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Palaly: revamping a lifeline

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As its paramilitary units continue their shadow war against the Liberation Tigers, Sri Lanka’s military has stepped up the fortification of its positions in the Jaffna peninsula. This week Colombo accelerated the revamping and expansion of the strategically important airbase at Palaly.

An estimated forty thousand Sri Lanka Army (SLA) troops are based in the Jaffna peninsula. Villages and towns in almost a third of the peninsula have been enclosed in the military High Security Zones, including all major ports and the region’s sole airstrip at Palaly. Several thousand acres of agricultural land and residential areas were brought under the HSZs when the Sri Lankan military first extended the Palaly runway for military purpose over fifteen years ago, forcing hundreds of thousands of families to become internally displaced. Despite obliged to under the terms of February 2002 ceasefire, the military has steadfastly refused to scale back the HSZs to allow resettlement.

Cut off from the south by a huge swathe of territory held by the Liberation Tigers, the Palaly airbase and a clutch of small ports located at the northern end of the peninsula provide the Jaffna garrison with its only means of resupply. Whilst Sri Lanka Navy supply convoys shuttling from the port at Kankesanthurai (KKS) to the major naval base at Trincomalee can move men and supplies, they are slow and, at times of conflict, hard fought, running a relentless gauntlet of Sea Tiger attacks. Therefore, in the event of heavy fighting in the Jaffna peninsula, the airbase is critical for resupply and casualty evacuation. Furthermore, with the Sea Tigers, like the SLN, reported to have expanded their capabilities in the past few years, there is a serious possibility of the Jaffna ports being blockaded. With this in mind, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) has been seeking more transport aircraft, including the versatile Hercules C130. The SLAF has a fleet of Antonov An32 aircraft, which have formed the mainstay of the Jaffna-Colombo air bridge.

The construction of another airstrip was started several months ago in case the existing airstrip becomes unusable

The Sri Lankan military’s concerns stem from the serious difficulties it faced in 2000 when LTTE forces which had overrun the SLA base complex at Elephant Pass. In May that year, the Sri Lankan government was forced to suspend operations in KKS harbour and cancel all civilian and military traffic from Palaly after LTTE troops advanced into the Chavakachcheri sector and were able to bring their artillery to bear on both. Only after heavy fighting (in which Chavakachcheri town was completely destroyed) forced the LTTE to withdraw from the region were these bases able to function.

As the Norwegian diplomats struggle to reinitiate negotiations and the smouldering shadow war between paramilitaries backed by Sri Lankan military intelligence and the LTTE continues, Colombo is rushing to prepare the Palaly airbase for major military operations. Although it is estimated it would take six to twelve months for the runway and other facilities to be ready, Sri Lanka is pulling out the stops to get the work completed well before that, the Virakesari newspaper reported. Transport flights have reportedly been suspended to allow the work to proceed. The construction of another airstrip was started several months ago in case the existing airstrip becomes unusable, the paper also learnt.

The present Palaly airstrip is reportedly dilapidated state, with many craters and surfaced with poor quality tar. To completely revamp the runway will cost an estimated 500 million rupees (about US$ 5 million), the Virakesari reported. The poor state of the runway at Palaly has resulted in unacceptable levels of damage to the SLAF’s transport aircraft due to heavy vibrations during take off or landing. The use of the propeller-driven C130 and An32 aircraft has therefore been stopped, until repairs are effected. SLAF Air Marshal Perera has assigned his Chief of Staff Air Vice Marshal Laksan Salgodo to personally supervise work related to the upgrading of the runway, The Sunday Times reported last month. But the timing of the construction and the urgency with which it is being undertaken has raised doubts about the proffered rationale.

Although it had initially planned to rely on resupply by sea whist the runway remained closed, Sri Lanka is now looking to urgently lease two heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopters from India to meet daily demand, including the shuttling of up to 750 soldiers a day, rediff.com reported. The Island newspaper quoted a military official as saying the two helicopters would be needed for six months. The Mi-26, the largest transport helicopter in service today, can reportedly transport 95 troops in each flight in addition to a heavy cargo load. With an eight-blade main rotor, the Mi-26 is capable of single-engine flight in the event of loss of power by one its two engines. Several are in service with the Indian Air Force, ferrying supplies and troops to otherwise inaccessible Indian Army outposts along the Himalayan frontiers. The reconstruction and expansion of the Palaly airbase and KKS navy base is being undertaken with India’s assistance, Tamil press reports said. The bolstering of Sri Lanka’s defences in the Jaffna peninsula is one of a range of initiatives agreed between Delhi and Colombo in the past two years, even though a formal agreement is yet to be signed.

But Sri Lanka’s airbases are also of interest to the United States, which has been seeking basing opportunities in South Asia. In a extensive study of US strategic interests in the region published by TamilNet after his death, defence analyst Dharmeratnam Sivaram argued that Sri Lanka was a prime candidate for two reasons; the island’s “central position between the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz” and Sri Lanka’s military and intelligence services’ long-standing and close institutional relationship with British and American counterparts. He cited a Department of Defence (DoD) study which, noting that Sri Lanka’s “infrastructure for basing opportunities are excellent,” had specific recommendations for the Sri Lanka Army and Air Force. “It was basically about improving Palaly, China Bay and advantage of building new international dual-purpose airfield in Kuda Oya,” Sivaram said. “If the update is read together with the RAND report it gives a clear picture of US strategic aims in developing Palaly, Trinco, Kuda Oya.”

The timing of the construction and the urgency with which it is being undertaken has raised doubts.

US interest in Sri Lanka’s bases were underlined on March 15, 2002 when top American officials led by Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca and US Marines General Timothy Ghormley landed at Palaly in a US Special Forces C-130. Coming just weeks after the internationally monitored ceasefire came into being, the arrival in Jaffna of a US military aircraft was sent an unmistakable message to South Asia.

And despite strong US backing for the Norwegian peace process, Washington has been building up the Sri Lankan military in an ongoing, albeit low key, programme. Last week, six officers from the US Pacific Command made an inconspicuous visit to the Jaffna peninsula to meet with Sri Lankan commanders and discuss their preparations, press reports said. The US officers first flew by SLAF helicopters to Point Pedro and Nagarkovil, where they reviewed the troops and frontline defences. They were accompanied by Major General Sunil Tenakoon, the SLA’s overall commander for the Jaffna peninsula. The US officers met with commanders of the SLA’s 51-4 brigade before travelling to Nagarkovil, where they inspected bunkers and talked to the soldiers manning them. The following day, the US officers visited the SLN bases at Kankesanthurai and Karainagar and held discussions with senior naval commanders there.

This is the latest in a series of visits by US officials to the Sri Lankan military’s frontline bases. A five member US military intelligence team inspected the KKS harbour and Palaly base in July 2004, Tamil press reports said. The also visited Sri Lanka army camps in Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Quoting senior military officers at the Palaly headquarters, Thinakkural said that the US team had discussed the international support network of the Liberation Tigers, their electronic intelligence gathering capabilities, security of Sri Lanka's air fields and ports, weapons smuggling and other matters.

Sri Lanka’s efforts revamp and expand the Palaly airbase and KKS harbour might be considered routine if it were not for the haste with which they are being undertaken, the assistance and advice being lent by other countries, particularly India and the US and the sharp deterioration of the Norwegian peace process and, more significantly, the ceasefire, in the past few months. The head of the international ceasefire monitors, Hagrup Haukland, observed last month: "It's the worst situation I have experienced over these 3-½ years in terms of the mistrust and the climate between the parties."

It is in such circumstances that “the security dilemma” emerges and begins to play out. Essentially, this occurs when military opponents each feel insecure about each other. Even if neither party wants war, neither feels secure or trusts the other to not take aggressive action. Therefore each builds up their military forces as a precaution – thereby, in turn, raising the other’s anxieties. Each such provocation results in an escalation of conflict leading to the next provocation - until open war is the final result, initiated by accident or anxiety driven preemptive strike. But trust between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE has broken down amidst the paramilitary killings. The question is, how would LTTE headquarters interpret the Sri Lankan military’s rushed efforts – at this juncture - to expand its key military bases and supply nodes in the northern peninsula?

TamilNet: US's strategic interests in Sri Lanka- Taraki

TamilNet: Rise in Sri Lankan firepower amid peace

TamilNet: Massive military expansion ‘without publicity’

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