1st April 2001
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Whilst talking to service commanders last Sunday, she asked the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, to give her a full report on the incident. The occasion was the Sudu Nelum Movement sponsored event where the next of kin of those who sacrificed their lives in the ongoing separatist war were felicitated.
The fact that President Kumaratunga, who is Commander-in-Chief, is disturbed about the incident is not surprising given the circumstances under which it occurred. As reported in these columns, three Dvora Fast Attack Crafts (FACs) of the Sri Lanka Navy were on their way from the Jaffna peninsula to Trincomalee, headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command.
An Israeli built Dvora (422) and another Dvora built to the same design by Colombo Dockyard (495) were some eight nautical miles off Mullaitivu coast. Another Dvora, also built by the Colombo Dockyard, followed behind. It was sailing between the northern port of Point Pedro and the coastal village of Vettilaikerny, when men on board found blips on their radar screen. The silhouettes of three suspected Sea Tiger boats heading towards the shore were clearly visible to their eyes. The boats appeared to be heavily laden and it became apparent that it was a Tiger guerrilla logistics run.
Men on board 497, the third Fast Attack Craft, immediately alerted the two that were speeding ahead. Their radios crackled for a while. They had decided to engage the three Sea Tiger boats. They were totally unaware that at a Sea Tiger base somewhere near Chalai, north of Mullaitivu, Sea Tiger cadres had also become aware of the move. They either spotted the presence of the three Navy FACs on their own ground based radar or were alerted of the Naval presence by one or more of the three boats on the logistics run. Immediately seven Sea Tiger boats with heavily armed cadres set out to sea.
It was shortly after 3 a.m. on Wednesday (March 21) when the two Colombo Dockyard built FACs (497 and 495) fired the first salvo. Fireworks erupted thereafter. The Navy FACs and Sea Tiger craft were engaged in bitter battles-the first major confrontation since the LTTE's four month long unilateral ceasefire was declared.
Then came the bad news. FAC 495 was badly hit by enemy fire. The engine room control panel was out of commission and the vessel was crippled leaving its officer in command, Lt. Comdr. Senaratne and his crew of 17 in a quandary. As he sent out a SOS message to his other two colleagues Lt. Comdr. Basnayake in FAC 497 and Lt. S.J. Kumara in FAC 422, Sea Tigers were continuing to direct gunfire at them.
Lt. Comdr. Basnayake (497) ordered his men to go alongside the crippled FAC 495. They picked up the skipper (Lt. Comdr. Senaratne) and eleven crew members though heavy gunfire was being directed at them. A daring act, which indeed saved the lives of the eleven men but top brass at Trincomalee and Colombo had other serious worries. They wondered whether Lt. Comdr. Basnayake's action was rash since he risked his own FAC and the lives of his own crew in carrying out that high-risk rescue. A while later, the Israeli built Dvora (422) picked up two more crew members adding the total of those saved to 13. Five Navy personnel including a sub-lieutenant were declared Missing in Action and are feared dead.
With the re-inforcements arriving in the area, eleven Dvora patrol craft moved in to take on the Sea Tiger flotilla. It was then that the Naval fleet learnt of a most unexpected thing-Sea Tiger cadres had boarded the crippled FAC 495 and were using the guns on board to fire at the Navy.
Later, coming under heavy fire from the Navy fleet, Sea Tigers abandoned FAC 495 and exploded it. The vessel sank. Before carrying out the explosion, the Sea Tigers removed several weapons from the vessel.
Besides raising questions on the Navy's preparedness to meet the Sea Tiger threats in the high seas-the main route to smuggle in supplies into Sri Lanka to sustain a high intensity guerrilla war-in the recent years they had transcended periodically to engage even in conventional battles. Compounding the situation further is the loss of Dvora (495) Fast Attack Craft worth over Rs. 500 million or half a billion rupees. A second Dvora (497) also came under severe threat when it went alongside to pick up the Commanding Officer and crew members after FAC 495 was crippled.
In the event of it being attacked and crippled, the loss of Navy vessels and equipment would have been a staggering Rs. 1000 million or one billion rupees. And this has heightened the all important question of how prepared is the Sri Lanka Navy is to meet the newer challenges posed by the Sea Tigers.
This is the first major incident since Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, who had his term of service extended after his date of retirement to become Commander of the Navy, had to face.
Since he assumed office, he has inherited a string of problems. Billions of rupees have been spent to acquire large vessels with a deep water capability. They have now turned out to be white elephants in addition to drawing controversy over widespread allegations of corruption and other misdeeds.
Main among them is the Indian built INS Saryu, now renamed SLNS Sayura. It was the platform for the Navy's Air Arm with an Indian built single engined Chetak helicopter on board. As intended, it is not plying in the north eastern seas to prevent the LTTE from smuggling hardware to continue a stepped up military campaign against the security forces. Instead it is plying the southern waters where its routine presence is not required.
So is the case of the two over 20 year old Israeli Fast Missile Vessels, the purchase of which has been shrouded in deep controversy. Regular break-downs have prompted the Navy to repeatedly request for assistance from the supplier. Like the Indian Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV), the Israeli Fast Missile Vessels are also unable to operate in the deep sea waters off the north east coast.
Senior Navy officials say to do so they would require a fleet of small craft that would have to escort the larger vessels-a move that will mean the expenditure of more funds not to counter the enemy but to protect the large vessels from enemy attack-once more clear confirmation that military procurements continue to be carried out in a haphazard manner.
This is with no State agency tasked with the responsibility of dealing with procurements. Even in a SAARC member country like Bangladesh, where no serious internal insurgencies exist, a Directorate for Military Procurements is tasked with the responsibility of obtaining the needs of the nation's armed forces. They are manned by competent military personnel.
In addition, Vice Admiral Sandagiri, also recommended to the Government the cancellation of a multi-billion rupee deal to procure Fast Gun Boats from China (Situation Report-March 4).
He made no secret of the fact that the prices agreed upon by his predecessor, Rear Admiral Cecil Tissera, were colossally high. He has now sent a report to the Ministry of Defence in this regard.
With four months in office and busy clearing the decks, Vice Admiral Sandagiri, undoubtedly faces a daunting task in the months ahead. The March 21 encounter has raised many new questions not only about preparedness but also about matters relating to command and control.
The matter will undoubtedly be gone into when President Kumaratunga returns to Colombo in the coming week after her official visit to France and a subsequent private visit to the UK.
Highly placed Government circles are worried that despite ploughing in vast sums of money for procurements, despite the many hardships placed on the public, returns in the form of military gains have not been commensurate. Be that as it may, the fact that big losses are continuing to be sustained has further exacerbated these worries.
This development comes in the backdrop of some developments which are causing concern to the Government. On Wednesday, Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, who flew to Weli Oya accompanied by Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, learnt details of recent LTTE acquisitions.
Periodic arrests of Tiger cadres in the area and intelligence briefings to Gen. Daluwatte and the two service chiefs revealed, they were in possession of brand new weapons of a variety. Some had been captured by the security forces and this came as proof. How were they smuggled into the country? How have they successfully penetrated Naval cordons, particularly in the north eastern waters, to smuggle weapons and other material?
State intelligence agencies have been warning the defence authorities of not only fresh LTTE acquisitions in the recent months but also how the Sea Tigers have been further modernised and strengthened.
This undoubtedly means the Sri Lanka Navy having to enhance its state of preparedness and develop a greater capability to meet the newer threats-a subject which has been of great concern in the defence establishment since the March 21 incident.
This comes at a time when the Sri Lanka Navy has been receiving the support of their US counterparts to enhance their professional capabilities.
It was only last month that 25 personnel from the US Navy's specialised arms concluded a Joint Combined Exercise and Training programme (Flash Style 01-2) at a location in south Sri Lanka. Taking part were members of the Special Boat Unit and the US Navy Seals. The bulk of the personnel and equipment required for the training arrived by a special US Air Force flight at Ratmalana and were later transported to the South. Benefiting from the US programme were personnel of the Sri Lanka Navy Fast Attack Flotilla Division.
A US military team on Friday concluded talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts for a further upcoming Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) programme.
Norwegian efforts to facilitate peace talks between the Government and the LTTE and the Tiger guerrilla's unilateral ceasefire being extended for the fourth month have contributed to a relative lull in the battle-front including the seas off combat zones. Taking advantage of the lull, the LTTE is well known to be making preparations to re-equip, recruit and train cadres. It is in that backdrop that the Navy's offensive action on March 21 turned out to be a costly exercise.
That has caused serious concerns at the highest levels of the Government. Needless to say corrective measures will be imperative to avoid debacles turning into disasters, many of which the Government has successfully withstood so far.
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