Rather surprisingly, the Sri Lankan Army is expected to undergo massive expansion after the annihilation of its nemesis, the LTTE in a final decisive battle. That is quite an unusual step and there is hardly a precedent in the recent history in which the usual practice has been to downsize the forces after the major wars.
According to the latest expansion plan, the Sri Lankan Army which numbers 190,000 of rank and file would be increased to a whopping 300,000!
The defence officials who mooted the expansion plan claim that it would enable the Sri Lankan army to maintain a sufficient reserve at any moment. This would also enable soldiers to receive their due leave on time as well as pursue annual training sessions, thereby, maintaining the battle preparedness of the troops. Many of the afore mentioned arrangements are still luxuries to the soldiers, whose official leave has regularly been delayed, some times up to three months due to the shortage of troops. Same could be said about the training programs though during the lull in the peace process, the Army trained several thousand of Special Infantry Operation (SIO) troops, who played a key role along side with commandos and Special Forces in the liquidation of the LTTE.
The military planners claim the latest plan has taken note of the mistakes in the past. Highlighting the importance of maintaining sufficient reserves, they point to the early 80s, when the then Armed forces, who were largely ceremonial forces, failed to crush a several dozen of rag tag militants of the early days of the Tamil militancy.
Reason: there had virtually been no reserves at the time.
This compelled the police stations such as Chavakachcheri be abandoned after being attacked by the budding LTTE. This facilitated the rise of the Tamil militancy of which the LTTE took the supremacy by mid 80s. By 1987, Jaffna was out of bound for the security forces.
The LTTE expanded its tentacles by limiting the mobility of the Sri Lankan armed forces through the sporadic ambushes and bomb explosions targeting military patrols. Isolated and restrained, the military was forced to abandon camps. The thorn on the side of the Sri Lankan armed forces was the lack of a sufficient reserve which could be mobilized at a time of emergency.
Later in 1990, when the LTTE laid siege to a dozen of police stations in the Eastern provinces, of which policemen surrendered and were massacred by the LTTE, the absence of a military reserve was felt more profoundly than ever before. Again, in the late 1990s, the security forces vacated some of the military camps in the eastern province in order to redeploy the troops in the then on-going military operation in the north; the Tigers expanded tentacles in the East and held on to the enclave of Sampur and Vakarai till the Army moved into these areas in a new phase of military operations in 2007. However, during the past three and half years, military planners addressed the shortage of troops through a rigorous recruitment drive.
All branches of the Sri Lankan armed forces underwent a massive expansion. Increased manpower and firepower enabled the troops to take an upper hand in the battle against the LTTE. The rationale of the past enlargement of the military is within comprehension; also, obvious are its gains. Commander of Army, Gen Sarath Fonseka at a book launching ceremony of the defence correspondent Tissa Ravindra Perera held last week, took time to reiterate military gains. He said, his forces killed 22,000 Tiger cadres and further 10,000 surrendered during the three years of fighting. 1000 hardcore elements would be charged, he said. As for the sacrifices of his troops, he said 5200 officers and other ranks made the ultimate sacrifice, another 5000 were wounded and permanently disabled. But, not in vain, he said, referring to the year 2000 when more soldiers than last year were killed while the army was in retreat.
The Sri Lankan Army has annihilated its enemy, the LTTE, thereby, brining an end to once existential threat to this nation.
What is, however, not so clear is the rationale of the latest military expansion after the end of the major combat operations. Simply put, what Sri Lanka supposed to do with a massive standing army of 300,000?
Equally important to note is the marked aversion of liberal democracies to massive standing armies though Sri Lanka’s liberal democratic credentials are sadly under dispute. Holding a land naturally requires more troops than it requires capturing it. As one senior officer told me long before that Sampur was captured by 2000 troops, but it would required 10,000 to hold it.
However, that was at the height of the LTTE, which retreated to the North at that time. Is the same imperative applicable after the annihilation of the LTTE as a military force is open to question?
Military planners are, however, apparently planning a major military presence in the North-East in an effort to preempt the rise of the Tamil militancy. Accordingly, as we reported last week, two Security Forces Headquarters would be set up in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu in addition to the existing Military Headquarters in Jaffna, Vanni and the East. Two Military Divisions- 53 and 58 Divisions – would be kept as reserves under the direct command of the Commander of Army.
As reported last week, the military doctrine, which hitherto focused on the internal threat levels would be transformed to include deterrence to an external threat which could come in the form of a mercenary landing funded by the Tamil Diaspora. Hence, is the recent bill to grant legal powers to the Chief of Defence Staff – which has hitherto been a nominal posting – to develop a doctrine in the joint deployment of forces.
The inter-branch coordination is paramount for the success of military planning and execution.
This has compelled some smaller armed forces, such as the Israeli Defence Forces and Singapore Defence forces to bring air, land and sea branches under a single command. The new bill passed by the Sri Lankan parliament two weeks back, would be a step towards this direction.
The apparent rationale for the expansion is to maintain a large troop presence in the former warzone in order to keep a tab on the Tamil militancy. This however, does not take in to account the economic aspects of military mobilization in the form of increased defence budget. Sri Lankan military spending for the year 2009 was 166.4 billion Sri Lankan Rupees (1.48 billion US$).
The economic impact of the military spending has been debated by economists, especially since Belgian defence economist Emile Benoit, took the development economists by surprise in the early 70s, arguing that the defence spending had a net positive impact on the economies of the developing countries. Benoit came out with his argument after a survey of a sample of 44 Least Developed Countries, testing the correlation between their annual military spending and annual economic growth rates.
The essence of his argument was that in the Least Developed countries, only a fraction of resources which were not allocated for the defence went to productive investment and that the most of the government budget was spent on the consumption and subsidies, which were not related to increasing the future production.
In contrast, money spent on military contributed to the civilian economy in indirect ways. In his seminal work, he admitted that “optimum civilian programs” would make a better contribution to the economy, but cautioned that one must compare defence spending with their objectively probable substitutes and not with their optimum substitutes.
Benoit’s argument has its origin in military Keynesianism, the theory which advocates that the government should devote large amount of funding in order to stimulate and accelerate the economic growth. This is a variation of Keynesian economic advocated by John Maynard Keynes. The advocates of this theory argue that the military spending would have a greater multiplier effect on civilian economy.
On the same light, one could also reflect that Sri Lankan economy has reordered a higher growth rate during the past three years despite an ever increasing defence budget. While, the war and deteriorating security had an obvious negative impact on the economy, one could not say the same about the increasing defence budget. Also, the expanded Sri Lankan forces would like to be deployed in the reconstruction and development programs in the North-East, which could provide an economic rationale for maintaining a larger than usual standing army.
But, that does not mean that expansion would provide deterrence against an external aggression from a state actor, which however is hard to come. In an era of the Revolution of Military Affairs and Network Centric Warfare, mass armies are fast becoming redundant as seen in the quick defeat of the Serbian forces by NATO in Kosovo and rout of Iraq army by the coalition forces in first and second Gulf wars. That requires the Sri Lankan Army to move ahead in a modernization program.
However, going by the inventory of the Sri Lankan armed forces, one could say that it would be long before it reaches the target.