By Asiri Fernando/The Morning
Colombo, September 18:Sri Lanka’s armed forces are too oversized and ill-equipped to reflect the security and defense needs of the country, says Australian National University (ANU) National Security College Senior Research Fellow Dr. David Brewster.
“Sri Lanka’s armed forces are far too large and do not havethe right focus or equipment. There are way too many soldiers, meaning that money is spent on personnel costs rather than equipment (or, indeed, hospitals and schools). In order to modernise and refocus on current threats, the Sri Lankan armed forces (principally the Army) will need to be reduced in size, with much greater spending on the Navy and Air Force, with military personnel having much greater technical expertise. Sri Lanka is an island state, but its armed forces do not currently reflect this.”
Dr.Brewster’s comments are relevant in the context of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s call for a comprehensive Defense 2030 document for Sri Lanka at the National Defense College earlier in the week.
Dr.Brewster said that Sri Lanka has a maritime domain several times bigger than its land mass, with the possibility of it growing larger due to the island’s claims regarding the continental shelf. Ocean resources, including those which lie on the seabed, hold significant economic potential for the future. Further, Sri Lanka is yet to fully benefit from several maritime lines of communication, nor is it adequately prepared to face challenges in the maritime space, as shown with recent incidents which included the disastrous MV X-Press Pearl shipwreck off Colombo Port.
The Sri Lankan defense establishment lacks critical capabilities and adequate capacity to respond to evolving threats.
When asked about how the structure of Sri Lanka’s armed forces should evolve to be better prepared for the future, Dr. Brewster stated: “The structure and composition of armed forces of any country need to reflect the particular threats they face. Sri Lankan armed forces are still essentially structured to fight a civil war that ended many years ago. The first step is to identify key threats that exist now and then figure out the best way to respond to those threats effectively and economically. Even countries like China have come to recognise that maintaining large numbers of poorly equipped personnel is not how modern conflicts or threats are faced.”
Brigadier (Retd.) H.N. Halangoda called for independent oversight and depoliticisation in the pursuit of reforming the national security sector.
“At present, the defence establishment is highly politicised and is just maintaining the status quo. You need independent think tanks, analysts, and defence practitioners with experience and knowledge to formulate a coherent National Security Strategy. I emphasise that they must all be independent and have no political affiliations,” Halangoda said.
Brig. Halangoda added that there needed to be clarity on the role and task of the armed forces and Police, how and when they could be deployed, and the rules of engagement. He also stressed that such clarity must be encoded in legislation and practical oversight mechanisms should be introduced to ensure that they were not abused. However, he cautioned that defence reforms, including resizing the armed forces to meet future threats, should not be undertaken haphazardly.
President Wickremesinghe also pointed out the need to clearly identify the role played by the armed forces and to keep its economic sustainability in mind.
“Even terrorism today is not the terrorism we faced earlier. It’s of a different nature. I hope we won’t have it, but we must take all precautions against it. The other thing is that other terrorists can use Sri Lanka to attack third parties. Now that danger is there. So that is one. Secondly, within the security of Sri Lanka and the defence of Lanka, what is the role of the Army? What is the role of the Navy? What is the role of the Air Force? Whatever we do, we have to remember that we have a budget [funding constraints]…” he told the NDC graduates.
How are defence reforms carried out?
Many countries establish their national security and defence strategies and policies by putting together documents such as National Security Strategies and Defence White Papers, Dr. Brewster explained. These identify priority threats, a country’s strategy for addressing those threats, and what that means for that country’s security services or defence force.
“I understand that Sri Lanka produced a Defence White Paper some time ago, but it was not published. I have not seen it, but it is likely that the Defence White Paper reflects somewhat outdated thinking, going back to the civil war. Sri Lanka will definitely need to move on from that conflict and address a range of new priority threats, including threats that come from climate change or from maritime space (e.g. drug smuggling or illegal fishing),” Dr. Brewster said.
Former Commandant of the Defence Services Command and Staff College (DSCSC) and former Deputy High Commissioner in Malaysia Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Udaya Perera told The Sunday Morning that Sri Lanka first needed to formulate a broad National Security Policy which clearly identified national interests and national values.
“There cannot be a defence policy without an NSP. An NSP will address national interest and national values because national security revolves around these two factors. The entire security perspective depends on where Sri Lanka wants to go and what we want to preserve. The NSP is a holistic view of many areas such as economic security, foreign policy, and so on,” Maj. Gen. Perera opined.
According to Perera, the NSP should include Sri Lanka’s economic, social, and political aspirations and goals while taking into consideration the evolving threat spectrum the nation faces. He said that threats and opportunities could not be identified until a nation clearly knew where it was heading, economically, politically, and socially. “Without identifying where we as a country want to be in the future, we cannot envisage what type of battlefield or fields we may encounter,” Perera stressed.
He pointed out that Sri Lanka needed a security oversight office in the form of a National Security Advisor (NSA), a position which countries such as India, the US, and others had long established to coordinate, prioritise, and regulate the security and defence apparatus of their nations.
Perera also advocated for the role of the Chief of Defence Staff to be strengthened, which would help Sri Lankan armed forces work with more synergy and build interoperability. Such synergy will allow a Sri Lankan armed forces structure to be more effective and to utilise fewer resources.
According to him, once Sri Lanka formulates a robust NSP and a defence strategy based on it, reforming and restructuring of the armed forces can take place.
Networking and partnerships
Given the enormity of the air-maritime domain of interest that Sri Lanka has to oversee and protect, a small state cannot go at it alone, necessitating the need for regional cooperation and interoperability with others to respond to security threats effectively. Sri Lanka is part of a trilateral maritime security initiative with India and the Maldives, which allows the three nations to coordinate and respond to threats or crises that affect them in the Indian Ocean.
“Another important element is how Sri Lankan armed forces will work with regional partners to address threats. It is not realistic for Sri Lanka (or even rich countries like Australia) to pretend that they can address regional threats alone. By necessity, they need to work with regional partners, and there needs to be a clear understanding of the consequences of this,” Dr. Brewster told The Sunday Morning. Echoing his sentiments, Perera also pointed out that many nations entered into security and defence partnerships to better respond to common threats, especially ones related to climate change, man-made and natural disasters, and terrorism.
Moving on from fighting the last war
According to Perera, Sri Lanka’s security architecture, which remains defence-heavy, was a result of the armed forces envisaging a need to engage in a counterinsurgency role over the last several decades. He stated that such a structure had been visualised and built due to a lack of solutions, which in the past had led to a number of revolutions and insurgencies.
“Why have we been reluctant to reduce or right-size our armed forces? Because the political masters think we are going to experience internal conflicts like in the past. If we go by that, then we are wrong. Why are we expecting internal conflicts? Because there are unresolved social and political issues. So, instead of resolving those issues economically and politically, if we think that we can battle another internal conflict like in 1971, ’83, and ’87, this country will never develop. That is the dilemma we face.
“This is why when we prepare a comprehensive national security policy, we need to identify Sri Lanka’s political and economic targets. We need to identify how we are going to have economic and political stability, and act on that,” Perera opined, adding that without addressing the unresolved legacy of socioeconomic and political issues, security and defence reforms may not deliver the desired effect.