President Rajapaksa’s military manoeuvres

"General Sarath Fonseka, the military architect of the successful Eelam War IV, was made chief of defence staff. This was not unexpected particularly after the Chief of Defence Staff Act was passed in parliament last month, formalising and defining a loose arrangement that existed earlier."

By Col. R. Hariharan

(July 20, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) As the dust settled down after the victory celebrations ended, Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced a series of senior appointments connected with armed forces. To call it a shake up would be journalese but that is what it appears to be. All the three chiefs of armed forces were changed, a chief of defence staff (CDS) and a national security advisor were appointed.

The Chief of Defence Staff

General Sarath Fonseka, the military architect of the successful Eelam War IV, was made chief of defence staff. This was not unexpected particularly after the Chief of Defence Staff Act was passed in parliament last month, formalising and defining a loose arrangement that existed earlier. However, the speed with which Gen Fonseka was asked to assume office on July 15, with barely three days notice, was a little surprising.

General Fonseka’s professional skill and leadership provided to the army in the war has increased his national popularity. And probably he has more admirers cutting across party lines than any other political leader at present. He is a man who does not hesitate to say what he feels, mincing no words, whether it is calling Tamil Nadu politicians as jokers (that appears to be his view of politicians as a whole) or declaring that Sri Lanka was for majority population. He is also a man of strong likes and dislikes and has not hesitated to vocalise it. His differences with Admiral Karannagoda, the Naval Chief, are well known. Added to all this, Gen Fonseka’s political ambitions still remain a question mark.

So it is possible that the General’s style and growing public profile were making politicians in power a little uncomfortable. As CDS, General Fonseka would not be in direct control of troops as he would be involved more in providing strategic direction to them. And that should ease the politicians’ discomfort.

In Sri Lanka, Ministry of Defence, Public Security and Law and Order is a powerful one as it controls not only the armed forces, but paramilitary forces, the intelligence apparatus, and the police. (This is somewhat like combining the defence ministry and certain departments of home ministry into one ministry in the Indian government set up: a mind boggling exercise in chaos in Indian conditions!) The newly created Coast Guard adds further muscle to the Ministry. The post of CDS now will be a powerful one as has now been formalised, and made more accountable with clear cut responsibilities through an act of parliament. It provides General Fonseka a strong toehold in the Ministry of Defence and gives him the ability to influence decision making process on defence related issues including policy, procurement, expansion and probably even operational deployment.

According to the CDS Bill published on June 1, the President shall pick the CDS from among the serving chiefs of three services and appoint him for a two-year term; and he can be reappointed for any number of terms. The CDS will function “under the direction, supervision and control of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.” Thus the chain of command and control of not only the CDS but also the armed forces have now been clearly spelled out.

The CDS’ duties include a whole gamut of tasks connected with providing strategic direction to the armed forces, development of doctrine for joint employment of the armed forces and facilitating the preparation of strategic plans for the armed forces. He also has responsibilities relating to the co-ordination of intelligence within the three services of armed forces. The CDS will also undertake operational assessments to facilitate planning, coordination, and implementation of joint plans in the three services.

The CDS Bill also provides for the establishment of a Committee of the Chief of Defence Staff under the chairmanship of the CDS with the three service chiefs as members. Presumably this committee has been constituted to facilitate the co-ordination of activities between the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence. But tucked in the bill is a significant sentence that says the President has “powers to appoint the Chief of Defence Staff as the Chairman of this Committee.” Does it mean the CDS need not always be chairman of the Committee of the CDS? Only the bureaucracy can explain this.

Army Commander

A comparatively junior officer Maj Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, an armoured corps officer, was appointed Army Commander in the rank of Lt General to succeed General Fonseka. Maj Gen Jayasuriya had served as commander, Security Forces, Wanni with distinction during the Eelam War from 2007 onwards. But what is important is that he superseded eight other seniors to become the new Army Commander. Lt Gen Jayasuriya had a few things going for him to become the chief: apparently he came on top of the Merit Scheme General Fonseka had introduced for promotions (under this scheme which caused some heartburn, promotions are based on battlefield performance and not on mere seniority).

Secondly, Lt Gen Jayasuriya can serve a full term as army chief as he is due to retire only in 2014. The seniors he superseded were either retiring this year or in 2010. With him as the army commander, Gen Fonseka would be able to implement in full his strategic plans for the army under one army chief. It would also indicate that the new army commander enjoys Gen Fonseka’s complete confidence.

With Lt Gen Jayasuriya’s appointment the merit scheme appears to have been accepted as the norm. It has set a clear precedence of performance over riding seniority for selection of senior appointments. While this will undoubtedly improve professionalism, it is going to make officer management within the army more difficult for commanders, particularly in peacetime. Traditionally seniority is an accepted as an essential criterion for promotion in armed forces. And when operational experience does not exist (as it is likely in the coming years in Sri Lanka), the merit scheme could be trivialised to include considerations other than professional excellence.

National Security Advisor

President Rajapaksa pulled yet another surprise with the appointment of the outgoing naval chief Admiral Karannagoda as National Security Advisor (NSA) to the President. Admiral Karannagoda had performed as the naval chief with great professional skill in crippling the LTTE’s logistic fleet which was a key element in winning the war. As he was senior to Gen Fonseka, he would have been the logical choice for the newly created post of CDS. On the other hand as commander of the army, the largest of the three services, Gen Fonseka’s appointment would have been a more logical step.

The admiral’s appointment as NSA has baled out the President from a potentially tricky and embarrassing situation when Gen Fonseka was chosen as the CDS.

As the NSA would be functioning under the President, the scope of his advisory might be broader and cover more areas. However, the NSA’s functions and responsibilities have not yet been formalised. Only when that process comes in place we would know the extent of NSA’s role as a senior member of the national decision making architecture as in India and the U.S.

Significance of the changes

The Sri Lanka government appears to be taking a total re-look at its national security setup. The recent appointments and structural changes in the national security set up would indicate that this process has already started. With the plans of modernization of navy and expansion of the army to a 300,000 strong force afoot, the creation of the post of CDS and appointment of Gen Fonseka as the first CDS are of significance to strategic security of the region. This is likely to be taken note of Sri Lanka’s neighbours and allies as Sri Lanka occupies a ringside seat in Indian Ocean security. A strong Sri Lanka army is of special significance for India’s national security as both the countries have very close relations on many issues including defence.

Sri Lanka armed forces are going through a transitory phase. The army was hastily expanded for the purpose of counter insurgency operations against a formidable insurgent force that had limited conventional warfare capability. Gen Fonseka as the new CDS is in a position to translate his ideas of building what was essentially a counter insurgency force into a regular professional army ready to face other armed forces on equal footing.

According to media reports the the new CDS will have a staff of 300 including seven major generals, one rear admiral, and an air vice marshal. The staff include Chief of Staff, a Director General Joint Planning & Defence Development, Director Joint Intelligence, War Assistant to the CDS, War Secretary to CDS, and Director Research & Development. The names of the new appointees have also been mentioned. The strength of the staff and scope of work indicate that the CDS will be fully functional in his new office. It will soon become clear what will be his priorities, particularly relating to intelligence, joint operations and planning.

The appointment of a NSA, if it is more than an expedience or stop gap arrangement, has the potential to become a powerful post when it is formalized. However, only when that happens, we will be able to assess how the NSA would impact the decision making process of the executive presidency in Sri Lanka, particularly on strategic security issues.

Talking of military appointments, the appointment of Major General GA Chandrasiri, who was Chief of Staff of the Army, as governor of Northern province, has the advantage of rewarding his service without making him army commander. It might be administratively smooth to have a military man as a governor in the province which has a very large number of troops operating. However, from the point of view of normalisation and increasing the security and trust of civilians in the government it is a retrograde step.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog:
-Sri Lanka Guardian