Strategic positioning vital for military
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.