Colombage outlines Navy’s strategy in defeating Sea Tigers, calls for end to Indian poaching in SL w

Wednesday, 8 February 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

38Former Sri Lanka Navy Commander Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage stressed the immediate need of reaching out to an international mechanism to find a solution to the long-standing issue of Indian fishermen poaching in the country’s territorial waters and damaging the marine eco-system. 

Admiral Colombage, who is the first PhD graduate from the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, said it was high time for the Government to prove the damages with scientific evidence.

“It also poses a grave security threat to the country. Sri Lanka has tried at all levels – diplomatic, Government to Government, fishermen to fishermen, Navy to Navy, Navy to Coast Guard - but still we have not been able to reach an amicable solution to prevent the destruction,” said Colombage, who is a highly-decorated naval officer with a career spanning over three-and-a-half decades.

Highlighting the importance of regulating and monitoring the fishing fleets to maintain maritime security, Dr. Colombage, who released his book ‘Asymmetric Warfare at Sea: The Case of Sri Lanka’ recently, said that Sri Lanka doesn’t want to upset India, the big neighbour, but needs to solve the issue, which is a thriving business owned by multibillionaires who are close to the political elite of Tamil Nadu.

In an interview with the Daily FT he explained his research findings during the 30 long years of warfare between the Sri Lanka Navy and the LTTE, their drawbacks and plus points, and the future of Sri Lanka in the maritime domain.

Dr. Colombage is the Director of the Indo-Lanka Initiative of the Pathfinder Foundation of Sri Lanka.

Following are the excerpts of the interview: 

  • LTTE the world’s only terrorist organisation with well-planned maritime strategy
  • Both SLN and LTTE used asymmetric tactics in Eelam War IV; Sea Tigers were very powerful and well-trained 
  • USA, India, China, Pakistan and Israel helped Sri Lanka defeat LTTE
  • Sri Lanka needs to pay special attention to combat maritime crimes and terrorism
  • Sri Lanka’s future lies in the ocean
  • Key maritime players – USA, China, India and Japan – keen on Sri Lanka due to strategically important location in Indian Ocean



By shanika Sriyananda


Q: You have recently released a book. What is it all about?

A: It is the thesis submitted for my PhD at the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University in 2012. It is not about myself or the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) but an analytical study on SLN’s performances in defeating the LTTE’s Sea Tigers, SLN’s drawbacks, which gave rise to the LTTE Sea Tigers, and finally how the SLN contributed to the grand victory by defeating them at sea.

The LTTE was a very unique terrorist organisation and the only terrorist organisation which had a serious component of maritime aspect. Other terrorist organisations have used the ocean to transport weapons and people but for the LTTE, the maritime component was a part of their main strategy, which was there from its inception to its defeat.

In my research I have found that the growth and the sustainability of the LTTE fighting capability was mainly due to the Sea Tigers as it was the feeder. Sea Tigers were responsible for maintaining the logistics as everything for the outfit came from the sea.

Unless we record our experience of fighting with the LTTE for over 30 years in an academic way, there will be no records on how we defeated the LTTE. Today over 38.4% of those in the SLN have not experienced the war. Remember, this is seven years since defeating the LTTE. We need to record the means that we used to defeat the LTTE for the benefit of the next generation. 

Q: What do you mean by ‘asymmetric warfare’?

A: Asymmetric means not equal. For an example if you take the two forces – the SLN and the LTTE’s Sea Tiger unit – one is a strong force and the other is a small force. The SLN is a very structured trained navy which has ships, a commander, a large man power, a headquarters, and every essential component that a conventional navy has. But the LTTE’s Sea Tigers, which had small boats, no harbours, less manpower and could not buy weapons in the open market, was asymmetric in everything. What I researched was how the LTTE carried out their operations through the Sea Tigers using asymmetric tactics to match the SLN. 

One asymmetric tactic was the LTTE’s suicide boats by the Sea Tigers. The SLN has very big ships with all guns and missiles fixed but they are vulnerable to small suicide boats. Another asymmetric tactic was the small Sea Tiger boats mingling with small fishing boats and then attacking the SLN larger ships. The SLN had lost many ships in this way.

While the Sea Tigers were using asymmetric tactics, the SLN also used asymmetric tactics in the war in the final stages of the end battle. We also had the small boat operations like the Sea Tigers. This tactic, which was called swarming tactic or the wolf pack attack, was used by the LTTE and deployed nearly 20 small boats to attack one or two ships from all directions. They had the numerical superiority and the SLN ships became more vulnerable. They succeeded and the SLN lost about 20 ships and nearly 1,600 men at sea because the Sea Tigers were becoming powerful. 

In my book I have focused on this asymmetry, how the LTTE overcame this asymmetry and how the SLN used those tactics to defeat the Sea Tigers. 


Q: How would you describe the power of the Sea Tigers in Eelam War IV?

A: Eelam War III ended with the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The Sea Tigers used the ceasefire period to train, strengthen their weapons and equipment stocks and also their international logistic network. 

In 2006, when they entered into Eelam IV, they were a strong fighting unit with a very strong international logistic unit, which was raising funds, purchasing weapons and equipment, stockpiling them in their own ships and transporting them to Sri Lankan waters. They were very well organised and well expanded with front offices around the globe. 

Sea Tigers were used to promote the LTTE through their promotional videos, which were distributed for three purposes – one is to cause fear psychosis in their enemy, the SLN; secondly, to recruit more cadres; and thirdly, to generate funds internationally by showing the diaspora that the Sea Tigers were very powerful to win the final battle and thus win Eelam. The SLN fought with a powerful naval unit of the LTTE in Eelam War IV.

Here I want to say that the CFA also brought positive results for us. This resulted in the breakaway of Karuna Amman, the LTTE lost its fighting will, the LTTE cadres saw the world differently and they felt the real life beyond jungle fighting grounds, morale of the LTTE cadres decreased and internal cracks started to appear in the LTTE.

However, in 2006 the Sea Tigers were still a powerful naval force as they were dominating all the coastal areas from the eastern coast from north of Trincomalee to Point Pedro, from the north western coast from Silawatura, Vedithalatihiv and also from the Mullathivu, Allampil and Challai. There was no military there and the LTTE was carrying out international logistic transfers in a big way.

Q: The LTTE had a maritime strategy from its inception. How do you view this?

A: Yes, hailing from a fisher village in Velvattithurai, LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran had understood that the ocean plays a crucial role for the LTTE to grow and sustain for them to reach their objectives. In the formative years of the LTTE, they used the sea basically to move between the southern coast of Tamil Nadu (TN) and the northern coast of Sri Lanka to transport its cadres for training in TN and bring back them to Sri Lanka. They had also used the route for transport detonators, money, safety fuses, promotional leaflets and videos like speeches of M. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.  

When he realised the LTTE should grow and be equal to the SLN, he created the Sea Tiger wing and appointed Soosai as the leader of that wing. They gradually raised the Sea Tiger wing and they succeeded. At last, our ships became very vulnerable to their attacks and we had to deploy 20 ships to guard the Jet Liner while an aircraft was hovering around it and all coastal defence was strengthened to face the Sea Tigers.

The LTTE’s maritime strategy was very much imbedded in their grand strategy of Eelam. In my research, I found that Sri Lanka had not given much interest to develop the Navy while giving all efforts to develop the Sri Lanka Army before 2006 while our threat was really coming from the ocean. Since we are an island nation, all threats to our country came from the sea. Unfortunately, all successive governments did not give due consideration to Sri Lanka’s maritime strategy, which means the ocean, ports, shipping and exploration and fishing. The naval strategy is one component of Sri Lanka’s marine strategy.

Prabhakaran, in one of his Mahaveer Day speeches, said that the Eelam War IV would be fought at sea. He was very confident that if they could defeat the SLN at sea, they could win Eelam. Their maritime strategy was gradually improved to make it very effective. It is also a long-term plan. Though it didn’t work the way he expected, the LTTE was almost getting closer to their plan.

In the LTTE’s maritime strategy, they didn’t only focus on attacking the Navy but the logistics network was also included in it. They had submarines and attacked us using underwater saboteurs and divers. Since they had their air wing, they could also use the air component in water if the war was dragged further. The SLN, which had an isolated strategy, played a supportive role in transporting troops, providing logistics, escorting ships and doing some defensive role to the SLA. 

The LTTE’s maritime strategy was very well designed for the surface of the water, beneath the water and also above the water. The Sea Tiger wing had one advantage because they were one organisation with one leader and one objective. But ours, it kept on changing. Some governments wanted peace, some wanted war and some wanted peace and war combined together. Therefore, a major drawback I have observed during my research was that Sri Lanka didn’t have a clear maritime strategy until 2006.

Q: How effectively was the maritime strategy used to defeat the LTTE since 2006?

A: I would say after 2006, the political leadership of the country resolved to end the war. When the Mavil Aru sluice gates were closed by the LTTE depriving water for over 25,000 people, the new Government was compelled to commence war. With the clear vision of the Government to eradicate terrorism from the soils of Sri Lanka, the SLN had to tailor-make its naval strategy to contribute to the grand strategy. However, the SLN had gained enough experiences in fighting, losing, dominating and not dominating the ocean. The SLN strategy was implemented to achieve two main gains – to destroy the LTTE’s logistic network and their fighting ability at sea. 

The SLN was able to achieve its goals and contributed to the diminishing of the LTTE’s power at sea. The SLN destroyed the LTTE’s large ships, which were almost close to Australian and Indonesian territories, which are very far and nobody thought that the SLN would go that far. But under the directions of the former SLN Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, the SLN designed a plan to reach those target areas. The LTTE never thought that we would come that far. They suddenly found that the SLN was at their back. Finally, we became a part of the grand victory.

Q: How well did the SLN maintain underwater defence during that time?

A: The SLN suffered a lot due to underwater attacks by the LTTE saboteurs. We had tightened the security at the harbours to safeguard our ships as they became vulnerable even inside our harbours. Since underwater defence systems were very expensive, the SLN had to use some of the tactics used during World War II, especially the boom system which was used in entrance the Trincomalee Harbour. We used a boom, with several layers combined with wire mesh, fishing nets, floaters and wire ropes across the entrance of the harbour to prevent the underwater saboteurs coming in. 

We used fish finders, which are used to find shoals of fish, as we didn’t have advanced naval tactical equipment called sonar.  

Another tactic, the scare charge, which was invented by the SLN, was also used to maintain underwater defence. A small stick of gelignite when put into the water creates an explosion. We used this method throughout the day but especially at night to prevent LTTE underwater suicide saboteurs attacking the harbours. Any divers present would get disoriented due to the explosion.  

The political leadership implementing a clear strategy to end terrorism, working together with the military through the grand strategy and the military leadership were the main factors which helped to end LTTE terrorism. Here the very important aspect was the synergy between the political leadership and the military leadership. 

Q: You have mentioned that the USA helped SLN get some vital information. How would you describe the assistance received from other countries?

A: Though there were some unofficial embargos due to alleged accusations of human rights violations, the USA, India, China, Pakistan and Israel helped us in defeating the LTTE. The USA didn’t give us any lethal weapons but it shared vital information about locations to destroy the LTTE ships.   

India had a similar view but India supported us through training the military. Over 9% of the naval officers were trained by the Indian Navy. It also gave us some off-shore petrol vessels. For the first time in our naval history, we had a 101-metre ship, a gift from India, which we used to carry out surveillance in the exclusive economic zones and beyond. India didn’t give us weapons but gave us a platform to fight. It also shared maritime intelligence and deployed some maritime reconnaissance aircrafts to give us information.

Countries like China, Israel and Pakistan also supported us. China gave us weapons and ships, Pakistan gave us some weapons and so did Israel.

Q: Can you explain the main issues relating to maritime terrorism?

A: Well, it is a very vast subject with a long history, where various terrorist groups, including IRA, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Moro Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf, used the maritime domain for their terrorist activities. But no other group has used the maritime component like the LTTE did; it used the ocean for all its illegal activities including smuggling of weapons in large quantities using international harbours, ships and the freedom of international shipping lanes. 

This is where a question arises. If such a small organisation could engage in such a huge operation, it is an implication of the vulnerability of the ocean, which is our lifeline. Therefore, Sri Lanka needs to pay very special attention to combat maritime crimes – piracy, human smuggling, drug smuggling, weapon smuggling, illegal fishing, toxic waste dumping – and maritime terrorism. It is very difficult to isolate the two components; it should be a combined strategy to combat both. 

The most important measures in countering maritime crimes are understanding the threat, developing intelligence, maritime domain awareness, which means what is happening at sea, including the activities that the ships are engaged in and their locations to avoid sea blindness. 

Regulating and monitoring the fishing fleet is very important in maintaining maritime security because the LTTE had heavily used the Indian and local fishing boats in their terrorist activities. Over 95% of fishermen are genuine but that 5% would carry out some nefarious activities causing a threat to the maritime security. 

Q: Indian fishermen poaching in the country’s territorial waters is a longstanding issue. What are your suggestions to solve it effectively?

A: This issue is a huge national security threat to the country because a large number of Indian boats enter by crossing the IMBL and come very close to our coastal areas, especially to the north and north western side. The LTTE used this opportunity to transport weapons, fuel, ammunition and cadres. It can happen again but not in the near future. 

Besides, a large number of Indian vessel engage in bottom trawling, which is a human security threat to Sri Lanka as it has prevented our fishermen going to sea. Sri Lankan fishermen were prevented from going to the sea during the war time because the LTTE used their boats to attack the SLN and also to smuggle weapons and cadres. They also faced lots of restrictions during the war and unfortunately now they are again prevented from going to sea because of the Indian fishing fleets with large trawlers moving fast among our small boats and destroying their fishing gear. 

The Indian fishermen are engaged in bottom trawling and destroying Sri Lanka’s rich marine eco-system, juvenile fish species, corals and seaweed and also they scrape the bottom of the sea, which has already destroyed the fish resources in our territory. This has become a major issue and we need to solve it soon to protect the country. 

I think it is time for the Government to prove the damage with scientific evidence. Sri Lanka has tried at all levels – diplomatic, Government to Government, fishermen to fishermen, Navy to Navy, Navy to Coast Guard – but still we have not been able to reach to an amicable solution to the destruction. This continues to grow as it is a major business in Tamil Nadu. The fishermen are paid labourers and the business is owned by multibillionaires who are close to the political elite of TN.

Since there is no solution I think we have to resort to an international mechanism to submit our case with scientific data to prove the destruction that they cause, the impact on marine eco-system and the impact to the livelihood of our fishermen.

The EU had imposed a ban until recently on Sri Lankan fisheries exports, accusing our fishermen of engaging in Illegal Unreported Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Maldivian and Indian territories although they didn’t destroy the marine resources of those countries compared to the scale of the destruction that the Indian fishermen are causing to Sri Lanka. The EU has not made a statement against Indian poachers as no one has lodged a complaint so far. The UN in its Millennium Development Goals wants to prevent illegal fishing by 2030. 

We shouldn’t upset India as she is our closest neighbour and we are having strong relations with her. But we have to call a spade a spade and have to come out before it is too late. I believe now our case should be heard in an international judicial system. We have to try at the Permanent Court of Arbitration to make a complaint to secure our marine recourses. 

Q: The SLN is always accused of attacking Indian fishermen. Your views?

A: I strongly refute that allegation. The instructions to the commanders at sea are very strict. They are ordered never to harm or fire at Indian boats. The SLN or the Sri Lanka Coast Guards never cross to Indian waters to arrest Indian boats. They will be arrested only in Sri Lankan waters and only when they come very close to Sri Lanka. 

The SLN is following very strict regulations and guidelines as we do not want to upset relations between the two countries. We also do not want to harm the innocent fishermen as it is an organised business. But Tamil Nadu is always falsely accusing the SLN of attacking and killing fishermen. This is mainly to influence the Central Government of India to take action against Sri Lanka. The TN, which nurtured and supported the LTTE, is badly suffering from the loss of the LTTE so they are having that animosity with us.

Q: Once you said that Sri Lanka’s future lies in the blue economy. Can you elaborate?

A: Yes, Sri Lanka’s future lies at this point – location, location, location. We are in the best geographical location in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is in the centre of the Indian Ocean and the busiest shipping lane passes the south of Sri Lanka, which has a deep water port and navigable water around the country. The country has lots of locational advantages.

Historically, we were a maritime nation, a trade nation, a ship building nation and we were called the emporium where ships would come from the Far East like China bringing their items, keeping them here and trading them when ships would come here from the Arab region because it would cut short the shipping time by half. 

We have huge potential in the blue ocean economy but we have not derived its best potential yet. The Government needs to make Sri Lanka the maritime hub of the region and we must look at the ocean in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, although we are an island nation, we are not a maritime nation. Our people do not have affinity with the ocean.

Q: How does the India-China factor affect Sri Lanka?

A: The Indian Ocean is becoming the key ocean in the 21st Century. If you look at the emerging economic power, it is either the Indian Ocean or close to the Indian Ocean. The unipolar world that we have in American domination is gradually changing while other powers are also becoming a substantial presence in the Indian Ocean. 

For example, India, China, Australia and Japan play a more active role in the Indian Ocean; ASEAN countries and South Korea are also totally dependent on the Indian Ocean. Look at China, which is the world’s No. 2 economy, and India, which is among the 10 top large economies in the world – they are growing economically, militarily and also politically. More than half of the goods of China, which is being identified as the workshop of the world, are transported through the Indian Ocean, which is the backyard of India.

The USA is now focusing its attention on the Indo Asia Pacific region. Sri Lanka is in a situation where all these spheres of influence are keen on Sri Lanka due to its strategically-important location. They are the key maritime players of the Indian Ocean.