at Muhamalai last year, the army is keen to keep the death toll and casualty figures as low as possible.

But, the truth is that an operation in this theatre was likely to have high casualties for lack of cover, unlike in the Wanni jungles. Accordingly, small teams of elite forces and infantry did the trick in the eastern jungles and continue to do so in the Wanni, where the LTTE is finding it increasingly difficult to prevent the security forces eventually from penetrating.

Tigers wait for the kill
Since the terrain along the Kilali-Muhamali-Nagarkovil axis is more suited for defensive warfare, than staging an offensive, the casualty figures of the retreating side in an open theatre were likely to be higher.

With artillery positions in Pooneryn and mortar positions at Pallai still secure, despite air force claims of pounding them time and again, the military should have anticipated that level of counter action.

The LTTE is clearly having a manpower problem and would prefer to take on the military using indirect fire, than go for face to face confrontations. But, in defending territory, this was inevitable. The LTTE is also in no mood to attack the army’s FDLs across this southern neck.

The Tigers would prefer to attack high value targets with limited cadres or resort to suicide bombings, than undertake large-scale offensives, until its morale is high. Sections of the military believe that the Tigers, in late November, were planning to take on the FDLs along this axis and push forward to Jaffna. Hence, the pre-emptive operation that was also meant to destroy bunkers.

The Tigers are aware that the security forces have, besides the artillery and mortars, the deadly multi barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) that would be put to good use, as in April 2001.

If the Tigers failed in their tracks in April 2001, when their morale was high, and at the beginning of the undeclared ‘Eelam War IV’ in August, 2006, it is unlikely when they are fighting with their backs to the wall.

They would rather dig in and prevent the military from advancing through the Wanni. So, the pre-emptive action was uncalled for. Destroying of bunkers could have been done with limited operations by small groups as observed during the past several weeks. It was a slow, but steady, and safe approach that was making a dent in the Tiger defences.

This should have continued until the Tigers were worn out so that they could be taken line after line and when they were burnt up with no power to push, the army should have gone for the Tiger’s jugular, once the monsoon subsided.

Army rushes in where Tigers fear to tread
Instead, throwing caution to the wind, the army, like a batsman who has lost his patience, had a fling, skying the ball for an easy catch that the fielders and bowler were expecting.

This attack came hot on the heels of the air force scoring a bull’s eye, when its bombers swiftly targeted the eastern Kilinochchi bunker that Thamilselvan, the Tigers’ de facto No. 2, was putting up in. This success was preceded by the navy’s unprecedented destruction of four Tiger vessels in this war of attrition.

The army, which has had its fair share of success in the East, suddenly had a rush of blood, instead of patiently penetrating the Wanni. In the north, the prudent course of action is a series of limited operations until the right time.

More to it than meets the eye
Other reasons are attributed for forcing the pace and the tempo.
In as much as, ‘war is too serious a matter to be left in the hands of the generals,’ waging war and selecting battles for political expediency is another dangerous exercise.

Last year’s Muhamalai operation was executed despite President Mahinda Rajapaksa assuring the international community that the army would not initiate offensives.

The military is an extension of the government. Therefore, the defence minister, the defence secretary, the chief of defence staff and the service chiefs must plan and execute strategy, after the government lays down general policy.
On war and peace, ideally there must be continuity in policy even with change in administrations.

It doesn’t mean that all battles can be won in a war. For instance, in Vietnam, the US army won most of the battles, but lost the war. Sometimes, you have to pay the price of taking a decision. As in this latest case, you might have to take a beating. That is fine, provided there is a rationale for each strategy, not, however, based on petty party gain.

The vote following the Second Reading of the Budget stands as a Sword of Damocles over the head of the Rajapaksa Government. A defeat here would mean an automatic dissolution of Parliament.

The JVP is the key political party on whom the Government depends for its survival. The Marxist party is also bent on defeating the Tigers and fully endorses the government’s military strategy. Hence, was it a politically-motivated military decision to take on Muhamalai on the day the 2008 Budget was unveiled in parliament? The failure at Muhamalai, should open the eyes of one and all, given that Rs 165 billion for defence is unprecedented?
In the end, the purpose was defeated by the Tigers but, at a cost to them as well.

‘Mourners’ more than a match
Did the Security Forces expect the Tigers to be still in mourning for Thamilselvan, when they undertook the large-scale raid? At the time of his death, Thamilselvan was overlooking Pooneryn.
Mourning or no mourning, the counter plans were in place and well executed in the end by self styled “Colonel” Thileepan
Contrast this with the army at Saliyapura and the air force at Anuradhapura. They were all in a jubilant mood with Super Cross and Super Star when the Tigers struck.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, they say. How true!!!
In launching military operations, there should be proper planning and examples from the past must be taken.
When taking the fight to the enemy’s area of control, another point must be considered. The area could be booby trapped, as was the case not just on Wednesday, but several times before, during the operations in the East.

Anti-personnel mines and those that set off claymore mines, Improvised Explosives Devices, trenches, false frontages must be guarded against, as you are fighting a top guerilla organization with conventional capabilities.

After Operation Jayasikuru, the army learnt it the hard way. Columns of infantrymen advancing into enemy-held territory, could be disastrous. Hence, a different strategy of small groups of elite forces was used to beat the Tigers in their own lair. But, in the southern neck of the peninsula, this is not possible. At least, not during the monsoon, and not as long as the LTTE gun positions are in place at Pooneryn and Pallai. Hence, another strategy must be mapped out.


Muhamalai misadventure

Ahead of the military offensive in Muhamalai, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka skipped a visit to Jaffna, and did so only on Thursday, after the operation was called off.

That General Fonseka met the Security Forces (SF) Commander (Jaffna) Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri only on Thursday, raised speculation that the army chief had washed his hands off this military operation, that some claim was a political decision.

It may also be a tactic on Fonseka’s part to take the Tigers by surprise, as previously, the LTTE had got wind of operations on the cards, when the army chief made a visit.

At the Security Council Meeting following the first Muhamalai debacle, Fonseka claimed responsibility. This time around who will claim responsibility?

The target during this operation was the LTTE’s Muhamalai FDLs.
The Reserve Strike Division, also known as 53 Division, and the holding 55 Division were involved in this operation.
Jaffna SF Commander General Chandrasiri was in touch with the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 53 Division, Brigadier Samantha Suriyabandara and the 55 GOC Brigadier Kamal Gunaratne. More than 300 men were handpicked for the operation.
Infantry from 5 GW, 1 VIR and 6 GR of the Air Mobile Brigade (AMB) of the 53 Division, were alerted to move out of their FDLs in Muhamalai, to launch this surprise attack.

The 53 Division consists of elite forces that include the AMB, the 533 Brigade and the Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which was not deployed, as the operation was called off after the Tigers rained artillery and mortar fire, when the troops took control of the first line in the early hours of Wednesday.

Troops deployed along the Muhamalai FDLs from the 55 Division and attached to 4 SLLI, 7 VIR, 4 GW and 1 SLLI, were also given instructions to support troops of the AMB, in a bid to take the Tiger bunker line.

Troops, using explosives, are believed to have destroyed several bunkers of the LTTE and as they advanced, fired at Tiger cadres on the second line. The military claims that some 57 Tigers were killed and 50 more injured in the fierce fighting that lasted a few hours, before troops returned to base at 8:30 a.m. Tiger casualties include those from artillery and MBRL fire. Several Tiger vehicles carrying reinforcements and logistics from Iyakachchi, Chempiyanpattu and Pallai, were hit by MBRL fire.

When troops retreated to base, the Tigers fired 81 mm mortars and 120 mm mortars at them from Pallai, while a barrage of artillery fire came from Pooneryn.

The military admits 11 killed and 50 wounded, classified according to the seriousness of the injuries as P1, P2 and P3. The LTTE displayed eight T.56 guns and ammunition left behind by the retreating soldiers.

Those from the engineering corps, deployed to neutralize the highly booby trapped area, were also injured. Troops who stepped on Johnny mines, not only lost their legs, but the action sparked off claymore mines. Improvised Explosive Devices were also used by the Tigers, who had dug up trenches and pits to trap troops. Though the air force deployed MI 24 helicopter gunships to assist ground troops, their role was very limited, given the adverse weather conditions.

However, unconfirmed reports place the death toll of the military at 20 and the wounded at 115. No battle tanks were lost by the military as claimed by the LTTE.