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A Navy Forged in War

March 30, 2009

Each generation a war at sea is fought, most often adapting new tactics tried in land war and adapted to the nautical environment. Such conflicts will be a mirror on how a Navy combats future threats, the tactics that will be used, as well as the type of weapons which will lead the change. Korea and Suez set the marker for the Cold War standoff between East and West, mainly reinforcing hard-won ideas from the World Wars on the importance of naval aircraft, antisubmarine, and amphibious war, but also adding a new dimension with the use of helicopters and jet aircraft. Decades later the Falklands Conflict introduced a new force at sea, as a mere 5 cruise missiles dominated the strategic thinking of the British naval commanders, decided where the essential carriers would be positioned, as well as how and where the beach landings would take place. Likewise did the AIM 9L Sidewinder missiles fired from British Harriers overshadow what ever limitations the complicated V/STOL aircraft suffered from, and the actions of a single British nuclear submarine was enough to send the Argentine Navy running back to port, to play no more role in the ensuing battles.

Today  Missile Warfare dominates naval strategy, and whether the right lessons have been learned remains to be seen. Another factor in war has become increasingly apparent here at the dawn of the 21st century, which is the increasing influence of the insurgent now on land but also rising at sea in the form of piracy. An insurgent engaging in asymmetric warfare  wields power far beyond appearances. Using the suicide bomber on land and the suicide boat on the sea to enforce his will upon older, more conventional powers are often hard pressed to combat a lithe and lethal warrior who refuses to stand and fight in the traditional manner, and uses the “crowd” or civilian populace as his armor, to live and fight another day.

This type of warfare on the sea is most evident in the Sri Lankan Civil War, as the Sea Tigers have sought to carry their peculiar brand of terrorism on the nearby oceans, the government navy has been forced through a long and trying process to adapt to the ways of their enemy. A good analysis is this article from Jane’s Navy International (via the Sunday Observer), which puts all into perspective:

Throughout this period, the SLN had to evolve from its post-independence ceremonial role into a war fighting force capable of confronting a well-armed opponent possessing expert asymmetric-warfare skills in the maritime domain.

This is a loaded statement which could mean any Navy lacking recent war experience. Historically, we are reminded of the British Grand Fleet in the First World War, preparing for years to engage in a gun duel with the German battlefleet menace, yet unprepared for the kind of submarine warfare that literally sailed underneath the Royal Navy’s overwhelming surface power. Then there is the US Navy wholly committed to the same type of surface action 25 year later in the Pacific, only to be rudely awakened with her battleships on fire from the air at Pearl Harbor. America is still committed to battlefleet warfare, only this time with the aircraft carrier acting in this role, while potential antagonists prepare instead for Sea Tiger-like asymmetric war with missile armed submarines and attack craft,  suicide boats, and even old fashioned mine warfare.

…when the LTTE’s Sea Tigers wing was created in 1984, the fledgling insurgent force used small boats to ferry guerrilla fighters and equipment across the 16 km-wide strait that separates the Indian state of Tamil Nadu from the Jaffna Peninsula at Sri Lanka’s northern tip.  The SLN made attempts to put a halt to these operations and achieved some degree of success using patrol boats. However, the LTTE began using faster craft with more powerful engines, allowing the Sea Tiger cadres to outrun the slower SLN patrols.  The Sea Tigers were able to transport large shipments of weapons across the Palk Strait from India to Sri Lanka, forcing the navy to look overseas for a solution.

When the Sri Lankan Navy discovered its pre-war fleet inadequate for its needs, it began searching for an appropriate vessel similar to that wielded by its enemy, the Sea Tigers, only somewhat more capable. It did not continue “business as usual” in its ship purchases, but sought to acquire a vessel adequate for its immediate needs. These came from another nation experienced with COIN operations at sea, the Israeli’s, who also had a boat ready for the new warfare conducted by the SLN.

Sri Lanka bought its first pair of 47 ton Dvora-class FAC from Israel in early 1984 and another four were purchased in 1986. An upgraded version – the 54 ton Super Dvora Mk I – was ordered from Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) in October 1986 and delivered from 1987-88, with a further four Super Dvora Mk II-class FAC delivered in 1995-96.

“We bought [the Dvoras] and first put them into action in the late 1980s, and the Sea Tigers found it very difficult to meet these Israeli-built craft,” says Vice-Admiral Karannagoda. “But then to counter this, the LTTE developed very high horsepower suicide boats and used swarming tactics to overwhelm the Dvoras, which in our view could not tackle them effectively.”

Sri Lanka discovered that its attempt to seize control of the sealanes would not go unchallenged. Its first attempt to counter the Tiger suicide boats was itself countered by new enemy tactics called “swarming“. Yet rather than concede defeat, the SLN looked again for the right type of ship to combat this renewed threat.

The Sea Tigers’ larger craft had four 250 hp petrol outboard motors, while the small boats were equipped with two: if one motor was damaged the other could be used to effect an escape. Vice-Admiral Karannagoda says: “We had to counter this situation so our engineers did some extensive research-and-development [R&D] work and developed three categories of new boats. With this we developed our Small Boats Concept, which was a major turning point in the progress of the war.”

The Small Boats Concept effectively copied the Sea Tigers’ asymmetric tactics, but on a much larger scale. The SLN started to use large numbers of small high-speed heavily armed inshore patrol craft (IPC) to outnumber the LTTE suicide boats and overwhelm them during battle.  Hundreds of indigenously produced fiberglass IPC have been built in three variants for operations in different sea states. The smallest is the 23 ft-long Arrow; a second class is 14 m long, with both types able 22 to operate in conditions up to Sea State 3.

The Arrow boats, and her sisters proved to be the right craft at the right time. While fast and well-armed, the principle selling point was its ability to remain on station for long periods, to counteract the sneak attacks of the elusive Sea Tigers. Later, the Navy sought out and destroyed Tiger “warehouse ships” which were sustaining the terrorist’s war effort, using interesting and improvised tactics:

“We went near to Australian waters and whacked the last four vessels,” says Vice- Admiral Karannagoda. “Yet we are not a big navy; we had to improvise and use innovation and ingenuity to get our job done. The SLN does not possess any frigate-sized ships, so we used offshore patrol vessels and old tankers, merchant vessels and fishing trawlers as support vessels.”

The SLN has three OPVs: Sayura, a 1,890 ton Sukanya-class vessel that was transferred from India and recommissioned on 9 December 2000; amudura (ex-USS Courageous), a 1,129 ton helicopter-capable Reliance-class OPV that was transferred from the US Coast Guard on 24 June 2004; and the aging Jayasagara, a 330 ton OPV built at Colombo Dockyard and commissioned on 9 December 1983. Additional weapons carried included 81 mm mortars, 107 rockets and 105 mm guns.

This is indeed warfare off the shelf! Though the Sri Lankans lacked what many consider vessels necessary for Blue Water naval operations, she managed to conduct a very effective hunter/killer strategy at long range to help shorten the war.

With the Small Boats Concept finding success in sea battles against the Sea Tigers, use of Dvora FAC squadrons to gain control over the sea lines of communication, and deployment of OPVs to attack warehouse ships, the LTTE was unable to maintain dominance at sea.

The use of small attack craft in the Sri Lankan Civil War has proved a winner. The Navy has gone from a small force of a few Big Ships geared mainly for ceremony and perhaps “shows of force” to a truly battle hardened fleet geared for a multitude of operations from countering swarming suicide attacks at sea or sea control, to sustained littoral warfare, amphibious warfare, as well as long-range anti commerce operations. But it is interesting how the lessons of war are soon forgotten, and the small ships go into retirement while the conventional navy returns to vogue:

The navy says it recognizes that an FAC and IPC fleet is too mission-orientated and that a modern navy requires a much more balanced fleet, now that the struggle with the LTTE appears to have been won…Additional responsibilities for protecting resources and patrolling requirements over larger sovereign areas will mean a need for larger, more capable ocean-going vessels.

So it is with all navies…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Heretic permalink
    March 30, 2009 9:22 am

    “My squadron maintained interdiction against hostile forces along a small stretch of coastline.”

    “My squadron maintained sea control over an entire ocean.”

    Which statement sounds more impressive to the promotions board?
    Which statement is actually more important?
    Which statement is more true than the other?

    Yes, these are trick questions.


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