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US-Lanka to hold joint naval exercises

The Sri Lankan Navy will be trained in amphibian assaults to help them tackle Sea Tigers, reports PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Oct 19, 2006 18:58 IST
PK Balachandran
PK Balachandran

In a move which will have far reaching consequences for the Sri Lankan government's battle against the LTTE and also for the strategic scenario in the South Asian region, the Sri Lankan Navy and the US Marine Corps are to hold joint exercises in the last week of this month.

Joint exercises by the navies of friendly countries are routine, but the ones currently planned by the Sri Lankan Navy and the US Marines on and off the Humbantota coast in the deep south of Sri Lanka, are described by the The Island daily as "unprecedented."

About 1,000 US marines and support staff with two Specialised Transport Landing Platform Docks are expected to participate along with the Special Boat Squadron of the Sri Lankan Navy, The Island reported on Thursday.

These would be the "first major training activity involving US troops," said the daily's veteran defence correspondent, Shamindra Ferdinando.

The Marine Corps, which is the infantry arm of the US Navy, is equipped and trained to carry out amphibious assault and high intensity combat.

Lankan gains

The Sri Lankan Navy and its US counterpart had been holding small scale exercises since 1995 under the Extended Relations Program of the US.

But these were mostly defensive in content involving rescue and relief, it was said.

What is going to happen now is more warlike. The Sri Lankans will be trained in amphibian assaults, which have become necessary because the "Sea Tigers" of the LTTE are now a sophisticated force capable of launching and sustaining amphibious assaults.

The Sea Tigers had successfully carried out such assaults at Vaharai in April 2004 and at Vettilaikerni, east of Elephant Pass in 2000.

But their attempt to land in Kayts and Mandaitivu islands off the Jaffna peninsula in August came a cropper, just as the Sri Lankan troops' attempt to land in Kilaly on the Jaffna lagoon earlier this month, was a failure.

The Sri Lankan Navy had come into its own in the recent military operations against the LTTE in Trincomalee, KKS, Point Pedro and Galle, in the sea, and Kayts and Mandaitivu on land.

But training and increasing sophistication are necessary to keep pace with the daring, and the increasing sophistication and guile of the Sea Tigers, who have also perfected the art of inter-services co-ordination.

While it is easy to see how the Sri Lankan Navy will gain by the upcoming exercises, many may wonder how it will benefit the US.

According to military experts here, by holding the exercises, the US will be sending a telling message to the LTTE that if it does not fall in line, abandon terrorism and come for talks, the US will strengthen the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Former US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead, had said so in so many words.

The exercises will be a follow up to the sting operation carried out by the FBI against the LTTE's arms agents in the US which led to the arrest of several Tamil front men of the LTTE.

If these agents had achieved their objective of procuring SA-18 shoulder fired missiles, the war would have taken a totally different turn.

US gains

Though the US may not be actively pursuing the option of securing a naval base in Sri Lanka, it is undeniably interested in increasing its presence and clout in the island.

Sri Lanka, especially the Galle and Humbantota areas, overlook a vital international sea lane.

The US is also interested in Trincomalee, on the eastern coast. A US study team had earlier given some suggestions for beefing up security for the Trincomalee naval base.

The US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher would be visiting the naval base there during his current visit.

Analysts say that the US may be interested in countering the growing Chinese influence in the South Asian region, including Sri Lanka.And for this a presence in the island may be necessary.

The Chinese are going to build a modern harbour in Humbantota overlooking the international sea lane. The deal was signed and sealed recently.

Earlier, the US Defense Department had wanted to sign a "Cross Services Agreement" with Sri Lanka, an agreement which would facilitate cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries in non-offensive, logistical operations and activities.

The agreement could play a significant part in furthering the strategic interests of the US in the South and South East Asian region.

But since New Delhi opposed the agreement, it could not be signed.

However, analysts now feel that given the changed Indo-US equation, New Delhi may not oppose it if the proposal is revived.

Lanka's expertise

It is also said that by cooperating with the Sri Lankan Navy and the other services, the US may learn more about combating terror groups.

The LTTE is an interesting case study because it combines classic terroristic abilities with a capability to wage a conventional war.

Over the years, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have developed some expertise in anti-terrorist operations of a particular kind.

Experts say that the armed forces of other countries are interested in learning from the Sri Lankan experience.

It is also said that they see Sri Lanka as a laboratory to test out anti-terror techniques without themselves losing men and material.

First Published: Oct 19, 2006 18:08 IST