Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The mother of all debacles: 8 years since

EPS copy

EPS - Elephant pass, known for its impregnable defences comprising sophisticated chain linked and plexi glass, blended by natural defences fell to the offensive Tamil Tiger ceaseless waves III formations on the 21st of April 2000 exactly 8 years ago.

EPS till 2000 remained as a permanent impregnable cork to the Tamil Tigers allowing SLA maintain supremacy over the thin neck of land. The EPS defences extended from VETTILEIKERNY 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 sound 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 proven by the Tamil Tigers' failed attack on that area in July-August 1991, when it was under siege for nearly two months.

The EPS defences have long been an anathema to the Tamil Tigers for it not only has denied them free access to the populous peninsula but also hindered the line of communication between the Wanni heartland and Jaffna - the focal point of the Eelam ethos.

Even though EPS fell in April 2000, the actual assault began in December 1999 on the back of the successes of Ceaseless Waves II which completely reversed the years worth of 'successful inroads' within a matter of days beginning with ODDUSUDAN. Ceaseless Waves I was the attack on the Mullaitivu defence complex which was home to the 225 brigade.

During the initial stages of the build up to the attack in an apparent prelude the Tamil Tigers commenced regular mortar barrages towards South Western part of the peninsula such as ARIYALAI and TANANKILAPPU. Barrages were also cued towards the Eastern sector of EPS. SFHQ-J COM also spoke of increased infiltration into the peninsula to conduct harassing fire towards convoys and check-posts.

On December 11, 1999 the Tamil Tigers launched Ceaseless Waves III (Oyatha Alaikal) after a brief respite during its Heroes week. With human waves attempting to break through the staunch EPS defences from the South at PARANTHAN town/junction, Sea Tigers made a landing and managed to secure a beach head by the 12th extending from VETTILEIKERNI to KADDAIKADU. Since the fall of MULATIVU, VETTILEIKERNI's radar and surveillance post was the sole point that performed maritime surveillance. In addition supplies to the entire EPS sector were unloaded here. Even though troops managed to hold on, by Friday 19th, they withdrew from the PARANTHAN town, junction and adjoining areas. This was the last Southernmost area under Government control after EPS. The fall of the satellite camps at PARANTHAN ensured that the main EPS complex would come within range of guerrilla artillery and mortars.

This brought about yet another uneasy lull to the fighting. Even though the guns were somewhat silent, the preparations for the next stage were hectic. Tamil Tigers made good use of this period to finalise their main battle plan using sand models, mock beach assaults and grid mapping (see below for example) the entire EPS area highlighting SLA strong points and breach points. Furthermore they were reinforcing the newly captured Eastern coastal belt with new trenches and bunkers supplemented with probing attacks on the Southern (just North of Paranthan Jct) and Northern (IYAKACHCHI FDL) defences.

An example of a field map of the Tamil Tigers encompassing the MUHAMALE-KILALY-NAGARKOVIL axis. This was found in a pocket of the corpse of a self styled 'Lieutenant' during the failed 2006 Jaffna offensive.

After bracing themselves for the inevitable - the final push towards EPS commenced during the early hours of 26th March 2000 when Sea Tiger units made a landing at NAGARKOVIL, thus extending the beach head from NAGARKOVIL to KADDAIKADU. Once this was secured they made a diversionary thrust using one of their companies North and North West towards KODIKAMAM and MANALKADU. While the diversion was taking place, the remaining companies breached the VATHIRAYAN box from the North and the South (cadres led by Theepan who moved North astride the coastal road passing the CHUNDIKULAM sanctuary from VETTILEIKERNI) capturing CHEMPIANPATTU, MULLIYAN, MARUTHANKERNY making troops withdraw further inland. By doing so the Tamil Tigers had created a flank East to the EPS defences.

With the coastal belt from NAGARKOVIL to KADDAIKAU fully secure, 3 more companies amounting over 1200 cadres led by Balraj moved along this coast from South and crossed the narrow lagoon just North of MARUTHANKERNY and began intercepting convoys plying along the A9 MSR. By 6th April Balraj and his men had succeeded their mission objective by capturing and holding onto a 4Km stretch of the A9 from MUHAMALE to PALLAI. They blew up a bridge at KATTIARATAN in the process.

The operations command with this development were made to re-route the MSR along the dirt tracks via KACHCHAI, ALIPALLAI towards CHAVAKACHCHERI. However, this route proved hazardous since the soft sandy earth at some points along this route did not support wheeled vehicles and made them break down on the way. In addition it came under constant mortar bombardment from the cadres stationed along the A9 and from beached units launched from the PARANTHAN coast.

Even though a counter attack by the CLI and Airmobile Brigade succeeded in re-capturing a 1Km stretch of the MSR, Tamil Tigers pressed on Northwards towards ELUTHMADUWAL, MIRUSUVIL and KODIKAMAM. This was despite Balraj's men running the risk of being boxed in at one stage. By doing so the Tamil Tigers ensured that level 1 reinforcement critically needed to reinforce EPS defences will have to deal with Balraj first before getting to EPS. Waiting in the wings, uncommitted, was Karuna and his men said to be over 1000 strong positioned South of EPS at PARANTHAN and MURASUMODDAI.

After a 2 day lull during the festive season, the Tamil Tigers made their final thrust. It originated from the Eastern flank - VATHIRAYAN. The thrust came from 3 prongs. Reinforcements were reduced only to a trickle by this stage and the fighting further North forced troops to move further inland. With the EPS defences fast dissipating Karuna made the final move by committing his reserve troops to overrun the complex. By 21st April 2000 troops were ordered to abandon the base and withdrew deploying itself in delaying positions.

Its been 8 years since this heart breaking debacle where many a dedicated officers and men laid their blood and soul in defence of this all important base. Since then with utmost dedication and patience SLA have turned the tables on the Tamil Tigers and are conducting frequent probing attacks on the very same defences that were breached. This is a portend of events yet to unfold.

Only time will tell...

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Flank attack: Hit the enemy where it least expects you to

Desert Storm

A classic flank attack: Operation Desert Storm 1991

Flank attack - going around the side of the enemy instead of taking him head on is one of the most basic of manoeuvres. The ultimate goal is encirclement - sealing off and destroying the enemy.

In the modern theatre of battle where casualties run in hand in hand with the political will and stamina to continue combat, flank attack is ideal since it allows the commander to appear where the enemy least expect you to. The idea is not to hit the enemy head on but hit him in the side where he might be weak. If a formation comes from the front towards 100 men, all 100 can shoot at it, but if it comes from the side and if the defence line is only 3 deep, then only 3 can shoot at the incoming formation. Hence it can literally roll down the flank and crush the defender 3 at a time.

One of the classic flanking manoeuvres to take place was operation Desert Storm in 1991 where the allied coalition were pitted against Saddam's forces in Kuwait.

Norman Schwarzkopf - the supreme commander of the allied forces - at first prepares a head on assault from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait to drive the Iraqis out. But his battle planners urged him to reconsider pointing out the open flank to the west to exploit it. Intelligence also suggested that Saddam had a massive well equipped army dug into defensive positions all along the Kuwaiti border. Further to add such a head on assault with the 4th largest army of the world at the time was just the amount of casualties Schwarzkopf wanted to avoid with the Vietnam war syndrome firmly at the back of his mind.

To avoid hitting the well entrenched Iraqis head on, he and his battle planners decided that the main thrust would be toward Saddam's western flank 150 miles deep inside Iraq. With this in mind he begins his force build up in such a way that the build up would lead the Iraqis to believe the main thrust would be from South of the Kuwaiti border. Reports were deliberately leaked to the media to deceive the Iraqis that Schwarzkopf's Rules of Engagement (ROE) limited him to fight only within Kuwait and not in Iraq itself. Further as part of the concealment ops in November 1990 "Exercise Imminent Thunder" - a major amphibious assault landing exercise - by the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) is conducted South of the border. Naval units bombard the Kuwaiti coast and mine sweeping takes place. As further concealment, a base/FARP just 25 miles South of the Kuwaiti border is built. An ammo dump at Gravel Plains adjacent to the Kuwaiti border is also stationed. This made it easier to hide the main heavy attack units - the US 7th core and British armoured 1st division - in the desert West of the perceived main thrust. Like the fake radio messages to convince the Germans that an army existed in Kent in England before the D-day landings deception experts flood the air waves with with radio to convince Saddam that key units are still in original start positions along the Kuwaiti border. Furthermore trucks are driven to start positions in the East as a decoy while the real logistics for the main thrust move at night camouflaging themselves at day covering their tracks in the open desert.

During the final approach to D-day Schwarzkopf began his air campaign. Under this air cover Schwarzkopf moved his 7th core 150 miles west and 18th airborne core west to the 7th core. Then he launches his ground attack. First the southern assault backed by a faint amphibious assault on the Kuwaiti border. Meanwhile the 18th swept across Saddam's flank in the far west and cut off Iraqi supply lines. Then the tanks of 7th core and the British penetrated the Iraqi defences west of the Kuwaiti border conducting the "Hail Mary Pass" to trap Iraqis in Kuwait in one giant pincer movement.

While initiating a frontal assault from Kuwait pinning Iraqi forces in Kuwait and luring in more reinforcement into Kuwait, his flank attack will prevent reinforcement (after Iraqi reinforcements are in Kuwait), seal off escape routes, encircle them and destroy Saddam's army once and for all. Timing on giving the green light for the flank attack was crucial. As turned out, his frontal attack which was part of the concealment, was too successful and drove Iraqis out of Kuwait too quickly that his flank attack did not have enough time to completely seal off their escape. The success of the flanking manoeuvre meant that Saddam who earlier promised the "mother of all battles" was forced to perform the "mother of all retreats" as then Secretary of Defence Dick Cheyney elegantly put in.

The Sri Lankan example:

Vakarai copy

Coming onto the Sri Lankan theatre a classic flank attack was the liberation of VAKARAI (Viharaya) and subsequently the entire four-six sector comprising VAKARAI, KATHIRAVELI and VERUGAL.

After the successful completion of the SAMPOOR campaign, the Tamil Tigers were pushed South of the Verugal river.

Unlike Schwarzkopf who enjoyed a free open Western flank through the Iraqi desert the 23 Division commanders did NOT have a clear flank to exploit. The tiger defences were up to 3 lines deep South of the PANICHCHANKERNI bridge. Hence the initial battle plan was to create a flank involving the thin neck of land protruding East of the four-six sector mainland - that is the narrow stretch of land running up to CHALLITIVU bordering the Upparu lagoon.

On 16th of January 2007 (D-day) troops broke out from KADJUWATTA and by 18th January succeeded in breaking the second line of defence and by the same day evening the 3rd line of defence as South of PANICHCHANKERNI falls to the troops. With these rapid gains in hand 23 division builds up troops, artillery and armour South of the PANICHCHANKERNI bridge hinting that an imminent thrust was about to take place across the bridge. This was further strengthened by heavy volumes of artillery/MBRL fire towards the North bank defences of the Tamil Tigers and engineering units' persistent attempts to diffuse the explosives set along the bridge under the cover of artillery fire.

With this heavy build up of a superior force on the Southern bank, what the Tamil Tigers failed to realise was the fact that 23 division had created a flank East of their defences with the capture of the 3 defence lines they held a few days ago at PANICHCHANKERNI. The flanking attack spear headed by the Special forces commence across the narrow UPPARU lagoon backed by Special infantry and captured the VAKARAI town and hospital by 19th January 2007 (D+3). This caught the Tamil Tigers who were awaiting the main thrust from South unawares. The main thrust was so successful that the Tamil Tigers had no time to muster any counter attack and were in full retreat towards the TRICONAMDU jungles West of VAKARAI and THOPPIGALA. The rapid retreat of the Tamil Tigers who had fortified positions caught the battle planners by surprise, that troops (7GW, 6VIR) converging in to close the gap at TRICONAMADU failed to do so in time. Had the guerillas offered resistance and then retreated along the same jungle terrain, this may have given troops ample time to position themselves to intercept the fleeing guerilla cadres.

This VAKARAI battle also highlights the success of the transition of attritional guerilla warfare to a full blown conventional one. For nearly three months since October 2006, 23 division backed by Special forces conducted a series of raiding operations laying the groundwork for the final assault. The timing of the transition was crucial in this instance. The importance of the timing of the transition from guerilla warfare to a conventional one was amply demonstrated on 6th October 2006 when troops broke out from KADJUWATTA with the same four-six sector as their objective. The conventional tactics of the operation failed giving the Tamil Tiger media bread and butter that lasted for weeks.

As long as modern warfare presents with a well entrenched enemy, a battle planner will always consider to build up his force, conceal the main thrust, attack from the flank and finally encircle his enemy minimising his own casualties for public opinion will not allow for a nation's troops be thrown head on against a well entrenched enemy.