Sri Lanka’s Success in the Eelam War IV: Some Insights

1 .jpg  Colonel Hariharan … This article was written on 28th February 2009 before the war ended and was published  in  Agni–Studies in International Strategic Studies, XII, No. 1, Jan-March 2009. It has been sent to me by the author for inclusion in Thuppahi. Emphasis via highlighting in BLUE is my imposition.


Sri Lanka appears to be the only success story in the dismal scene everywhere in the war against terror. It has been extremely successful in the Eelam War IV, going on since 2006 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents. Collectively known as the Eelam Wars, these wars have been going on from 1983. Sri Lanka security forces (SLSF) were not able to achieve decisive results in their three earlier outings. The Tamil insurgent group fighting for an independent Tamil Eelam state to be created for minority Tamils has been rated by According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “the Tamil Tigers are among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world.” The FBI said the LTTE’s “ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

49a-balraj-and-troops Colonel Balraj  and Tiger  troops advancing during Eelam War III

The LTTE has also the dubious credit of refining the use of suicide terrorism as a force multiplier in its terrorist operations. The LTTE is perhaps the only insurgent and terrorist group in the world with proven capability to wage both conventional as well as non conventional war on land, in air, and on sea. It has used suicide terrorism to change the course of events irreversibly both in India and Sri Lanka.

During the last three of years of the current war, the SLSF [Sri Lanka Security Forces] have wrested control of nine districts over which the LTTE had exercised control for over a decade in the Tamil-predominant northern and eastern provinces. According to Sri Lanka Defence Ministry by end February 2009, the SLSF had regained about 15,000 sq km of territory from the insurgent group. The LTTE ‘territory’ is now reduced to a miniscule 70 square kilometres area only. The LTTE, is still surviving there because it is using about 200,000 Tamil civilians in the area as human shield to delay the SLSF’s final offensive.

Both sides have suffered heavy casualties in the Eelam War IV. However independently verified figures of casualties of both sides are not available. But the LTTE appears to have suffered the most casualties. The estimated LTTE strength now stands reduced to only 3000 to 4000 from the 2006 estimate of 15,000- 18,000 cadres. According to the data released by the LTTE in November 2008, it had lost a total of 22,390 cadres (17, 496 men and 4894 women) in all the Eelam Wars from November 27, 1982 to Nov 20, 2008. Interpolated with similar data of earlier years, in the current war the LTTE appears to have lost 5,500 cadres – one quarter of its overall total. More importantly, in this war the insurgent group has lost most of its experienced frontline middle-level leadership – veterans of previous wars.

However, these figures do not include the LTTE auxiliaries and members of the hastily raised militia ‘Makkal Padai’ who have taken part in operations. If they are taken into reckoning, the LTTE’s total losses in this war would probably come to 11,000 as claimed by the Army Commander Lt Gen Fonseka. As against this the SLSF losses are probably around 5000 as they had lost 3000 troops in the offensive on Kilinochchi between October 2008 and January 2009.

The LTTE has also probably lost most of its artillery including scores of 81 mm mortars, 155 mm and 130 mm guns and infantry support weapons. Its ship building, arms-manufacturing, and air-operation infrastructures, communication and broadcasting facilities have been captured. In 2006-07, Sri Lanka navy successfully destroyed the LTTE’s tramp fleet of at least eight ships along with weapons and military equipment they carried. The navy has also successfully immobilised the Sea Tigers activity after the Sea Tiger bases on eastern and western coastlines were captured by the army. With the LTTE’s freedom to operate overseas curtailed now as it is banned in 32 countries, rebuilding the organisation even with the help of the expatriate Tamils is going to be an uphill task.

Thus, the SLSF appear to have dealt a grievous blow to the LTTE in this war. Even if the LTTE survives the current war, its ability will be limited to carrying out only sporadic bomb blasts, suicide attacks and assassinations only. It may take a couple of years in favourable environment to regain its past s glory. Thus the President appears to have almost achieved his aim of cutting down the LTTE to size and reducing its self assumed status of a state within the nation to that of an extremist group with limited activity. Sri Lanka’s success in the war against the LTTE holds some useful strategic learning for other countries in reworking their own counter insurgency/terrorism strategies.


There is no doubt that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unwavering focus on the objective of totally eliminating the LTTE, fulfilling his electoral promise, was the key to the nation’s success in the war. The clarity he imparted to the national leadership gave a well-defined direction to the government’s actions in tandem with SLSF operations. Neither such clarity of objective nor commitment to goal was evident in the earlier wars against the Tamil insurgent group.

After the first three years of the peace process 2002, Sri Lanka was facing a political crisis due to its inability to shore up the stalled peace process. It could neither handle the LTTE’s large-scale violations nor come up with a nationally agreed political response to the LTTE’s interim self governing authority (ISGA) proposal. The morale of the armed forces was low as the ceasefire agreement prevented them from responding to repeated LTTE attacks against SLSF officers and intelligence operatives.

It was in this environment Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected Sri Lanka President in November 2005 with a wafer thin majority of votes from Southern Sinhalas with a promise to tame the LTTE. He also vowed to end the peace process 2002. In a way his election was aided by the LTTE enforced boycott of the elections in areas under its control. This deprived Tamils votes that would have got the rival candidate Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party elected.

Mr Rajapaksa’s predecessors had considered the LTTE’s challenge to the State’s authority as an offshoot of the Tamil ethnic struggle for autonomy. So their approach wavered between military operations and peace talks aimed at addressing the broader issue of devolution of equitable powers to the Tamil minority. At the operational level, this created confusion both in the SLSF and the government machinery and cramped the military operations from reaching their logical conclusion.

In the past the government felt more comfortable in politically handling the LTTE than embarking upon yet another round of war. On the other hand, the LTTE always had more faith in its armed might than in its vague socialist political ideology reminiscent of Fascism, with allegiance of all ranks to the supreme leader Prabhakaran. So at all times in peace and war, the LTTE was comfortable only when it retained the military initiative.

The LTTE had always used the peace pauses between wars to build its strength and firepower for the next round of war. This enabled the LTTE to emerge stronger and cockier than before after the collapse of the peace effort. For instance, it used the four years of peace that prevailed during the peace process 2002 to develop its air capability for the first time. It imported at least three to four light planes, developed as many as eight airstrips, two of them with ground infrastructure, trained the pilots, and imported at least 15 ship loads of military equipment. This strategy had helped the LTTE to go on the war mode and spring military surprises whenever it chose to do so.

However, Mr Rajapaksa appears to have been determined not to allow LTTE the luxury of taking the military initiative to go to war while paying obeisance to the peace process. By the time he assumed office in November 2005 the peace progress reached a dead end.

All along the period of ceasefire, the LTTE had shown a studied disregard in observing the ceasefire, committing over 3200 violations even while the peace process was in force. This had strengthened President Rajapaksa’s move to disown the peace process as unworkable. So to start with, President Rajapaksa apparently decided to ignore the ceasefire agreement and bided his time to hit back at the LTTE. The four sponsors of the peace process – European Union, Japan, Norway and the U.S – collectively known as the co-chairs were muted in their protests against the Sri Lankan action.

Governments in Sri Lanka in the past had dithered on evolving a national consensus
on handling the Tamil issue due to internal political differences and lack of political will. After he came to power, President Rajapaksa formed an all-party committee to evolve a solution to the Tamil problem acceptable to all sections of society. Though this was in keeping with his election manifesto, many considered this an exercise to buy time for the President to militarily cut down the LTTE to size. The President’s marked preference for vigorously pursuing the military option first only proved this surmise correct.

The President has consistently been strengthening his political base in tandem with his military effort. He has accommodated a motley collection of small political parties of all hues in his jumbo cabinet of 104 ministers to ensure adequate budgetary support in parliament for the war effort. The lure of power has badly split almost all the opposition parties. The success of the President’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance coalition in the successive provincial council elections has shown that politically he is stronger than ever before. The mutually reinforcing success of his military operations and political strategy appear to be the main reason for this.

The LTTE provided the President an opportunity to seize the military imitative when a LTTE woman suicide bomber made a bid to kill the Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka on April 25, 2006. Immediately, air force planes struck the LTTE’s headquarters in an assertion of retaliatory power. However, Mr Rajapaksa’s war got more legitimacy and punch in July 2006 when the LTTE closed the sluice gates of a weir at Mavil Aru in eastern province to cut off the water supply to Sinhala farmers downstream. The SLSF launched Operation Watershed to rid of the LTTE from Mavil Aru. After that there was no respite for the LTTE from the SLSF offensive.

The SLSF probably chose the eastern province for a military showdown with the LTTE because the insurgents had a smaller force there and the population was a mix of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalas. By then in the east the LTTE was facing internal problems after Karuna, a senior LTTE leader and commander of Batticaloa, and his followers broke away from the organisation in 2004, depleting the insurgent strength. Karuna’s help became a useful add on to the SLSF operations.

By June 2007, the SLSF broke through the strong LTTE resistance and captured all the areas under its control in the east. However, the LTTE probably managed to extricate bulk of its strength in the east. The armed forces were buoyed by their success and became confident of taking on the LTTE in its home ground in the north.

The success in the east probably helped the President to sell the idea of a full scale war against the LTTE in the north to the people, who were not too confident of the SLSF capability till then. The government started terming the war as a “war for liberation of Tamils”; and the President promised restoration of full powers promised under the 13th amendment of the constitution to the newly “liberated” eastern province.

After the success in the east the President probably firmed up his plan for launching operations in the north where the LTTE was stronger. The plan had three tangibles in its core: no resumption of peace talks till the LTTE’s military power is crushed, keep the international community (particularly India) at bay and in good humour, and not to allow any local or external pressure to affect the war plans.
The President’s plans are put into action by his executive team consisting of his brothers Mr Basil Rajapakse and Mr Gotabaya Rajapakse, who were inducted as the Presidential Advisor and the Defence Secretary respectively, and Lt Gen Fonseka, the Army Commander. While Mr Basil Rajapakse provided the political interface for military operations, Mr Gotabaya Rajapakse provided the government interface for the military operations. Thus the military operations are well coordinated with other initiatives of the government. In Sri Lanka the defence ministry also controls law and order and public security. Thus the actions of paramilitary forces, civil defence forces and the police are seamlessly coordinated with SLSF operational requirements. This arrangement appears to be continuing, though Mr Basil Rajapakse has become a parliament member now.

The President has given a free hand for the Army Commander in planning and conduct of operations; there is good rapport between the Army Commander and the Defence Secretary who had served with Lt Gen Fonseka during his army service. On the flip side, concentration of power in a few persons is liable to misuse and this has caused concern among NGOs working on human rights issues.


The SLSF was a small entity with army strength of a little over 16,000 even as late as 1985. However, it was the growth of Tamil militancy in the nineties that made the SLSF re-think of its force levels and structure. However, this perspective was further modified when the LTTE recovered from the mauling it received at the hands of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987-90) and staged a powerful comeback from 1991 onwards. At that stage, the LTTE was weak in conventional operations as it could never regain Jaffna which it lost to the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987 and the SLSF in the Eelam War II in 1990-91. For example the LTTE bid to capture Elephant Pass in 1991 was beaten back with the loss of 1,100 cadres. Perhaps this made the SLSF a little complacent in understanding the development of the LTTE into a major force with land, and sea capability.

The operational experience in these wars taught the LTTE some invaluable lessons in reorganising itself for modern warfare. It restructured itself into military formations, adding fire power with mortars and anti tank weapons. It raised women’s battalions to shore up its strength. Its gained the expertise to use suicide bombing with devastating effect to destabilise the other side. The middle level leadership showed strong motivation and a lot of battlefield innovation. The LTTE Sea Tigers, its nascent naval wing, showed a lot of innovation and developed techniques suited to use suicide boats to attack Sri Lanka naval boats. The LTTE was constantly using modern technology innovations to improve its battlefield capability. It started the manufacture of grenades, Claymore mines and innovatively designed its improvised explosive devices. The LTTE’s overseas support network organised among expatriates living in Canada, Europe and the U.S provided the support and sustenance for the LTTE’s growth.

In the Eelam War III (1995-2002) the SLSF’s performance was not satisfactory. By then the LTTE had earned the dubious distinction of being the only organisation to have assassinated two heads of government and to have developed a daring guerrilla navy capable of taking on conventional navy. The army suffered heavy casualties in defending Mullaitivu losing 1600 troops while the navy lost two naval ships due to Sea Tiger sabotage operations. In the Elephant Pass the military suffered a very big setback losing 204 soldiers. In that operation the LTTE acquired its modern artillery by capturing: three 152 mm guns, two 122 mm guns, 12 x120 mm heavy mortars, and several .50 machine guns, and thousands of automatic rifles. The LTTE also captured several armoured vehicles, tanks, military trucks, bulldozers and high-tech communication systems.

The country was shocked when the LTTE Black Tiger suicide commandos carried out a daring raid on Katunayake air base in July 2001 in which a total of 26 civil and military aircraft were destroyed.

However, the SLSF appear to have made significant efforts to learn from past mistakes when they went into Eelam War IV. In October 2006, apparently with the euphoria of victories in the east, the army made an abortive foray in Jaffna peninsula that drew a LTTE counter offensive in which 129 soldiers were killed and 515 wounded. Similarly in another army offensive on April 23, 2008 offensive against the LTTE defence line in Muhamalai failed to make headway and as many as 165 soldiers were killed. Apparently stung by such failures and based upon his past campaign experience, the Army Commander addressed three key issues that had been the bane of Sri Lanka armed forces for a long time. These include providing adequate force levels, coordination of operations on multiple axes, and flexible battlefield strategy to overcome bottlenecks. He seem to have understood and exploited the weakness of the LTTE in defending offensives along multiple axes and its paucity of artillery and anti aircraft weapons. His operational strategy for the full scale northern offensive appeared to be broadly as under:

• Pin down the LTTE at the forward defended localities astride the Kandy – Jaffna A9 road in the north at Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil and in the south along line Palamoddai-Omanthai. This would prevent the LTTE from thinning out troops to reinforce defences along other axes.

• Launch offensives along two broad axes: the Mannar-Pooneryn/Jaffna A32 road along the coast to close the LTTE access to Tamil Nadu through Mannar Sea on west, and along the east coast on axis Welioya- Alampil-Mullaitivu-Puthukkudiyiruppu. Operations on these axes would cut off external flow of supply of military equipment and essential goods to the LTTE by sea.

Naval and air operations to be coordinated to maximise support to ground operations. Air operations to destroy the LTTE support infrastructure and prevent free movement of cadres. Helicopter gun ships to assist both land and sea operations wherever necessary. Navy to progressively curtail the freedom of movement of Sea Tiger boats and prevent LTTE shipments from reaching Sri Lanka coast.

Special Forces units to be employed in helping ground operations to overcome resistance, conduct deep penetration operations and long range reconnaissance patrols. Special Boat Squadrons to patrol lagoons, carry out special missions, and take on opportunity targets in coastal areas.


special-forces  Sl Army’s Commandoes

In order to provide adequate force levels the army went into a recruiting spree. In the year 2008 alone 40,000 troops were added to raise 47 infantry battalions, 13 brigades, 4 task force contingents, and two divisions. The army now has 13 divisions, three task forces, and one armoured brigade out of which 12 divisions are operationally deployed under the security forces headquarters for Jaffna (four divisions and an armoured brigade), Wanni (five divisions and three task forces), and East (three divisions).

The LTTE had occupied well defended strong points at communication centres in layers of defences to block all the major axes of advance. Perhaps wiser from the army’s failure to breakthrough Muhamalai, the army focused on reducing the defences and claimed the destruction of as many as 250 bunkers particularly along Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil in the north. However, the army offensive did not go in full swing till the second quarter of 2008 to provide for adequate force build up. Initially the offensive along Adampan and Madhu axes west of A9 road was taken up and by July 2008, two divisions managed to capture a major part of Mannar district up to Vidattalthivu Sea Tiger base of the LTTE on the A32 coastal road. After the fall of Nachikuda an important port of the LTTE in October 2008, Pooneryn across Jaffna lagoon was captured by November 2008. This enabled the army to build a fresh threat to Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE.

71a-mbr-of-army  SL Army’s MBRL in action

To its east, one division had advanced up to Akkarayankulam, 24 km from Kilinochchi by September 2008 after fighting a series of battles. However, its offensive was stalled as Charles Anthony Brigade, a crack formation of the LTTE inflicted heavy casualty during October –December when the troops were caught badly in the monsoon rains along the well fortified bund. However the task force advancing along lateral axis Pooneryn-Paranthan astride A9 road captured Paranthan to drive a wedge between Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. This facilitated the subsequent capture of Kilinochchi and vacation of Elephant Pass in the first week of January 2009.

On the east, one division after initial success in capturing advance LTTE bases was stalled by the monsoon rains and dengue attack. However, when the LTTE started losing on other sectors, this axis was also broken though with the reduction of a series of strong points to result in the capture of Nedunkerni, Alampil and finally Mullaittivu by January 25, 2009. Meanwhile other task forces operating along areas between A-9 road and the Welioya axis managed to link up by the time the offensive on Mullaittivu was attacked. Right now four divisions and three task forces have surrounded the last bit of LTTE territory built around Puthukkudiyiruppu. They are in the process of nibbling into the LTTE areas as over 200,000 civilians are used as human shield by the LTTE. The situation is causing a major humanitarian concern the world over.

The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) carried out 1,345 missions in the Eelam War IV from June 2006 onwards till January 2009. Three jet squadrons namely Kfirs (No 10), MIGs (No 12) and F7s (No 5) undertook 1,116 missions while helicopter gunships took part in 229 operations. A total of 2582 sorties were flown by jets and helicopter gun ships indicating the extensive use of air support for land and sea operations.


Undoubtedly, air support was a key factor in preventing offensive action by the LTTE which had no worthwhile anti-aircraft weapon or missile. Usually, the fighters softened up the targets before an offensive; in addition to this they also took on targets to hit at the leadership of the LTTE. Among its major successes was the killing of the LTTE political wing leader SP Thamilchelvan in an air raid.

However, the successful suicide attack by 21 Black Tiger commandos on Anuradhapura air base on October 27, 2007 in which 10 troops were killed while 19 aircraft were put out of action, exposed the weakness of the SLAF in guarding its ground assets. The air force also failed to effectively counter the eight sneak raids carried out by the Air Tiger light aircraft. Though these low flying ZLIN aircraft adroitly managed to raid even the Katunayake air base near Colombo, the SLAF was never able to take them on either in the air or on ground despite flying a number of sorties. Though the Air Tigers did not cause any major damage it created a psychological impact on the public and for a time reinforced the image of invincibility the LTTE had created. However, the newly created Air Defence Command to coordinate air defence was successfully blooded when thwarted the two Air Tiger planes that tried to carry out a suicide attack on Katunayake air base and the Air Headquarters in Colombo on February 20, 2009.

The LTTE in the year 2007 and first half of 2008 managed to successfully carryout a series of bomb blasts and unconventional operations mainly in the vicinity of Colombo and Anuradhapura. In the first six months of 2008, the LTTE carried out as many as nine blasts in which 76 civilians were killed while 454 were injured.. Following this security measures were tightened and police surveillance increased drastically reducing the number of such attacks. Despite a number of improvisations at least a dozen blasts were averted either due to alertness of civilians or security checks. This indicated the limitations of such unconventional methods as a force multiplier.


Black Sea Tiger suicide boats are the offensive weapons of the LTTE. They operate in two types of modes. A small number of them mingle with large numbers of fishing craft and carryout a suicide attack when they approach a naval boat. They also operate in a ‘wolf pack’ of suicide boats with or without other Sea Tiger craft. They have been most effective when they use a flotilla of mixed craft – fast attack craft (FAC) and suicide boats. The two seater Idayan fibre glass boat has a stealth-like design, with special paint to reduce radar detection, is usually used as suicide boat. They have detonation cones at the front. The LTTE’s large command ships are fast moving craft equipped with surface search radar.

Though during 2006-07 the SLN suffered considerable loss, it improved its tactics to take on the suicide vessels and command vessels before the attack materialised. Moreover the suicide attacks deprive experienced sailors in the Sea Tigers and over a period has become a self defeating strategy after the SLN started successfully breaking up their attack. One of the main reason is the qualitative improvements carried out in the Navy’s FAC.


The FAC is the mainstay of the SLN in countering the Sea Tiger suicide attacks. With a speed of 45 knots these FACs operate in pairs to counter Sea Tiger ‘wolf packs.’ In keeping with operational requirement, their armaments have been increased to 30mm stabilized cannon as the primary armament with long range electro optic systems to locate Sea Tiger boats well in advance. They also have surface search radars. They carry additional weapons like automatic grenade launchers and 12.7 mm machine guns. The Navy’s success against the Sea Tiger had been mainly due to their superior tactics and the progressive loss of ground support for the Sea Tigers.

 Conclusion: The SLSF success in the Eelam War IV is mainly due to the clear objectives spelt out by the national political leadership. This enabled the Army Commander a realistic strategy that aimed at exploiting the LTTE’s strategic weaknesses to his advantage. However, he might have reduced his casualties had the final offensive on Kilinochchi been launched before the onset of monsoon. Adoption of multiple thrust lines, excellent coordination of the three services with formations operating on different axes and providing adequate force levels appear to be the key to the SLSF success.

The SLSF also showed strong motivation to carry on with the task despite casualties. This demonstrated the strength of its junior leadership. However, the use of air force and artillery in counter insurgency/terrorism war against the country’s own citizens is questionable on humanitarian grounds.

Though Sri Lanka has scored a remarkable success in the conventional war against the LTTE it will be meaningful only if the fundamental grievances of the Tamil population are addressed to bring in permanent peace.

© Forum for Strategic & Security Studies, New Delhi-110 003


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