Monday, March 29, 2010

I've Moved!

Due to Google being incredibly non-user friendly and filled with technical bugs, I have moved locations to my own website. I have compiled all the articles from this site, as well as my articles from the Sri Lanka Guardian dating back to mid-2008 at

Named after the famous Decembrist Revolt of 1825, I continue to discuss political and military issues, both in Sri Lanka, the United States, and around the globe through my bias in favor of personal liberty, individual responsibility, and constitutionally limited government.

I hope to see your comments on my new articles there as it was such a moving and priviledged experience here.

E.T. Bailey

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On the Process of Detigerfication

I would like to take a departure from my usual discussion of military issues and discuss the matter of preventing a return to war when the current conflict ends. This task is of critical importance to the future of Sri Lanka, and I feel it must be addressed before the current fighting is concluded.

With Sri Lankan soldiers pouring into the Wanni from all directions, the LTTE is facing extinction. While the war is far from over, plans must be made on how to deal with the population of the separatist heartland once the LTTE has been eliminated as a conventional fighting force. A plan for reconstruction and reconciliation is vital to the success of whatever peace follows this terrible conflict. The most pressing issue of the postwar reconstruction will be the question of what to do with LTTE military veterans, political figures, and any other Tamils who actively supported the rebel group during the war. This challenge may be as daunting as defeating the LTTE in the first place, and will define what kind of country Sri Lanka will be for the rest of its existence.

An understanding of history will only serve to help Sri Lankans develop solutions for this problem. Two excellent examples are the period of reconstruction following the American Civil War and the German process of denazification after the end of World War Two. It is from this later example that I have derived the name, “detigerfication” to describe the task facing Sri Lanka. Through these examples we can see three primary issues regarding enemy veterans. First, the war crimes trials of Nazis at Nuremberg should be studied as Sri Lanka forms a judicial task force to bring to justice members of the LTTE accused of war crimes. Second, the treatment and legal status that former Nazis and Confederates faced in their respective countries should be examined and an appropriate system developed for Sri Lanka. Finally, the way the United States and Germany dealt with the cultural aspects of their conflicts offer insight into Sri Lanka’s cultural future.

Nazi war criminals standing trial in the first row

The Nuremberg Trials following World War Two tried and convicted many Nazis, executing some and imprisoning others, for war crimes committed against enemy civilian populations, as well as their own citizens during the war. Sri Lanka will undoubtedly have some such special judicial organization established to deal with LTTE war criminals, and most Sri Lankans would probably cheer at the thought of Velupillai Prabhakaran being tried and hung for his role in numerous LTTE atrocities.

However, while Sri Lanka should enter into this judicial operation with the hope of bringing war criminals to justice, effort should be made to avoid punishing individuals solely for being members of the LTTE, or being members of s certain rank. Rebels who ordered or participated in war crimes should be hunted down, regardless of their rank. If there is not enough credible evidence to indict a surrendered LTTE officer of a war crime, even if it is a high-ranking colonel, then he should be allowed to live out his life in peace. If a conscript is suspected of killing civilians, then they should be tried and punished if convicted.

For example, if a rebel is known to have been present at the Battle of Mullativu, he is simply a war veteran. If he is also known to have participated in the murder of surrendered Sri Lankan soldiers after the base fell, he should then be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. It is of utmost importance that the postwar trials be an exercise in justice, not a witch hunt. To achieve this, the government should declare a general amnesty to all members of the LTTE with the condition that this does not absolve them from being guilty of any of war crimes. This partial amnesty will not excuse the actions of war criminals, but will ensure that tens of thousands of Tamils who acted in good conscience during the war will not be persecuted by a court of vengeance.

The question of what to do with LTTE veterans goes beyond prosecuting those suspected of war crimes. There is also a matter of their political and economic future. In postwar Germany, the Allied Powers clamped down on former Nazis both as a means of preventing the Nazi Party’s survival after the war and as a means of retribution against the world’s most hated political group. Regardless of their education or skill, the only legal jobs former Nazi Party members could have in Europe were manual labor jobs. The two highest (out of four) classes of offenders were also banned from voting and running for public office. American general George Patton was fired from his postwar position in Germany because of his opposition to this system. He argued that most Nazi Party members had not committed war crimes and were the most, if not the only, Germans qualified to work in government positions. This was only one aspect of a collective punishment system where the Allies blamed all Germans for the war and the Holocaust. Nazi literature, symbols, and other objects reminding Germans of the Nazi Party were also destroyed in an attempt to totally erase Nazism from German society.

Sri Lanka should think twice before taking such a hardliner’s stance on reconstruction. Unlike Germany after World War Two, Tamils in Sri Lanka are unlikely to adopt an intense guilt complex because there is no event, like the Holocaust, that clearly marks their bid for independence as evil. Many will argue that both sides committed war crimes, leaving only political perspective to decide who, if anyone, was fighting on the side of righteousness. The result will be that a great many Tamils will be proud of their LTTE heritage and will continue to support the ideals they fought for, even if Tamil Eelam will never come to pass. Will Sri Lanka deny voting rights to a huge portion of Sri Lankan Tamils because of this? Will these same Tamils be limited by the government to the least prestigious jobs in the country? Fortunately, the liberation of The East is proving Sri Lanka’s willingness to include former enemies in the government. The once ludicrous idea of Colonel Karuna, the rebel leader who led the final assault on Elephant Pass, becoming a member of the Sri Lankan government is now a reality. Successful elections in the East give further hope that Reconstruction in the North will be a successful exercise in democracy.

It is of vital importance that the people in the Wanni do not suffer from large unemployment rates. Poor individuals who cannot find lawful employment will be vulnerable to recruitment by guerillas, especially if they have families to feed. The same risk applies to children. The education system must be reestablished as soon as possible, once the major fighting has ended. Special attention should be given towards helping child veterans adjust to civilian life and assisting them in getting an education. The transition from military to civilian life is difficult for people of any age, but will be even harder for the thousands of child soldiers who will survive the war.

Sri Lanka might do well to consider a policy closer to the reconstruction process in America in this regard, though this example also has aspects that should be avoided. President Andrew Johnson, who took the presidency following the death of President Abraham Lincoln, declared a general amnesty for all Southern citizens who took an oath of allegiance to the United States. This option to have a full return to citizenship in return for, what was basically a promise to not wage war against the state, greatly helped reduce the level of partisan violence during Reconstruction. However, the exclusion of Confederate officers, political officials, and wealthy landowners from this amnesty has a counter effect, intensifying Southern hatred for the Union and Northern citizens. This hatred was furthered by the passing of the 14th Amendment, which stated that no rebel or supporter of the Confederacy could be elected to public office.

This general amnesty, as already stated, is of critical importance as it offers a future to the tens of thousands of Tamils who acted honorably during their participation in the war. Establishing a means for people to appeal their exclusion from the amnesty also has merit, as there will always be flaws in large-scale policies. Not only is this a fair and just move, but also an act to ensure a lasting peace. By allowing tens of thousands of former rebels the option to have civilian lives with full rights and no threat of legal or military retribution, they will be much more likely to accept reunification.

While the persecution of landowners in the American South hardly applies to Sri Lanka, there are other, more relevant, aspects of Southern Reconstruction that Sri Lanka would do well to avoid or modify. Sri Lanka should be able to make the distinction between top tier LTTE leaders and LTTE public servants who are the only people with any administrative experience in the region. Banning what amounted to nearly every known public figure in The South created long lasting bitter sentiments in the former Confederacy and the same would likely be true in the Wanni. Sri Lanka should recognize, just as Patton did in Germany, the need for experienced political workers who have had an existing relationship with the local population. Imposing an appointed government from Colombo or forcing Tamils to pick representatives from a tiny pool of pre-approved individuals will do little more than help the LTTE remnants recruit people for guerilla action. There is also the threat of showing favor towards Eastern Tamils over their Northern kin. Former rebels dominate government in the East and Northern Tamils should be given similar accommodations. Granted the East is being run by defectors, while the North would be run by surrendered, but loyal rebels, however, showing favor towards Eastern Tamils will encourage Northern Tamils to continue the war as partisans. As long as Sri Lankan Tamils, or certain groups of Tamils, feel that the rest of the island is subjugating them, there will always be people willing to plant bombs and assassinate politicians.

Americans from The South are famous for taking the Confederate flag into battle in every war after the Civil War ended. Here, Southern soldiers carry the flag into battle during the Vietnam War.

The Sri Lankan Civil War is a culturally defining event that will not simply go away with the fall of the LTTE. Tens of thousands of LTTE veterans and their families will make up a large portion of every Tamil community, and a great many will view them as heroic fighters of a lost cause. The simple fact of the matter is that the LTTE’s goal of a separate state enjoyed wide support from the Tamil people, and that will not change with the end of the war. Sri Lankans must choose between accepting this new aspect of Tamil culture, or fighting it at every turn in an attempt to eradicate it from society.

To put the decision in a different light, Sri Lankans must choose between two futures for their country. They can ban the Tiger flag and Tiger uniforms, outlaw the construction of historical monuments and museums to the rebel cause, and discourage Tamil communities from celebrating Hero’s Day. This will certainly make several non-Tamil Sri Lankans feel better, since the last thing they want is for the LTTE to have remembrance shrines on the land so many loyal Sri Lankans gave their lives to liberate. The drawbacks, however, would be a continued, possibly intensified, feeling of persecution among Sri Lankan Tamils and their permanent hatred of the rest of Sri Lanka for being forced to forsake their fallen loved ones. Given the fragile nature of the post LTTE peace, it would likely be a key factor in a return to war.

Alternatively, Sri Lankans can accept this new aspect of Tamil culture as a natural result of having fought so long and hard, both for their cause and for the more instinctual desire to protect their homes and families. After all, the reasons wars are fought and the reasons people fight wars are often very different. An example the late American Civil War historian Shelby Foote once mentioned that fits very well with the Sri Lankan conflict involved a conversation between a Union soldier and a captured Confederate. The Union man asked why the Confederate was fighting, to which the he replied, “Because you’re down here.” With this example in mind, it’s easy to see how the average fighting man often does not risk his life for the grand political goals of nations and empires, but to protect home and hearth.

Tolerating Tamil pride for the struggle and sacrifices that people from every Tamil community have participated in does not legitimize the LTTE, but instead acts as the extension of an olive branch. Sri Lanka, by allowing Tamils to honor and remember their fallen loved ones, will send the message that all those lost in this war, even those who carried arms against the state, make up a national tragedy that must never be forgotten. While this will almost certainly result in the symbolism of the LTTE becoming forever entrenched in Sri Lankan Tamil culture, it does not mean that Tamil separatism will forever flourish, and indeed it may help restore Tamil pride in Sri Lanka in a matter of decades instead of a matter of centuries.

Confederates in Afghanistan

This can certainly be seen in American culture. The American South made the transition from separatism to patriotism, despite holding fierce pride for their rebel heritage, all while Civil War veterans were still alive. Southerners now make up the majority of the American Armed forces and have taken Confederate flags to war with them in every conflict since the Civil War. A confederate flag flew over Shuri Castle in the Battle of Okinawa during World War two, was as common as the American flag in Vietnam, and has flown over Iraq in two wars now. In Korea, North Koreans and Chinese troops were baffled by the Confederate flag and continually failed to determine what UN member nation the flag represented.

I can only hope Sri Lanka will have the good fortune of having Tamil soldiers hide Tiger flags in their helmets while risking their lives for a united Sri Lanka fifty years from now. To achieve this same combination of nationalism and pride in one’s heritage in Sri Lanka would be remarkable. Without a doubt it can be done. The only question is whether or not the rest of Sri Lanka is willing to truly bury the hatchet when the shooting stops.

As a closing thought, I’d like to share a famous quote by President Lincoln, in the hopes that the attitude he expressed will prevail in Sri Lanka:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish, a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
— President Abraham Lincoln

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.

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.

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.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Repititions of History, the American and Sri Lankan Civil Wars

It is a difficult thing to see the suffering of war, even if it does not compare to the hardships of those actually living through it. What’s worse though is knowing how peace can be restored and seeing those in power making the mistakes of others in history. Nearly 150 years ago, Northingtons, Nowlins, Simmonses, Harrises, Baileys, and a score more families whose descendent now writes this article fought, killed, suffered and died across the American South. While most of these families fought for the Confederacy, the lesson of history that this article seeks to recall is a failure of a Union general early in the War Between the States. All should remember it and the cost of the many years of war that followed, but, more so than any other, the people of Sri Lanka need this lesson because this same mistake has been made in their civil war and will cost them far more sons and daughters than should have been required.
General George B. McClellan

In mid March of 1862, General George B. McClellan launched an amphibious assault on the Virginia Peninsula and soon had nearly 400 ships and over 120,000 troops under his command. The landing had bypassed the Confederate Army that guarded the capitol of Richmond from an invasion out of Maryland, and so only 13,000 Rebels opposed this massive force. Despite his total superiority in numbers, the cautious Union general ordered that the 13,000 Confederates be taken by siege. Despite being hugely outnumbered, this small force of Confederates occupied the entire Union Army for a month, finally retreating on May 4th. While twice as many Rebels had died as Federals, they had bought precious time for the Confederacy to formulate a capable response to the invasion. For the rest of May the Union advanced slowly, taking their time. When McClellan finally reached Richmond, stiff resistance by a still totally inferior force convinced him to repeat his siege tactics, building a second Forward Defensive Line (FDL) and calling for reinforcements. Edward M. Stanton noted McClellan’s overly cautious attitude and tendency to overestimate the strength of his enemy by saying, “If he had a million men he would swear the enemy had two millions, and then he would sit in the mud and yell for three!”

The Peninsula Campaign (Click to Enlarge)

This cost McClellan the campaign when Confederate counterattacks, forced him to withdrawal, despite suffering greater losses and still never coming close to the size McClellan’s force. Months later, in Maryland, McClellan’s caution prevented him from destroying a retreating Rebel Army that could have ended the war as well. The nation was torn apart by the war that lasted until 1865 because of these shortcomings. It also cost around half a million more lives.

Lt. General Sarath Fonseka

Sri Lanka is now suffering its own Peninsular Campaign. General Sarath Fonseka was looking at the end of the war last August. The East had been totally liberated and the Navy was in the process of wiping out the last of the LTTE’s large blockade running ships. The Tigers had once controlled Jaffna, most of the East Coast, and territory in the West far South of Mannar. The entire Northern part of the island was a rebel stronghold, and to defend it all, tens of thousands of people were put under arms, a brown water navy was created and soon became world famous, and an air force would be born with an air strike on the Sri Lankan capital. However, by last August, the Tamil Tigers were facing supply shortages because of the loss of so many blockade runners, Jaffna had long fallen, territory south of Mannar was lost or falling, and the whole of the East Coast had been overrun. General Fonseka chose to besiege the Tigers now. While the Sri Lankan Army recruited and consolidated their forces, daily skirmishes were fought along the entire border of the Tiger held “Wanni.”
The Sri Lankan Civil War's heaviest fighting is currently centered around Mannar District

There was merit in Fonseka’s decision. The enemy was still full of fight, and supply shortages were getting worse for the Tigers as time went on. Fonseka also had to commit troops to recently liberated territory to ensure it remained so, and to defend strategic areas from an LTTE offensive. Only after five months of waiting and minor fighting did Fonseka finally declare the final offensive to end the war. True to his and McClellan’s cautious strategic nature, the offensive failed to materialize in any form except a painfully slow crawl around Mannar. Plans to push into the Wanni through the East Coast were seemingly abandoned as minor skirmishing continues to be the only action there.

Plans to launch a major offensive on the East Coast along the Weli Oya front, which is defined by the Manal River, has never escalated past minor skirmishes.

This article from the Sri Lankan military blog “DefenceNet” shows this lack of progress as clearly as could ever be done. An article from March 25th of last year discusses LTTE forces successfully defending the same church that is being fought for today. Thirteen months later, this Church remains in Tiger hands, and the only sign of progress is the inching forward of Sri Lankan soldiers that gives some hope that the Church will be free of separatists before the fourteenth month is out. A soldier can likely see from his frontline position today
, all the places he has been for the past year, and he wouldn’t need binoculars. The church and a small town called Adampan, desired only because it is at a crossroad between two highways forced into disuse by war, have been the objectives of the Army since before the fall of the East and the likelihood of either of them falling by the end of the month is about as good as they were last April.

The price of this refusal to commit to a major offensive has been heavy. It has been nearly as heavy, actually probably more so, than the cost of a major battle would have been. While the LTTE were facing critical ammunition shortages in the end months of 2007, resupplies from India using smaller ships have bolstered the LTTE armories
. The loss in soldiers is more difficult to determine, but nearly 300 Sri Lankan soldiers and police have died since the would-be offensive began in January. Adding those dead to at least 500 (probably more) soldiers, militia, and police who died since last August, a minimum of 800 people have died on the side of Sri Lanka in this intentional stalemate. Because of the difficulty in determining casualties, it is possible that the death toll for Sri Lankans under arms exceeds 1,000 by this point. LTTE losses are also hard to determine, but are probably in the rage of 4,000-5,000. Ironically, most of those dead were drafted to participate in these very skirmishes and the loss of the weapons they carried have been as great a hurt to the Tigers as the loss of their lives. The real strategic damage caused to the LTTE in this time of attrition is actually likely to be in the same range as the losses of Sri Lanka.

Fonseka’s lack of action gave the LTTE time to find new methods to smuggle supplies into their territory, negating last year’s victories by the Sri Lankan Navy. This failure to act also allowed the LTTE time to prepare stronger defenses, train more fighters, including some more hardcore fighters, and whittle away at the Sri Lankan Air Force and Navy with suicide missions and by mining coastal waters.

Even worse is that General Fonseka declared that the Wanni would fall by the end of the year. At the time, this was actually quite possible. The Tigers were at their low water mark when the general made this bold promise. Unfortunately, Fonseka has refused to push a major offensive. His numbers, technology, supplies, morale, and training all greatly exceeds that of the LTTE, and he can strike literally anywhere he desires. His refusal to use these advantages is ensuring a longer, more costly war against a better-prepared enemy. More Sri Lankans will die in this creeping advance against an enemy that always is given t
ime to recover, regroup, and rearm. The failure to end this war by the end of the year will hurt public opinion on the war and in the worst-case scenario, will force an unfavorable end to the conflict. More likely though is that the war will be won, but only after years of continued fighting and great loss of life that could have so easily been avoided.

General Fonseka has served his country with distinction. His tactical successes are legendary and many soldiers owe him their lives. For the Midnight Express alone, Sri Lanka owes him a debt of gratitude. He has also been a great reformer, leading the way in making the Army a larger, more capable, better-trained force. Just Like McClellan, he is perhaps best suited for training an army more so than for using one. It is little wonder that these men were so unwilling to enter a fight that would force a portion their masterpieces to be sacrificed.

Fonseka was also in charge during the Liberation of the East, though the effect of the Karuna defection was a great boon to his efforts. Still, his current inaction is hurting the nation and armies exist to serve their countries. Fonseka’s unwillingness to launch a real Northern Offensive and instance on making excuses for delay is now a detriment to Sri Lanka. He should either be made to act or replaced if he refuses.

President Lincoln meeting with General McClellan after the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam)

When McClellan let the Confederate Army escape from Maryland, President Lincoln traveled to meet with him. After much urging, the general still insisted on inaction. The president relieved him of his command with a famous line that the people of Sri Lanka should repeat to General Fonseka.

“If you are not using the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while."