Use & Misuse of Special Forces in Sri Lanka — Does the SL Army Need to Rethink its Special Operations Doctrine?
One of the more interesting presentations at the recently concluded seminar, titled Defeating Terrorism: the Sri Lankan Experience, organised by the MoD and the SL Army, was done by Brig Nirmal Dharmaratne, the Special Forces Brigade commander, on the use of special operations forces in the defeat of the LTTE. The Sunday Times ran an excerpt of the paper on June 5th.
As with most of the seminar’s presentations, this too concentrated on the SL Army’s experience rather than that of the defence forces as a whole, and Brig Dharmaratne stuck to outlining the contribution of the SL Army’s two special operations units — the Commandos and the Special Forces, running through their missions and the tactics and strategies employed against the Tigers.
Although both the Commandos and the Special Forces were originally raised with very distinct and individual missions in mind, Brig Dharmaratne’s presentation seems to indicate that both formations were used in mutually interchangeable roles ranging from strategic deep penetration missions to direct infantry assaults on Tiger strongpoints. Therefore, I too am going to simply look at both these elite units together, examining the roles they were used in both in the North and East, before examining them individually and comparing them to similar foreign special operations units and their roles.
Before I do that, let’s take a quick look at the original missions these formations were raised to conduct. When the Commando Regiment was raised back in 1980, the SL Army was a totally different organisation from the one we see today, and more importantly, so were the Tamil militants. The SL army numbered around 10,000 troops, and the terrorists a tenth of that. The soldiers carried unweildy British rifles and obsolete submachine-guns, with little or no armour, artillery or air support. The terrorists were armed with little better than pistols and submachine-guns and rode around on bicycles.
The Commandos were formed as a direct action and counter-terror force, tasked with raiding terrorist bases deep in the jungle that could not be reached by regular infantry units. It was also envisaged that the Commandos would be the dedicated hostage rescue team in the event of a hostage crisis, regardless of whether it happened within the theater of military operations or not. For this purpose, the Commandos were initially trained by former members of the British Special Air Service (SAS), and the Commandos’ role was more or less that which the SAS had had been tasked with during WW2 and in the ’50s and ’60s in Oman, Malaya, and Borneo; basically small unit raids that could not be conducted by larger formations such as the British Commandos and Chindits.
The Special Forces were raised in 1985, and clearly a different role was planned for them that was distinct from the ranger/raider-oriented mission of the Commandos. This was articulated as unconventional warfare operations in both urban and remote rural environments. This was a role closer to that of the US Special Forces, and one which the SAS too had adapted to; that of fighting as guerrillas, saboteurs, and in fact “terrorists”. In WW2, this role had mostly been undertaken by civilian organisations such as the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), mostly because there were no military units trained or ready to carry out such missions. By the ’60s, however, the fledgling US Special Forces and the reinstituted SAS had taken on this role.
In spite of the fact that both the Commandos and Special Forces had seemingly distinct and separate roles to each other, the leadership of both formations ambitiously expanded their roles in the early ’90s, competing with each other for MoD budget allocations, until by the end of the 20th century, both formations were virtually indistinguishable from each other when it came to mission role. The Special Forces had even usurped the SL Navy Special Boat Squadron’s amphibious specialisation, eventually relegating that unit to a support role, much as the Commandos had once done to the SL Air Force’s special operations unit which specialised in air mobility. Both units were running long range sabotage and assassination missions, strategic and tactical reconnaissance, training indigenous units like the National Guard Battalions and the Civil Defence Force, maintaining a hostage rescue capability, and operating with former separatist organisations like the Karuna Group and the EPRLF. They were also often misused as shock troops when regular infantry units were unable to overcome Tiger defences, and this often resulted in heavy casualties among these elite troops. This latter role was very similar to that carried out by the US Ranger Regiments in WW2. As Eelam War IV approached, both the Commandos and Special Forces, either by necessity or ambition, were covering every aspect of infantry warfare, both conventional and unconventional.
When full scale combat operations against the Tigers commenced in the Eastern Province in 2007, both the Commandos and Special Forces had already been conducting long range assassination missions as well as strategic reconnaissance for almost a year. Once conventional infantry operations began, these two formations were used in the Tigers’ immediate rear to break up and channel Tiger forces into areas where they were more vulnerable to the conventional infantry assaults of the SL Army’s regular battalions and brigades. For ease of control, the Special Forces were given an area of operations (AO) north of the Polannaruwa-Batticaloa A11 highway, while the Commandos’ AO was south of the road. For these operations, both formations operated in company- or squadron-sized units, using their high mobility to move ahead of the infantry battalions, acting in a role comparable to that of the British and US airborne forces during the D-day landings. In effect, these formations were operating in the role of elite light infantry rather than true special operations forces.
Once the Eastern Province had been captured, these same tactics were then extended to the North. Tiger units moving up to engage Army infantry and armour, found themselves under attack by Commandos and Special Forces, taking precious casualties, expending ammunition, and arriving at the front exhausted and thinned down in numbers. Similarly, Tiger reinforcements moving up to support heavily pressed frontline units were ambushed and delayed, limiting their usefulness. An example of this was the wiping out of a 120-man relief column under Tiger Col Lawrence, trying to fight its way into the besieged Aanandapuram cauldron in April 2009. Again, this was normally a classic role for airborne or airmobile infantry.
Brig Dharmaratne also goes on to explain how the Commandos and Special Forces were used to protect and screen the flanks of the Army divisions, enabling them to move at a far faster pace than if those big formations had had to anchor their own flanks against Tiger attacks. In addition, special operations units were used as a fire force to plug any gaps in the line caused by Tiger counterattacks. Initially, this was done as an emergency measure, as when the 572nd Brigade of the 57th Division, advancing on Madhu in early 2008 was pushed back by a fierce Tiger counterattack. Two Special Forces squadrons were thrown in and stabilised the line after two days of heavy fighting. But as the fighting swept east across the Wanni and, particularly in the last weeks of the war, when the restrictive battle space prevented special operations units from ranging freely behind enemy lines, they were pulled back to be held as ready a reserve, proving more than capable of stopping three attempted Tiger breakouts. Once more, while the Commandos and Special Forces demonstrated just why they are considered elite, this task could have been given to an airborne or Ranger unit, if the SL Army had one in its inventory.
Another task given to Sri Lanka’s special ops units was to act as shock troops; using their high skill and motivation to overcome particularly stubborn Tiger defences that had defeated more conventional units. This is considered a highly wasteful way to employ these valuable troops, but in February 2008, the 572nd Brigade in the Thampanai area, was being held back in its advance on Madhu by a line of Tiger strongpoints, and it took a Special Forces raid to break the deadlock. This role is again normally tasked to elite infantry units rather than special forces; case in point, the US Ranger storming of Pointe du Hoc at Normandy, and the British Parachute Regiment assault on Wireless Ridge in the Falklands.
Special operations troops were also regularly used as pathfinders, using darkness to move into blocking positions that could be reinforced by infantry at daybreak, or by actually guiding infantry units into forward positions from which they could launch their attacks. In most armies this task would have been undertaken by brigade or divisional reconnaissance units like Marine Recon in the US Marines or the Rangers in the US Army.
In addition to these controversial roles, the Commandos and Special Forces continued to carry out their specialised deep penetration missions for as long as was practically possible, gathering intelligence through surveillance, but also targeting Tiger leaders, killing or injuring them, and restricting their mobility. They also forced the Tigers to divert large numbers of troops to rear area security duties who could otherwise have been deployed to the frontlines.
However, by now it must be apparent that the SL Army needs to bridge the gap between the strategic special operations forces such as the Commandos and Special Forces and the regular infantry battalions. While it is true that these two formations performed admirably and covered all missions assigned to them, it is doubtful how long such sustained and widespread operations could have been maintained. Most militaries categorise their special operations needs into tactical and strategic areas, and form units specialised in those areas. Perhaps it is time for Sri Lanka to do the same, particularly since it has two Army formations doing essentially all the jobs.
In the US Army, the Special Forces is a strategic formation, tasked with unconventional warfare across the whole of a theater, while the 75th Rangers is used as a more tactical unit, tasked with missions specific to a particular area of operations, usually just beyond the forward edge of the battle space. The latter would also be used to plug vulnerable points in the lines like flanks and to act as a fire force. When high quality infantry were required for tasks of a scale too large for the Rangers, elite light infantry like the 82nd Airborne or the 101st Air Assault are used. The same pretty much goes for the British Army where the SAS is essentially a strategic unit. Tactical reconnaissance is carried out by a Brigade Reconnaissance Force drawn from the relevant brigade. The British have specialised even further by creating a dedicated close surveillance unit, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, from the old 14 Intelligence Company, which specialises in urban surveillance. In Israel, Sayeret Matkal is the strategic reconnaissance unit (yup, the guys who did the Entebbe raid), while regular infantry formations have their own reconnaissance units — Sayeret Duvduvan of the Paratroopers Brigade, Sayaret Golani of the Golani Brigade, etc.
Most of the SL Army’s regiments or corps date back to before the war, with the few new ones — the Commandos, the Special Forces, the Mechanised Infantry, the Presidential Guard, etc — having been created to directly address a particular need in the war against the Tigers. With the war now over, perhaps it’s time for the Army to look at specialising more, defining the role of how it will conduct special operations in future wars. The current doctrine is not sustainable in a protracted conflict; it duplicates roles and requires everybody to train for every possibility, which is expensive and wasteful.
The most practical approach would be to redefine the two premier special operations units, according to role. Logically, the Special Forces, which was created for unconventional warfare, should have the strategic role, while the Commandos with its raider/ranger ethos should take the tactical role. The Special Forces would in essence be purely a guerrilla unit, tasked with operating deep in enemy territory for extended periods, gathering intelligence, training locals, and carrying out operations alongside them. The Commandos would operate off the forward edge of the battle space, tasked with aggressive attacks on the enemy rear, reconnaissance in support of the battlefield formations, as well as acting as a fire force. In addition, the Commandos could carry out the brigade or divisional reconnaissance role, since unlike the US military, SL Army battalions are not native to particualr divisions or brigades, and it would be hard to draw and train a permanent force from these units.
Unfortunately, there is likely to be a lot of resistance to this from high ranking former Commando and Special Forces officers who would be irked to see their units losing some roles (and budgets), and it would take a firm hand — perhaps that of the Defence Secretary himself — to see this through. A second option, though less practical, and likely to be resisted just as much would be to amalgamate the Commandos and Special Forces into a single unit and create a new Ranger-type unit to take on the tactical role.
They say military training must be about winning the next war, not fighting the last one; and for the good of Sri Lanka and it’s continued defence, our special forces doctrine must be re-examined before we loose the advantage of the knowledge gained in this war.