Counterstrike is an integral part of war; get it right and it can reverse the course of a conflict and save the homeland, get it wrong and it can mean a quick defeat. Counterstrike has been the preferred battleplan of aggressive commanders who finds themselves fighting on their own territory. Such battleplans are littered throughout history – Robert E Lee in Virginia in the mid 1860s, Napoleon towards the end of his career while defending France are some of them.
The first and classic example of a counterstrike in the 20th century: the Battle of Tanenburgh
The plan for a counterstrike implies that you know the enemy is going to attack which relies on intelligence. The importance of intelligence was seen in the 20th century’s first and classic example of counterstrike; the battle of Tanenburgh on the eastern front during WWI. In September 1914 the Germans faced their greatest fear; a war on 2 fronts against France and the allies on the west and Russia from the east. The German battle plan relied on intelligence estimates that Russia will be slow to mobilise. But Russia mobilised 2 large armies in just 2 weeks. They advanced into the German eastern province of Prussia in a pincer movement threatening to cut off the single German army left to defend the region. The combined strength of the Russians amounted to 375000 men vastly outnumbering the Germans. The German intelligence misreading of the situation put their country in huge peril. But they made good of their blunder by an extraordinary intelligence cue, they intercepted a message from the General of the northern Russian army saying he can do nothing to support any action of that in the south. Even though they are still vastly outnumbered this new intelligence gave the confidence to the Germans that they could use the full force to destroy the Russian southern army without fear of attack. Germany’s great WW1 leadership team Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had picked off the opportunity to take on the Russian southern army on its own. They moved quickly one core of their small army South by railway to take up positions on the west flank of the advancing Russians. A 2nd core was moved to the North East of the Russian advance. The Russians were totally unaware of these moves. Then the Germans struck. One core slashed across the Russian rear while the 2nd pushed down to link up and squeeze the Russians back. The threat to Germany's eastern border, thus ended.
As much as intelligence holds the key to a successful counterstrike, so is one's force strength - translated in military terms as force ratio which is your strength compared to that of the enemy. The strength is calculated not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of factors such as sophistication of equipment, training and morale. The importance of force ratio is clearly seen in Joseph Stalin's counter strike against Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Even though Stalin held sufficient intelligence on the impending German offensive towards Russia, Stalin decided against a pre-emptive strike or a counterstrike once the Operation Barbarossa had crossed the Russian Eastern border. It was at the earliest stages of the operation the Germans at their weakest. If the Soviets were going to launch a counterstrike it had to be in those early stages. But the Soviets opt not to. In just over 2 weeks the panzers cut more than 300 miles into the Soviet Union opening up the routes to Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow. With the soviet winter fast approaching by December the Germans were just 19 miles off Moscow with the golden towers of the Kremlin within their sights. The main reason behind Stalin's decision to withhold any counterstrike in defence was he did not meet the required force ratio to meet the German challenge. In 1930s Stalin had wreaked massive purges in the red army. Before he can do anything to confront Hitler he had to build up his army again. Further, at outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 both Hitler and Stalin shared the same fear; war on 2 fronts. In Hitler's case it was war against the allies at the west and the Soviet union to the East. For Stalin and his generals it was Hitler on their western border and against Japan on their eastern. They cannot throw all its forces against operation Barbarossa because they have to keep an substantial force in the east to cover a possible attack by Japan. So in the summer of 1941 as the Germans moved deeper into the Soviet Union the balance of force ratio at the west is beginning to shift in Germany's favour. It is at this stage the Russian spy in Japan Dr. Richard Sorge passes on the intelligence Stalin had been waiting for. Sorge confirmed Japan will go to war, not north and west towards Russia as Stalin feared but South and East giving Stalin the opportunity to mobilise his 40 Eastern and Siberian Divisions to the West to meet the German threat thus meeting his requirement of force ratio for a successful counterstrike.
The land that eluded Jayasikurui
When Operation Jayasikurui was inching ahead along the A9 with heavy casualties the Tamil Tigers prior to recommencing their ceaseless waves series of attacks, carried out a series of six devastating counterattacks on SLA defences. These operations were less known since they did not involve holding land, but to incur maximum damage to the foe and to stall the main advance and drive the focus of the battleplanners away from their main objective.
The first of the series came on the 9th of June 1997 where the Yearlong Jayasikurui campaign began - Vavuniya's THANDIKULAM entry/exit point and NOCHCHIMODAI defences- while 55 and 53 were on the verge of an all-important link-up at PULIYANKULAM. Karuna and 600 of his men/women stormed the defences flank West from 3 points between THANDIKULAM and KOKKUVELIYA cutting off 55 from its rear support base. They held onto a 3Km stretch between NOCHCHIMODDAI to THANDIKULAM for one whole day. It was not until Wednesday when troops backed by commandos managed to link up the lost stretch of the A9. The casualties added up to over 200.
The second counter offensive came on the 24th of June. This time the offensive broke through the Eastern flank of the 55 division at PANNIKANIRAVI isolating 551 from the rest of the Division. Simultaneously to this attack, the Tamil Tigers struck at PERIYAMADU to pin down the 53 division thus preventing it from sending reinforcements to the 55 Division. Since the two divisions were yet to link up at PULIYANKULAM, the Tamil Tigers exploited the gap between the two divisions to manoeuvre its fighting units to strike the Eastern flank of 55 despite 53 positioned on a wider eastern flank to 55. The Tamil Tigers who breached the Eastern flank then went onto breach the Western flank to make their exit, leaving a trail of destruction. Casualties on this occasion added to over 100. The third counter strike saw defences between PULIYANKULAM and OMANTHAI fall on 1st of August 1997 leaving over 70 casualties. By this stage, the Jayasikurui campaign was yet to bring PULIYANKULAM under its control.
By September the commanders realised on how futile it has been to strike PULIYANKULAM head on. Instead they decided to make 55 bypass the town and emerge at the A9 North of the town linking up with 53 in the process. By doing so it would envelope the town cutting off supplies. Towards the end of September 55 achieved its objective by holding a small stretch of the A9 just North of PULIYANKULAM. However, as planned 53 failed to link up due to the 4th Counter offensive by the Tamil Tigers. 53 came under attack at KARAPPAKKUTTI - North East of PULIYANKULAM leaving over 50 casualties. With this set back 53 continued their thrust on a wider flank encompassing PULIYANKULAM and cutting off supply routes from MULLATIVU to PULIYANKULAM. While one column of troops were moving parallel to the A9 at KARUPPUKUTTI, 53 were moving ahead from NAINAMADU towards KARUPPADDAMURIPPU. This was the setting for the 5th Counterstrike that took place on the 5th of October 1997. 533 commando brigade and 552 both came under fire at South of KARUPPADDAMURIPPU. This initial strike was a diversion to the main strike that took place further South of KARUPPADDAMURIPPU at KARUPPUKKUTTI and SINNA ADAMPAN. Fighting continued for 3 days and as before, caused the troops positioned South of KARUPPADDAMURIPPU to be isolated from the supporting columns further South. The casualties were over 50 on this occasion with a huge haul of military hardware falling into guerilla hands including the air conditioned mobile command post (MCP) of GOC 53 division.
The 6th Counter strike came on the 4th of December barely 3 weeks after the Jayasikurui campaign finally managed to capture PULIYANKULAM (on the 14th of November 1997). Troops broke out of PUTUR and moved towards the strategic MANKULAM junction/town. The strike took place at KANAKARAYANKULAM just North of PULIYANKULAM that led to over 140 casualties mostly of which were commandos.
The big hallmark of each of these counterstrikes has been the extensive use of mortar/artillery fire to support the forward columns of the Tamil Tigers. The intelligence estimates suggested by 1997 the Tamil Tigers had extensive stocks of shells for 81mm and 120mm calibre mortar/artillery. The 81mm were mostly courtesy of the 32400 mortars it managed to divert from Zimbabwe Defence Industries, while the Mulativu defence complex housed over 6000 120mm shells when it was over run in 1996. This is in addition to the regular shipments it received during the same period continuing onto 2000. In addition to the vast volumes of indirect fire, the primary reason for SLA’s failure during these years has been its inability to counter/suppress such fire. One such contribution towards this inability has been the lack of sufficient platforms in SLAF’s arsenal. By the year 2000 SLAF were in possession of only 5 Kfir C2 aircraft with only two combat worthy. More effective ground attacking platforms such as the Kfir C7 and the MIG27Ms saw service within the SLAF only in July 2000. In addition to superior platforms SLAF have also been strengthening its array of available munitions particularly to target large numbers of loose formations of combatants. Prior to 2000 SLAF only used unguided low drag iron bombs and unguided rockets on such loose formations/waves which is very ineffective.
When SLAF for the last 6 years have slowly increasing its capabilities to counter mass waves of Tamil Tigers and its support fire, so has the SLA with almost triple the amount of artillery assets and fire locating radars than it previously had during the late 1990s and early 2000. The most notable of the additional assets has been the RM-70 MBRL with its superior rate of fire it can suppress enemy fire and movement for a considerable period. The lack of any successful military campaign since the capture of EPS in early 2000 especially the battles to capture Jaffna in September 2000 and August 2006 speaks great volumes of the effectiveness of the new fire power of the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The other dimension to the Tamil Tiger failure on such a counterattack has been its lack of leadership and SLA's pursuit of eliminating key Tamil Tiger field operatives. Not all commanders have the ability to lanch a counterattack battleplan. As much as a commander that leads an offensive into enemy territory needs to be dynamic and bold, the commander who launches the counter strike needs to be even more dynamic and even more bolder often because he himself has just suffered a defeat and he’s just got to take on an enemy that’s just won a victory and exploit a certain success that might not be eagerly apparent to him. What he needs to do is to move quickly, he needs to be fast and above all, he needs to throw caution to the wind. With the Tamil Tigers losing its premier commanders with the likes of renegade Karuna, Balraj, Charles, Thamil Chelvan etc it is unlikely that the replacements will be able to emulate and deliver the same dynamic bold feats and charisma of these late commanders.
The Sri Lankan armed forces with its multi-pronged approach to Wanni since the liberation of the Eastern province has surely put the pressure on Tamil Tiger battleplanners to turn the tide in its favour. With no successful offensive since the year 2000 Ceaseless Waves III coming forth and with three bloody noses - twice in Jaffna (2000 and 2006), once in MUTHOOR/TRINCOMALEE in 2006 - the onus is on the Tamil Tigers to fulfil the aspirations of its ever dwindling Diaspora support base. Only time will tell...