Role of SLN in the local & global context with emphasis of future strategies

“Commander of Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda delivering a lecture at an international defence education forum recently explained the role of Sri Lanka Navy and its future strategies. Here we published Vice Admiral Karannagoda's speech in full- Editor


" The Sri Lanka Navy needs to play its military role on two planes. Firstly, against the threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity posed by non state actors and secondly, protecting its national interests when conflicting national interests bring Sri Lanka head on against another nation state. While the Sri Lanka Navy has been very successfully playing the first role for the past quarter of a century and developed very specific expertise in this kind of warfare, it needs to continue honing its capability and skills to defeat this threat decisively. “Image: Sri Lanka Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda delivering his speech at the conference.” (Image: V.Ad. Karannagoda in London[Click to enlarge])

by Wasantha Karanngoda


(May 28, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) In an increasingly complex world, the mission of the Navy is correspondingly more diverse and composite than ever before. This complexity is global as well as regional, and is likely to remain like this in the foreseeable future. The role of the Sri Lanka Navy, in this increasingly interdependent and globalized world, will be as much dictated by internal requirements as it will be, by the compulsions of the outside world.

The Navy is essentially an instrument of state policy and will reflect the aspirations, strengths and vulnerabilities of the polity that sustains it. In turn the stance of this body politic can and will be predicated on its intrinsic political, economic, military and socio-economic capabilities. Therefore, in order to evaluate the role of the Sri Lanka Navy in a local as well as a global context, a brief examination of the prevailing frame of reference is essential , this is largely defined by Sri Lanka's maritime interests and geopolitical realities.

Sri Lanka's Strategic Imperative

Sri Lanka possesses a unique geographical location, at the very centre of the Indian Ocean compelling her to play a vital role in global maritime affairs. She occupies a central position on the main trade routes between Europe and the Far East. 80% of ships that ply this route converge off the South of Sri Lanka at Dondra head. Militarily, the location of the port of Trincomalee on the Eastern seaboard of the Island, and regarded as one of the world's finest natural deep water harbours, adds to her strategic value.

In a nut shell Admiral Mahan caps it all in his statement and I quote

"...Whoever controls the India Ocean dominates Asia. This Ocean is the key to the seven sea's, In the 21st Century the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters..." -
- Admiral Alfred T Mahan

Maritime Interests

As a maritime nation our lifeline is the sea, we cannot afford to let anyone strangle us by cutting our sea lines of communication. To this end we have a well trained compact navy predominantly to deter threats that challenge the control of our SLOC's thereby endangering the nation.

Sri Lanka's Maritime interests are like that of other nations based on Survival, Sovereignty and vital and value interests, (Slide only)

1. Maintenance of maritime sovereignty and territorial integrity

2. Critical infrastructure protection, security of ports, harbours and other maritime installations.

3. Protection of - SLOCs and fisheries.

4. Counter Insurgency and counterterrorism, prevention of piracy, smuggling, weapon proliferation, drug trafficking etc.

5. To deter any potential adversaries or terrorists from carrying out sea/air borne attacks.

6. Exploration, exploitation and protection of marine and oceanic energy resources from EEZ and the continental shelf.

7. Strengthening of diplomatic ties with regional and friendly nations by employing naval diplomacy.

8. Providing assistance to regional Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts.

9. Marine Environmental Control.

10. To undertake humanitarian and disaster relief to the best of our capability

(Slide only)

Role of the Sri Lanka Navy

The core mission of any Navy continues to be protecting the sovereignty and national interests of the state. The raison de'tre of all navies including that of the Sri Lanka Navy will remain unchanged - to assess the relative naval / military capabilities of potential adversaries and to ensure that no hostile maritime / naval presence can degrade the core national interest. Therefore, the Navy continues to function on a triangular grid with the military role underpinning two complementary roles - the politico-diplomatic and constabulary. In addition a new role in terms of the benign application of maritime power has been added as a recognized fourth role.

Against this backdrop of Sri Lanka's maritime interests, its geo political realities and the role of navies in general, the specific roles the Sri Lanka Navy would need to play hinges on the traditional triangular grid and its newly acquired benign dimension.

Military Role

The Sri Lanka Navy needs to play its military role on two planes. Firstly, against the threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity posed by non state actors and secondly, protecting its national interests when conflicting national interests bring Sri Lanka head on against another nation state. While the Sri Lanka Navy has been very successfully playing the first role for the past quarter of a century and developed very specific expertise in this kind of warfare, it needs to continue honing its capability and skills to defeat this threat decisively.

Therefore, the military role on this plane would need to be fulfilled by collaboration and alliance rather than denial, dominance and outright confrontation. In fact the role played by the Sri Lanka Navy for this purpose is actually more in the realm of a politico - diplomatic role rather than that of a military one.

Politico - Diplomatic Role

The Sri Lanka Navy may be required to play any of the two traditional facets of politico - diplomatic role, either alone or in conjunction with an alliance partner. In the post cold war period the politico diplomatic role is manifest in an increasing degree of multilateral naval cooperation that seeks to strengthen confidence building measures among States.

The concerns at sea in the present day are common, be they protection of SLOCS, piracy, trafficking in drugs or arms, terrorism or transportation of WMDs by sea. To combat these common concerns, the navies of the world are increasingly cooperating and working together, even though they are not part of any military alliance. The level of cooperation varies from navy to navy and is influenced by political considerations. This philosophy has manifested itself in areas of cooperation such as proliferation security initiative (PSI) and '1000 Ship Navy Concept'. Sri Lanka's geo political situation is ideally suited for this kind of role and she can effectively use its Navy to build alliances and diplomatic leverages to enable protection of her own national interests at the same time ensuring security of the global maritime commons.

Constabulary Role

The constabulary role would be one of the most demanding tasks for the Navy and enforcing law in the EEZ is also our exclusive responsibility and would consume most of our effort.

This role is also very significant for the Sri Lanka Navy as the process of instituting new political regime over hitherto unclaimed and uncontrolled high sea initiated by UNCLOS has also set in a process of creeping jurisdiction where many coastal states are claiming greater sovereignty over waters adjacent to their respective landmasses. We as a stake holder are optimistic that our reasonable claim will materialize in the near future bringing with it an extension of our seabed resources, the Navy with a mammoth area of sea to police.

Benign Role

The Sri Lanka Navy, is presently incapable of undertaking large scale out of area humanitarian aid or disaster relief but yet could undertake all possible benign missions as first responders within its area of influence.

With the end of the Cold War, it was generally assumed that the era of competitive military security paradigm was over and geo-economics had emerged as the more important global characteristic. This assumption ludicrously suggested that military capability would be secondary and navies in particular would have lesser role to play.

However, the events between the end of the Cold War and now have very clearly demonstrated that despite the changing paradigms, the importance of military might holds its ground as firmly as ever and would continue to do so in the foreseeable future as well.

In the case of the Navy, its role rather than diminishing has become more prominent as the littorals have assumed afar more significant role in the matter of national security to project power from the sea and influence matters ashore. The power projection has therefore shifted to the seas with greater emphasis towards the littorals.


Moving on to the present status quo in the maritime domain it is pertinent that we touch on maritime terrorism and its implications. The sea being the primary conduit in today's globalized economy and ocean-based trade, makes it a crucial component of the world's economic well-being and is the reason why security and stability is paramount in this realm.

For a coastal or island state, for example, nowhere is it more vulnerable to attack or infiltration than along its sea borders. Asymmetrical forces including terrorists, will always identify this weak-link and exploit it when the time is right, particularly when a nation is unprepared, or paradoxically, when it is over confident about its maritime security.

It is therefore imperative that the necessary security initiatives are implemented expeditiously by maritime nations of the world in a cohesive effort to protect the sea lines of communication, ships, offshore installations and ports.


A terrorist will pick his time and place, and rest assured he has already figured out the vulnerabilities of maritime trade. It is obvious that shipping is most vulnerable in straits and confined waters. Straits are also threatened by an increased percentage of piracy at busy roadstead and chokepoints, especially in South East Asia. It is a fact that oil tankers follow fixed and predictable routes that make them so much more vulnerable.

Of the shipping lanes, the Malacca Straits may be the most attractive target, considering the fact that one-third of all world trade passes through it. Nevertheless, It is important to note that it is primarily the trade to Asia including 80% of China's oil imports, that depends on its security.

On the other hand, one has to consider the aim of the terrorist and their objective. If the objective is to affect the flow of trade primarily to the West, however, would a strike in the Malacca Strait have the desired effect, or will it be the straits of Bab el Mandeb, Hormuz, the Suez canal , or Gibraltar, that are targeted ?

The West is the largest oil consumer bloc, while the Middle East is the biggest producer. This means oil as a commodity is highly dependent on international maritime trade as two-thirds of this requirement is shipped by tanker. With oil prices straining the global economy, a disruption of the sea routes would precipitate a debilitating crisis.

In October 2002, al-Qaeda rammed a boat full of explosives into a French super tanker 'Limburg' stationed off Yemen. Terrorists have also plotted attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and off the Horn of Africa. These incidents, coupled with al-Qaeda plots to attack US warships, including those transiting the Malacca Strait, have fuelled concerns of a major catastrophe in the making.


There are more ways than one in wearing down an opponent, and, disruption of global trade is surely on the terrorist target priority list. More developed countries could sustain an attack on international trade, but for how long?

Furthermore, with our mounting dependence on just-in-time delivery of commodities, even slowing the flow to inspect a random selection of imports would very quickly be economically intolerable to poor nations, and for the developed countries with time. This highlights the need for formulation of innovative protection strategies that will be workable worldwide.


The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ellam have used the sea for transport and to attack merchant shipping including local fishing trawlers, off the coast of Sri Lanka over the last 20 years. The organization has its own 'Black Sea Tiger' unit which operates on the doctrine of the "Wolf Pack" which we now term "Swarm" using high speed small combat craft. The craft the terrorists use are of varied configuration depending on the mission and quite potent when operating in the pack. They have also designed stealth craft which are used for covert intrusion and suicide missions.

The group has also resorted to using commercially off the shelf (COTS) underwater equipment and vehicles to attack shipping in harbour as well as on fixed route passage. The LTTE is also the only known terrorist organization to own and operate a fleet of deep sea going ships used for the transport of large quantities of explosives, arms, ammunition and other warlike material for themselves and other terrorist groups in the region.

These ships fly flags of convenience and use the freedom of the sea's to go about their deadly business. We cannot rule out the possibility of these rogue ships carrying cargoes of lethal chemicals, a "dirty bomb" or just high explosive material to be used as a catastrophic weapon at any port they choose.

The Sri Lanka Navy in the last year have been capable of identifying these floating warehouses and interdicting seven of them. It should be noted here, that the lethal cargo being carried was not destined merely for Sri Lanka and had they been successful in their mission many innocent civilians somewhere in the world would have paid with their lives.

Getting back to the catastrophic weapon, to give you an insight into their ambitions let me just touch on an attack they mounted unsuccessfully on Colombo Harbour in 1995. They used both surface craft disguised as fishing vessels and underwater saboteurs to target a liquid gas carrier which was alongside.

This attack was fortunately thwarted due to the high state of preparedness. Analysis of the scale of destruction , if this plan had succeeded revealed, total devastation within a radius of 1/4 mile and collateral damage extending to nearly 2 miles, which would have been terrible in its carnage and otherwise.


Drawing parallels from the attack on the Cole at Aden, the attack on the US warships at Jordan and the French tanker Limburg as examples, there is this similarity in modus operandi of the terrorist groups that master minded those attacks and the style of the LTTE. The connection cannot be ruled out and it is a fact that the LTTE presents the other terrorist organizations with a source to plagiarize for maritime terrorism know-how.

The al-Qaida network too is believed to have purchased at least 15 ships in the last few years to be used in the same fashion as the LTTE - to be involved in gunrunning, act as weapon and explosive warehouses for terrorist groups and possibly be used for training of bombers and saboteurs. They are also used as safe houses for terrorists on the run. Further, the law of the sea is also advantageous to those who do not comply with the rule of law, allowing them freedom of the sea and manoeuvre until reaching shore.

The other terrorist groups that have and use maritime assets on a smaller scale are as the following (Slide only)

ESO (External Security Organisation) Hezbollah's military wing, Lebanon

ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group), Philippines

JI (Jemaah Islamiyah), SE Asia

NPA (New People's Army), Philippines

Palestinian groups (Al Aqsa Martyrs

Brigade/HAMAS/Palestinian Islamic Jihad)

Indonesian jihadi groups

GAM (The Free Aceh Movement) Indonesia.

The Emerging Threat

There is no doubt that in recent years maritime terrorism has appeared as a very real threat and what I have briefly elaborated on proves the point. There have been some notable attacks but we have been fortunate in that a concerted and sustained attack on the lifeblood of the global economy has not yet materialized.

Threats that have emerged today are mainly from non state actors involved in terrorism, trans-national or otherwise, international crime, insurgencies, including separatists and fanatics be they ethnic or religious. Battling these threats was once considered low intensity warfare but is this true in today's security environment? If we are to be realistic,... global security will have to recognize, understand and define this threat in order to successfully combat it or chaos will follow.

Our clash is now more against ideologies and fanaticism, which brings along with it an unconventional threat which is indiscriminate in its targeting ... it threatens us all irrespective of who we are or where we come from.

Conventional forces that are controlled and disciplined will always be at a disadvantage in this battle field as they are limited in their actions and not prepared or trained to react to the threat.

As a result modern forces need to think outside the box and begin to train, estimate and fight differently. As a matter of fact a radical shift in the surface warfare thought process may be necessary to fight effectively in this age of Asymmetric warfare.

In the words of SUN TZU, in his treaty the art of war he dictates

"Determine the enemy's plans and you will know which strategy will be successful and which will not"

In other words empathize with the enemy and be prepared to counter his action even before he acts.


It is also pertinent that we focus on combat on the high seas which has been confined to state actors who's conduct of war is regulated through accepted norms of international law. Here traditional law dealing with maritime affairs has been designed to regulate actions recognizing states as the primary actors. The threat from non state actors and terrorism has not been anticipated and no provision has been made in this context which in actual fact makes the law seem obsolete. The only non state actor considered is a pirate and it also leaves us with the question "Does the global war on terrorism" give states the right to act otherwise.

We have already crossed a new threshold in this age of terrorism that necessitates a fresh look at the legal dimension in re-appreciating the law, to combat maritime terrorism in the present day and age. This will provide states in issuing practical and unambiguous ROE's to our mission commanders simultaneously restricting the terrorist in his sphere of manoeuvre.

The Way ahead- Examining Future Strategies and Shaping the Right force

The Sri Lanka Navy over the last two decades has transformed from a small ceremonial unit to a fully fledged compact fighting force. It is probably the only navy at present that faces a continuous active terrorist threat at sea. The threat it faces is mainly in the littorals but does extend into the deep sea at times. The fighting is high intensity, with the threat mainly being multiple swarm attacks including explosive laden suicide craft. We face an innovative and ruthless enemy who when cornered will not hesitate in using desperate means to achieve his ends.

The Present battle space environment that my Navy faces is dynamic, high speed, dangerous and unpredictable. However the Sri Lanka Navy is a battle hardened force which has a cadre of over 50% who have been involved in active combat operations both on land and sea. This experience doubtless gives us the edge in predicting the future battle - environment, particularly in the littorals and of the asymmetrical kind. Looking ahead the path I believe the Sri Lanka Navy will follow will be on the following lines

As I have said before "To think differently, to train differently and to fight differently". The secret in Combating asymmetric warfare is to deliver an unconventional response. To meet this end forces need to transform in the way they train, plan and fight. We may not need to develop new equipment, but we need to have the right attitude and use the right equipment efficiently.

Traditional Naval missions / tasks will continue to exist, but the edge will be with those capable of meeting the unexpected by preparing for it.

We have to train our young officers and planners to empathize with our opponents in countering threats even before they are encountered- this is the way ahead.

Legacy systems will remain to be our mainstay, but the essence will be to morph them with the future capabilities in a balanced fashion in order to be practical for that security environment.

Today's asymmetric warfare - shifts warfare into a higher gear but also into a more human domain like in the past. This paradox arises from the fact that - warfare today is shifting away from the machine to the more human on human domain. For example the suicide cadre who can emerge from any dimension. Machines will continue to find it difficult to cope with this threat and only human on human will bring about results.

We have to understand that the terrorist willing to die for a cause, motivated by radicalism, brain washing and religious fervour, will match against training, physical strength, mental awareness and morale of our troops. Of course our machines and platforms will aid us but it will ultimately be the quality of the man who matches the threat. *

For small combatant platforms, operating in shallow waters ,speed stealth and manoeuvrability means survivability. Good sensors and high rate of fire weapons that can acquire and target small stealthy craft affectively will emerge victors. Fast attack craft including inshore patrol craft will have to operate together, in numbers and dilute the enemies swarm. Isolating and destroying the stragglers.

The navy will have to foster a new breed of surface warfare fighter who will take the initiative and be aggressive and daring. Naval officers and men will have to form special operation units for this is type of engagement and work in an environment similar to Special operation forces.

Officers and men need to be trained to act on instinct and be capable of profiling enemy craft that lurk within fishing fleets and pleasure craft,.......and they will have to take certain tactical risks to be successful and maintain the initiative.

Unfortunately there will be losses - but we will need to invest our time on training our crews to survive - by giving them the best survival training and equipment - Littoral SAR will become an important mission too.

Of course the design of a concept craft which will be survivable, fast, manoeuvrable and stealthy with the necessary punch will be on our future agenda. The correct mix of craft for defence in depth will also be included.

Upgrading of necessary weapon systems, sensors and equipment will be necessary with the old being phased out.

Last but not least we will encourage and strive for International maritime Co-operation with Friendly Navies. Regional, Bilateral and multi lateral agreements and exercises will build confidence and understanding between forces.

The 1000 ship navy concept appeals to countries such as ours, as it means we will all have a part to play maintaining global maritime security regardless of size.

Navies such as ours with years of battle experience in the littorals have a unparalleled experience in this area and are capable of disseminating that particular core competence to the rest of the maritime community by providing resource personal and training in the field.

Carl von Clausewitz whose thought yet influences the battle space environment and will continue to do so in the future too puts it very simply , and I quote

"Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult"
- Carl Von Clausewitz

The way ahead will not be a cake walk and the challenges that the future will pitch at us will not be easy.... Only timely and proper preparation will ensure success.


Today, the security and economic prosperity of our nations is utterly dependent on ensuring that the freedom of the seas is maintained and this will continue to be the case as the pace of globalization continues. The magnitude of civilian shipping and our dependence on free trade cannot be overstated. Piracy or terrorism, asymmetric warfare or simply the random laying of a few sea mines, would seriously disrupt trade and increase transportation costs dramatically. To ensure maritime security and stability, it is very clear to me, that maritime security should be a cohesive effort and requires an international solution for it has altered the dynamics of security paradigms worldwide.

I can assure you that the Sri Lanka Navy will continue to do its part and we are confident that friendly nations around the world will continue to share information and support us in accomplishing our mutual task in keeping the maritime environment safe and stable. Ultimately, defence of international maritime assets and trade will be the shield created by Global cohesive action, which will ensure that the maritime dimension will never be used to threaten mankind.
- Sri Lanka Guardian