By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, February 8: A reading of former Sri Lankan navy chief Adm. Jayanath Colombage’s works on maritime security will show that Sri Lanka would have won the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) long before it actually ended (in May 2009), if successive governments had built the navy as a priority, re-oriented it to face the LTTE’s asymmetric warfare, and put it in the forefront of the military operations.
A land-based military doctrine had prevailed till Eelam War IV (2006-2009). That had led to the strengthening the army at the expense of the navy, when all the while, the LTTE was getting its armaments and other supplies by sea using both small boats and big ocean-going vessels. If at all the navy was used, it was operating on a defensive mode responding to attacks rather than going on search and destroy missions. But, as Adm. Colombage says, the moment the Lankan navy got its due from the then President and Defense Secretary, the tide turned in the government forces’ favor dramatically. The LTTE’s seaborne assets were destroyed, its coastal warfare units were engaged proactively and crippled, its land forces very denied munitions, all leading to the outfit’s annihilation. It is now accepted that the inordinate delay in changing the military doctrine from a land-based one to a sea-based one had cost an enormous lot in terms of men, material and money.
The Lankan navy’s importance has increased now, partly due to the lessons learnt in the war, and partly due to increasing Indian and US concern over Chinese inroads into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The Navy is now second in the armed forces’ pecking order in Sri Lanka. According to Jane’s, as per the Appropriation Bill of 2022, the Army would get the lion’s share – LKR 188.1 billion, a year-on-year increase of 11%. The Navy would get LKR 63.9 billion, an increase of 4%, and the Air Force gets LKR 56 billion, an increase of 8.5%. As for capital expenditure, the Air Force would receive LKR 15 billion, while the navy and army would get LKR 9.2 billion and LKR 7.4 billion respectively.
With the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, Sri Lanka became free from maritime terrorism. However, as Capt. Rohan Joseph, Sri Lanka’s Defense Advisor to the High Commission in New Delhi, points out, this does not mean that the seas around Sri Lanka are safe. Drug trafficking, human smuggling, IUU fishing and marine pollution pose a formidable challenge in the high seas. And Sri Lanka is unprepared to meet them.
In a paper written for the Kotalawala Defense University in 2015, Joseph says: “The sensors and platforms the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) is in possession today is only capable of conducting maritime surveillance in the near shore areas and up to a certain extent in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Apart from the limited surveillance capabilities of the ocean surface, we are completely blind on subsurface activities that take place in terms of submarine operations.”
The Lankan ocean space in indeed vast. It comprises an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that is seven times larger than the land area. The continental margin is around 21 times larger, and a search and rescue region around 27 times larger than the land area. Therefore, Joseph argues, a surveillance strategy is essential to minimize the strategic maritime blindness that Sri Lanka is facing.
“There is a need to introduce additional platforms in the navy, incorporate advanced maritime surveillance sensors/equipment, form a cooperative strategic maritime surveillance architecture with regional as well as other partners, fuse and share vital sensory information with regional navies and maritime law enforcement agencies,” he points out.
Joseph notes that Sri Lankan naval platforms which are capable of operating in deep seas number nearly nine. The navy’s Maritime Strategy 2025 document looks at forming a 25 ship navy by 2025 mainly comprising frigates and offshore patrol vessels. But the navy does not have a single underwater vessel or sensors which are capable of detecting submarines at a considerable range. Joseph points out that except Sri Lanka, all nations in the neighborhood have acquired submarines. The latest to acquire a three dimensional force is Bangladesh.
“The presence of Chinese submarines is known, but what about those that continue to frequent the Indian Ocean without being detected?” he asks. “This is indeed a grave concern for maritime security affairs of Sri Lanka as well as to the other regional countries. The inability to have a clear image of the activities that take place in the EEZ makes the country vulnerable to IUU fishing by foreign fishermen and probable exploitation of scientific data from the Sri Lankan EEZ.”
Joseph further says: “We do not even have a single sensor which is capable of detecting a submarine at a considerable distance. This leaves the navy in total blindness with regard to subsurface maritime affairs.”
And the Lankan Air Force does not have a single dedicated long range maritime patrol air craft to carryout air surveillance covering the vast ocean space. Thus, the Lankan authorities have “no clue whatsoever about what is taking place or who is out there in the areas where no surveillance is available,” Joseph concludes.
Layers of Surveillance
There are various layers of surveillance, Joseph says. The first layer is the territorial sea monitored by RADARs and by AIS shore-based stations. The second layer, which is the EEZ, is monitored using surface platforms, HFSWRs, and space based AIS. The third layer, which is in the high seas (up to 1000-1200 nautical miles) are to be monitored by space based AIS, space based RADARs, surface and air assets.
Joseph points out that the Sri Lankan navy’s maritime apprehensions have been primarily in the territorial waters or in the EEZ. However, when one looks at the human smuggling arrests made in the deep seas, they had resulted from high level of bilateral cooperation with Australia. Highly reliable and timely intelligence had enabled Lankan naval units to intercept human smuggling boats in the deep seas, he says.
All the technological requirements for operating in the high seas can be met by regional and extra-regional cooperation. This is already taking place, to an extent. The Lankan navy will be the key agency with the establishment of a regional Maritime Rescue Coordinating Centre (MRCC) at Colombo. Joint exercises are being held with regional navies at regular intervals especially with India.
But regional and multilateral cooperation is also fraught with issues. In a paper entitled: “Problems and prospects of maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region: a case study of the Indian Ocean,” Com. Ranendra Singh Sawan, of the Indian Navy, says that maritime cooperation is largely focused at a sub-regional level, but unfortunately, the sub-region is weakly knit. The countries in the IOR littoral are very diverse and divided by clashing interests. There is no “common enemy” to unite them, Sawan points out.
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar IN (Rtd) notes that “the IOR does not lend itself to cohesion due to the disparate political and economic profile of the littorals.” He adds that the principal constraints in the management of maritime challenges in the region are: “the disparate composition of individual states, low political trust, the historical narrative about territoriality, and a deep-seated insecurity and mistrust about the other.”
External forces have also contributed to dysfunctions in security cooperation. “The IOR has been influenced largely by extra-regional powers which have significant maritime interests in the region. But at times, this is perceived as interference and is not welcomed by some IOR nations,” Sawan notes.
Be that as it may, there is also a growing realization that involvement of external powers is needed to make maritime security effective. Thus, balancing national sensitivities and the imperative of international cooperation will remain a challenging task for Sri Lanka and other countries in the IOR.