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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > Strategic positioning vital for military advantage

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Strategic positioning vital for military advantage

21 July 2004

There is an almost incorrigible habit in Colombo to miss the wood for the trees when the ethnic conflict is discussed or reported. The larger strategic perspective has been totally overwhelmed by the feel good factor of 'the troubles in Batticaloa'.

The ultimate value in the LTTE's Batticaloa split for the Sri Lankan military and government, as all and sundry would readily agree, depends on whether it can weaken the LTTE in any significant manner.

Some have even ventured to boldly predict that the Tigers will lose control of Batticaloa by July 28, signalling, according to them, the beginning of the end of the Eelam cause. Others claim that the LTTE has no military presence in the western sector of the Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region (Thoppigala) now.

It is a fact that the Tigers recently dismantled the sprawling 'Meenaham' base and distributed the building materials and land among the people living in the far-flung hamlets of the area.

One can see that the LTTE is completely overhauling its military structure in the northern parts of Batticaloa.

However, the closure of 'Meenaham' and the fact that the LTTE's town political head, 'Senathy' was buried in Thandiyadi, a heroes' cemetery closer to Kokkaddicholai, and not the main burial complex in Tharavai where the Great Heroes' Day is held annually are shown as proof that the Tigers do not have complete grip on the north-western sector of Batticaloa now.

One writer speaks of the east as a rumbling volcano, on the verge of blowing up the LTTE to smithereens.

Week after week we read a wide spectrum of editorialists and columnists in sections of the Sinhala and English press in Colombo making eloquent and compelling arguments that the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) should reap political and military advantage of the LTTE's calamities in Batticaloa. They either castigate the GOSL for being spineless or lament that the stupidity and stupor of southern political leaders is costing the Sinhala nation a golden opportunity to rid the island of Tamil separatism.

Anxiety and genuine exasperation that these selfishly squabbling leaders may miss the 'Karuna Bus', drives the zealous quills of Sinhala patriotism to rather shrilly rhetorical heights.

The funny thing about the whole matter is that although this is essentially a military issue no one appears to have seriously asked the army whether any great strategic advantage could be gained by exploiting the split in the LTTE to weaken its grip on Batticaloa.

To grasp the larger strategic picture in which we should actually measure the military value of the 'renegade factor' in Batticaloa, one must first explain some basic concepts of war in the Sri Lankan perspective.

Destroying the enemy's military assets and his/her will to fight is the defining aim of all wars. Victory in war therefore is best described in terms of the degree to which one has destroyed these assets and will.

By military assets we mean troops, supplies, armour, artillery, transport systems, medical corps, naval fighting systems, air power, command and control systems, intelligence etc., (In the LTTE's case we have to add Black Tiger squads to this long list of things which constitute one's military assets).

I argued in these columns in early 1996 when everyone in Colombo were extremely exultant over the fall of Jaffna that the capture of the peninsula was no victory in actual military terms, because it had neither critically destroyed the LTTE's military assets nor its will to wage war against the Sri Lankan state. Three months later the Tigers overran Mullaithivu and the rest is history.

Today the Sri Lankan state is not at war with the Tigers. The array of military assets on either side determines the balance of forces when a state and its opponent are not fighting each other. The balance of forces paradigm is now generally accepted as the foundation on which the cease-fire agreement and hence the peace process stands. (Those who argue that other paradigms should form this basis are ill informed fools). The balance of forces is very critical to peace as long as the war is not officially declared over.

Why? The cease-fire is not the end of the Eelam War. It is a temporary stop in the fighting. Only the conclusion of a final deal between the Tigers and the GOSL would formally end the war. Therefore each side will be very careful not to let the prevailing balance of forces tilt to its disadvantage in the overall strategic framework.

The Sri Lankan armed forces are unambiguously on record that they cannot dismantle their High Security Zones (HSZ) in Jaffna because it would affect the balance of forces to their disadvantage. In other words, their position is that the HSZs are necessary to maintain the strategic equilibrium that sustains the cease-fire.

The balance of forces between two military powers is not measured only in terms of the military assets that each side possesses. It is more importantly measured in the manner in which one has strategically positioned one's forces against the other.

One cannot speak of a conventional military balance (here I do not include missile and nuclear capabilities) between Pakistan and India if Delhi stations the main component of its military assets in Tamil Nadu instead of Rajasthan, Punjab and Kashmir.

Therefore we can speak of a balance of forces between two military powers only when each side's military assets are correctly positioned where it matters most strategically. Such positioning would be of military advantage only if one correctly identifies the strategic pivot of the balance of forces.

Choosing the wrong strategic pivot for concentrating and positioning one's military assets against those of the enemy can cost dearly in the event of war. (The pioneer of modern western military strategy, General Antoine Henri Jomini, has written much on the matter)

One way for the layman or woman to identify this strategic pivot is to look for the place where the military planners of a state have concentrated and positioned their military assets.

The Sri Lankan state's 'readily deployable' ground forces comprise nine Divisions.

Of these, Div. 21 is in Mannar, 51, 52, 54 and part of 55 are in Jaffna, 56 in Vavuniya and part of Div. 22 is in Trincomalee north, facing that part of Weli Oya which the Tigers captured and consolidated in November 1999. The Special Forces Div. 53, though not a territory bound division, remains focussed on the north.

This means seven out of nine Divisions are positioned facing the LTTE's heartland comprising the Vanni and the southern parts of the Jaffna peninsula. Herein lies the strategic pivot of the balance of forces between the Tigers and the armed forces of Sri Lanka.

The failure of Operation Agni Khiela in April 2001 eventually showed that the military power that the LTTE had developed in the Vanni was equal to more than 83 per cent of the total fighting component of the Sri Lankan armed forces. (Div. 55 was fully deployed in the north at the time, meaning the total strength of the SLA facing the Tigers in the north was 7.5 divisions, their support units and back up of the Navy and Air Force). Batticaloa, by contrast, was held with less than half a division (Div. 23 in Minneriya), deployed largely to hold the main supply route to the district. Elements of the Div. 55 were deployed to hold the Valaichenai-Polannaruwa Road after the LTTE renegade fled the eastern district.

There are two main reasons for the location of the strategic pivot in the north.

Firstly, if winning a war means the destruction of the enemy's military assets and his/her will to fight, then you concentrate and array your forces around or facing the region (the strategic heartland) where the enemy has assembled most of his/her military assets.

Operations Jaya Sikurui and Riviresa, the largest military offensives ever undertaken by the Sri Lankan armed forces aimed precisely at causing critical damage to the LTTE's military assets. Both failed.

Secondly, if one cannot cause serious harm to the enemy's military assets then the next best thing one could do is to concentrate and position one's forces facing the opponent's strategic heartland to effectively contain his/her effort to enhance military assets and/or to prevent him/her from taking more strategically important territory.

The failure of Operation Agni Khiela in April 2001 left the Sri Lankan armed forces with no option but to take the containment mode in the north.

If war breaks out again the Sri Lankan state has to decide between making another concerted attempt to cause critical damage to the LTTE's strategic assets in the north and preventing the Tigers from taking the offensive initiative. Colombo may also have to contend with the prospect of doing both at the same time.

Let's look at these scenarios one by one. (I must emphasise that my purpose here is not to speculate about the nature of another war but to illustrate the consequences of the strategic pivot's location in the north).

Scenario one: Sri Lankan armed forces start offensive in the north to make a critical dent in the LTTE's military power. As the defeat of the Batticaloa renegade showed, the Tigers have enhanced their fighting power since 2002. This means the Sri Lankan state has to beef up its current strength in the north for holding strategic ground and to push ahead with a massive offensive. Reinforcements for the purpose cannot be pulled out from Trincomalee for very obvious reasons. Batticaloa is the only place from where troops can be withdrawn without exposing or losing anything of strategic interest to the Sri Lankan state. (This is how about 300-400 Tigers took control of more than 2,000 square kilometres of territory in the Batticaloa district between 1996-2000 without firing a shot).

Scenario two: LTTE takes the offensive initiative in the north. Sri Lankan armed forces will have to get reinforcements to prevent the following from happening: the fall of Weli Oya, the only feasible bulwark between Trincomalee port and the LTTE's Southeastern Front Forces; threat to Thallady in Mannar, the only major military impediment between the Puttalam coast and the LTTE's Western Front Forces; pressure on the Kilaly-Muhamalai-Nagar Kovil line of control and the defences on the Thenmanaradchi coast which constitute the protective barrier for the vast military resources that the Sri Lankan state has accumulated in Jaffna. Again Batticaloa would be the only place from which troops can be pulled out for facing the LTTE in this scenario.

Needless to say that there wouldn't be the slightest change in scenario one or two, whatever the spectacular things the military may achieve in Batticaloa by exploiting the split in the LTTE. In fact if there arises the dangerous prospect of the balance of forces tilting even slightly in favour of the LTTE in the north, then the Sri Lankan state would be impelled to abandon the military and political gains in Batticaloa to stop it from happening. It knows that even the slight tilt would make the LTTE the dominant military power in the island. Hence the Sri Lankan state would go to any length to prevent it. In that case the renegade may find himself in an eastern wilderness, totally unprotected unless he takes to his heels as soon as the writing appears on the wall.

Senior officers of the Sri Lankan armed forces are fully aware of this. They would explain to any armchair strategist who cares to ask them the place Batticaloa occupies in the overall strategic balance on which the island's future is inevitably hinged today. (If this is the case, why then is the LTTE making a fuss about the renegade? I shall leave the answer to the imagination of the reader).

But I am sure many would still find the trees of Batticaloa more interesting to write about. They do not understand that the key to the east lies in the dark, unknown innards of the northern woods.


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