Tactical aspects of the Eelam War
Col R Hariharan
There is a lot of excitement as the Sri Lanka security forces are inching towards Kilinochchi from the southwest on multiple axes. The political tensions in Tamil Nadu over the plight of Tamil civilians in the war zone have added a bit of nervous expectation in Sri Lanka to the war scene. Broadly the security forces have enlarged the forward line roughly by eight km on the west of Kilinochi, isolating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stronghold of Nachikuda on the western coast. Task Force 1 which had bypassed Nachikuda, captured Manniyankulam and Vannrikulamon its advance along the A32 route to Pooneryn. Thus the LTTE access to sea routes to Tamil Nadu from the northern Mannar coast will probably come to an end shortly with these developments.
The57 Division, earlier locked in battle at the key road junction of Akkarayankulam (which leads to Kilinochchi in the north and the A9 highway in the east), has "pierced" its defences. According to the security forces this was the last of the LTTE strong points defending Kilinochchi. It has not been a cakewalk to the security forces as the LTTE had put up some resistance at selected places. The breakthrough in Akkarayankulam, in particular, has come after a lot of blood shedding. The defence spokesman has admitted losing '33 soldiers during the clashes in the weekending Sunday Oct 19th; 48 were injured and three were missing. This was perhaps one of the biggest losses suffered by the security forces. On the other hand the LTTE appear to have lost 12 cadres.
However, overall the LTTE had not been able to inflict such losses more often as the security forces advanced. While this could be for reasons of tactical withdrawal, it is clear that the LTTE efforts so far have lacked strength and firepower required to blunt the offensive. Though the fall of Kilinochchi looks imminent, in tactical terms its capture might not be essential. In any case, it would probably come within the security forces' heavy machine gun range in the coming week, making it untenable for the LTTE to hold. Capture of Kilinochchi, the LTTE's administrative capital till recently would certainly be a big loss of face to it. For President Rajapaksa it would add yet another feather in the cap after the 'victory' in the east. And that could make him politically stronger than ever before.
As the Task Force-1 advances to Pooneryn, it would be possible for the security forces to create an anvil extending from the western coast to Kilinochchi so that the hammer of 53 and 55 divisions operating along northern frontlines could be brought down upon the LTTE strong points in the crucial Elephant Pass/Nagarkovil bottleneck. The skirmishes reported in Muhamalai on Oct 16th were probably a probing attempt of the security forces for such an offensive. This option would also provide relief to 57 Division troops which had been on the offensive for three months now. A northern offensive could make the LTTE fight within a narrow strip with only one exit route open on the east to LTTE's Puthukkudiyiruppu defence complex.
If and when that happens, the LTTE domination of the A9 highway would probably end. It would also render both Nachikuda and Pooneryn defences meaningless unless the LTTE can quickly launch a counter stroke. But the moot point is does the LTTE want to launch such an offensive west of A9 highway at all? Their defensive pattern so far would indicate such an intention might not be there at all.
This is only one of the many ways in which this operation can be progressed. With the imminent fall of Kilinochchi, the Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka has more options now than ever before. The monsoon is on and close air support could become tricky and mobility and visibility would also be affected. But weather gods are neutral and affect both sides. As the war in Wanni would involve jungle bashing, at best monsoon would slow down the operation on both sides and not stop it.
Understanding the LTTE strategy
So far in the areas west of A9 highway, the LTTE's conventional defence strategy appears to be based upon a series of strong points with bunds and ditches stretching for miles between them. The bunds along the expected axes of advance have been constructed to slow down the advancing troops and attack them at selected points when they try to break through the obstacle.
This is a strategy of the First World War vintage that became obsolete with the advent of increased battlefield mobility, greater depth and density of fire power, and enhanced battlefield reconnaissance capabilities. Unless the bund is protected by fire power and layers of obstacles, modern armies can reduce their effectiveness with no great difficulty.
In modern conventional warfare the technique has morphed into mobile defence based upon strong points that dominate the gaps between them with hard hitting armour based mobile teams. This technique is useful when a large area is to be defended by smaller number of troops as in the case of the LTTE. This strategy if successfully applied would lead to a lot of bloodletting and discourage advancing forces from launching the main offensive.
The LTTE had perhaps adopted defences based on strong points for this very reason. It was fighting against an opponent who outnumbered it by at least ten to one. On hindsight, last year the LTTE probably allowed a comparatively free run to the security forces to occupy areas south of road Vavuniya-Mannar along the Mannar coast so that the troops would be drawn into fighting the strong points further north. After that starting with Adampan in May 20008 there had been a series of LTTE strong points - big and small - forming layers of defences –Adampan-Nedunkandal-Andankulam, Madhu-Palamipiddi-Periyamadu, and so on.
But the LTTE had neither the required mobility nor fire power to dominate the gaps between the strong points to stop the security forces that had superior mobility, fire power and numbers. So probably it took recourse to constructing miles of bunds between strong points. And the security forces have been breaking the inadequately defended bunds regularly. Moreover, the LTTE strategy had seeds of failure as the axes of advance from south to north fanned out over increasingly larger gaps between strong points as the war progressed without a matching increase in troop strength. This is borne out by the LTTE inflicting heavier casualties on the security forces only when their axes converged on Kilinochchi.
The LTTE's performance so far has demonstrated the limitations of insurgency forces in carrying out conventional operations. Being light outfits with limited artillery support they were better suited to tackle company level tactical operations. In order to maximise the impact of conventional operations of insurgents, guerrillas have to be employed in tandem to hit rear areas and gun positions to destabilise the conventional opponent. The LTTE had not been able to carry out such commando strikes effectively so far in Eelam War-4.
During the war in Elephant Pass in 2000 the LTTE was able to overcome its weakness in conventional capability through superior battlefield leadership, high morale, and psychological advantage against the opponent who lacked them. The security forces then lacked the single mindedness of purpose they are showing now. In the Eelam War- 4, clear convergence of political and military focus on military objectives untroubled by other issues has resulted in the relentless pursuit of the LTTE.
The overconfident LTTE leadership is probably paying the price now for ignoring the two important developments in the security environment since the last Eelam War. These were the impact of Karuna's defection and the subsequent loss of east, and the qualitative and quantitative improvements in the Sri Lanka armed forces. This overconfidence of the LTTE gave the security forces a head start when they launched the offensive. The self defeating technique of suicide bombings has also deprived the LTTE of potential junior leaders, though they brought short lived glory.
The tactical conjectures discussed so far might be of interest only to military minds. The question in everyone's mind is probably 'when' – in what time frame –Kilinochchi would fall and the A9 highway would open. It is not easy to answer this question. And there are always the imponderables of battlefield that affect the best laid plans.
The security forces had entered Kilinochchi district on July 31, 2008. They appear to be in no hurry to rush forward to overcome the LTTE strong points as they advance. Instead they have focused on inflicting maximum casualty on the LTTE. They have neutralised only those LTTE strong points that mattered on the way and by passed others. This perhaps tied down the LTTE to hold on to all its defences in anticipation.
But now as fall of Kilinochchi looks imminent, political and humanitarian crises are building up in the horizon. These could take the time plan for conduct of war out of the hands of the military. So far President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have given full freedom to Gen Fonseka to progress the operation in his own fashion. President Rajapaksa is coming under increasing pressure from India, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is facing flak from his Tamil Nadu coalition partners. So both the President and Gen Fonseka might decide to speed up the operations to get the A9 highway opened up and bottle up the LTTE within the Mullaitivu district. This could result in the security forces suffering more casualties than they had bargained for. On the other hand it would give a semblance of normalcy and relieve some of the pressures on the President. Of course it would reduce the plight of displaced civilians caught between the warring sides in the area.
The other question is how will the LTTE respond now as its domain is shrinking? In the past the LTTE had leveraged the criticalities of India-Sri Lanka relations to its advantage to survive and rise up once again to carry the battle another day. Can the LTTE, with its hands tainted with the blood of Rajiv Gandhi, go back to the same ploy? It is true there is loud public outcry in Tamil Nadu against the sufferings of Tamils in the war zones. But at the same time it is equally true that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi has made it clear that this sympathy should not be equated with sympathy for the LTTE.
Of course the easiest option for the LTTE is to inflict maximum possible casualties, cut loose, and pull back its assets deep into the Wanni jungles. Then lie low for a while, shed the conventional uniform and go back to the guerrilla mode. That would mean further suffering and agony for everyone with more suicide bombings, blasts and mayhem everywhere including areas outside the war zone. A more logical thing to achieve a win-win situation would be to sit with Tamil politicians, evolve a face saving political formula to find a democratic solution. But can Prabhakaran, whose strong point had never been logical reasoning, pull such a surprise? I doubt it. And I like millions of others would be happy if he proves me wrong.