Tim Fish for Jane’s Defence Weekly
After more than two decades of fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at sea, the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) is being reshaped to prioritize maritime security for the nation. This new phase of development, which will enhance the Navy’s blue-water capabilities as well as maintain its existing expertise in brown water counter-insurgency operations, is being led by Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage.
A new strategy is required, the admiral told IHS Jane’s, so the navy can take on Sri Lanka’s wider maritime security challenges in the region. “The SLN is being structured to meet the new challenges emerging during the post-conflict period,” he said, “and the navy has returned to the traditional naval role of defending nation’s maritime interests from internal and external threats. The main focus has been on having effective and efficient maritime and coastal surveillance, and the SLN is doing its utmost to keep the sea area free of piracy and armed robbery at sea.”
“Sri Lanka is an island and our maritime interests cover an ocean area many times the size of the land,” Adm Colombage noted. “Our first line of defence is the entire 1,340 km of coastline and territorial waters. We need to maintain surveillance around the country and, hence, need ships and craft, surveillance equipment, and sufficient people to perform the task.
“In meeting our national and international obligations on maritime space, we will need to focus on an Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] of nearly seven times the land mass of Sri Lanka; on a search-and rescue region of about 27 times our land mass, through which the main sea lines of communication connecting east and west run; and police an outer continental margin that goes beyond the EEZ,” Adm Colombage said.”Therefore, the SLN will concentrate on enhancing maritime domain awareness and developing a combined operating picture using network-centric operations to maintain an effective surveillance of the ocean area.”
To meet these objectives the SLN will focus on infrastructure and training to improve its capabilities and create a professional force of officers and sailors that can spearhead the next generation of naval development. Adm Colombage believes his naval personnel deserve this investment after their sacrifices during decades of counter-insurgency operations against the LTTE Sea Tigers.
“Our sailors performed their duties by sacrificing even basic needs. Now the time has come to develop naval infrastructure and living conditions, and to provide them with standard basic needs and to make them more professional through training. More emphasis is now being paid to develop training facilities and staff. We are training sailors for UN missions and disaster management duties as well,” he said.
New infrastructure includes the formation of Regional Security Centres and satellite camps covering the entire Sri Lankan coastline, while new Naval Area Commands have been established to focus on maritime interests. The latest has been the opening of a new command in the southeast of Sri Lanka to expand surveillance and improve the command and control of naval forces in that area. Existing infrastructure is being upgraded to improve habitation conditions so that sailors can have a “home away from home”, Admiral Colombage said.
In developing a wider training programme, the emphasis is on providing more advanced naval training at the mid-career level to create more specialists and to establish an expert core of naval instructors. Furthermore, the SLN wants more modern naval simulators to prepare their next generation of officers and sailors.
“We want at least 25% of the naval complement to undergo some kind of training at all times. We are focusing on retaining our hard-earned brown-water expertise and improving the professional outlook of the SLN,” said Adm Colombage. “We welcome joint training proposals and we are already undertaking an instructor officer exchange programme with the Indian Navy. We shall continue to send our officers and men overseas for training to expose them to the operations of other navies, develop their skills, and broaden their horizons.
“Although the SLN will have to work with its existing budget and resources, there are plans to buy two new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and to increase the size of some special forces units. The navy is being allocated a substantial amount, which will mostly be spent on personnel and infrastructure development and naval operations. We intend to go slow on procurement, focusing only on the most essential equipment,” the admiral explained. “I believe the SLN is of the right size and structure to meet present and future challenges.
“The SLN does not anticipate a large increase in the defence budget,” he continued. “However, there are plans to acquire more offshore patrol vessels in the near future. The new claims on the continental shelf and its resources will mandate the SLN to be able to operate in a wider policing area. This will require advanced OPV-type platforms and discussions are under way to finalise acquiring such platforms from India. The details are not finalised yet.
“There may be a slight increase of the Special Boat Squadron [SBS] cadre,” said the admiral. “Also, the Rapid Action Boat Squadron [RABS] has about 500 personnel at present and is likely to be increased gradually. There is also a Rapid Response Rescue and Relief Squadron (4RS) that has been formed using some RABS and other experienced personnel purely to respond to man made or natural disasters at sea or on land, especially for floods and other life-saving situations.
With their inshore patrol craft, Wave Rider, and Arrow boats the SBS and RABS were the key units used to secure a victory over the LTTE Sea Tigers up to 2009 and the SLN wants to ensure their capabilities are not lost.
“We want to retain this hard-earned capability and expertise,” said Adm Colombage. “Many navies, and especially Special Forces, have expressed the desire to learn small boat tactics and asymmetric warfare operations and the SLN is positively accommodating these requests. The SLN is determined not to allow our coast or sea to be exploited by subversive or insurgent elements in the future.
“Some LTTE front organisations, sympathisers, have not given up the elusive dream of achieving a separate state. Intelligence reveals that those factions are trying to regroup with a view to destabilising the country again. Hence, we have to be mindful of this possibility,” the admiral cautioned. “Intelligence operations can play a key role in this endeavour. The SLN has to play an enhanced role in intelligence gathering and sharing with other agencies, locally and internationally, for the purpose of national and regional security.”..