Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jaffna and Fredericksburg: Part Two

The repeated failed offensives on the Jaffna Front are perhaps the clearest proof that the Sri Lankan military requires a new path to victory. Sri Lanka requires a multi-phased change in strategy if the civil war plaguing the nation is to be won. Certainly this new strategy should be partially based on standard strategic issues such as the concentration of enemy weapons, troops, and fortifications. This will ensure that the Sri Lankan Army will never again squander the lives of its soldiers on the impossible objective of breaking though the Jaffna Front. However, there also needs to be a fundamental shift in the mindset of Sri Lankan officers, both in regards to their objectives, and their tactics. Preventing disasters ensures that Sri Lanka will not lose the war, but only a major overhaul of the military’s strategic objectives and tactical philosophy will allow the war to be won.

For far too long, capturing Kilinochchi has been a primary goal of the military. Instead, the LTTE's armies, wherever they are at a disadvantage, should themselves be objectives of the Army. (Click to Enlarge)

For one, many military leaders seem to have a damaging mindset regarding Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi. This mindset has resulted the repeated assaults on the Jaffna Front, each failing just like the one before it. Just as McClellan, Burnside, and a slew of other generals who have not yet been mentioned here led their armies to ruin because of their "On to Richmond!" mentality, Sri Lankan generals seem to have crippled their strategies because of a desire to march on Kilinochchi and recapture Elephant Pass, a symbol of the military's strength up until its capture. These positions should be secondary objectives after a much more important target: the LTTE Army. They should remember that the Confederacy didn't fall because Richmond was taken. Richmond was one of the last cities in The South to fall and had Richmond fallen in 1862, the war would have certainly continued. What finally defeated the Confederacy was a fundamental shift in strategy. The goal to capture Richmond was replaced with an effort to seek out and engage the Confederate Army. When the LTTE’s military has been neutralized, Kilinochchi will take care of itself.

Let the Tigers hold Elephant Pass, and all the rest of the territory between that base and the current trench line. In fact, the longer they hold that position, the longer those soldiers, weapons, and supplies will be denied to the rest of the LTTE. If they remain immobilized because they fear a breakout from Jaffna, they are as good as dead to the soldiers in the South, no even better than dead, since they will continue to consume limited supplies while defending against an attack that should only come if they leave.

The soldiers on the Jaffna Front are closer to Kilinochchi than any other body of troops, but the heavy rebel defenses makes offensive operations here unwise.

It should be fairly obvious that Jaffna is not a preferable route into the Wanni. Its only advantage is its close proximity to the LTTE's capital. This is far outweighed by the defensive strength of the Jaffna Front. The LTTE has thousands of soldiers there, supported by a large number of mines, mortars, artillery and multiple layers of prepared defenses, even tank immobilizing trenches, concentrated in a tiny area. They have had years to find the exact ranges of any position within range of their guns, allowing them to be able to quickly fire, with nearly instant accuracy.

There is more LTTE firepower concentrated in this small area than on anywhere else on the island, and they get priority on supplies. On the Southern Fronts, while there are more soldiers, mines, and artillery, it is spread along hundreds of miles of front, and is much thinner than in the North. In Mannar, constant minor shifts in the lines have resulted in inferior defensive structures and a more porous border. Regular skirmishing has also caused many fortifications to be lost, resulting in a lack of proper cover and worse living conditions for the LTTE troops. No course of approach will be easy, but compared to the Jaffna Front, it should be clear that the South is the LTTE's soft underbelly.

Given this change in objectives, and a clear understanding that the Wanni should be taken from South to North, the strategic reforms required for victory will have been established. What will remain is the tactical issue of how the advance should be handled. A fear of heavy short-term casualties has resulted in semi-daily minor skirmishing along the Southern Fronts that has gone on since the capture of the Eastern Territories. Winning wars requires decisive action on the part of the aggressor. Since the fall of the East, the military blunders of this war have been made almost exclusively by the Sri Lankan Army, both in its unwillingness to press advantages in the South, and the multiple, inexplicable suicidal assaults on the LTTE’s defenses on the Jaffna Front.

General Ulysses Grant was the Federal commander who ultimately defeated the Confederacy. Accepting some of the heaviest fighting of the war, he used his superior numbers and firepower to its full potential and ended the war. Despite being labeled as a butcher at the time, he ended the war by his actions, while the generals who came before him had lost more men and had nothing to show for it.

If the SLA really wants to end this war, they must utilize those factors that make them superior to the LTTE. Their superior numbers allows the SLA to be many places at once, in force. Instead of limiting the army to small skirmishes that gives the LTTE as close to even odds as they'll ever get, Sri Lankan forces should make large scale assaults, accepting the fact that casualties will be higher up front, but also knowing that fewer will die in the long run, as has been discussed in previous articles. Thousands of soldiers should be committed to offensives to break through LTTE lines in the South and force them to fight without prepared defenses further into the Wanni. There should be multiple efforts, carried out along different points along the Southern Fronts, at the same time to prevent the LTTE from shifting troops or weapons from one front to another.

The Air Force should also play a major role, but only after they too have undergone a major change in their mission. The Air Force has been squandered by Sri Lanka and has been a bittersweet break for the LTTE. The Air Force should end their hunt for the Air Tiger squadron and abort their bombing of the LTTE airstrip. The rebel planes have no real strategic military value and the war would be better served by SLAF air strikes on enemy FDLs. The massive air defense system that has been developed should also be dismantled. Their resources and personnel are needed elsewhere and even if they are successful and destroy the rebel planes, they will have had as little impact on the outcome of the war as the toy planes they eliminated.

Decapitation strikes such as the assassination of Thamilchelvan are worthwhile and important services that the SLAF provides, unlike the pointless hunt for the TAF. However, even this valuable job should be secondary to the support of the Army in its campaign to eradicate the LTTE's armies.

The Air Force should also scale back their role as assassins of LTTE political figures. Let the rebel leaders have a couple days off and spend those limited sorties a week on air strikes against fixed LTTE positions along lines of advance. The successful surgical strikes made by the Air Force are what make the current role of the SLAF bitter for the LTTE, but this should still be modified to fit the new objectives of the military as a whole. Transferring the Air Force’s focus to the LTTE Army instead of their political leadership is another aspect of correcting the military’s primary objectives. This does not mean that political targets should no longer be threatened by any air strike, only that they should not take priority except under exceptional circumstances.

The soldiers who charge the LTTE positions on the Jaffna Front are some of the bravest in this war and it is shameful that they have been repeatedly ordered to mount hopeless assaults on impervious enemy fortifications. The massive casualties that have resulted from these many charges should not have occurred, just as the Federals at Fredericksburg should not have been lead to slaughter by the incompetent General Burnside. So too should these brave soldiers not be slowly picked off in years of skirmishing for minimal gain. The McClellan style conservative strategy has likewise caused many needless deaths and threatens the likelihood of victory. Decisive leadership and an intelligent, aggressive, and well-prioritized strategy offers the promise of total victory, and fewer overall casualties. The Sri Lankan leadership should keep this simple wisdom of General Grant in mind when deciding how to conduct the war:

"The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jaffna and Fredericksburg: Part One

The Sri Lankan Army took a heavy beating on April 23rd, in the latest of a series of thwarted assaults on the LTTE defenses on the Jaffna Peninsula. Casualties have been difficult to pin down on either side and reports from individuals and groups with military contacts can only give a range of casualties. What is clear is that this was a larger battle than most in recent history and that the LTTE came out on top, while the strategic situation on the Jaffna front has not significantly changed.

50-100 Tiger soldiers were killed in the failed attack by elements of the 53 and 55 divisions. As many as 200 have been wounded. The SLA casualties are actually harder to establish, with 100 dead at a minimum, and 185 dead at most. With "inside sources" to back every number in between, it is impossible to know the truth. What is accepted is that roughly 400 Sri Lankan troops have been wounded. No reports have been made on those who may have died of their wounds, on either side, though it is almost certain that some have succumbed to their injuries. Also lost were some Sri Lankan armored vehicles. Like all other figures from the battle, the numbers of damaged or lost vehicles varies from source to source, but including a damaged infantry fighting vehicle from the day prior to the attack, two to eight tanks and IFVs have been damaged or destroyed.

Over the years both sides have charged the other's defenses on the Jaffna Front. Most of these attacks have ended in failure for the aggressor, often with heavy loss of life. Since 2001, several SLA attacks have been made, all ending in defeat with hundreds of casualties. It is a situation very similar to the Battle of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War. The Sri Lankan military would do well to learn the history of that battle and the actions of the Union commander, Ambrose Burnside.

General Ambrose Burnside

Following the Confederate's successful escape from McClellan at Sharpsburg, President Lincoln put General Burnside in command of the Union Army. Burnside moved his vastly superior force to the East Bank of the Rappahannock River. On the opposite bank was the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia and the strategically vital Marye's Heights just beyond the town. Burnside planned to quickly cross the river, take the town, and capture the Heights before the Confederates could amass more than a skeleton garrison to defend the area. When Burnside reached the river, only 500 Confederates opposed him across the river, however, Federal troops were unable to take advantage of this numerical superiority, since they could not cross the river without pontoon boats, which had not yet arrived. Burnside refused to formulate a new strategy or objective for his army and opted to wait for the pontoon boats to arrive. It took 25 days for the pontoon boats to finally arrive and be deployed, in which time the better part of the Confederate Army had assembled West of Fredericksburg.

General Robert E. Lee ordered General James Longstreet's men to defend Marye's Heights, which made up the Northern half of the battlefield, while General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson defended the Southern flank made up of fields, shallow creeks, and a rail line. Despite these 72,000 Confederate reinforcements, Burnside still had twice Lee's numbers.

When the pontoon boats finally arrived, Federal engineers braved sniper fire from Fredericksburg to construct bridges, while Union artillery and an amphibious assault devastated the town to silence the rebel gunmen. Once the bridges were complete, Burnside crossed his army in force.

Once across the river, Burnside first attacked Jackson's force. The terrain was open, level, and neither side had permanent positions or fortifications. Burnside initially could use artillery from the opposite side of the river to support his advance, while the Confederates responded with aggressively handled horse artillery. Only two guns dueled the Union batteries for an hour, firing and moving faster than the Federals could react. A tactic the Sri Lankan military is all too familiar with. Union forces began making serious progress by mid morning and continued to push Jackson back until around 1:30. Fortunately for the Confederates, errors in coordination and insufficient numbers allowed Jackson to recover from his setbacks and counterattack, maneuvering between two Federal divisions that had become separated. The Union troops were pushed back and feared being trapped at the riverbank until additional reinforcements finally arrived and halted Jackson's advance. The fighting cost each side around 3,400 casualties. The majority of the Confederate losses for the whole battle occurred here, while the opposite would be true for the Federals.

Troop movements at Fredericksburg

Burnside had squandered an opportunity to win the battle and defeat the legendary Jackson. Had the Federals put serious emphasis on Jackson, who had little artillery support, and no dug in positions, and attacked with the bulk of the Union Army, the Confederates would have had no means to hold the line against such a large force. Marye's Heights would have been flanked and Lee would have had to abandon his ideal defensive position or be surrounded. Instead, Burnside shifted his focus to Longstreet's dug in soldiers on the Heights.

Longstreet had the bulk of the Rebel artillery supporting his troops and had his infantry amassed along a sunken dirt road with a stone wall along one side. The result was a natural trench that gave excellent cover to his men while still allowing them a full range of fire. His concentration of force made any attempt to dislodge him an act of suicide. It seemed that everyone understood this, except Burnside. Confederate artillerist Edward Alexander
bragged to Longstreet that, "not even a chicken could live in that field when we open upon it."

The famous charge of the Irish Brigade

Burnside Dedicated six divisions to taking the Heights, charging the Rebel position 16 times, usually in one-brigade charges. Although Longstreet was outnumbered, he held the high ground, was supported by artillery, and was well dug in. Each charge was easily repulsed with serious Union losses. It is here that the famous charge of the Irish Brigade was made. Advancing to within 50 feet of the stone wall, the 1,600 men of that fateful unit were cut to pieces by Confederate Irish troops of the Georgian Legion and only 256 men managed to escape. This courageous, but futile assault is made famous in the movie "Gods and Generals."

Watching the carnage, General Lee commented, "it is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."

1,200 Confederates were killed or wounded defending Marye's Heights. Over 10,000 Federals fell trying to dislodge them. It was one of the most one-sided victories of the war. Burnside had bungled the entire campaign, but the final cause of his defeat wasn't his inaction before the battle. It was his refusal to concentrate his forces where Lee was weakest and instead threw his army against the most secure piece of real estate in the Confederacy.

Sri Lanka would do well to remember Fredericksburg. The SLA needs to launch a major offensive, no doubt, but the location of such an offensive is as important as the action itself. Just as Burnside had a choice between Marye's Heights and the open terrain to the South of the battlefield, the Sri Lankan military has a choice between the bottleneck of the Jaffna Front, and the wide-open Southern Fronts.