Saturday, August 16, 2008

Decisive Military Action for Long Term Benefit: The March on Vellankulam

The Union's Anaconda Plan would be executed far differently than its designer, General Winfield Scott, had planned. However, the strategy did ultimately choke the life out of the South by denying her the supplies needed to wage war.

Constricting and cutting the enemy's supply lines has been a fundamental of military strategy throughout history. A siege or blockade can break what would otherwise be an unshakable armed force or defended location. The effectiveness of a siege or blockade depends on the level of commitment by the aggressor to such a strategy. The more resources and manpower are committed to a strategy of constriction, the more isolated a target becomes, allowing an army to capture prizes that would have been impossible to take by more direct means, often at a fraction of the cost.

Siege and blockade strategies are critically important in the Sri Lankan Civil War. The most important battles of the war have been won or lost by the ability of one side to cut off the other's supply lines. The blockade of enemy waters is especially critical in this conflict because Sri Lanka is an island. The LTTE was able to capture the previously unbreakable Elephant Pass Base by amphibiously landing troops North of Elephant Pass, cutting the citadel off from the city of Jaffna. The crushing Sri Lankan defeat at Mullativu can also be at least partially attributed to the LTTE’s ability to cut off Sri Lankan garrison troops and a rescue task force by land and by sea.

By contrast, the LTTE was able to withdrawal in good order after the 1995 capture of Jaffna, despite the fact that the Sri Lankan Army had, at one point before the operation, virtually surrounded the peninsula. The LTTE’s ability to punch a hole in the ring of Sri Lankan positions surrounding Jaffna at the Battle of Pooneryn two years eariler and the inability of the Sri Lankan Navy to create an area of naval supremacy around Jaffna prevented this major LTTE defeat from becoming a route.

In the present Wanni Offensive, the Sri Lankan Army has used the threat of siege as a means of forcing the LTTE to abandon fortified positions and even entire towns. Adampan and the famous Madhu church are textbook worthy examples of this painfully slow, but difficult to counter, tactical deployment. With the LTTE slowly but surely running out of territory to retreat to, this tactic and the outcome it creates is likely to change in the coming months.

More important than tactical sieges is the overall strategic siege of the Wanni. In this island conflict the ability of the Sri Lankan military to establish and maintain a strategic blockade will ensure the destruction of the LTTE as a conventional fighting force. Creating an effective blockade of LTTE territory has eluded Sri Lanka for most of the war, but in the last two years the military has matured their efforts to trap and isolate the LTTE. Since 2006, a strategy has been developed to form Sri Lanka's version of the famous Anaconda Plan. This plan uses three forms of blockade to slowly constrict the LTTE and has already had a strategic impact. From munitions rationing, to a general unwillingness to launch a counter offensive, a reduced flow of supplies into the Wanni has visibly changed the way the LTTE goes to war.
Captain Raphael Semmes and his first officer John Kell on board the Confederate raider Alabama, which sank 61 American Merchant vessels around the world and one Federal cruiser off the coast of Galveston before being herself destroyed off the coast of France.

The three methods being used to blockade the Wanni are fairly simple in concept and most people could easily recognize a good example of each method if they saw one. The first is the use of commerce raiders. The German U-boats in the world wars and the Confederate raiders during the American Civil War are probably the most successful examples of this strategy. Despite its uncomplicated nature, few nations can actually execute a commerce raiding campaign because of the need for a "blue water navy." These operations generally occur far from any coastline and Sri Lanka's ability to not only try their hand at commerce raiding, but also succeed in totally destroying the LTTE's long range blockade running fleet has surprised and impressed the whole world. It should be noted though that commerce-raiding campaigns almost never win wars. They hurt the enemy, force them to change their own shipping strategies, and certainly put a great deal of pressure on the defensive party, but to win a war, shipping must be totally denied, not just harassed. After all, the two examples above were used by nations that lost the wars they fought.

This map made in October of 2007 shows how far the Sri Lankan Navy had to sail from the island to intercept the LTTE blockade-runners.

The second method of blockade is the traditional coastal blockade where a fleet patrols an enemy's coastline to intercept shipping as it nears its destination or as it first departs for a mission abroad. The Sri Lankan Navy has had to make these "brown water navy" operations a priority now that the LTTE has lost its entire fleet of larger, long-range blockade-runners. Gunboat patrols have occasionally intercepted LTTE supply ships, but the Sri Lankan navy suffers, not only from traditional problems associated with a coastal blockade, but also with challenges unique to the Sri Lankan conflict.

It is impossible to guard all avenues of approach to the Wanni all the time and so it is no surprise that small LTTE supply ships succeed in making the trip from Tamil Nadu to the Wanni fairly often. What further limits the Sri Lankan Navy's ability to cut the LTTE's supply lines is the large fishing fleets that work in the blockade zone. These large fleets are impossible to police and the LTTE uses these fleets to cover their blockade running activities. Unfortunately, without inflicting great hardship on the civilians in LTTE territory and probably violating the sovereignty of India, there is no way of fixing this problem by sea power alone.

This brings us to the final and most effective means of blockading a hostile region: the use of ground forces to occupy coastal territory. Be it by capturing ports or simply threatening them with capture, the presence of an opposing army can stifle shipping in a region better than any other means. Sri Lanka's liberation of almost the entire East coast of the island in 2006 is the largest act of coastal denial of the war and without a doubt it has constricted LTTE resupply efforts. However, this area is more geographically isolated than the Wanni so the prime LTTE shipping routes and destinations remained in rebel hands. In just the past month though, the Sri Lankan Army has gone from a crawling advance in the island's interior, to a decisive advance along the coast of the Mannar District.

Mannar Map, click to enlarge.

In 17 days, the 58th Division, supported by Commando teams, captured 22 kilometers of coastal territory, crossed three medium sized rivers, and captured over half a dozen coastal towns, some of which were key rebel military bases. From the capture of Vidattaltivu near the mouth of the Nay River on July 16th, the 58th has advanced North a distance that would have taken many months at the rate of advance the Mannar Front has previously been accustomed to. The Parangi and Pali Rivers have both been crossed and their mouths secured, while Komputukki, Iluppaikkaddavai, Mundampiddi, and finally Vellankulam and the nearby harbor village of Thekampuddi were captured in just two and a half weeks. The 58th is continuing its Northward advance to this day, but their progress has again slowed, making Vellankulam the end point for this phase of the campaign. The next phase has already taken the town of Mulankavil and is targeting the major LTTE naval base at Nachchikuda, with an ultimate goal of capturing Pooneryn.

This is exactly the kind of decisive coastal advance that has been advocated in previous posts on this site. In addition to other supplies and pieces of equipment, this drive has cost the LTTE dozens of ships. Some were captured and others were destroyed as they fled. Now not only are there fewer entry points for supplies from abroad, but there are fewer rebel warships to support resupply operations.

The LTTE had three options that have been mentioned multiple times before, when this kind of push was nothing more than a concept. They could stand and fight a losing battle, retreat only to counterattack and suffer a rain of fire from MBRLs, or they could cut their losses and abandon a strategically vital region. They have done the last and are now attempting more delaying tactics along what remains of their Western coastline.

Despite their refusal to put up a major fight for this important area, this advance is a strategic victory that deserves greater recognition than the defeat of the LTTE counterattack at Tunukkai, by far. It is unfortunate that public attention has been more focused on what was little more than a skirmish. Constricting the LTTE's ability to resupply their forces and cutting the Vellankulam-Mallavi road that served to transport those supplies from the coast to Kilinochchi District has long-term implications for the Wanni Campaign. The LTTE will recover from the loss of a hundred fighters without too much trouble since it is a force with thousands of troops and tens of thousands of potential soldiers in the population it controls. They will not recover nearly so easily from the loss of strategic harbors and supply roads. The entire LTTE will feel these losses, especially since the Wanni has almost no weapons production capacity, where only a single unit would feel the loss of a soldier, and this hurt will last and intensify for as long as Sri Lankan soldiers occupy these towns.