Thursday, September 11, 2008

Racing Against the Clock: The LTTE’s Logistical Gamble

By making no serious attempt to retain the Wanni’s Western coastline in Mannar District until Nachchikuda, which has effectively crippled even minor arms shipments into rebel territory, the LTTE is gambling that it can reverse its loses in the Wanni Campaign with the supplies they currently have stockpiled. This has given them the benefit of not having to stand and fight when they don’t want to, but the cost of failure will be catastrophic to the separatist cause. Even if the LTTE does have the military capacity to eventually turn the tide of this war back to their favor and recapture lost territory, they risk losing everything on the eve of victory when they run out of critical supplies. In short, they risk a tropical El Alamein.

In World War Two, General Erwin Rommel led Germany’s Afrika Korps to the verge of victory, only to be utterly defeated due to critical supply shortages. Despite winning a string of victories from Libya to Egypt that gave him control of most of North Africa, Rommel was fighting a campaign in which he was technically the underdog. It certainly didn’t look like that at the time, but the Commonwealth Forces enjoyed far greater numbers, more supplies, and had shorter and shorter supply lines throughout Rommel’s advance, while the opposite was true for the Germans. To boot, the Germans had no real means of cutting the Allied supply lines, while the German lines were facing constant harassment from the air and the sea.

At the first and second battles of El-Alamein, this supply shortfall first prevented Rommel from breaking the back of the Allies and capturing the Nile, and later allowed the Allies to totally break his army in a counter attack the Germans didn’t have the capacity to resist.

In the Wanni, the situation is somewhat different, but does bear a striking similarity to the German high water mark in the North Africa Campaign. If the LTTE does launch a do or die counter offensive before the end, its strategy and objectives will be along the same lines as Rommel’s were at El Alamein and will face an almost identical supply crisis. They will seek to capture strategic coastal territory and large population centers in Mannar and Kilinochchi Districts, inflict heavy casualties on the Sri Lankan Army, and capture large quantities of supplies from Sri Lankan troops. The price of failure is likewise similar. If they don't achieve every one of these objectives, they will likely collapse as a conventional fighting force very quickly after their offensive is defeated or runs out of steam.

The LTTE's gamble, like Rommel's, is a race against time to win a decisive victory before supply shortages and casualties not only force them to abandon their offensive, but make further conventional resistance impossible.

The LTTE is being compressed like a spring. It is their hope that when the time is right they will rapidly expand and push back the Sri Lankan forces in a crushing victory. To ensure the maximum probability of success, the LTTE have taken special care in how they retreat. Several factors can turn a retreat from a sign of defeat into a strategy for victory. Rommel recognized these factors and was able to take advantage of them to benefit his soldiers even after conquering North Africa was no longer possible. After his defeat at El Alamein, Rommel’s objectives changed from defeating the enemy, to ensuring the maximum number of troops escape to Europe as possible. Despite the impending fall of North Africa, he was able to save a large portion of the Afrika Korps by organizing a disciplined retreat. This was Germany’s silver lining in an otherwise total defeat.

While the LTTE have been falling back ahead of a major offensive instead of at the end of one, they too have led an orderly retreat. They have retained unit cohesion for the most part, ensuring that their veteran units will be available for a future offensive. They have also kept the Sri Lankan Army at bay with minor skirmishing and minefields, just like Rommel did on the march back to Tunisia. They have even been able to boost the morale of their troops, despite the constant advance of the Sri Lankan Army, with high profile raids that usually have little or no strategic implications. The LTTE’s Air Force, for example, has become a source of pride for the rebels, despite having almost nothing to show for their efforts.

Artillery piece captured by the LTTE at Mullativu.

There is one thing the LTTE has achieved that Rommel was unable to do. The LTTE has retained most of their heavy weapons, despite losing huge swaths of territory. This will greatly benefit any committed offensive or defensive operation by giving LTTE infantry fire support that has already proven very effective in past operations.

If and when the LTTE launches their major assault, the big guns that have mostly been captured from Sri Lankan forces in the past will be used much like the recent combined assault on a Sri Lankan radar array. There, Black Tigers, LTTE regulars, artillery support, and the Air Tigers were deployed in the hopes of blinding the Sri Lankan Air Defense Network. Superior judgment by Sri Lankan troops on the front line ensured that this operation was a failure and the destruction of a rebel bomber made this attack a costly mistake for the LTTE. However, their ability to combine infantry, suicide commandoes, artillery, and air power for a single operation gives us a taste of what the LTTE offensive will look like. It will be a coordinated effort by multiple combat elements to strike well defined targets and the casualties on both sides, at least initially, should be fairly evenly balanced, if not in the LTTE’s favor.

Despite this success in preserving their forces for a major battle that they hope will turn the tide of the war, the LTTE is facing a worst-case scenario. With supply lines largely eliminated or constricted, they have only a short time to plan, launch, and win a major offensive before supply shortfalls cripple their ability to wage war. This offensive must result in the capture of large quantities of supplies and have a favorable casualty ratio to make any gains sustainable. The LTTE requires a flawlessly executed battle that may very well be the largest of the war and if they don’t get it, they will face extinction.

Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers have been used by the SLA in the past to decimate LTTE offensives.

Opposing them, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have never been stronger. In the air, the Air Force has a large number of planes and helicopters to provide air support to soldiers on the ground. On the ground, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan troops are deployed in front line positions, and tens of thousands more wait in reserve to contain any LTTE breakout attempt. New Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers allow Sri Lankan artillery units to sterilize large areas of the combat zone with a rain of missiles that the LTTE have never successfully countered. Sri Lankan troops also enjoy secure supply lines and do not have to count on captured war materials to continue fighting.

Despite their success in preserving key military units and heavy weapons, the deck is certainly stacked against the LTTE. While they field a capable, versatile, and innovative army, they are attempting to defeat an opponent that is well led, has superior numbers, superior technology, and superior supply lines. While they can certainly promise Sri Lanka a bloody battle, the odds of a major Sri Lankan defeat are shrinking with each passing day. What is certain is that, one way or another, this war is coming to an end and the fate of Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam will be decided before the end of the year.

P.S. For a more detailed understanding of the strategies used at El Alamein and how they are being used in Sri Lanka, visit The Long Ranger's article here.