ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43
Columns - Situation Report  

Nayaru fireball: Sea mine or human torpedo?

  • Dawn attack gives new dimension to Eelam War IV
  • Heavy rain impedes progress of troops on two fronts
  • A draft National Defence Policy but outcome of war overshadows it

By Iqbal Athas

Naval craft on patrol in the North-eastern seas.

If there was a lull in the battlefields of Wanni due to heavy rains, the fighting shifted to the high seas. Before dawn yesterday, six Navy Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC) were on patrol in the north-eastern seas in formations of two each. Two of the FACs were in the deep seas off Nayaru, which lies near the Tiger guerrilla stronghold of Mullaitivu. An explosion engulfed one of the locally-built Dvora (437) in a ball of fire. It sank immediately. The remaining Dvora rescued six sailors including its Officer-in-Charge but the fate of ten more on board the destroyed vessel is not known.

Navy officials suspect the Dvora was destroyed by a sea mine. This, they say, is not conclusive and add that it could even be a human torpedo. One form of human torpedo is a suicide bomber strapping explosives to ram a vessel. Another form is a diver directing a floating or submerged device with explosives at a vessel.

Last year, in the same general area, the Navy discovered sea mines. However, a senior official at Navy Headquarters in Colombo said, "we are yet to determine conclusively the exact cause for the explosion. Neither the crew of the second Dvora nor survivors from the one that was destroyed are able to say how it occurred. There was no exchange of fire. Nor do we have any electronic evidence."

A further elaboration of this aspect, which would have helped one better appreciate the realities, is not possible due to serious personal constraints. Search operations in the high seas yesterday led to the discovery of a fiberglass shell, small pieces of plastic and burnt out polythene. The fiberglass shell has led to suspicion whether quantities of explosives were hidden in it. Navy officials hope these items would give them a clue in determining the exact cause for the explosion and sinking of Dvora 437, an FAC built by the Colombo Dockyard.

However, the Tamilnet website said the Dvora was destroyed after Black Sea Tigers attacked. This is what the report said: Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE) elite Black Sea Tigers, engaged in a confrontation with a fleet of Sri Lanka Navy in the seas off Mullaiththeevu, attacked and sunk a SLN Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC) between Mullaiththeevu and Naayaa'ru at 2:10 a.m. Saturday, LTTE sources in Vanni told TamilNet. At least 14 Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) sailors were killed in the clashes, the Tigers said.

Three Black Sea Tigers were killed in action in the fighting that lasted for 45 minutes from 2:00 a.m. Saturday. Meanwhile, SLN sources said 10 SLN sailors were missing. Sixteen sailors were on board the SLN said. “Vessel number of the sunk SLN Dvora FAC was 438, the LTTE said. “Lt. Col. Anpumaran, Major Niranjani and Major Kaninila were the Black Sea Tigers killed in action.

“The SLN claimed that the FAC had hit a sea mine and was completely destroyed before it sank. Denying confrontations in the sea, the SLN said it had launched a search operation to locate the missing sailors.”

This hand out photo shows the fiberglass shell found in the high seas where a Navy Dvrora Fast Attack Craft was destroyed yesterday.

If the Navy's suspicions that sea mines were the cause of the loss of the Dvora and uncertainty over ten of its crew members, it adds a new dimension to the ongoing Eelam War IV. The extensive use of such mines can impede naval movement in the high seas. That is not only confined to patrolling the seas. More importantly, the Navy provides the bulk of the security cover for movement of food and military supplies to some 40,000 troops and policemen deployed in the Government controlled Jaffna peninsula. They are transported from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. In addition, the vast majority of troops and police personnel are also escorted at sea by the Navy. However, such phenomenon is unlikely since sea mines have not been used in any other location in the recent past.

On the other hand, senior Navy officials say that the placing of mines in the seas off Mullaitivu had been resorted to by guerrillas for another reason altogether. They say it is to stall any sea-borne assault on the shores of Mullaitivu or a beach landing in that area, which is considered the centre of power of the guerrillas. It is known that key installations of the guerrilla sea-going arm, the Sea Tigers are located along that coastal stretch.

Heavy rains have further slowed the advance of troops in the main theatres of fighting in the Wanni. In the Mannar sector, where troops are advancing in two different flanks, one west and the other east of the Giant's Tank, there were only sporadic exchanges of artillery and mortar fire by the two sides. On Friday two soldiers were killed when guerrillas, who had infiltrated Mannar, triggered off a Claymore mine. The incident took place in the South Bar area.

Troops attached to the Area Headquarters in Mannar had utilised three buses to bring members of the Buddhist clergy for religious ceremonies from a temple near South Bar because of Medin Poya. The Claymore mine missed the first but hit the second bus. A Captain and a soldier were killed on the spot. Six other soldiers were injured and four are in a critical condition.

In the Weli Oya sector where troops have seized considerable extent of "no man's" land as a flank moved northwards, in the direction of Mullaitivu, heavy rains have converted the terrain into a marsh. Here again, sporadic exchanges of artillery and mortar fire continued. An Army official in the sector, who spoke on grounds of anonymity for obvious reasons, said in some areas the floodwaters were knee high. An unexpected development had been a sizeable number of troops falling sick with complaints of either dengue or Chickungunya. They have been hospitalised for treatment, he added.

These developments came as the Ministry of Defence was engaged in major re-deployment of troops in the North and the East. As part of this measure, personnel of the Police Special Task Force (STF) are being re-located from camps in the Ampara district to the Vavuniya district. Similar shift of troops from Trincomalee district are also to follow shortly. Details of how the re-deployment will take shape cannot be revealed. Officially, the proposed changes are being dubbed as routine and necessitated by changing ground situation.

In this backdrop, as the Eelam War IV continues, a formidable group of senior officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force, who are now retired, are at the forefront of a campaign to formulate a Defence Policy for Sri Lanka. They are made up of Retired Flag Rank Officers and others retired from the Armed Services. They have joined hands with the Organisation of Professional Associations in this endeavour.

Last Monday, the Mess Hall of the Sri Lanka Army's Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (SLEME) in Colombo was the venue for a gathering of serving senior officers in the Army, Navy and Air Force. Some senior retired Majors General in the Army and one time top officials of the Air Force and Navy gave them presentations on different aspects. They were all enunciating the need for a Defence Policy. The fact that the Armed Forces officers had been seconded by their higher command to take part in the event came as official endorsement of the event though not the draft policy itself.

Circulated among those present were a set of documents including the 41-page draft of 'A Recommended Defence Policy on Sri Lanka' (in September 2007) fomulated by the Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers (with the help of other retired officers) for the Organisation of Professional Assiciations (OPA).
The draft report notes that Defence Policy is required to "determine the means by which, without impoverishing the nation, Security Forces could be deployed to fulfil the requirements of National Security." It says: "The Armed Forces are an extension of the 'political will' of the government. Today military thinking tends to be politico military and Foreign Affairs should be militarily diplomatic. Policies have to be tailor-made….."

The draft Defence Policy says "the security challenges in the future will become more diverse and multi-faceted and effect more countries and transnational in nature…." It cautions …"we must be aware of and be sensitive to the concerns of our neighbours, especially India, in our alignment with others…. It says
"India is unlikely to indulge in a military adventure across the Palk Straits, unless Sri Lanka pursues a military solution sans a parallel 'hearts and minds' campaign with the Tamil population in the North and East.

"An influx of refugees in large numbers to Tamil Nadu will encourage their sympathisers in that state to provide covert material and moral support to the LTTE. Such tensions may lead to India Navy/Coast-guard being deployed to deal with infiltration and intrusions, which could result in incidents of a military nature and strained relations," the draft points out.
Here are some significant edited excerpts from the draft Defence Policy for Sri Lanka:


"Apart from the Defence Policy stated by the D.S. Senanayake Government in 1947, which was made non effective in 1956, (except the continuation of anti-illicit immigration operations until 1980) there has been no discernible "Defence Policy" enunciated by any government thereafter. "Ad Hocism" has been resorted to and some of the decisions, such as prevention of the build up of the Navy (personnel and equipment) for nine years proved disastrous in 1983 when RAW supported the influx of trained rebel cadres and ammunition to the Jaffna peninsula without a deterrent naval presence.

"There were 'ad hoc' decisions on various occasions such as the provision of arms and ammunition to the LTTE and the premature removal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which have been to the detriment of Sri Lanka's security. If there is a national policy on defence accepted by Parliament, such unilateral decisions detrimental of the security of the nation would not take place.

"Even to date there is no discernible Defence Policy. The Defence of the Nation is left to the whims and fancies of those running the Defence establishments of the country whereas it should be of the highest priority for a government and the people who are sovereign must be made aware of the policy adopted for their security.


"Many countries have adopted a policy of Comprehensive Security i.e. encompassing a variety of subjects which can affect the Security of the Nation (National Security). A few of these can include food security; health security; environmental security; the brain-drain; labour unrest, corruption and many others which can have an adverse effect on the country's stability.

"Apart from the dangers to National Security caused by military attacks from within the state or from outside, these threats must be assessed by the highest authority constituting the National Security Council (NSC) as and when such threats are envisaged, and remedial measures should be adopted. Intelligence on these matters must be collated and presented to the NSC. The NSC must not be confined to military security alone but to all possible threats to the nation's stability and good governance.

"The NSC should comprise the highest authorities in the land. They are:

  • Head of Government (President or Prime Minister)

  • Leader of the Opposition

  • Ministers of Defence; Finance; Foreign Affairs as statutory members

  • Any Minister under whose purview that particular threat is perceived.

"The decision makers have to be advised by a panel of officials of whom the following should be permanent advisors;

  • Secretaries to the Ministry of Defence, Finance and Foreign Affairs

  • Secretaries of the affected Ministries (can be co-opted to deal with the particular problem such as Health, Food, Labour etc.)

  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

  • Chief of National Intelligence

"The NSC must be serviced by a Secretariat at the Head of States/government office and that organisation should include intellectuals (persons of eminence from outside the government with expertise on external and internal security, foreign affairs, defence and military affairs, science, technology and economics) who could advise the NSC on the implications of the perceived threats and the remedial action to be taken.

"The National Security Council (NSC) system is the principal form for deliberation of National Security Policy issues requiring the Head of Government's rulings. The NSC system provides the framework for establishing national strategy and policy objectives. The NSC develops policy options, considers implications, co-ordinates operational matters that require inter-departmental consideration, develops recommendations for the Head of Government and monitors policy implementation.

"When a military situation is envisaged the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discharges a substantial part of his statutory responsibilities as the principal military advisor to the government, the Service Chiefs should also be present in such a situation to tender specialist advice. The NSC prepares National Security guidance that should develop into policy. These policy decisions provide the basis for military planning and programming particularly in respect of capital equipment such as aircraft, ships and heavy weapons etc.


"There has to be divisions of the Ministry (of Defence), one with a Civilian head (Secretary) and the other with a Military head (Chief of Armed Forces). The proper designation should be Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff and not Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a CDS should be a person who has worked in all three services and be familiar with tri-service operations etc. One should not be subordinate to the other and each has specific responsibilities and the existence of the Defence Council will help to sort out any differences, which should not, but might occur.

Chiefs of Staff Committee: The designation of the three Service Chiefs should be changed - The forces are now too large for a Commander to exercise direct command. He has to delegate to subordinate commanders and in this context the designation of the Service Chiefs (as practiced by most countries) should be:

a. Chief of Army Staff
b. Chief of Naval Staff
c. Chief of Air Staff"

It seems highly unlikely that the Government would be in a mood to formulate a Defence Policy, or for that matter, even effect defence reforms when it is now at war. Hence, the main priority will remain the conclusion of Eelam War IV. Whether a Defence Policy or reforms would then become as necessary as it is now will thus remain a key question.

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