(Excerpts from a paper the brigadier presented at the Colombo military seminar on Defeating Terrorism — The Sri Lankan experience this week)
It is very unlikely, that the military history of the only nation that has won a counter insurgency campaign in the twenty first century would be complete, without the story of its Elite Forces. The special operations community is represented by the finest fighting outfit of the Sri Lanka Army, organized into two Regiments, namely the Commandos and Special Forces. These Special Operations Forces operating from the sharp end of strategy through to the operational level and at times tactical level, executing a multitude of missions, spearheaded the campaign. Striking at the terrorists leadership in the depth of the LTTE controlled areas, destroying and disrupting their reserves and indirect fire weapon systems in the mid battle space, and at times counter attacking to restore critical defences, these Elite Forces made a seamless contribution to the success of this campaign which is unparalleled in the history of counter insurgency.
Commandos were raised in 1980 as a Direct-Action and Counter Terror Force whereas the Special Forces were raised in 1985 to conduct unconventional warfare and operations in remote, rural and urban environments, both overt and covert. Due to the nature of the conflict and their continuous employment over the years, both forces became highly effective and versatile in the conduct of counter guerrilla and counter insurgent warfare, waged in jungle, remote and urban environments. Skills were diversified and capabilities in long range patrolling, waterborne and heli-borne operations, Anti-Highjack & Hostage Rescues operations, sniping, combat riding and demolitions were acquired, developed, mastered and finally applied successfully in combat.
EASTERN THEATRE OF OPEARTION
It is significant to note that in the East a complete different operational concept was adopted by the army as against its concept in the North. The Elite Forces were employed to spearhead the thrusts directed by infantry units against the LTTE. The factors influenced in deciding such a concept were the dispersed enemy dispositions and thick forest with overhead canopy that is commonly found in the East. The operations were designed to fight the LTTE with the Elite Forces spanning out in small teams, ahead of infantry battalions, gathering information and eroding LTTE combat power through a series of well-coordinated attacks, over an extended period thus pulling the battalions to the decisive point on the battlefield. This process was repeated in stages. By applying this design the military operations in the Eastern theatre were conducted in two phases; phase one was to capture the LTTE controlled areas north of the Polonnaruwa-Batticaloa road by Special Forces affiliated with some infantry battalions and the phase two was to capture the LTTE-controlled areas south of that road by Commandos supported by some infantry units.
NORTHERN THEATRE OF OPEARTION
When the humanitarian operations were extended to the North, the Elite Forces were employed to operate across the entire width and depth of the Wanni (Northern) operational theatre. Their tasks ranged from long range patrols to small group operations behind enemy lines, strike operations to rescue operations and conventional operations to unconventional operations. While Long Range Patrols conducted strategically important operations deep into enemy territory such as gaining targets for air strikes and artillery, ambushing LTTE movements, particularly their leaders and threatening their lines of communication, the remaining Elite Forces were employed to operate up to about 20 km from the Forward Line of Own Troops, mainly in support of close operations of the infantry Divisions and Brigades, thus considerably denied freedom of movement to LTTE in their rear.
SPECIAL FORCES SHAPING BATTLEFIELD
The advantages gained in the battlefield by successful operations of the Elite Forces were well-exploited by infantry. Their achievements are given below under several headings.
Attrition: While infantry formations closely engaged with the LTTE the Elite Forces infiltrated through the LTTE positions and carried out concentrated attacks and caused severe damage to them. This forced the LTTE to thin out their cadres who had been engaged with the advancing infantry thus making their defeat inevitable. The Elite Forces have proved their capability of destroying a considerable number of LTTE cadres in a given area prior to infantry units reaching their objectives. It is also significant that towards the very end of the battle the Elite Forces being employed to mop-up the area resorted to precision targeting and destroyed almost all the remaining LTTE leadership.
Flank Protection: Protection of flanks of infantry divisions was one of the main tasks that had been entrusted with the Elite Forces. As infantry formations advanced forward by liberating areas their flanks were extended and became vulnerable. The Elite Forces operated away from these flanks and prevented enemy getting close to them. A classic example for this is that when the 57 Division was leaning on Kilinochchi and the defence line of the Task Force-2 had stretched to its limits, the army had a somewhat peculiar defence configuration with over 50 km open flank which was very vulnerable. The effective domination of this flank by the Elite Forces ensured that both divisions were able to capture their objectives without much interference from their flanks.
Counter Penetration Tasks: Following are a few instances where the Elite Forces prevented certain collapse of troops’ defences and LTTE regaining initiative. (a) In one instance, just after 572 Brigade captured Thampanai stronghold and resumed advance towards Madhu the LTTE launched a major counter offensive and pushed the Brigade about 2 km south. The LTTE threatened to penetrate even further ensuing fierce fighting in the area. Immediately, two squadrons of Special Forces were rushed to the area and countered LTTE penetration and regained the control after two days of intense fighting.
(b) In another instance, during late January 2009, when the Army was poised to encircle Visuamadhu and Puthukudiyiruppu areas held by the LTTE, with 7 Divisions fighting their way through, forces estimated that the LTTE would concentrate its force at one point and attempt to breakout into Muthiyankaddu jungles in order to escape to the south. To counter this probability the Elite Forces were deployed strategically behind infantry frontages. This contingency paid off three times in later stages as the LTTE launched three fierce counter offensives to break into the jungles. The fiercest of the three was the the LTTE counter offensive south of Puthukudiyiruppu, where after the 593 Brigade had been completely defeated and pushed back about 5 km by the LTTE, the Special Forces were deployed in time to halt the LTTE thrusts and they fought back gallantly and regained control. It is to be noted that Puthukudiyiruppu counterattack by the LTTE nearly collapsed the entire defence line. Due to timely and right employment of Special Forces a disaster was averted.
Destruction of Strong Points: There were certain instances where progress of the infantry advance was impeded or literally halted by well-fortified LTTE strong-points. As a last resort, the Elite Forces were called to overcome these strong-points. In one such instance, in West of Thampanai, 572 brigade failed to overcome the LTTE strong-point that fell along its axis. Special Forces raided this strong-point killing 18 terrorists and capturing the area after which infantry progressed unimpeded.
Rescue Operations: On 29 September 2008, the LTTE raided the Anuradhapura Air Force base using their elites, the black tigers. Two LTTE aircraft bombed the base at the same time. A squadron of Special Forces was reinforced from Vavuniya with the task of halting further exploitation of the terrorist attack. Special Forces teams manoeuvred in to the area and successfully accomplished the mission killing the remaining terrorists and regained control.
Isolation of LTTE Positions: In many battles, the Elite Forces conducted a series of concentrated attacks behind LTTE forward positions focused on isolating the infantry’s objectives or achieving dislocation effect, thereby creating favourable conditions for infantry to capture those areas. Capturing of LTTE stronghold at Madhu by 572 Brigade would not have been possible if not for Special Forces teams cutting off terrorists’ supply lines leading from Palampiddi and Giants Tank areas and isolating the Madhu area.
Leading Infantry to Positions: Here are some examples:
(a) Throughout the Vidathaltivu battle, Commandos operating ahead of infantry columns constantly engaged with the LTTE during day time and moved forward at night stealthily and occupied blocking positions. The next morning the infantry linked up. This process was repeated until the capture of the entire Vidathaltivu area.
(b) In the Akkarayankulam battle, Special Forces guided the infantry columns in a night move up to pre-designated forward locations.
Break-out Battles. Whenever the operations reached a crucial or a decisive point the Special Operations Forces had a major role to play. It was the Commandos and the Special Forces who spearheaded the infantry columns in the biggest ever rescue operation conducted in Pudumatalan by rupturing enemy defences from two different locations and opening up two break-in points.
Deep Operations: The art of Long Range Patrolling is a stunning tactical part that can be regarded as the most dreadful operational pattern in special operations. Such teams are the combination of multi-skilled individuals in brunt actions. They are well trained and motivated to conduct deep operations in small groups independently without re-supply for an extended duration, up to about 20 days or more depending on ‘Caches’. When offensives began in the Northern theatre, troops were initially inducted from Vavuniya, Mannar and Welioya areas.
These were the furthest points from the LTTE headquarters and their main bases in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Terrorists had a greater freedom of movement within the area in between. Long Range Patrols or ‘LRPs’ as they are commonly known, executed a long-term well-coordinated programme to deny this freedom to the LTTE. LRPs slowly but surely established their long-term surveillances and caches in the area and updated the intelligence picture. Then they began strikes dealing a devastating blow to the LTTE. They killed a number of top-level LTTE leaders thereby distanced their fighting cadres from their leaders causing a major setback to the LTTE top leadership. To counter the threat paused by the LRPs the LTTE deployed thousands of their cadres in their rear. Following are some of the aspects considered during planning an execution of deep operations LRP operations.
Gaining intelligence by own: The LRPs depended mostly on their own intelligence to plan operations. Collection of information is done through tactical manoeuvring in the LTTE areas for days and months. Acquired information is preserved in an Intelligent Cell and detailed continuation of study had been maintained before selecting targets. Advancement in modern technology had been an added advantage to determine targets. Rather than relying much on electronic means unless other than satellite images, the clandestine ways of information collection were carried out by LRPs and that was a tremendous success in the field.
Laying Caches: Due to the scarcity of water resources in the operational area and also the inability to re-supply by air the LRPs depended heavily on caches. Cache Operations which preceded other LRP operations gained constant continuity of operations deeply in the enemy-held territory throughout the campaign. Caches contained mainly rations, medicine, water and ammunition. The concept was to have caches established in almost every four square kilometres to cater for planned operations and for emergency situations.
Surveillance Sites: The ground itself is a surveillance pit to the LRPs. It had been done while merging with the surrounding and in instances soldiers lay in one position for days observing the enemy. In most occasions the Elite Forces established surveillance posts well ahead of the fighting divisions on likely approaches of the LTTE and provided valuable information.
Teams in Close Proximity for Mutual Support: LRP operations were deliberately planned to have their patrols methodically spinning from one range of operation to another range changing missions but not the modus operandi. It is a cycle of operations and they had constant circular affiliation towards each other. One team which confronts enemy may instantly find a team on a surveillance mission replacing another team on a Cache mission. Hence the LRP missions were launched in such a timeframe that the patrols were able to help each other in an emergency.
Close Coordination with Air Force: It is no secret that the Sri Lanka Air Force operated closely and directly with the LRPs. A very good understanding between pilots and LRP team leaders was achieved through joint exercises. It was a standard operational procedure that the Air Force maintained a dedicated rescue fleet of helicopters whenever LRPs were out on daring missions. LRPs experienced five emergency situations, where they either sustained casualty, or got cut off. In all these situations, Air Force assistance were sought to save the lives of these patrols. All air rescue missions ended successfully.
The whole sequence of innovative application of military power, blending conventional and unconventional concepts designed to defeat the LTTE at his own game, paved the way for victory. The Elite Forces of the Army, deployed at the sharp end of the strategy took the fight to the depth and safe areas of the LTTE, their leadership and critical assets and finally, to the minds of the LTTE. Special Operations Forces facilitated the military effort and created the conditions for the successful outcome of the campaign.