David Blacker on the SL Army’s Land Warfare Campaign in 2006-09

 The SL Army’s Land Warfare Campaign in 2006-09: Debating the Lines of Strategic Emphasis THREE: David Blacker’s Clarification

In a telephone conversation in June 2020 relating to the Sri Lankan armed forces successful military campaign on land against the formidable LTTE forces during Eelam War IV,[1] issues arose regarding the lines of strategic emphasis. As I was not familiar with one of the summary terms mentioned in this chat, I formulated a ‘QUESTION’ which I sent to several personnel with a military background.[2]


In a deliberate presentational ‘tactic,’ I am placing the Memoranda I received in reply from a former soldier in the Sinha Regiment, David Blacker,[3] ahead of the Question I presented to him.

Dear Michael,

I will start at the end, with your queries; namely “X”, what does a counter insurgency strategy entail?

CI strategy will often be based on the form of insurgency, as there are many forms, from the JVP and PIRA cellular terrorism to the LTTE and Vietcong guerrilla warfare. But to put it simply, a successful counter insurgency strategy is based on domination. The counter insurgency force must dominate the strategic ground. It must dominate territory by being able to take and hold ground at will and deny it to the enemy. It must dominate the hearts and minds of the populace in the contested territory, by earning its trust, defending it from enemy influence, and combating enemy rhetoric. So domination is the strategy. The inability to do this lost the US the Vietnam War and the USSR the Afghan War.

The Sri Lankan military offensive in EW4 was not a counter insurgency war. It was an offensive against a conventional ground force which had some naval resources but no air power. Attrition did play a part in the LTTE defeat, but it was not a war of attrition. SF and GR did see the value in capturing and holding territory, which was part of the reason for the massive expansion of the SL Army and the addition of lower grade infantry battalions to formations such as the Signal Corps and Engineers that could be used to occupy and hold captured territory while the experienced first grade infantry and armoured units carried on the offensive. I will reproduce here (from an answer I had composed on Quora in 2018) the main factors I have concluded as being decisive in the victory:

  1. Prabhakaran and the Tigers changing from being a guerrilla force that controlled territory to a conventional force that was occupying territory. With this change, the Tigers were forced to defend a territorial whole rather than strategic strong points. It meant that they had to spread their force to defend a defined area with borders; in the past they focused on controlling areas by retaining their concentrated numbers to strike and defend where they chose. This time, the Tigers fought as a conventional force, except that unlike most conventional forces they had no real air force.
  2. The Sri Lanka Army was able, at long last, to recruit enough troops to attack on multiple fronts simultaneously while still defending and occupying the territory it had captured. In the past, the SL Army was never able to mount more than one offensive at a time, and never had the numbers to defend its supply lines or stop the Tigers infiltrating the territory the Army had captured. In the past, though the Army outnumbered the Tigers as a whole, the Army never outnumbered the Tigers in any particular battle, because the Tigers — a guerrilla force — had no need to occupy other areas in strength, and could instead throw the majority of their troops into the crucial battle. So. with the Army now attacking from three points simultaneously, the Tigers hadn’t enough troops to fight three battles at once.
  3. More effective intelligence gathering by the SL military largely prevented the Tigers from hitting strategic targets in Colombo, and assassinating key figures, as they had in the past thereby destabilising the rear.
  4. Improved command and control of the Armed Forces via a new communication network enabled the military to fight as a single cohesive force for the first time.

The SIOT concept was certainly effective, but I would suggest that it was a tactical change rather than strategic. The same applies to the bottom-up planning. There were other such tactical changes, such as encouraging commanders to commit reserves at the crucial time; to overwhelm Tiger defences, or plug holes in the line. In the past, commanders had tended to play safe and hold back reserves until it was too late to make use of them. But these changes were all at the tactical level, not strategic.

Best, David

David Blacker as presented in QUORA … a must read for those exploring this topic … and note that, in my guesswork, this photo probably depicts David when he was recovering from his war injury … Wrong says David –he was merely strapped to shoot …. with a camera!!

****

The Issues raised by Michael Roberts, 17 June 2020

Dear David

In conversation with an acquaintance with some military know-how about the GoSL’s successful campaign [on LAND] against the LTTE in E-War IV, he spoke of the programme as

  • One of Attrition ….. contrasting it with
  • A strategy of counter-insurgency.

Now, in my amateur fashion I had previously come to the conclusion that Sarath Fonseka and his command had intelligently

A = concentrated on reducing the fighting numbers of the LTTE rather than the capture of territory ….and

B= re-tooled the infantry regiments via the gradual expansion of the SIOT concept from 2002(?) onwards and

C = encouraging bottom-up planning for forward movements and assaults [a revolutionary move in our hierarchical society]

So: please enlighten me

X = what does the so-called “counter insurgency strategy’ entail?

Y = and comment, correct and elaborate on my three points A, B and C

Michael

ALSO NOTE

END NOTES

[1]  As most people will know, the LTTE was considerably weakened by the defection of Karuna Amman and many Eastern Province cadre in 2004. This was a major factor. But note that Pirapharan remained confident of winning the war when he activated the process at Mavil Aru in late 2006. So, the focus here is on the land battles thereafter. This is not to discount the importance of the services provided by (A) the SL Navy; (B) the SL Air Force; and (C) the SL police, STF and the forces in the east placed  under Sarath Weerasekera during the period 2006-09. Note, too, that the region around Colombo city remained a war front.

The SLN Navy’s initiative in locating and destroying several of the LTTE’s warehouse ships in the year 2007 was a major factor in the GoSL’s eventual success (see Roberts, Tamil Person and State, Pictorial (2014: pics …. and …………….). However, to reiterate, the focus in this Thuppahi item is the military strategy on land.

[2] Though I had met them earlier during some of my inquiries, I have not approached General Shavendra Silva or General Kamal Gunaratne because they are on active duty at present.

[3] Following schooling at Wesley College in Colombo, and perhaps directed by his father and grandfather’s history of military service, David Blacker enlisted in the Sinha Regiment in 1991 at the age of 19 and went through several rounds of action till he was injured (in 1900?). On retiring from the SL Army Blacker went to Europe and took to the designing profession. But he also crafted a novel based on the war that was entitled A Cause Untrue – a work that was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize. Blacker also set up a web site at one stage called the “Blacklight Arrow”– a set of writings that Dayan Jayatilleka reckons to have been “way ahead [of most writings] in analysing and projecting the war as it unfurled this time” – see Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Blacker and ………………. https://blacklightarrow.wordpress.com/ (defunct?) and https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-blacker-93236a44/?originalSubdomain=lk ……………………… AND for his views on specific military issues, visit

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