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.


Nilantha said...

Your writing verywel. Could you please send us your contact deatils to Please

E.T. Bailey said...

Thank ye kindly, and I've emailed you now.

TropicalStorm said...

It is indeed a very well written article and worth reading. However, the map of Mannar shown on your article does carry errorneous information and indicates a non-existant tamil eelam. It looks like this map was taken from a pro-terrorist site which did infact extract the original which indicates this part of Sri Lanka.
You can down load the correct map from the following location online;

E.T. Bailey said...

Yes, that is an LTTE map. Are there any actual geographical errors you'd like to point like misplaced towns or rivers? If your only objection is the fact that the map labels the region as part of Tamil Eelam, then I don't intend to switch maps because doing so would be based on my own bias and not on the reliability of the map itself. If there is a geographical problem, please by all means let me know and I will correct the map as soon as possible. Other than the Tamil Eelam label, I can't see any difference between the two.

Understand that this map was modified by supporters of the LTTE, if not LTTE members themselves. They believe this land to be part of their nation state, which makes it a matter of political opinion, not geographical fact. I used the map for its detail of the area. The political views it expresses are those of the map makers/editors and not necessarily those of anyone who references that map.

TropicalStorm said...

Your disclaimer is too glib to disagree with.

However, when you puiblish something that has been controversial enough to have been the very basis of death for over 70,000 people, something more than that of a blurted disclaimer is definitely desired. No offense meant.

Disregarding the objectionable part of the map, you've yet again produced a definitely masterly article.

E.T. Bailey said...

What exactly is glib about what I said? Last I checked, the political view that there is and should be a Tamil nation in Sri Lanka has millions of supporters, just as millions of people believe there should be a united Sri Lanka. While I do not support the seperatists, I am not running a propaganda site for either side. If that is what you're looking for I'm afraid you will be constantly disappointed here.

I have used GoSL maps, LTTE maps, and third party maps and will continue to do so for as long as they serve the purpose I seek to use them for.

Should I also remove the picture of the Anaconda Plan because it clearly favors the Union? Nearly ten times as many people died in that war as have died in Sri Lanka, my ancestors among them, but a doubt I could find many Southerners who would object to that map's presence. It serves its purpose just like every other map here. As a Southerner and a Texan, I recognized that it was a map that helped me make a point so I used it, despite the many insults it has to my culture, ethnicity, and heritage. By itself, I am as offended by many of the cartoons on that map as you are by the idea of your country being carved up by the LTTE.

I appreciate your otherwise positive comments on my writing and I hope my willingness to show more than one political point of view doesn't deter you from this site.

TropicalStorm said...

The map doesn't deter me from reading your superior analysis.

In fact I find your explanation of why the particular map was used also quite acceptable.

Keep up the good work, and stay out of the stormy weather.

su said...

just another Masterpiece.
Seems the Newly constructed 6 Feet high 20Km long Earth bund in Nachchikuda has many similarities with the "Marye's Heights" which you have discribed in great detail in a previous post.The Placement of the bund itself has given the ltte Great Flexibility in artilery attack as by stationing them in Pooneryn,they can attack Muhamalai, Nachchikuda & even Jaffna if needed.
It is said that Government Forces have Control of about 4Km of the bund at seperate locations (DefenceNet), but more of these Bunds could be ahead & with the monsoons due in about one month...Movement of Mechanized units will also be difficult.

Why do you think these bunds in Nuchchikuda & Muhamalai are continue to be effective Just as they did in the old times?

E.T. Bailey said...


It is similar in that it is a fixed, raised, position with artillery support, but no I don't think it will prove nearly as effective as the earthworks at Fredericksburg. Sri Lanka benefits from several factors Burnside did not. Sri Lanka for example, can call in air strikes and artillery fire, while Burnside could not even bring his superior number of cannon to bear on the heights. The length of the line also allows for the entire line to be compromised by a breach in a few places, while all fortifications would have had to fall for the Union to win all those years ago.

Another thing is that there aren't as many Tigers defending the whole line as there were Confederates who defended just 100 yards of the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. The LTTE's concentration of fire and volume of fire will not match the Confederates, despite having machine guns instead of muskets.

While the SLA continues to avoid mass advances, this long and thin battle line is an effective deterrent against platoon sized advances. All the same, this line cannot hold out forever. The LTTE's only remaining hope for survival lays in an offensive victory. Defensive efforts will only delay an inevitable defeat at the hands of a totally numerically and technologically superior foe.

I am more inclined to compare this effort to the trenches that defended Richmond and Petersburg at the end of the Civil War. Sri Lanka's superior numbers are forcing the LTTE to stretch their army to the breaking point with multiple fronts and long battle lines. Eventually, if nothing is done, the LTTE will be unable to even attempt to counter the SLA in conventional warfare. I may make an article out of that eventually, but the next article coming up will hit a World War Two comparison. I've got to have variety!

Also, I am doing a weekly column for the Sri Lanka Guardian, so please throw article ideas at me. I'll have to write more often than usual if I'm to make this new deal work.

E.T. Bailey said...


I'm sorry I didn't really answer your question very well. The reason I see trench systems still being used effectively is due to one constant and the presence or absence of two variables.

One is the constant fact that a trench or bunker system will allow defenders to concentrate their fire from a covered position. That is an ideal pair that soldiers will always want to have on their side.

One of the variables is that of terrain. Trenches don't work as well as they used to, at least not everywhere. Gods have mercy on an army that digs trenches in anything close to open terrain, like was done in World War One. The slaughter of the Iraqi Army in Kuwait in 1991 is a fine example of this. In Sri Lanka, rolling hills and thick jungles, dotted with rice fields in some places, creates a defender's paradise.

The second variable can also be shown in the Gulf War. That is the technology gap between enemy forces. The difference between Sri Lanka's and the LTTE's military technology is significant, but not decisive. In Iraq, the Coalition so totally out classed Iraq in military technology that the resulting devastation even terrified the victors. If I had been present on that battlefield, I would almost certainly question the role of Providence.

Because the SLA and LTTE are fairly evenly matched in terms of technological capabilities, these kind of defenses are tenable in the Sri Lankan conflict, where they were no more than a death trap in Kuwait.

su said...

Thank you for the replies!!
Wish You all the Best for your Column in the Sri Lanka Guardian.
These trenches seems to be the Strategy to Maximise their defences against the Government Forces.Another of these Is said to be on the making Near Alampil,to protect the Mulaitivu also...
So with you Focused More into Sri Lanka, Hope the Frequency of the Posts also to be increased, without compromising any of the Detailed work ofcourse...
Keep up the Good Work!

Thambapanniya said...

When I first replied to your article I could see the things that been brewing behind the scenes which culminated in to series of events lead by students during last few weeks. and alot of tamil collegues some of whom openly declare support for tamil tigers, while some do not. in my personal opinion I really doubt that they would "surrender"

I was thinking more like in the lines of strict regulations and mointoring of the charities based in sri lanka. for example charity commission (UK) inland revenue (Canada) etc have strict controls and all the goverening/financial documents are available for the public and highly scrutinised....

So far the charities like TRO, White pigeon etc operated within LTTE held area which will result in flushing out all the bogus charities and the only genuine charities will be allowed to operate or aligining them on pro-sri lankan stand. Also by doing so it makes them harder to operate outside Sri Lanka and raise funds since these charities are banned in SL and the foreign charities regulators will not allow them to continue raising money (though they may do it in pretext of something else but very difficult to raise money)

I have faith in foreign Organised crime/anti terrorism/financial regulation agencies/units to take actions on LTTE front organisations BUT I really doubt this will be there priority hence GoSL should undertake covert operations.

LTTE over the years through these organisations hae managed to rid the Sri Lankan identity from the tamil diaspora making them ashamed of being Sri Lankan and instill anti- Sri Lankan stance and GoSL should set up simillar organisations for Sri Lankan expats and promote pro Sri Lankan stance and challenge these LTTE front orgnaisations

e.g. TRO challenge them with a Sri Lankan Rehabilitation Organisation
TYO challenge them with a Sri Lankan Youth Organisation

also like for instance what GoSL should have done was while blocking the Vananagaman Ship made a request to the Sri Lankan diaspora to arrange a simillar ship... this would have seriously undermine these so called "tamil (LTTE) champions of humanity and human rights" and seriously would have questioned there sincerity as this invalidate the cases they been made

recently LBO published an article titled Brain Drain or Brain Gain/

GoSL should take the views expressed in there in to an account!!!! and the article and comments made in there will certainly emphasize the how much power we can have abroad!!! and this is only benefical to Sri Lanka... specially with a simillar operation like Sugarhorse (Spooks - BBC) we can put LTTE sentiments to the gilatine!!!

I was quite horrified with some recent revelations by some of my tamil collegues... how his father forced him to go to Vanni to get trained by LTTE as well as how he forced to watch LTTE propaganda videos when he was little and been told that he had to be like those people in those video!!!!!!! that was messed up! I thought that were been just told stories but not to the extent that he described.... foreign missions for years been complacent they still are yes we are winning the war... but the threat will be there for years to come and foreign missions MUST ACT And they need to act creatively!!!!!