The Special Forces in War … and the Sri Lankan Tale

Dishan Joseph, in Daily News, 29 June 2020, where the title is A confluence of courage and stealth”

The Greek philosopher Aristotle has said, “You will never do anything in this world without courage.” Boldness is a vital attribute of a soldier. In the global military arena, most countries have an elite unit of Special Forces that represent the ultimate military warrior trained and forged with an indomitable will.

These soldiers undertake daring covert missions. Among them are the US Navy Seals, British Special Air Service (SAS), Indian Marine Commandos (MARCOS), the Spetsnaz Alpha Group of Russia, National Gendarmerie Unit in France and Sayeret Matkal in Israel. On par with these combat units, the Sri Lanka Army has its own Special Forces Regiment often referred to as ‘SF’. Since the inception, these highly motivated men, who are strategic combatants, have rendered a valuable service to the nation while avoiding the media spotlight.

Concept of Special Forces

Colonel of the Regiment of Special Forces and 
Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva

The concept of deploying highly trained soldiers into the dangerous zones of combat was envisaged during the Second Boer War (1899–1902). In the early days, robust woodsmen from Ireland were trained in combat skills. They were known as Lovats Scouts. Subsequently, they went on to form the first Sniper Unit of the British Army.

During the Second World War, there was a need for troops who could penetrate the Nazi’s defences and remain undetected. The British SAS (Special Air Service) was formed in 1941 under Lieutenant David Sterling. The US Army Ranger division was also established on a similar concept.

One of the famous raids by the Green Berets was against the Japanese in the Philippines in 1945. This mission was code named Cabanatuan, and its aim was to rescue 500 Allied prisoners of war. Breaking away from conventional military formation, only a group of 100 American rangers were sent for the task. They crossed 30 miles behind enemy lines and completed the raid. This single mission altered the course of combat operations and enhanced the strategy of using small combat teams for offensive raiding.

Another world-famous airborne raid was conducted by Israeli commandos in 1976. Operation Thunderbolt was launched to rescue 94 Israeli hostages held at the airport in Uganda. A team of 100 Israeli Special Forces flew 4000 kilometres to strike the enemy and rescue the hostages. All the terrorists were killed in the 90-minute raid, immortalised in movies such as Raid on Entebbe. The only casualty on the Israeli side was Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This daring mission set the pace for military engagement in hostage rescue.

Formidable four-man teams

In Sri Lanka, the concept of a combat tracker team took shape in 1985, due to the vision of senior military officers. The pioneer team had two officers and 38 men. The commitment of this group steadily paved the way for the formation of a fully fledged regiment. At one stage, the combat tracker team was known as the Rapid Deployment Force. In December 1988, the unit was re-designated as First Regiment Special Forces.

The men of the SF Regiment are a close-knit fraternity of fighters. They have shown their combat capacity in operating behind enemy lines, using the unique combat dimension of the ‘four-man team’. These teams excelled in infiltrating enemy territory and survive in complete isolation. It was a rewarding experience to visit the Special Forces Training School located in the dense jungles of Maduru Oya, an area frequented by wild elephants.

The jungle terrain is the best real-life platform to learn the craft of special operations. When it rains, the sand turns to mud, making the training even more arduous. This training school lays the foundation for all aspiring young men. The process of transformation demands a determined mind, intelligence, teamwork and the consistent desire to succeed.

Within its mysterious umbrella of covert operations, the SF Regiment excels in battle space preparation by sabotage and offensive raiding, intelligence gathering and counter terrorism operations. In addition, they engaged in ambushing enemy supply routes. Another military skill they posses is long-range patrolling and stalking. These daring men who have fought in the deep jungle said they were confronted by animals whilst engaging in ambushes. The list includes defiant lone elephants, bears and wild buffaloes. Dealing with poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, stealthy centipedes, deadly ants, stinging bees and scorpions was part of the risk.

The warrior’s furnace

The SF also operates in eight-man teams where there is a lead scout, navigator, signal operator, demolitions expert and medic. Serving in the Special Forces is a tough assignment, which requires loads of endurance, courage and aptitude. The SF training school was established in 1992. Officers and other ranks are recruited after undergoing an intense selection procedure. The new recruits are trained for nine months, where they are challenged physically and mentally.

Instructors guide them in weapons handling, demolitions, jungle warfare, jungle survival, sniper rifle shooting, parachute jumps, reconnaissance, unarmed combat and underwater swimming techniques. Training in crossing rivers enhances the element of survival. Their final test is a 100 km navigation march in dense forests which must be completed in 72 hours. On completion of this difficult training, all recruit soldiers are promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal.

The SF is the only unit in the Sri Lanka Army to maintain this tradition. As they progress within the regiment, the men can advance as elite sky divers and motorbike riders.

Sky divers dominate the skies as they jump out of aircraft from top altitudes, brandishing their machine guns. On the ground, motorbike teams operate with rapid cross-country capability.

Snipers also play an important role, though they are rarely seen, always maintaining a low profile. I was able to witness them as they sped in formation. They operate in two-man teams; both soldiers are armed and able to shoot at targets with accuracy while the motorbike is in motion. The Long Range Patrol (LRRP) contributed immensely in destabilizing enemy operations. The LRRP teams operated like ghosts, hitting high-profile enemy targets with tenacity. The teams operated miles out of their base camps.

Another strategic skill of the Special Forces is air assault. An air assault differs from an air strike. An air strike solely involves aircraft (i.e. strafing and bombing). Air assault is a combat insertion of troops by helicopter, who would attack the flanks of an enemy force within their own territory.

The global security landscape saw a paradigm shift in fighting with fierce enemy outbursts taking place in crowded urban environments. Prudently foreseeing this scenario, the army raised its own Urban Fighter (UF) Squadron in 2012 to engage in hostage rescue missions and counter terror operations. This team gave a daring demonstration of their skills sometime back in Colombo when they rapidly assaulted a building, using Land Rovers and a helicopter (landing away from the target) taking the hostile occupants by surprise.

Forward march

The teamwork and commitment of the SF men is endorsed by the fact that five of them have been posthumously bestowed with the PWV Medal (Parama Weera Vidhushanaya) the nation’s highest military decoration for conspicuous bravery on the battlefield. These five soldiers are Colonel Fazly Lafir (died 1996), Lieutenant Colonel Lalith Jayasinghe (died 2008), Major Ajith Gamage (died 2009), Sergeant Chandrasiri Bandara (died 2009) and Corporal K. Chandana (died 2008). Having displayed the ultimate form of altruism, these departed men continue to inspire their comrades.

I have witnessed two passing out parades of Special Forces intakes in Maduru Oya. Breaking away from conventional military ceremony, the badges are brought in a Bell 214 helicopter and a four-man team uses the technique of rappelling to reach the ground, carrying the badges in duffel bags. This display sends those present into a mood of elation. The insignia of the eagle represents the ability to swiftly scoop in over the enemy, maintaining the element of surprise.

The ‘Jolly Roger’ patch (depicting skull and cross bones) is worn on the arm of their black uniform. Winston Churchill has famously said, “Fear is a reaction, courage is a decision.” The present Colonel of the Regiment of Special Forces is the incumbent Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, a highly decorated combat specialist. The men of the SF have been galvanised with courage. The Special Forces have redefined what it is to be a strategic combatant. They continue to be resolute and ready to spring into action when required.

Armed and ready

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