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Questions raised about warships gifted to Lanka by competing powers

Colombo, August 2: A leading Sri Lankan military expert, Adm.Dr. Jayanath Colombage, is cautioning his government about accepting military equipment like naval vessels from other countries without giving due thought to their utility and maintainability  apart from the cost, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express. 

“The naval vessels, gifted or otherwise, could be old, having finished their service with their mother navies. The engine and other equipment on board, and the hull, will have to undergo periodic maintenance and repairs. The vessels might have to docked for considerable periods of time. All that is going to add to the cost of the vessel. Even if the vessel had been given as a gift, it would still have to be maintained,” Adm. Colombage said.

“Sri Lanka would have to carefully assess its needs and go for appropriate  purchases, and not accept hardware simply because it has been given free,” he added.

According to Adm.Colombage, the Indians have given Sri Lanka the best deal so far. While some of the vessels given by India are old, it has also constructed vessels specially for Sri Lanka.

The other problem that could arise with accepting gifts from various  countries is the weapons systems’ compatibility and inter-operability, the Admiral pointed out.

“The systems used may vary from country to country. Handling  and integrating multiple systems would be a challenging  task. And getting spares could turn out to be problematical,” Colombage, a former Commander of the Sri Lankan navy, said.

Reasons For Gifting

Sri Lanka is in no pressing need of military equipment as the 30 year war against the Tamil militants had ended in May 2009 with the total annihilation of their military capability. But powerful nations, both regional and global, have been offering it gifts of military equipment, especially war ships, because of the raging competition between the West and India on the one side and a resurgent China on the other, to take control of the Indian Ocean.

Countries which had refused to sell arms to Sri Lanka during the war on the grounds that Colombo should strive for a political and not a military solution of the Tamil problem, are now bending over backwards to gift arms to the island nation because it is in their interest to do so.

The West, Japan and India  are anxious to thwart the entry of resurgent China into Sri Lanka. They refuse to believe that the Chinese would not use Hambantota port as a naval base and target their interests in the Indian Ocean. Japan is firmly of the view that China will impose its hegemony in the Indian Ocean in the same way as it is doing in South China Sea.

More generally, all world powers think that they must control Sri Lanka in one way or the other because of its strategic location near the East-West main sea route which is used to transport oil and other strategic goods besides other items of trade.

“Adm (Rtd) Harry B.Harris, Commander, US Pacific Command, told the Galle Dialogue that Sri Lanka is important for three reasons. And the three reasons are; location, location and location!” recalled Adm. Colombage.

Before China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, and began to construct ports across Asia to integrate them with China’s global economic and strategic interests, the other powers were turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka, ignoring its strategic value. It was only when the Mahinda Rajapaksa government got the Chinese to build a port in Hambantota, at the southern most tip of Sri Lanka, that the West, India, Japan and Australia woke up.

At first the West tried to browbeat Rajapaksa into abandoning the Chinese by cornering his regime on the human rights issue through harsh resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). After effecting a regime change in the island in 2015, the West softened on the rights issue, and wanted Sri Lanka to help it counter China.

A new kind of militarization was introduced into Sri Lanka. “The number of warships that belong to different countries visiting Sri Lankan ports is evidence of such militarization. From 2009-2017 a total of 398 war ships had visited Sri Lankan ports. A breakdown of this is as follows: India- 82; Pakistan- 24; Japan- 67; Bangladesh- 23; China -31; USA- 18; and Russia- 26,” Adm. Colombage notes.

Adm Dr. Jayanath Colombage. Sri Lanka Navy official photo

Australia

Australia was the first country to gift a naval vessel to Sri Lanka as it was keen on securing Sri Lanka’s cooperation to end human smuggling. The first patrol boat gifted by Australia arrived in Sri Lanka in  April 2014. It had earlier served the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. In June,  Australia gifted its second patrol boat, also old.

With a maximum speed of 24 knots, the two boats could cover a range of 3,000 nautical miles.

US

In November 2016, the US Maritime Raid Force Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted training with the Sri Lankan Navy Special Boat Squadron Sailors during a Theater Security Cooperation event at Sri Lanka Naval Base, Trincomalee.

In November 2017, the US announced that it would offer a second US Coast Guard cutter to the Sri Lankan Navy. The Secretary Class High Endurance Cutter would allow Sri Lanka to more effectively police its coastline and Exclusive Economic Zone and to protect its sea lines of trade and communication, the US said.

India

India is building two Advanced Off-shore Patrol Vessels (AOPV) to strengthen the Sri Lanka Navy and has gifted an additional OPV.

In 2015 India formally gifted the Indian Coast Guard vessel the ‘Varaha’ to the Sri Lanka Navy. The ‘Varaha’ had been in the service of the Sri Lanka Navy as Sri Lanka Naval Ship (SLNS) Sagara since 2006. In September 2017, an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) was provided by India.

Japan 

The Japanese government has agreed to provide Sri Lanka with a grant of up to 1.83 billion yen (approx. US$18 million)  for the Sri Lanka Coast Guard to receive two new patrol boats.

The 30-meter vessels, powered by 1,440 kw diesel engines, will displace 100 tonnes and be capable of reaching speeds of 27 knots.

These boats will  expand the area of active coastal patrol to the south and west regions, an increase in 2.5 times (approximately 750 nautical miles) from the current range.

China

Senior Colonel Xu Jianwei, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Colombo,  said in July this year, that Beijing will give a frigate to the Sri Lankan navy as a gift.

According to Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he focuses on South Asia,it was China’s assistance to the Rajapaksa government during their military offensive against the Tamil Tigers in the late 2000s that opened the door to a major expansion of Chinese investments and influence in the country.

Beijing began selling large quantities of arms, and dramatically boosted its aid to US$ 1 billion to emerge as Sri Lanka’s largest donor.

Chinese Jian-7 fighter jets, antiaircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons had played a central role in the Sri Lankan war. An analysis by the Stockholm based SIPRI shows that in 2008, there had been a substantial increase in weapons flow from China ti Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka received US$ 75 million worth of Chinese arms shipments in 2008, which is significantly more than the US$10 million value in 2006.

Pakistan

With Chinese encouragement, Pakistan, boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly U$100 million. Pakistan supplied Chinese-origin small arms and trained Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision guided attacks.

(The featured image at the top show a Chinese Jianghu Class II frigate)