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Can Sri Lanka exploit US satellite survey for its defence in Geneva?

2014 Oct 01

Ratmalana air base, May 23, 2009: Chief of Staff and Commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard, Maj. Gen. Darryll Wong, shake hands with Air Chief Marshal Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Air Force, Roshan Goonetileke, after handing over Beechcraft and a range of other equipment to Sri Lanka. A smiling Valerie Fowler, Deputy Chief of Mission, at the U.S. Embassy looks on. The US Embassy said: "Safe and secure seas are in the interests of both our countries." The US donated $ 6 mn equipment to support maritime security. The hardware, included data links for two Beechcraft 200 aircraft, to enable Sri Lanka to receive real time imagery.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The US felt that the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) lacked the required resources to meet the challenging task of intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, even during the Norwegian, arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The US asserted that the SLAF faced some critical operational shortfalls, though it had an adequate military structure. "The SLAF’s four intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) are inadequate for Sri Lanka’s requirements," the US said in a special report that dealt with the Sri Lankan military. There had never been a similar study, conducted by a foreign power, though Sri Lanka received arms, ammunition and equipment, as well as specialized training, from several countries.

The US examined the strength and weakness of the Sri Lankan military, consequent to a meeting the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe had with US President George W Bush, in July, 2002. A high level team, from the Department of Defence (DoD), visited Sri Lanka in September, 2002, to carry out the study. The team, led by Ambassador Robin Raphel, Vice President of the National Defence University (NDU), included Dr. James Keagle (Vice President for Academic Affairs, NDU), Colonel Jack Gill, Commander Thomas Murphy and Thomas Carnell (Project Manager, NDU).

In October, 2002, the US conducted a ‘defence planning exchange’ in Colombo. The project was meant to address seven key issues, including strategic assessment of future security requirements, assess military capabilities and recommendations for renovating defence processes. During the seminar, Sri Lanka explained that the country needed US assistance to enhance maritime surveillance capability with a view to curbing smuggling of weapons. Two years later, the US made available a second Beechcraft to the SLAF.

However, a special team, from the US Pacific Command, undertook the most important task in Sri Lanka, during the period, September 12-October 24, 2002. The US Pacific Command carried out a comprehensive study. The 24-member team comprised basically of four units, namely a combined arms team, a naval team, an air force team and a small-unit tactics team.

It would be pertinent to mention that the US began conducting joint exercises with the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) during Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga’s first tenure as the president. The Fast Attack Craft flotilla, as well as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), benefited immensely due to US training.

Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to further expand the relations with the US. His move was in line with his overall political-military strategy to secure support from both the US and India to ensure LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, wouldn’t resume hostilities. But Wickremesinghe was not there to receive support from the US and India. Instead, it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who received their support to bring the LTTE down to its knees, in May, 2009.

About a week, after the Sri Lankan military brought its Vanni offensive to a successful conclusion, on the morning of May 19, 2009, the SLAF took delivery of a US-built Beechcraft. Although, the SLAF desperately wanted to acquire the aircraft, at the height of the Vanni battle, the delivery was made only after the end of the conflict. The SLAF wouldn’t have ordered the aircraft, to enhance its surveillance capability, if not for a devastating LTTE raid on the Anuradhapura air base, in late October, 2007, which caused the destruction of one of the two Beechcraft available at that time.

Although the loss of Anuradhapura - based aircraft had caused a severe setback to surveillance and electronic warfare capability, the SLAF was fortunate to have the remaining Beechcraft, acquired during the 2004 ceasefire, fully operational.

The two Beechcraft logged nearly 1,900 missions during the Eelam War IV.

The SLAF, during the tenure of the war time Commander, the then Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, felt the need to acquire two more Beechcraft, in addition to the one made available in May, 2009. However, the SLAF later dropped this idea due to the end of the conflict.

But, at the time the SLAF top brass desired to have a comparatively larger fleet of Beechcraft, the military high command wouldn’t have felt confident of finishing off the LTTE by late May, 2009. Although, the top brass had never publicly acknowledged, during the Vanni offensive, they always realized the grave danger of the LTTE resuming a classic guerrilla campaign. Had the LTTE quickly gave up its conventional military posture, consequent to its Kilinochchi debacle (late Dec 2008-early Jan 2009), the SLA would have faced a major dilemma. Had that happened, the SLA would have had no option but to re-deploy troops on the Vanni front, under entirely different circumstances. In fact, the SLAF would have been tempted to acquire additional Beechcraft for obvious reasons.

The situation would have probably compelled the SLA to deploy thousands of troops to hunt down LTTE units, operating in the jungles. Perhaps, a stalemate could have paved the way for international intervention, hence another lifeline for the LTTE.

Surprisingly, the LTTE remained committed to its conventional strategy, on the Vanni east front, until the very end. The flawed strategy allowed the SLA to decimate LTTE forces, in several major high intensity battles, including the bloody encirclement, at the Aanandapuram area of Puthukkudiyiruppu, during the first week of April, 2009. There, the LTTE lost almost 600 cadres, including some of its best field commanders. The LTTE’s Northern Commander, Theepan, was among the dead. Vidhusha, special commander of the Maalathy regiment, her deputy, and Maalathy regimental commander, Kamalini, Durga, special commander of the Sothia regiment, and her deputy, cum – Commander, Mohanaa, were killed, along with Theepan.

Even after the Anandapuram debacle, the LTTE persisted with the same strategy In spite of retreating on the Vanni east front, the LTTE caused heavy losses among the advancing SLA prompting the Defence Ministry to ponder an amphibious assault on the Mullaitivu coastline, April-May, 2009.

The SLA lost 2,420 personnel, including officers, during 2009 (January 1, 2009, to May 19, 2009), whereas 2,217 sacrificed their lives in 2008. The Defence Ministry contemplated a major sea-borne assault to facilitate the ground offensive, in the backdrop of growing casualties. The international community knew what was happening on the ground. The Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), acquired high resolution battlefield satellite imagery, following the intervention of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International USA, on May 10, 2009. (Interestingly, AAAS undertook a similar mission recently at the request of the UK - based Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice to acquire and analyze Palaly-Kankesanthurai high security zone. The satellite survey carried out a few months ago could help prove the release of substantial amount of land previously held by the military). In fact, satellite imagery, obtained by AAAS, could help Sri Lanka to disapprove unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, pertaining to the massacre of over 40,000 civilians during the last phase of the assault. The organization also revealed that photographs taken from an SLAF helicopter, carrying UN Secretary General Ban ki moon, flying over the war-devastated area on May 22, 2009, helped, what it called, imagery analysis.

AAAS said: "Since 2000, commercial satellite operators have acquired high-resolution imagery around the world, largely in response to customer requests. Once imagery is acquired from a satellite, it is then added to the companies’ archives and generally made available for resale. One image source, used in this analysis, was the Ikonos satellite, operated by the GeoEye corporation. Ikonos has a multispectral sensor with one meter panchromatic resolution and has been in operation since 1999. A second satellite from GeoEye is GeoEye-1, with 50 centimeter non- governmental panchromatic resolution and 1.65 meter multispectral resolution. Another satellite utilized was QuickBird, operated by DigitalGlobe, which has 60 centimeter panchromatic resolution and two meter multispectral resolution, which became operational in 2002. Lastly, DigitalGlobe’s WorldView satellite, which provides 50 centimeter panchromatic imagery, was used extensively. Note that only the US Government can direct WorldView to acquire imagery, but once such imagery is obtained it is made available for public use via the DigitalGlobe archives (emphasis mine)."

"To derive information, AAAS analyzed multiple high- resolution satellite images of the CSZ collected by publicly accessible commercial satellites. A scene collected from the DigitalGlobe QuickBird satellite, on May 9, 2005 (prior to the current period of conflict), found on GoogleEarth, was used for historical comparison. An image from the GeoEye satellite Ikonos, acquired on March 23, 2009, was used together with a scene from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView satellite, acquired on April 19, 2009, to verify conditions in the CSZ immediately prior to the conflict in question. Imagery collected by the WorldView satellite includes scenes acquired at approximately 11am local time on May 6 and May 10, 2009, prior to and after reportedly intense fighting in the CSZ. Finally, a scene from GeoEye-1, collected on May 24, was analyzed to determine post-conflict conditions. These images are summarized in Table One, and more information about the image sources is provided below."

It would be interesting to know whether the UN, investigating into accountability issues here, look into the assertions and findings made by AAAS. Although the Defence Ministry had referred to the AAAS findings some time ago, the government never pursued the issue, much to the discomfort of those who felt that a major change in strategy was required to meet the ongoing diplomatic offensive against the country. Those who have been wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal, didn’t like the findings made by AAAS. The satellite survey identified three graveyards containing 1,346 bodies Much to the dismay of the anti-Sri Lanka lobby, AAAS asserted that the largest graveyard containing 960 bodies belonged to the LTTE. For some strange reason, the government hadn’t exploited the revelations made by the US institute to Sri Lanka’s advantage.

Before discussing the flaws in Sri Lanka’s defence, in Geneva, let me recollect preparations made during the last phase (late April-May 2009) of the conflict to launch an amphibious assault to bring the LTTE down to its knees quickly.

At the behest of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Navy headquarters examined the possibility of mounting a large scale sea-borne raid into the No Fire Zone. The navy envisaged inducting a powerful force into the midst of the LTTE remnants who were resisting the advancing troops, in early May. However, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka strongly opposed the sea-borne assault. The infantry veteran stressed that the SLA could bring the offensive to a successful conclusion. Due to his personal enmity with the Navy Chief, the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, the Army Chief rejected the navy-led operation meant to destroy the LTTE remnants trapped in Mullaitivu.

The government dropped the plan, though the navy carried out rehearsals off Chundikulam and Nayaru. The navy planned to deploy boats to land 800 Army Commandos and Special Forces along the 3 km stretch of Mullaitivu coast. A navy officer, involved in planning the assault, told ‘The Island’: "We intended to deploy 80 boats to carry 800 men. Boats were to be operated by the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). To provide protection to those craft, the navy planned to deploy 160 craft. Each boat carrying ten men was to be guarded by two boats. As many as 400 men, deploy for the mission could have been killed or wounded. Perhaps, we could have carried out a successful landing with relatively a smaller number of casualties."

Had the SLA-SLN being allowed to carry out the amphibious assault, the war would have ended under different circumstances. A section of the SLA favoured the assault, though the army chief objected to the SLN playing a bigger role during the last phase of the war. The operation also involved the Fast Attack Craft (FAC) squadron commanded by the then Captain Noel Kalubowila.

It was to be the one of the most important amphibious assaults carried out during the entire war, though definitely not the largest. The largest amphibious landing was carried out in July, 1991, in accordance with ‘Operation Balavegaya’, conducted under extremely difficult conditions, to save those trapped at the isolated Elephant Pass base. But what was planned in May, 2009, couldn’t be compared with any of the previous landings, including the operation conducted in September, 1990, to save those trapped in the Jaffna Fort.

To be continued on Oct 8

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