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18th July 1999

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Men who dare

These elite forces are toughened for "tomorrow's war". Hiranthi Fernando reports

pic 01Armed soldiers crept from the bushes and advanced stealthily, scanning the surroundings. They swarmed up the slope to the edge of the road. Dropping flat on their stomachs, they crawled across, guns aimed towards the line of enemy bunkers down the opposite slope. A burst of fire from a rocket propelled gun (RPG) rent the silence. Covered by mortar fire from the other side, part of the group rushed towards the enemy bunkers. 

The rest continued firing to cover their advance. Capturing the first bunker, they fired grenades at the next. Having captured all the bunkers, the troops advanced to assault the enemy behind the bunker line.

Real though it seemed, this was not a battle at the warfront but a training exercise on bunker-busting at the Special Forces Training School in the dry zone. Live ammunition was used.

"The success of the Special Forces is the hard training they get," said the Chief Instructor (CI) of the Training School. "They have to use the required ammunition, otherwise the reality cannot be conveyed or experienced by the trainees."

The Special Forces of the Sri Lanka Army was formed in 1985 with a small team of soldiers, initially trained at Vavuniya. In 1991, a small camp was set up for the Jungle Package of the Army Training School. On February 15, 1992, the Special Forces Training School was established. Today, it trains those selected to serve in the Special Forces. 

Recruitment to the Special Forces used to be from among officers and other ranks with five years of experience, who wished to join from infantry regiments.

However, direct enlistment is also done now because with the need for trained personnel in operation areas, it is sometimes difficult to release men from other units.

"Our enlistment receives the best response," the CI commented. The Commander has requested that those who wished to join the Special Forces should be released from their units. This year we had more recruits from the units too."

Direct recruits are first given two months of normal army training. Thereafter, a shortlisted lot is taken into the Special Forces. The others are sent to other infantry units. "Recruits need to be physically and mentally fit," the CI said. "They are given an entrance examination on general knowledge and an IQ test as well as a physical training test."

Instructors are drawn from among seniors with battle experience. After serving at the front, they are given an opportunity to have a break whilst giving the benefit of their knowledge and experience to the recruits. "All our instructors are those who have served at the front," the CI said.

"We are training the recruits not for yesterday's war but for tomorrow's war. We are training them in modern warfare to combat guerrillas."

Those who do well in the Special Forces also have an opportunity of training abroad, in U.K., U.S.A., India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in diving, parachuting, commando training etc.

The day starts at 5.30 a.m. at the training school. Exercises are conducted till around 6.30 - 7 in the evening, with breaks for meals. Sometimes night training is carried out in the jungle. The trainees then rest during the day. 

"At night and in the morning, we play Rana Gee to instill in them a feeling for their country," the CI said. After a hard day's training, they lie in bed, listening to the music and it inspires them." 

Throughout the well laid-out camp are boards with inspirational quotations. "Up to excellence in professionalism," is painted at the entrance. "Determined, dared and done," proclaims one board. "Only he can be a leader who never loses hope," says another. "To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace," is blazoned on yet another board.

The instructors say the school has the best terrain for training. The surrounding jungles and the similarity of the land to the northern areas make it an ideal training ground. The special riding teams trained for surveillance in operation areas have proved to be very successful. Nine months of intense training has been given to special groups.

A group of trainee riders were tearing up and down the steep ridges with ease. Six to seven trained teams have been sent out to operation areas and the army has requested teams to be trained for other areas as well. Trained teams also operate in Colombo.

Target training is an important part of the course. Soldiers in camouflage battle-dress, faces painted, drop to the ground instantly on hearing a shot. They fire, roll over and fire again. For continuous firing, one provides cover while the other rolls over to change the magazine. Cut- outs are placed as targets. 

pic 02Surveillance training gives the soldiers practice in hiding in an open area and observing enemy movements. Soldiers dressed to resemble the LTTE cadre walk across a field carrying weapons. Suddenly, the soldiers concealed in trenches spring to action and a shoot-out ensues. 

Rappeling is another impressive exercise conducted only for Special Forces trainees. Soldiers atop a railed enclosure abutting a sheer rock face, climb down a rope at a signal, in a few seconds. This training is for climbing down from high buildings especially useful in anti-hijack operations, rescue of hostages etc.

Watching these young men, one feels proud of the Army and the commitment they have to serve the country. 

Special refresher courses are conducted for troops who have served one year at the battlefront. These are advanced courses for Special Forces only, for example, on instinctive firing on targets that appear suddenly. Courses are also conducted for the special teams from the Air Force, Navy and other Infantry battalions. They are trained according to their requirements. Air Force and Navy recruits who have already undergone training are given ground training. The training school coordinates with the Air Force for air operations. According to the CI, 15 - 20 courses are conducted each year. 

The pleasant environment is no doubt a bonus. After a strenuous day, the soldiers unwind with a refreshing dip in the nearby lake. Observing the abundant bird life in the vicinity of the wewa is also a soothing pastime. Large herds of wild elephants can also be seen. "It would be difficult to find a place like this with all requirements such as sparsely populated training grounds, jungles, and sufficient water," the CI said. 

But there are drawbacks too. The camp is on land belonging to the Wildlife Department, which they are unable to develop fully since it does not legally belong to them. 

The buildings in use are those constructed in 1983, for the Mahaweli project. Meant to last only five years they are now falling apart. Another fear is that there is a move to raise the level of the water in the tank close by three metres, which would result in the camp going under water.

Hopefully these impediments will soon be overcome since Special Forces training is a vital part of the Army.

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