Post-January 2015 US-Lanka military relations Background

article_imageBy Shamindra Ferdinando

Three recent events marked the rapidly growing US – Sri Lanka relationship in the wake of the recently concluded US presidential poll which brought Republicans back to power. Republicans lost the White House in January, 2009.

* The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit engaged in what the US called theatre security cooperation (TSC) project with the Sri Lankan Navy’s newly formed marine force. The exercise took place in Trincomalee from 23 to 25 Nov., 2016.

* The unprecedented exercise was followed by the first US four-star officer to visit Sri Lanka, following the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, participating at the Seventh Edition of the Galle Dialogue. Addressing the two-day conference (Nov 28-29, 2016) the Commander of the US Pacific Command Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. declared his pleasure in seeing a growing military-to-military relationship between Sri Lanka and the United States. The US hadn’t been interested in Galle Dialogue at the onset of the project, in August 2010. Both the US and the Indian delegations had been represented by officers, holding much lower ranks, at the inaugural meet. The People’s Republic of China had been represented by a high level delegation. Gradually, they increased the level of their participation. The unprecedented presence of the Commander US Pacific Command is evidence of the US interest here.

* The third was US Ambassador in Colombo Atul Keshap breaking ground on Dec 6, 2016 for a bigger US diplomatic mission here.

Admiral Harris sought Sri Lanka’s participation in the on-going US- spearheaded military project.

Among the audience were President Maithripala Sirisena, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, MP, and Commander of the Navy Ravi Wijegunaratne. At the onset of his speech, Admiral Harris acknowledged the war-winning Army Chief’s presence among the distinguished guests.

The Sinha Regiment veteran’s presence there and the US acknowledgment should be examined against the backdrop of unsubstantiated accusations made against Field Marshal Fonseka, the Sri Lanka Army, as well as the then political leadership. Post-war US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, accused the Rajapaksa brothers and Fonseka of war crimes.

“To continue along a prosperous path, we must expand partnerships among like-minded nations to uphold the rules-based global operating system,” the US officer said. “This helps build what US Defense Secretary Ash Carter calls a ‘principled security network,” Admiral Harris said.

The network, Harris explained, ensures that nations of all sizes have not only maritime access, but equal access to the other shared domains, including air, space, and cyber, within a system that has been underwriting prosperity throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific for the last seven decades.

14568119_1284005488311053_4857507842942404232_nCommander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, was on stage with Admiral Harris. The US underscored Sri Lanka’s importance in the region and its readiness to work closely with her political and military leaderships. It would be pertinent to study the US role in Sri Lanka during the war, particularly in 2007 during the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s tenure as the Commander of the Navy.

Admiral Harris urged the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to continue on its path of reconciliation and transparency after three decades of tragic conflict. The US four-star Admiral also referred to the January 8, 2015, change of government though he refrained from making a direct reference. “The people of Sri Lanka have spoken, demonstrating the power of democracy to overcome difficult times and to ensure peace and prosperity. Sri Lanka has adjusted its course away from civil war and isolation, to one of reconciliation and inclusion.”

Admiral Harris couldn’t be unaware of what he called a tragic conflict had been nothing but a terrorist campaign launched by India in the 80s due to geopolitical reasons. India can absolve herself of the death and destruction caused by Indira Gandhi’s murderous decision to intervene here. No less a person than one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1985-1989) and foreign secretary (1991-1994) Jyotindra Nath Dixit, in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’ blamed Mrs Gandhi for Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Sixty-eight year old Dixit passed away in early January, 2005. At the time of his death, Dixit had been National Security Advisor.

Obviously, an attempt is being made to deceive the world as regards the origins of the war in Sri Lanka.

2007-2009 US-SL relationship

The first edition of the Galle Dialogue was held in early August 2010, less than a year after Sri Lanka annihilated the LTTE.

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May, 2009. The Navy played a significant role in the nearly three-year campaign with the destruction of eight ships carrying armaments for the LTTE, in 2006, and 2007, being its main achievement. The Navy couldn’t have achieved such success without US support.

Wartime Navy Chief Wasantha Karannagoda dealt with US-Sri Lanka relations in his memoirs, Adishtanaya.

Although Sri Lanka had earned the wrath of the Super Power for not allowing Western powers and the UN to come to the rescue of the top LTTE leadership in 2009, the Rajapaksa administration received tremendous US support to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Karannagoda’s untiring efforts led to unprecedented US support to Sri Lanka’s war effort in 2007. Unexpected US support in 2007, made a far reaching impact on the overall military campaign against the LTTE.

The military effort received a turbo-boost when the US provided specific intelligence to destroy four LTTE floating arsenals, on the high seas, in late 2007. The present Navy Chief had been the then Director of Naval Operations. Vast US intelligence gathering network ensured specific intelligence required to deliver the single biggest blow to the LTTE overseas arms smuggling network. The US also paved the way for the Navy to upgrade its Fast Attack Craft (FACs) by replacing their 23 mm weapon with 30 mm Bushmaster, one of the most sought after weapons.

Thanks to the timely US Bushmaster offer, the Navy had been able to thwart a despicable project to acquire 20 year old stock of discarded 30 mm naval guns through Israel. Heavily overpriced weapons had been envisaged as replacement for main weapons on board FACs. Had the deal been allowed to go through, the Navy would have suffered a terrible blow.

According to a war time survey, conducted by the Navy, those who had been assigned to FACs considered Israeli built Shaldag class, the best fighting craft of that category available to Sri Lanka. The survey rated US built Trinity Marine craft the second best followed by Israeli Dvoras and the Colombo Dockyard built vessels.


The Navy had established close rapport with the US, in 2007, in the wake of the entire Eastern Province, comprising Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts being cleared. By then the Vanni offensive had been underway with the newly raised 57 Division struggling west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.


The then US Ambassador Robert O. Blake and Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Robert F. Willard had played a pivotal role in pushing the Bushmaster deal. They had also ensured the supply of required ammunition from USAF stores until supplies, especially meant for Sri Lanka, could be produced. The US went ahead with Bushmaster transaction, though the US Senate suspended armaments sales in January, 2008. The US acted on the basis that export license in respect of Bushmaster cannon and ammunition had been issued in Sept. 2007.


Having served the US Navy, at various command posts, naval veteran Willard assumed command of the US Pacific Fleet, in May, 2007. Willard held that post until he took over the powerful US Pacific Command, in Oct 2009. By then, the LTTE’s conventional military power had been crushed and its floating arsenals sent to the bottom of sea.


Successful Navy-US embassy talks in 2007


The relationship between the Navy and the US had been so close that Sri Lanka was advised to airlift ammunition meant for Bushmaster cannon immediately from an USAF base in South Carolina to avoid unnecessary complications. The US Embassy and Bushmaster supplier felt that Senate prohibition on armaments sales could undermine the transaction though the required export license was available. Admiral Karannagoda, in his memoirs, appreciated the then Chief Executive of Mihin Air (not in existence anymore) Sajin Vas Gunawardena facilitating a secret operation to airlift 5,000 rounds of ammunition from South Carolina to Colombo.


In late April, 2007, Karannagoda had invited Lieutenant Colonel Jim Oxley, who had been the Defence Advisor, at the US Embassy, at the onset of Eelam War IV, to explore ways and means of securing US assistance to locate floating LTTE arsenals. The meeting had taken place against the backdrop of the Navy destroying four such vessels (mid Sept. 2006 off Kalmunai, late Feb 2007 off south of Dondra and March 2007 east of Arugambay) thanks to specific intelligence provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI).


The US assistance had been sought in the wake of running dispute between Karannagoda and Fonseka resulting in the latter terminating the DMI-Navy relationship. Oxley acted swiftly and decisively to provide the required assistance. Oxley’s successor, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Smith, too, worked overtime to enhance relations between the US and Sri Lankan armed forces. The writer had on many occasions pointed out Smith coming to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the first defence seminar organized by the Sri Lanka Army, in May-June 2011. In spite of the US officer strongly countering war crimes allegations, directed at the previous government, the foolish administration never bothered to examine Smith’s statement Vis a Vis accusations.


Perhaps Karannagoda wouldn’t have expected the US Embassy to act so fast. A few weeks after the Karannagoda-Oxley meeting, Ambassador Blake had visited the Navy Chief at his headquarters. Oxley had been with Blake. Having patiently listened to Karannagoda’s plea for US assistance, Blake had posed several questions before assuring that the Pacific Command would be informed of Sri Lanka’s requirement.


Let me reproduce the relevant section from Adishtanaya


Blake: Admiral, how do you identify the LTTE ships from the other ships, from a satellite?


Karannagoda: Your Excellency, the LTTE ships normally stay about 50 kms away from the normal shipping lane. They move at a very slow speed. Sometimes they are stationary and do not move if the sea conditions are good.


Blake: Admiral, I cannot promise you anything at this stage. But I will pass this information to the relevant people at the Pacific Command.


Karannagoda: Thank you Excellency.


Oxley had brought several satellite images when he met Karannagoda, in August 2007. Head of the then Naval Intelligence Captain Mohotti (recently retired in the rank of Rear Admiral), Director General Operations Rear Admiral Jayanath Colombage (having commanded the Navy, retired in the rank of Admiral) and Deputy Director Operations Commander DKP Dassanayake (recently promoted to the rank of Commodore) had been present. The Navy had been able to identify four LTTE ships, shown as dots, in satellite images, positioned away from normal shipping route. As the satellite images had been obtained about a week ago, Oxley asserted that the ships may have moved away. Before leaving Navy headquarters, Oxley had promised to obtain a fresh set of satellite images from US Pacific Command. The US Defence Attache made available the promised images in the second week of Sept 2007. They proved the vessels had been stationary.


Acting on US intelligence, the Navy destroyed three of the four ships on Sept 10 (two vessels) and the remaining one on 11, 2007. The fourth vessel, believed to be the largest operated by the LTTE, was sunk on Oct 7, 2007.


US uses SLN to eliminate possible threat


The destruction of the LTTE vessel, on Sept 11, 2007 led to the recovery of documents and ammunition which enabled the Navy to identify the manufacturer. Karannagoda refrained from naming the country concerned though he estimated that there had been over 10,000 rounds of 122 mm, 130 mm and 152 mm artillery rounds.


The LTTE had been able to procure a range of arms, ammunition and equipment from China, using end user certificates issued to two countries for several years. Over 10,000 rounds of ammunition, carried in the vessel, sunk on Sept. 11, had been procured from China for LTTE’s field guns. The LTTE had acquired various types of weapons of Chinese origins. Their arsenal included mobile anti-aircraft guns as well as anti-tank weapons. The situation had been so bad; the Rajapaksa government had no option but to make representations to the Chinese government.


Following comprehensive The Island reportage of the Chinese link, a two-member delegation from the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office met the writer in Colombo. The Japanese had been severely concerned about the alleged North Korean involvement in Chinese weapons transfers to the LTTE. The LTTE ships that had been sunk by the Navy are believed to have taken delivery of Chinese weapons at North Korean ports/North Korean waters. The Island had been severely restrained in its reportage of the Chinese issue due to the People’s Republic being a key weapons supplier throughout Sri Lanka’s war against Tamil terrorists. The Sri Lankan military, particularly the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), had been deeply concerned about The Island coverage.


The US Pacific Command intervention, in 2007, should be examined against the backdrop of Chinese arms transfers to the LTTE. Obviously, the decision wouldn’t have been taken without consultations with the US State Department. Blake would have certainly ensured that. The US would have surely taken into consideration the possibility of some other party using LTTE ships for destructive purpose as well as its ally Japan’s concerns.


A few days after the destruction of the LTTE vessels, in the two-day operation, on Sept 10 and 11, 2007, Blake had personally thanked Karannagoda for eliminating one of the routes utilized by Al Qaeda to procure weapons. The meeting had taken place at Karannagoda’s office after the naval task force, commanded by the then Captain Travis Sinniah, returned to Trincomalee (Having served the US Embassy in Colombo after the war, Sinniah returned to the Navy in the wake of the January 2015 change of government. Currently, Sinniah functions as the Commander, East)


Subsequently, the US Pacific Command provided satellite images of the fourth LTTE vessel which managed to escape during the confrontation in the second week of Sept 2007. The Navy destroyed the vessel on Oct 7, 2007.


A war time visit


Having facilitated Sri Lanka to acquire weapons from Israel, beginning early 80s, the US accommodated Sri Lanka along with India in Extended Relations Programmes (ERP) conducted by the US Pacific Command during early years of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s administration. The first joint exercise, involving US Special Boat Unit, and Navy FAC squadron, took place in Nov 1997. There had been a gradual strengthening of partnership leading to unprecedented support, in 2007.


Admiral Willard visited Trincomalee, in January, 2008, at the height of the war. The top level US delegation toured the Trincomalee in one of those Trinity Marine craft mounted with Bushmaster cannon.


Admiral Willard was the senior most US military official to visit Sri Lanka during Eelam War IV. The visit took place close on the heels of a confrontation between a USN flotilla and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) patrol boats on January 6, 2008 in international waters in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.


The US convoy, involved in the unprecedented incident with IRGC vessels, comprised AEGIS guided-missile destroyer, USS Hopper, cruiser, USS Port Royal and frigate, USS Ingraham. (The writer had the opportunity to go on board USS Hopper, on October 6, 1997, along with a group of journalists from the Asia-Pacific region, at the Pearl harbour, exactly a month after the commissioning of the vessel).


The then Commander of the USN Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral, Kevin J. Cosgriff, was quoted in the international media, as having said: “The episode was more serious than we have seen, in particular because it occurred in an important maritime choke point, vital to the global economy.” Cosgriff described the Iranian action as “unnecessarily provocative.”


In accordance with overall counter measures, to meet any eventuality, the USN wanted Sri Lanka to share its expertise in asymmetrical warfare with the USN.


It would be pertinent to mention that Al-Qaeda caused substantial damage to guided missile destroyer USS Cole in a suicide attack, carried out in the Yemeni port of Aden, on October 12, 2000. The SLN asserted that the suicide attack, on USS Cole, was similar to operations launched by Sea Tigers, targeting the SLN, as well as merchant vessels.


Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan, aka Soosai, in an exclusive interview with BBC’s Francis Harrison, during the Oslo-managed Ceasefire Agreement, had boasted that Al-Qaeda copied tactics from them. Soosai is quoted as having said that other terrorist groups should learn from the LTTE as the Al-Qaeda had already copied them.


The interview, with Soosai, recorded during the LTTE celebrations of Heroes’ Day and broadcast over BBC Television, was posted on the BBC Website’s South Asia section, under the heading, “Tamil Tigers Reveal Suicide Secrets” as a video clip. The news feature introduced the Black Tigers as “the Original Suicide Bombers of the World.”


Referring to the attack on USS Cole, Soosai said, “They are using our tactics. I think in Yemen they used our strategy of suicide attack to blow up an American ship. That is exactly what we used to do.”


Soosai is believed to have been killed in May, 2009, while crossing the Nanthikadal lagoon with LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his family.


Having helped Sri Lanka to deliver a deadly blow to the LTTE, the US made a desperate ‘diplomatic’ effort to save the LTTE leadership. The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to save Prabhakaran resulted in the US moving a resolution against Sri Lanka in Geneva. The US had been so much interested in saving Prabhakaran, the then Army Chief Fonseka believed US carriers could mount massive air strike on the Army. War time GOC of elite 53 Division Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, now retired, in his memoirs Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal claimed Fonseka warned of possible US air strikes.


(To be continued on Dec 21)

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