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Implications of joint US - Sri Lanka military exercises

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The report of the impending major US naval exercise with the Sri Lankan Navy planned towards the end of this month is making news in India and else where. It appears that the exercise is so timed (on the eve of the scheduled talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government at Geneva) as a show of strength to let the LTTE know that the US backs the Sri Lankan initiative and also is willing to provide military assistance to Sri Lanka.

The participation by US Ships of the fifth fleet and over 1000 troops is significant for many reasons. The exercise is planned in the strategic location close to Hambana thota where the Chinese have made heavy investments. While some analysts have opined that this location is so chosen to also convey a message to China, such an analysis may be only partially accurate and is unlikely to change the Chinese strategy in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese have their own agenda and would like to carry on with their own strategy to seek entry and gradual dominance in the strategic areas of Indian ocean by investments and alliances. All most all such investments have been a part of the grand strategy to have outposts in the Indian Ocean and to protect the energy routes (80 percent of the energy flows to China pass through the Indian Ocean). As and when the PLA Navy is ready to venture in to the Indian Ocean, it would have the ‘string of pearls’ strategy in place. India’s reluctance to play any positive role in the region to provide the required environment for the peace process appears to have brought the US forces to the Sri Lankan shores.

The scope of the present exercises includes amphibious operations and counter insurgency operations. From the Sri Lankan Naval point of view, this exposure and training would prepare them better to face the menacing threat of the LTTE. In the recent engagements, the Sri Lankan Navy has not fared badly at all in countering the asymmetric threat posed by the suicide squads of the black tigers. In the Eastern theatre, despite some losses, the Sri Lankan Navy did ensure that there were no major surprises from the LTTE. The attacks on Trincomalee were also repulsed effectively and the Army was able to march in to Sampur after effective bombing by the Kfir jet of the Sri Lankan Air Force on rebel held areas.. (Please see fall of Sampur http://saag.org/papers20/paper1941.html), Even the attack in the Galle harbour on the Dakshina naval base on 18th October 2006 did not result in major losses, though it effectively brought out the reach and intent of the LTTE in pursuing it attacks in any part of the Island.

It has also been reported that the US specialists had a role in training both the Military and the paramilitary forces in the methods to protect the strategic harbour of Trincomalee from attacks. There were also some reports that Pakistan also was training the Sri Lankans. Some went to the extent of suggesting that the Pakistani pilots were flying the Kfirs which was unlikely!

From the point of US, this exercise has a lot to do with its Littoral warfare doctrine. After 9/11 the U.S identified ports, airfields and air space for its armed forces around the world under the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and concluded an agreement with Sri Lanka in 2002 for use of such facilities.

The ACSA which has its origins in the NATO mutual support Act was the first such agreement between Sri Lanka and a Western power since its independence in 1948. Analysts would recollect the furore in India in the 1980s about the reported permission to have the Voice of America station located on the Island.

While the stated intention was to target China, North Korea and Myanmar to beam it programmes for these countries, it was speculated that this was just a ruse to set up listening posts in the strategic Island during the cold war. India was successful then in preventing the US entry by using every means that it had in its armoury. Trincomalee a natural deep-water port would continue to be important not just to US but also to any naval power because of its strategic positional advantage. This also explains why India subsequently went in to Trincomalee with the Indian Oil Company setting up its facilities.

If setting up of such strategic posts and maintaining a visible presence in the Indian Ocean as part of the cold war philosophy was important during the cold war period, it is no different today except the fact that US in the present day scenario would be comfortable in training armed forces of the littorals who as allies would protect the interests of the sole super power in the region. This obviously helps in minimising the military expenditure and allows better control and coordination in littoral warfare.

Coming to India, it looks as though she is quite happy in letting matters as they are. With the renewed strategic alliance with US, it has hardly made any noise about the exercise of the US forces with the Sri Lankans or their presence. On the contrary, there may be even some relief that US is doing something in its backyard where despite being a legitimate player, India itself is hesitant in engaging itself. At the moment, India apparently bowing to Tamil sentiments has unwisely dissociated itself from the Island and has allowed western players to have their say in the peace process. It has also allowed its archrival Pakistan to be in a position to supply arms and ammunition to Sri Lanka by refusing to supply the hardware that was requested by Sri Lanka.

In conclusion, it is not that the Americans have returned, they have always been omnipresent. But with all the inaction by India it is only natural that the vacuum created would be filled in by any external power that can cash in on the opportunity to serve its own national interests. From all indications it is clear that Sri Lanka also has joined the list of neighbours that India has not been able to manage despite the natural and obvious advantages enjoyed by it.

**The author a naval officer is an alumnus of both the Defence Services Staff College and the College of Naval Warfare (CNW). Presently he is with Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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