Sri Lanka armed forces and dynamics of change

[Salient points of this article were included in a presentation the author had made at a national seminar on ‘Ethnic Reconciliation, Economic Reconstruction & Nation Building in Sri Lanka’ organised by the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies and the Centre for Asia Studies at Chennai on April 12-13, 2010.]

By Col R Hariharan


(April 17, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka has undergone irreversible changes after President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successive victories in the Eelam War IV followed by the presidential poll and parliamentary elections.After the three interconnected events, President Rajapaksa has emerged as THE most powerful head of state in the nation’s history. His vast powers as executive president are further augmented by his ten-party United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition’s majority in the newly elected parliament.

In addition to this he is commander in chief of oversized armed forces which has become a power centre after the Eelam War IV. Thus after the final victory over the LTTE, the President emerged a modern day Dutagemmunu, the legendary Sinhala king who defeated the Tamil ruler Elara of Anuradhapura.


Rajapaksa’s contribution to the military victory

A symbiotic relationship between the armed forces and the President began with President Rajapaksa and the newly appointed army commander Lt General Sarath Fonseka started their terms of office with the same goal - to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For Rajapaksa defeat of LTTE was fulfilment of an electoral promise while for the army commander it was a vow to liquidate the LTTE that had heaped ignominy on the army in three earlier episode of Eelam War. In the process of successfully achieving their goals, both the President and General Fonseka became national heroes. But after the downsizing of Fonseka, after his unsuccessful attempt to challenge the President’s bid for re-election, President Rajapaksa has emerged the cock of the walk elected to rule the country for nearly seven more years.

Armed forces, particularly the army, before their transformation into a strong and powerful force, were considered a rather weak and professionally not so competent. This is not wholly correct; in the earlier Eelam War the army drove out the LTTE from Jaffna peninsula in Operation Riviresa in October 1995, and never allowed the insurgents to stage a comeback there. However, unfortunately public remembered it only for failures: large scale desertions, corruption, and some notorious debacles at the hands of the LTTE due to its stodgy leadership that failed to enlarge its victories. But the May 2009 victory has changed this; armed forces have at last gained recognition as the vanguards of Sri Lanka security.

President Rajapaksa’s contribution in transforming the armed forces into fighting machines should not be ignored. To achieve his goal he created a politico-administrative structure to help armed forces successfully reach their military objectives, unmindful of its enormous cost in terms of finance, manpower, governance and international relations.

He also provided the much needed political support for the armed forces. When he took over as President, things on the political front were abysmal. Schism between the outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the erstwhile Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had stalled the government from taking any strategic initiative to revive the negotiation at the peace process. And the LTTE which had the military initiative at the time of ceasefire now held the political initiative also.

To change this, Rajapaksa strengthened his coalition in parliament by attracting defectors from the opposition benches. Once he was politically strong he had no hesitation in discarding the Peace Process 2002 which got bogged down after 2003. While doing so, he successfully weathered adverse international reaction, particularly from the Four Co-Chairs of the Peace Process – the European Union, Japan, Norway and the U.S. At the same time, he took care to allow face saving leeway for international efforts to bring about resumption of the peace process. However, when the LTTE failed to respond to international efforts there was no stopping the President from seizing the military option.

The President’s approach to fighting the LTTE was also different from that of the earlier presidents. Unlike his predecessors, he went to war with his eyes wide open and listened to the armed forces commanders to choose a place and time to start the war. Once it started he provided all the help required to make the armed forces quantitatively and qualitatively strong. To keep a close interface between the government and armed forces he called in his two brothers – Basil and Gotabaya - from overseas and appointed them as presidential advisor and defence secretary respectively.

Though his detractors accuse him of running the government as a ‘family affair’, it helped formation of close knit executive troika co of his two brothers and Lt General Fonseka, the Army Commander to plan and conduct the war. While Basil Rajapakse provided the political interface for the war, Gotabaya Rajapakse provided the government interface for military operations. Thus the military operations had seamless political and government support. As the defence ministry also controls law and order and public security, actions of paramilitary forces, civil defence forces and the police were coordinated with army’s operational requirements.

This arrangement continued even after Basil Rajapakse became a parliament member later on. Initially, Sri Lanka’s a broad plan was probably to take on the LTTE in its own turf and seize military initiative back from the insurgents and regain control of territory under insurgent control. But the victory in Mavil Aru came in rather easily than expected in July 2006. Then onwards any pause in operation came only when the army commander wanted, mostly to induct more troops in the offensive.

Sri Lanka always felt that India had played spoil sport in its conflict with Tamil insurgents. So throughout the conflict President Rajapaksa handled India with kid gloves. He made a conscious effort to prevent any Tamil Nadu swing in favour of Tamil insurgents from interfering with his military operations. This is a significant aspect because in earlier wars. Fortunately for the President, this job was a little easy thanks to Prabhakaran’s mindlessly assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1992 made it politically impossible for India to directly intervene in Sri Lanka’s conflict. To add to President’s comfort, the LTTE made no conscious effort to mend its relations with India, and strengthen its weakened political constituency in Tamil Nadu.

The President in a strategic ploy identified his campaign against the LTTE as part of the global war against terrorism. India and the U.S. started providing regular intelligence inputs and technical support on the movement of LTTE’s shipping logistics. The LTTE was banned in 32 countries particularly after the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. With that foreign assistance to Sri Lanka in its war against the LTTE gained legitimacy.

Thus President made a substantive contribution to directly and indirectly help the armed forces not only to become powerful but achieve total victory against the LTTE after 26 years of war. Probably the armed forces feel beholden to the President for restoring its pride. And President Rajapaksa is likely to continue to command personal loyalty of commanders, who have been carefully chosen by him presumably after assessing them on this count.

On the other hand the negative aspects of Rajapaksa’s style of achieving his goals discussed in the paper titled ‘Sri Lanka: President Rajapaksa’s victory and the "power problem" – have tarnished the image of the armed forces also. This has given rise to allegations of lack of accountability, corruption, human rights violations and war crimes against the armed forces, particularly the army, during the war. Administrative actions taken so far have neither been adequate nor convincing.

General Fonseka and expansion of army

When Fonseka took over as army commander, army was in bad shape. Between 2003 and 2005 repeated LTTE bomb strikes and pistol group attacks had taken their toll of military intelligence operatives. The navy fared no better. Repeated LTTE Sea Tiger suicide boat attacks confined the navy to its own shores. As the armed forces of a legitimate government, they could not carry out retaliatory strikes without government approval as it would violate the ceasefire agreement. (And till President Rajapaksa came to power such an approval was not given.) This sapped the morale of armed forces. This made the ambitious General angry at the way army had been made to pay the price for ineptness of politicians and the government, under the peace process 2002.

General Fonseka’s leadership significantly contributed to the following aspects in turning around the around the army to become a sizeable force with proven battlefield record. Specifically he paid attention to improve the following aspects, despite certain abrasive aspects of his leadership style.

* Force level: He expanded and refurbished the army from an under-equipped and weak force into a 190,000-strong force by 2009. In order to provide adequate force levels the army went into a recruiting spree. When the war started in 2006 he had deployed 12 divisions and by the time the war ended in 2009, he had raised and inducted four more divisions. (Out of this about 150,000 troops were deployed against the LTTE which had a combatant strength of around 20,000 apart from other auxiliary forces.)
* Exploiting the potential: The army had added 40,000 troops in 2008 to raise 47 infantry battalions, 13 brigades, 4 task force contingents, and two divisions. By any yardstick this was a colossal task and the army managed to carry it out successfully. This showed the potential strategic strength and capability of Sri Lanka to raise large sized forces in times of war.
* Training: He improved their training to address weaknesses in command and control. Understanding the need for numbers, he reduced the training duration of soldiers and put them on frontline as a military expediency. As the LTTE lacked rifle strength, overwhelming numbers proved a crucial factor. Similarly Special Forces units were well trained for optimising their use in operations.
* Conduct war: The army’s biggest weaknesses in the past were in higher direction of war, maintenance of momentum, coordination of operations on multiple axes, and use of air force and navy to support land operations. Operational planning was pedestrian and lacked innovation in execution. The LTTE exploited these weaknesses to capture Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi towns after driving out the army from vast areas in Vanni. However, when they went into Eelam War IV the armed forces, particularly the army, appear to have learnt from past mistakes and their performance was better in all these aspects.
* Higher direction of war: During the war, General Fonseka dusted up his operational planning and used multiple offensive axes to split and weaken the LTTE force levels, already depleted due to the defection of its Batticaloa commander Karuna along with his followers. Fonseka captured the Mannar coastline early in the operation to cut off the supply chain of basic essentials from Tamil Nadu coast. With advances along converging axes, the army offensive gathered more strength and fire power as the LTTE ranks were weakened with the progress of operations. Special Forces were used innovatively and deep penetration squads of commandos successfully eliminated some the key LTTE leaders.
* Holding the nerve: General Fonseka had initial failure in carrying out attacks on the Elephant Pass salient from the Jaffna peninsula side. However, he converted that an opportunity to soften up LTTE bunkers well before the final offensive to subdue the LTTE positions in the narrow strip between Muhamalai and Elephant Pass. In early stages the army was caught unaware by ‘bombing’ sorties by of the fledgling Air Tiger force. However, Fonseka refused to be overawed by it. The air defence system was tightened and the “air threat” of the LTTE could cause no worthwhile damage.
* Morale: The General’s biggest contribution was in rebuilding the morale of army. When he retired as army chief he left a force with high morale. This was mainly achieved through deliberate planning of operations with adequate force levels and fire power which resulted in successful conclusion of operations.

On the negative side, his abrasive style of leadership particularly in handling officers has created bitterness in section of army just as it also created a group of personal loyalists. This had its fall out when the General had a face off with the President and probably divided the army.

Air force in war

The Eelam War IV saw the extensive use of air support for land and sea operations. The Air Force strengthened with acquisition of new MIG-29 fighters, supported ground operations effectively. Its bombing missions allowed no respite for the LTTE leadership. Relentless air strikes demoralised the Tamil Tigers and prevented their free movement. At sea, the air force helped the navy in operations against Sea Tiger boats. Thus air support was one of the key elements of Sri Lankan success. This is evident from the huge number of sorties the air force flew in the Eelam War IV. In the period from June 2006 onwards till January 2009, the air force carried out a total of 1345 missions flying 2582 sorties of jets and helicopters. Three jet squadrons namely Kfirs (No 10), MIGs (No 12) and F7s (No 5) undertook 1,116 missions while helicopter gun ships took part in 229 operations. However, ground defence of air bases continued to be its weakness.

Navy in war

The navy which was hemmed in the early stages along bases in Jaffna peninsula, Trincomalee Bay and Southern Sri Lanka coasts, managed to improve its performance as the operations progressed. It adopted an offensive posture; up-gunned its patrol boats, coordinated its patrolling and surveillance with Indian navy and coast guard, and improved its electronic and other surveillance with inputs from the Indian and US intelligence agencies.

It managed to suppress the Sea Tiger movements. The navy’s biggest success came when it destroyed most of the LTTE’s captive logistic shipping network sinking eight to ten ships in well planned and executed operations in international waters in 2006-08. The destruction of ships were loaded with millions of rupees worth of military supplies including light aircraft parts, artillery weapons, rockets, small arms and ammunition destined for the LTTE, reduced its sustaining power in war.

Defence coordination

The defence ministry was also responsible for internal security. This enabled the armed forces to achieve a great deal of coordination in employing police and paramilitary forces to prevent the LTTE’s notorious sabotage and suicide strikes from causing significant damage in the rear areas and cities. On the negative side, the concentration of forces law enforcement and national security under a single ministry can give rise to the emergence of yet another power centre in times of political uncertainty.


Sri Lanka armed forces appear to have graduated from a land bound army-dominated force to a strong multifaceted force capable of planning and executing complex operations utilising large sized forces on multiple axes. If the armed forces continue to hone their military skills in the coming years they are likely to become a first rate force supported by competent air and naval forces. Army’s higher command and leadership at various levels have shown they are capable of bouncing back with right leadership. Army has also shown its ability to integrate the air force, navy and paramilitary forces to further overall objectives of operations.

The present strength of the armed forces is about 230,000; individual strength of the three services as gleaned from open sources is as follows:


The army has 12 divisions and four newly raised divisions that are probably under trained and also under strength. Bulk of these forces is deployed in north and east after carrying out the Eelam War IV. Approximately 1000 troops (a battalion+) are with the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti.

The army has seven regiments of armour (including one volunteer regiment), nine regiments of artillery (including two volunteer regiments), seven engineer regiments (including one volunteer regiment), ten regiments of signals (including one volunteer regiment), 97 infantry battalions, one mechanized infantry battalion, four commando regiments and three special forces regiments.
The divisions are slightly smaller than Indian infantry divisions. Both support arm strength and logistics would indicate the Sri Lanka army at present probably can put into operation a force of 10 to 11 fairly self contained divisions, with the rest of the troops being reserves and those under training.

Army as a potential power centre

Armed forces are conscious that their success in the war would not have been possible without Rajapaksa’s leadership and the unprecedented support extended by the government machinery. Thus at the end of the war, a symbiotic relationship between the President and armed forces that came about during the war has now been strengthened. The significance of this relationship is evident when the President’s handpicked officer Lt General Jagat Jayasuriya took over as army commander over looking the recommendation of the out going army chief General Fonseka.

Subsequently officers considered close to Fonseka were retired. The indebtedness of army to President Rajapaksa came to play in the run up to the presidential poll when the army commander and senior officers came out in his support both directly on TV and indirectly through seemingly routine actions.

Sri Lanka armed forces are a sizeable force with considerable military muscle. With subtle politicisation it is emerging as an extra political power centre in the country. Under ambitious commanders such a power centre outside the democratic sphere has the potential to dabble in politics and meddle with government actions, particularly in times of political instability. And the army could become the deciding factor in such uncertain times.

President Rajapaksa and the main political parties are probably conscious of such a possibility. The arrest and prosecution of a man of General Fonseka’s popularity and national stature is probably a testimony to President Rajapaksa’s determination to discourage such possibilities. The General’s well orchestrated campaign brought major opposition parties under a single umbrella, opening up a number of options for anti-Rajapaksa forces. Fonseka had established a network of trusted retired army officers in every district. Evidently this had triggered the President’s suspicion of Fonseka cooking up a military coup about which investigations are underway.

On the other hand, the General and many other officers considered close to him have been slandered and treated in an undignified and shabby way regardless of their loyal service and contribution to win the war. Serious allegations have been made against the retired General and he is being court-martialled. The Sinha Regiment, the parent regiment of the General had been singled out for loyalty checks. And soldiers on security duty were disarmed by police when Fonseka’s office was raided.

Such acts hurting professional pride of soldiers usually have far reaching consequences, though the situation appears normal at present. Probably the army is divided in the cavalier way General Fonseka and his colleagues were handled even though they might not consider the ambitious General free of guilt.

A sizeable section of the population sees the government action against Fonseka as vindictive one. The Fonseka affair frittered away the strategic gains made by the President and distracts the nation from the task of rebuilding. So the impact of dynamics of changes in armed forces would very much depend upon how the President handles and employs them in his second term. The more they are involved to buttress his regime the greater would be the politicisation of the army.

But Rajapaksa is an experienced politician with an uncanny ability to time his actions; so one can expect him to act with a lot of deliberation when it comes to the army.

Air Force

The air force has limited capability to keep Sri Lanka air space sanitized. It is probably capable of providing close air support both with fighters and gun ships to a divisional front. Its air lift capability is probably an infantry battalion minus. However, maintenance of the air force fleet is likely to pose a problem as it is an expensive proposition.


The navy is capable of detecting and engaging intruders along the coast line of Sri Lanka. A coast guard force is being raised. This would further enhance costal security of the country. In tandem with friendly forces its limited off shore capability can be enhanced.


Three issues are of immediate interest in an overall study of dynamics of change in the Sri Lanka armed forces. These are national leadership, strategic role for armed forces and India related issues.

National leadership

President Rajapaksa has demonstrated the importance of dynamic national leadership to prosecute successful war more importantly in achieving military victory against insurgents. He provided national leadership to fine tune government policies including external relations to ensure success of military operations. The President has shown his ability to leverage international environment to further his military objectives. Rajapaksa has shown clarity in preventing political interference in the conduct of military operations, allowing sufficient flexibility to the army commander in his execution.

With a massive popular mandate in parliament and second presidential term he has emerged as an unchallenged leader. His strength is augmented by a powerful army now. Such powerful leadership can enable smooth passage of the country through a difficult journey to normalcy in the post-war period. On the other hand his flaws in leadership style and governance can create divisions within the country and lead to political unrest.

He has failed to take strategic political action towards achieving ethnic amity. Despite repeated public affirmation, President Rajapaksa has not put a political package to resolve the question of devolution of powers to Tamils. Without a parallel political dispensation, military success against the Tamil Tigers in could be frittered away without consolidating the gains of war. Thus the President has left the country vulnerable to revival of such efforts in the future.

Rajapaksa government’s conduct and accountability on issues like fundamental freedom of people, media freedom, human rights, transparency governance, and war crimes has failed to satisfy civil society both at home and abroad. The abrasive style of his ministers and officials particularly in handling international opinion has eroded the nation’s image. Already this is having its effect in actions like the European Union’s withdrawal of the GSP+ duty concessions extended after 2005 tsunami strike. International support is likely to dwindle further, unless he takes concrete measures to satisfy basic norms of international conduct. Absence of international support could also affect taking timely actions to discourage revival of Tamil insurgency with the support of Sri Lankan expatriates once again.

Historically in many countries, the making of national leaders of immense popularity goes through some of the negative aspects Sri Lanka has been facing. Usually in such set ups personalised politics becomes the leader’s operational tool and they tend to use the armed forces at their command to enforce their will. In Sri Lanka there is potential for such a deadly combination. Political power combined with military power can erase the thin line bet between democrats and demagogues both of who may enjoy popularity. Normally, they end up creating life time presidents. But Rajapaksa may prove to be the exception as he has exhibited an uncanny sense of timing his moves to arrive at success during his first term. So his second term in office is going to be crucial for him as much as for the country. We can hope the country under his leadership will spend less time on rhetoric and paranoia and spend more on positive action to achieve political and economic stability sorely needed by the country.

Strategic role for armed forces:

The armed forces have the strength and potential to take a share of responsibility in regional security arrangements to prevent Sri Lanka from becoming the hunting ground for external powers. The introduction of Sri Lanka as a new military factor in the regional security spectrum has to be reckoned in future operational planning of all powers including India. It will be in the interest of both India and Sri Lanka to evolve greater strategic convergence between both countries to ensure better coordination of their security strategies to their mutual advantage. This would enable both nations to keep the Indian Ocean region sanitized from external forces.

The army has expanded too fast and the new recruits’ training had been short. As the new army commander Lt General Jagath Jayasuriya has emphasised the army needs to be trained with greater discipline and professionalism to make it fit a first rate fighting force for conventional operations. This is usually an ongoing process in the army and that should take priority.

The President and the armed forces have developed a symbiotic relationship. And this has introduced a subtle element of politicisation within the armed forces. And the Fonseka affair has introduced seeds of division within the army. This coupled with politicisation of armed forces could be used by unscrupulous commanders to act as a pressure group on the functioning of democratic governments. It would also affect the growth of the army as a disciplined conventional force to effectively take part in a regional security set up.


Although India had adopted a cautious policy of support to the President, he has not fulfilled his promises to India on taking action to devolve powers by implementing the 13th amendment. This has downgraded his credibility among the ruling coalition in India. Apparently for reasons of political expediency he has overlooked India’s support as an essential element in Sri Lanka’s strategic capabilities.

From Indian point of view, there are a few disturbing trends in Rajapaksa’s foreign policy dispensations. One is the slow drift towards China and possibly Iran for reasons of economic support and assistance. While a slow increase in Chinese influence in Sri Lanka is inevitable, its potential to destabilise the power equation in Indian Ocean region and India’s immediate neighbourhood (area of strategic influence in military parlance) cannot be denied. This is likely to come under close scrutiny of both India and the U.S.

A second aspect is Rajapaksa’s continued casual attitude to public sentiments in India, particularly Tamil Nadu, on devolution of powers to Tamils. Though this is no more a major political issue in India, it could be leveraged by extreme Tamil elements to keep the flame of Tamil insurgency flickering in the minds of Sri Lanka Tamils. It can also be taken advantage of by pro-LTTE politicians of Tamil Nadu when the local political climate suits such a development. With coalition politics ruling the roost in New Delhi, India-Sri Lanka relations have the potential to sour.

In view of this New Delhi will have to take a re-look at its Sri Lanka policy and approach it afresh to achieve a win-win situation for both countries.

The threat to internal stability in Sri Lanka is mainly from unresolved ethnic confrontation. For historical and geographic reasons it is closely related to the strategic relationship between India and Sri Lanka. This will involve helping Sri Lanka maintain its unity while resolving the ethnic issue to the satisfaction of all communities. As Sri Lanka now has a strong armed force, it is essential that India and Sri Lanka closely coordinate the long term strategies for security of the two countries and Indian Ocean Region. Thus it is essential India builds a meaningful relationship with President Rajapaksa’s government which is likely to rule for another seven years. This cannot come about unless the ethnic issue is resolved to create a win-win situation within a reasonable time frame.

The time for implementation of 13th amendment even with additional palliatives is well past and it is unlikely to satisfy all parties. It is essential for India to take two initiatives to bring ethnic amity and normalcy. It can use its good offices with Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora to open a positive dialogue with Sri Lanka government while prevailing upon President Rajapaksa to come up with a political agenda for implementation without any more delay. Secondly, extend large scale aid and credit for the reconstruction and development of war ravaged north and east to enable speedy return to normal life in these provinces. This would create a positive stake for Tamils in political participation to ease ethnic tensions to carry out development of northern and eastern provinces.

Although this analysis has not considered the trade and economic aspects, these are key issues that could affect future strategic relations of the country. The Sri Lankan proposal for a road bridge between Sri Lanka and India made by the late Lakshman Kadirgamar is worthy of consideration. This could help the development of backward areas of Tamil Nadu as well as Sri Lanka north.

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