The SL Army’s Land Warfare Campaign in 2006-09: Debating the Lines of Strategic Emphasis
This account deals with the question of the re-organization of the Infantry Battalions and a gradual expansion of the SIOT concept since 2002.
I start with the raising of the Ceylon Army and its evolution up-to 1983 in brief. The Army was raised to defend Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity whilst the external threat was to be met by the British Forces deployed in Ceylon. Note our INTERNAL DEFENCE was primarily the Ceylon Army’s responsibility. Our Army’s primary tasks were to tackle the trade union and leftist agitations, strikes and work disruptions which affected our supply of essential services, distribution of food from the port and our daily life.
Then in 1951 the Army was deployed from the North West coast of Kalpitiya to Sampur on the North East coast to prevent Illicit Immigration and smuggling of contraband from South India known as “Ops Monty” then later called TaFII [Task Force anti-Illicit Immigration] operations. The country and the Defence Ministry was very happy with the initial results but the MOD and top brass failed to understand the challenges to our National Security in the long term. Our failure in handling our Diplomatic relations with India mainly South India that still exists, the shortage of British Forces inputs in terms of Naval and Air Support, lack of a coordinated effort involving the internal Departments / Agencies /Corporations like Fisheries, Customs, Immigration, Judiciary, Police and the Northern Politicians and their district organizations and representatives have led to a serious National Security problem today. The Army didn’t have clear cut RULES OF ENGAGEMENT then.
This resulted in the Illicit Immigrants [IIs] and smugglers changing their methods of operations with support of the fishing community in the North of Ceylon.
The laws were almost absurd where you needed to apprehend the IIs whilst setting foot on land or a two man patrol armed with one soldier carrying the rifle and the other carrying 5 or 10 rounds of Ammunition in a magazine separately. In 1969 two soldiers in Thavulpadu, Mannar were killed when the fishermen set upon them with clubs and knives and fled the area hiding the weapon and the two dead bodies in a nearby scrub. Subsequent violence ended when another soldier was shot by the Police and was seriously injured as a result. The court case ended with no punishment to the miscreants due to lack of evidence and no compensation to the two dead soldiers. The TaFII operation became redundant after 1984 due to the escalating violence in the North. Today it is handled by the Navy with very little inputs from the other Departments and government Agencies.
After 1956 the military was seriously affected with the withdrawal of the British Forces from Ceylon due to nationalization, large scale training exercises with troops were curtailed, language proficiency affected most English speaking officers, while the raising of a regular Infantry Battalion [Sinha Regiment] whilst disbanding 2 units in Galle and Matara led to further politicization of the military. Then in 1962 and again in 1966 two alleged coups seriously affected the trust and esprit de corps of the officer corps which further aggravated the situation in military establishment by further politicization of the Army and Navy. The Air Force remained unscathed because of its influence of its first British Commander. The TRUST and CONFIDENCE placed on the military was further strained allowing politically motivated leaders to take charge of the defence establishment.
Then in 1971 the Southern insurrection caught the government off-guard but fortunately with the support of the British Commonwealth, it was brought under control quickly. Again lessons weren’t learnt: no RULES OF ENGAGEMENT and a proper strategy to counter the internal threat that had evolved due to socio-economic conditions in the country. These conditions and the unsteady political climate impacted on the development and employment of the Armed Forces in Ceylon.
The Armed Forces were called out regularly to control ethnic riots, breakdown in essential services, post-election violence and other routine duties like guarding Vulnerable Points [VPs] and Very Important People [VIPs] who were mostly politicians. The defensive nature of the deployment and the lack of Rules of Engagement [limitations or restrictions on the use of Force] forced the military to be reactive and defensive in nature. Further due to a lack of political TRUST and CONFIDENCE in the military which was at a very low ebb, had a serious impact on the Armed Forces structure, Command, Employment, Kit, equipment and logistics, Training and Morale of the Forces.
Therefore, in 1983 the Sri Lanka Army was faced with a tremendous problem of not being prepared for the Tamil secessionist threat that had developed over the years since independence or even before. We were forced to be defensive and reactive which are clear indicators of a failing organization. The Army had only 3 Regular Infantry Battalions and a fledgling Commando Regiment which together was less than 2000 combat troops strong. Of course, the total Regular Army strength in 1983 is recorded as 615 Officers and 9513 Other Ranks, whilst the Volunteer Force had 163 officers and 3130 Other Ranks [Total Sri Lanka Army strength was 778 officers and 12,643 with a budget of Rs. 436,579,000.00 or 0.85% of the National budget. Statistics from the Army 50th anniversary magazine of 1999]. Incidentally, the Tamil militants numbered over 15,000 cadres divided into over 30 militant organizations of whom 5 were prominent in 1983.
Thereafter the increase in the Army began with more Infantry battalions being raised from 3 in 1983, up to 60 by 2002. There was a corresponding increase in Armour, Artillery, Engineers and Signals units whilst new Regiments like the Intelligence Corps and Special Forces Regiment were added after the 1990s. Sadly we still lacked a coherent National Security Strategy that should have addressed the threat both internally and externally. From the Army’s point of view we lacked sufficient Infantry units that could take control back from the Tamil Tigers who had the initiative in the North and East of Sri Lanka from 1980 onwards. Whilst the political leadership failed to address the National Security issue at hand the military had to face the brunt of the fighting in the field. When it all ended the Army had suffered over 85% or 23,403 of all KIA/MIA in the conflict whilst the Infantry had suffered 18,461 KIA/MIA personnel which is 79% of the total Army casualties.**[see Appendix One]
The Infantry Battalions lacked good leadership — specially the junior leadership from Corporal to Capt. whilst the senior leadership of Lt Col and above were mostly conventional in thought and deed which had a serious impact on the raising and employment of the new Infantry Battalions post 1984. The lack of basic equipment, cost in importing arms, ammo, boots, helmets, web equipment, night fighting equipment led to most Battalions going into battle with minimum requirements. We lacked basic casualty treatment and evacuation facilities to give confidence to front-line Infantry troops. Regular changes in command causing turbulence in the battalion, lack of teamwork, competition for resources, continuous deployment, a shortfall in training facilities and opportunities, inadequate rest and leave facilities all impacted on the morale and efficiency of the Infantry Battalion which was never given its due recognition.
In this backdrop Gen SF [Sarath Fonseka] started the concept of SIOT [Special Infantry Operations Team] within the Infantry Battalions. The concept was for them to operate ahead of the Infantry Battalions and provide the eyes and ears to the battalion preventing the Guerrilla’s from surprising the main body of troops. Normally an Infantry Battalion would be about 30 officers and 650 men providing 16 to 12 Infantry platoons of 1 officer and 34 men divided into 3 sections of 9 each and 1 officer and 7 men in the Platoon HQ. This is the ideal, however most of the time you operate in battle with 1 and 25 because of leave, sick and other duties. The major difference in the SIOT platoon was that they were organized into 8 man sections / teams like the Commandos and SF rather than the traditional 9 man section. They were short of specialists and additional weapons like Machine Guns, Grenade launchers, night fighting equipment, GPS and communications. The Infantry platoon has 3 Machine guns, at 1 per section whereas the SF troop [platoon] would have 6-8 Machine guns, 3-6 Grenade launchers, 3 to 4 radio sets etc. The Commandos and SF troops train 3 to 4 times more than the Infantry and are kept sharp and ready all the time.
The other problem lies in the status of the soldier in the Infantry Battalion. Although special for the task the status amongst the rest of the battalion remains the same. This causes tension and unnecessary friction in the battalion. Having studied the casualties in the last stages of the battle it is very clear that these SIOT platoons suffered the most in terms of KIA and WIA. Sadly at present the SIOT concept has lost its priority in the Infantry Battalion for which it was raised.
Therefore, in the final analysis the re-organization of the Infantry Battalions and the gradual increase of the SIOT concept proved useful in the short term where the Army was very successful in defeating a well-entrenched militant organization, but has had serious drawbacks in the long term that needs to be addressed if the concept is to be continued with.
My take is that we need to review the Army organization and change the order of battle giving priority to the Infantry, Commandos and Special Forces instead of the conventional arms like Armour, Artillery, Engineers and Signals in the order of battle. We also need to review our missions and tasks, capabilities and limitations based on kit and equipment, training standards and deployment patterns keeping in mind of local conditions and requirements. In short horses for courses. If the Force is mission focused, trained and ready to accomplish a given mission / tasks we could avoid major conflicts like the two JVP rebellions, the 30 year old Tamil secessionists’ campaign and the recent Easter Sunday disaster in the future
I will discuss the final question of encouraging bottom-up planning for forward movements and assaults [a revolutionary move in our hierarchical society]. This is basically known as Mission Command in the military. An excellent concept where the mission is given to the subordinate with a purpose. In other words the subordinate must know what he has to achieve and why he is doing it. How he does it is left to his own initiative.
However the Commanders intent must be clearly understood and carried out by all subordinate commanders by the skillful use of ground, use of concentrated fire and a series of manoeuvers which will help in disrupting, neutralizing, destroying the enemy. Since SURPRISE is key in Counter Insurgency [COIN] the subordinates need to best use his strengths of stealth, darkness, using unexpected covered routes, timing and violent execution which will enable the mission to be accomplished without contravening the commander’s intent. For an example destroy and capture have different meaning in the military, as much as liberate and capture. This the subordinate commander needs to understand. Hence good understanding and communication is a vital element of mission command.
In the history of our Army it was essentially a senior officer or a combination of officers in a higher HQ who would give you tasks/mission leaving little initiative for the subordinates. Sometimes it meant a direct assault on a fortified position or carrying out operations on political timelines that bring you no results. For example “Op Jayasikuru” achieved no gains after two and a half years of operations because the LTTE undid everything in a few days in late 1999 and overran the Elephant Pass complex in April 2000. The horrendous amount of casualties that had a serious impact on the morale of the Armed Forces and country.
However in 2007 when operations commenced in the Wanni Gen SF ensured we had additional troops and necessary fire assets to defeat the LTTE in the jungles of the Wanni. He also had a broader front with his SIOT platoons and Special Forces operating on a dispersed frontage forcing the LTTE into engaging him on multiple fronts. To do such operations troops had to have confidence in their commanders and vice versa. The overwhelming superiority and skillful use of troops enabled the military to march on to success against tremendous odds. With success comes high morale, support of the people and availability of additional resources. In short it bred success further.
However we have still not learnt the lessons and included it in our doctrine for future use because we have reverted back to higher levels of theoretical teachings rather than small unit teamwork and leadership training. Although the Commandos and Special Forces continue to sharpen their skills with their experience in small groups. One must remember that 10 years after the conflict ended in May 2009, the junior leadership has either risen in rank or left the service whilst almost all senior Commanders at Division level have retired.
This quote from John English in his classic “On Infantry” sums it all up for us and is a grim reminder for the future practitioners and decision makers of matters military.
“Good sections make good platoons and companies, which, in turn, make the difference on the battlefield. Exactly how much difference is lucidly explained by a Canadian Commanding Officer who fought a battalion in Korea:
The success of Kapyong was due mainly to the high morale and to good company, platoon and section commanders. That is something we should never overlook in our military training. Too much officer training is aimed at high levels of command and not enough at the company and platoon level. With a modicum of experience at the lower levels, anyone can take over at the higher.
Many poor Commanders have stayed in command at Brigade and Divisional level in consequence of having a good staff. At the Platoon and Company level the poor commander is discovered the first day. So I say that a Division can survive with a poor commander for a while, but I’ll be damned if a platoon or company commander can. Therefore, play only superficially at moving Divisions on maps with fingers spread making right and left hooks. Concentrate on section, platoon and company tactics. Learn from experience what human beings can endure and still fight. Learn to do your job properly at your own levels of command. It is surprising how easy it is to command a battalion when you have had success in commanding a company. ”
In short we need to use our experience and newly developed skills and train our small units in the Sri Lanka Army to be professional to meet the future challenges to our country’s security.
APPENDICES in response to CENTRAL QUESTIONS from Michael Roberts relating to parts of the TEXT:
“When it all ended the Army had suffered over 85% or 23,403 of all KIA/MIA in the conflict whilst the Infantry had suffered 18,461 KIA/MIA personnel which is 79% of the total Army casualties.”
APPENDIX ONE—where Halangode responds thus to my request: “Hiran. Can you please provide one or two citations for this data.”
Well Michael I have attached an Excel file of Army casualties which I received from an Army officer, through unofficial means from Army AHQ records. In this case the totals differ as follows.
KIA 850 officers and 19048 ORs [Other Ranks]
MIA 125 officers and 3488 ORs
Total 975 Officers and 22,536 ORs = 23,511. However, when you total the KIA and MIA totals separately 19,898 and 3,488 = 23,386???
Then the following internet sources provide various figures. The problem is accuracy.
- “Since (the July 2006 battle at) Mavil Aru, 6,261 soldiers have laid down their lives for the unitary status of the motherland and 29,551 were wounded,” Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the state-run Independent Television Network.
- May 21, 2009 – Sri Lanka has for the first time made public its heavy casualties from the last … Troops killed 22,000 LTTE fighters during Eelam War IV, military …
- These are from your report “Estimates of the Death Toll among the Fighting Forces of the LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka – Michael Roberts
 See LLRC 2011: section 3.30 – note that the government figures re the named LTTE personnel would have come from intercepted radio transmissions.
 Figures provided by Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, interview with Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 2009, http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-world/victorys-price-6200-sri-lankan-troops-20090522-bi4f.html AND http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Sri_ Lankan_ Civil_War.
 Same as fn. 9 in Roberts: “BBC Blind”. The wounded during Eelam War IV are said to have added up to 28,189.
 LLRC 2011: section 3.30.
 IDAG 2013 citing SL army sources.
- A record of Casualties given by an unknown military source probably an Intelligence officer I received confidentially is as follows.
Eelam War I 1072 KIA and 885 WIA [Includes Army, Navy, Air Force, Police/STF, CDF intially NAR] ( 15 October 1981 to 28 July 1987)
IPKF period 865 KIA and 194 WIA [10 October 1987 to 10 June 1990]
Eelam War II 5232 KIA and 8914 WIA [11 June 1990 to 14 October 1994]
Eelam War III 13346 KIA and 47523 WIA [ 19 April 1995 to 22 February 2002]
CFA period: 394 KIA and 808 WIA [22 February 2002 to 25 July 2006]
Eelam War IV 5711 KIA and 29007 WIA [26 July 2006 to 18 May 2009]
TOTAL Eelam Wars I to IV = 25,361 KIA and 86,329 WIA
TOTAL Casualties from 15 Oct 1981 to 18 May 2009 = 26,620 KIA and 87331 WIA.
Michael, these are mind boggling figures which only goes to show that counting the dead in a conflict is heartbreaking. I am in a spin. Hopefully, this will enable you to go forward with a better understanding? or have I added to the confusion? Unfortunately, I have no name or contact of the person who shared this with me probably soon after the conflict in 2010 or after.
APPENDIX TWO: where Halangode responds to my question attached to this statement: “In this backdrop Gen SF started the concept of SIOT [Special Infantry Operations Team] within the Infantry Battalions” …………………………
WHEN precisely? No others involved? Ralph Nugera? Athula Kodippilly? ….. I also picked up a grapevine story about three or four soldiers who survived the e-Pass debacle and then somehow made it back to Omanthai and Vavuniya via the jungle and presumably travel mostly by night. Their tales must surely be the stuff of history and it wd be good to have their village or origin as well [presuming that backgd helped?]
Well Michael, it was around 2001 when Gen SF [FM now] was Security Force Commander Jaffna he started training selected Infantry platoons on Special operations in Jaffna. Maj Gen Ralph Nugera should be able to highlight the SIOT concept, employmentand thoughts on how effective it was in Eelam war IV. I have given his article details taken from one of your reports below.
Nugara, Ralph 2016 “Training in the Sri Lanka Army.” ………………………………………………………………. 26 February 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/02/26/combat-training-in-the-sri-lanka-army/
I also think Maj Gen Chargi Gallage was involved with a few other Infantry and Special Forces officers. Here again Ralph Nugera should be able to get you the details. Stories of soldier bravery, escape and survival behind enemy lines is found in some of these Youtube videos, mostly in Sinhalese. These should give you an idea of operating in small groups in jungle terrain during the Sri Lankan conflict, highlighting escape and evasion and survival techniques in combat.
* Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (Sri Lanka) – Wikipedia
Michael, this is my take on the SIOT concept. It was good on the short term concept because the Army emphasized on small unit training and gave opportunity to the junior leaders mainly the Corporals, Sergeants, Warrant Officers, Lieutenants and Captains the confidence and self-belief to fight and win since they bore the brunt in this conflict. They made the difference between victory and defeat. As John English in his classic “On Infantry” would say it is the Junior leadership that made the difference in combat in Korea. Similarly, in Counter Insurgency it is they who will make the difference. Unfortunately. we have not taken these lessons forward which was achieved by tremendous sacrifice of lives. We have reverted back to a peace-time Army and are basking in the glory of victory in my opinion.Thanks, Hiran
ALSO NOTE A RECENT ITEM
Dishan Joseph: “Special Forces Regiment: A confluence of courage and stealth,” Daily News, 29 June 2020