The modern Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) recently celebrated its 58th Anniversary. We at DefenceWire would like to take this opportunity to discuss in detail a crucial innovation in the SLN, which may lead to successful maritime security operations around Sri Lanka in years to come. The Innovation is the RABS or Rapid Action Boat Squadron.
The beginnings of the RABS can be traced back to 2003 when a brief respite from daily operations came and the SLN started exploring options to counter the threat posed by suicide Sea Tiger boats to its most valuable assets, the Dvora, the Super Dvora and the UFAC.
The Fast Attack Crafts formed the front line of the SLN. Each vessel costs between $13 million and $15 million, depending on the armaments it carried. A Dvora also carried a valuable and often irreplaceable crew and for the LTTE, the FAC’s 23mm and 30mm canons were like the tusks on an elephant.
But the Dvoras were limited in terms of quantity. SLN has only 30 FACs whereas the Tigers would set sail in clusters of 20-30 small boats with powerful OBM/Es. The cluster included 5-6 suicide boats carefully disguised as fishing boats or ordinary LTTE attack crafts. These clusters were often capable of surrounding the Dvoras and ramming them with suicide boats after dragging the battle closer to the shore.
The loss of a Dvora in battle meant over a dozen deaths, a loss of around USD 13 million and a low morale for the SLN. For the LTTE, a Dvora operating near the shore offered an opportunity to cripple SLN assets whilst gaining these assets for its own purposes like heavy machine guns (HMGs). It was also an opportunity to them to regain morale and to continue unhindered its arms, ordnance and logistics smuggling operations.
Until 2003, only the LTTE manufactured boats for its Sea Tiger wing. In 2003, SLN started making molds of captured LTTE vessels. The first molds were of large LTTE vessels like the Mirage. The boat proved unstable as the speed to fire-power ratio was off. The SLN also realized that the threat to the Dvora was not from large vessels, which acted only as Command Vessels directing the battle, but from smaller boats.
After the present Navy Commander assumed duties, a plan was set in motion to create a fleet of small boats for the Navy based on molds of smaller LTTE boats and other technology. The SLN also looked at boats given to the Special Boats Squadron by US Navy SEALS and the Marines.
By mid 2007, after months of carefully balancing the boat, engine, weapons and armour, the “Arrow Boat” was created. The weight and firepower were wonderfully balanced resulting in a highly stable, highly agile boat with maximum firepower. The boat appears lower to the water but has a higher overall floating effect. The name was given due to the arrow-like shape of the boat, which is found in many Navy SEALS’ boat designs.
While the boat-building continued, SLN started a massive recruitment drive targeting able bodied sailors already enlisted in the SLN. The target was to station 2-3 sailors per boat. 60-70 sailors were chosen out of hundreds of volunteers.
The already experienced sailors came from Dvoras, SBS, IPC crews and were subjected to a grueling 3 month training run by SBS instructors. On all occasions, the new recruits trained with SBS units, thus increasing comradery between the two units. 6 batches of these sailors have passed-out already. Special allowances are being paid to these men like in the SBS, SF and Commando Regiments.
Initially, about 20 such units were deployed in areas like Kallarawa off Nilaweli in 2007. After the completion of 100 units, the RABS and the SBS expanded to cover Point Pedro, Kilali Lagoon, Nayaru and Pulmoddai.
As these units got deployed closer to land, the Dvora FACs were given special duties in the rough choppier seas. This way the SLN has created two layers of maritime security around crucial locations in the Island.
The true testament to these units is in their survivability in battle and their ability to overwhelm the enemy as was seen in over 5 missions in the recent past. Their tactical maneuvering and close resemblance to LTTE’s own boats have confused the enemy moments before they are destroyed. Like in the Army, the Sri Lanka Navy has demonstrated how small groups of highly dedicated men can take on guerrillas once considered impossible to beat.