EPS - Elephant pass, known for its impregnable defences comprising sophisticated chain linked plexi glass blended by natural defences fell to the offensive LTTE ceaseless waves III formations on the 21st of April 2000. Since then Tamil Tigers have flooded into the Jaffna peninsula.
EPS till 2000 remained as a permamnent impregnable cork to the Tamil Tigers alowing SLA maintain supremacy over the thin neck of land dominating all land communications between the LTTE's Wanni bases and Jaffna. The EPS defences extended from Vettilaikerny and Iyakachchi in the North to Paranthan in the South and was spread well over 70 square kilometres complete with man made satellite bases with well complimented natural obstacles of lagoon and sea fronts forming a tactically complementary fortification. It was home to the 54 Division. In addition over two Divisions were deployed for its defence. How formidable and tactically sound these defences were established by the LTTE's failed attack on that area in July-August, 1991, when it was under siege for nearly two months.
It still stood tall to wave after wave of tamil tiger cadres during the initial thrusts of ceaseless wave III until the MSR was cut off from Muhamale to Pallai. Although the base fell on April the initial assault on EPS began as early as November 1999. If the guerillas took on EPS in 1991 in a conventional style operation, ceaseless wave III saw EPS being cut off its MSR prior to commencement of the full frontal assault.
Because it secured the gateway to Jaffna - the cultural centre of the Eelam ethos, the victory of Elephant Pass is considered as the greatest victory ever in the history of LTTE in its struggle for the separate homeland, Tamil Eeelam. With the fall it gave the LTTE's sea arm - the sea tigers unprecedented access to the coast spanning from Kokkutuduvai to Vettileikerni that facilitated them a greater capability of offshore movement to sustain maritime operations and logistics.
With the reversal of fortunes on the back of a revamped strategy there is much demand from the gung-ho Sri Lankan lay camp for a forward march towards EPS and bring the famed base back to its former glory. With just over 2 months away for the 8th year since the fall of EPS, with the current theatre of operations in mind; how feasible is it to march, hold captured ground and rebuild the formidable fortifications? Most of all, by doing so what strategic advantage would it bring to SLA?
Kilaly - Muhamale - Nagarkovil axis since 2001 has been the 'national front' or the new EPS of the security forces. The defences constructed along this axis is pretty much similar if not stronger compared to the defences existed at EPS.
With the advent of the divisions 57, 58 and 59 based at Southern Wanni the SLA have managed to put pressure on the LTTE's southern front spanning from the Mannar rice bowl from West towards Kokkutuvai in the east.
The aim of continued marauding raids from the North and subsequent return to original lines means that it deprives the LTTE a much needed stable launching pad if the need arises to storm the Northern defences in a bid to capture Jaffna.
In August 2006 saw one of the bloodiest, fiercest multi-pronged fighting courtesy of the LTTE - code named ceaseless waves IV. It began with the LTTE concentrating on assault landings on Jaffna islets thereby using those as springboards to land at the coast of Jaffna thus flanking the Jaffna defences. At the same time another assault group was deployed to outflank the SLA defences of Muhamale and Eluthmaduval by assault landing at Kilaly.
For such a large scale operation the LTTE requires massive man power as well as large stocks of ammunition, especially indirect fire ammunition. This is something the LTTE are not enjoying at present. Thanks to marauding small scale group attacks the LTTE are pinned down all the way from Mannar to Welioya. Likewise by creating an ever hostile environment from the Northern front the SLA has managed to pin down the LTTE's Northern formations in a defensive posture. This is always welcome news for the Jaffna command. Ever since the dawn of Eelam wars, this defensive posture of LTTE is something the SLA has never enjoyed.
Unlike in the East and Southern Wanni, the Northern FDLs are fixed with each facing the other across a no man's land. This makes it a conventional FDL. If the SLA are to move ahead of their FDLs as they did on the 29th of January aiming to hold ground and subsequently march towards EPS, they need to negate the indirect fire threat positioned along the Pooneryn-Paranthan axis. One needs to bear in mind that the LTTE does not require its long range 130mm type 59 howitzers to target the area spanning from Muhamale to EPS. All it needs are its 120mm heavy arti mortars. One shell landing in close proximity to troops can account for 8-10 deaths. Hence to account for 100+ casualties all it takes is a dozen of such rounds. SLA have learnt their lesson the hard way especially on October 11th 2006. In my opinion before such a ambitious operation takes place SLAF and SLA's artillery batteries needs to neutralise these indirect fire support of the Tamil tigers more than anything else. Given the fact that the lTTE has in possession over 100 of such T-86 120mm mortar guns and their past successes of the shoot and scoot manoeuvre, relying on neutralising such fire for the forward march is tactically unsound.
The other reason as to why it is hard for such a forward march is the fact that this sector is flat open land which provides no cover to advancing troops. The land is so barren that only small ground hugging twigs and isolated palmyrah trees grow. This makes conventional warfare the only tactic available for the men of 55/53 divisions. The highly successful unorthodox 8 man guerilla team tactics are suicidal on such barren open land. They can easily fall prey to ever so vigilant LTTE spotters (thereby mortars), snipers and booby traps. The thin isthmus of land also means that the tigers can employ bottle neck tactics where superiority by numbers does not account for anything. Even if SLA manages to dislodge the tamil Tigers from their first FDL (as they did on October 11 2006) they have to prepare themselves for the impending counter attack with little or no defensive cover making the hunter become the hunted. By opening up one single front allows the LTTE's artillery/mortar units to cue its fire power on one area. The conventional tactics the SLA are forced to employ also means that this area is expected to hold a large concentration (troops/ground area ratio) of infantry men. Hence even if the Tiger mortar/artillery lacks proper accuracy it can still cause considerable amount of splash damage casualties thus stalling the forward thrust. This makes the front line armour run the risk of being isolated by the supporting columns. Moreover even if the forward thrust was successful in securing EPS, the thrust will have to continue up to at least Paranthan as part of its former impregnable defences in order to take out LTTE mortar units out of range.
This is the reason why an assault landing brought about rich dividends to both warring parties - first to Lt. gen Kobbakaduwa in 1991 and last to Balraj and his fighting formation who landed successfully at the Vettileikerni corridor (Part of the Vathirayan box) outflanking the enemy defences. Unless a similar feat could be pulled off, the EPS base will remain elusive for the SLA for years to come. Only time will tell...