Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Special Forces Brigade

On 25th August 2007, a group of solemn faces entered the 1st Regiment Headquarters of the Sri Lanka Army’s Special Forces at Naula, situated in beautiful Matale District in the Central Province. They included the Army Commander Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka and the Colonel Commandant of the Special Forces and the Security Forced Commander Jaffna Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri. The occasion was the annual commemoration of the fallen heroes of the Special Forces. The Special Forces, which began as a Combat Tracker Team of just two officers and 38 men, has grown into three regiments since its first Training School was established fifteen years ago. Since then the Special Forces have contributed to the Security Forces more than any other unit imaginable.

Amongst the most notable of fallen heroes of this fighting formation was Col A.F. Lafir PWV RWP RSP (posthumous), who was the commanding officer of a unit of Special Forces that infiltrated Alampil in the Mulaithivu District in July 1996. Colonel Lafir and his Special Forces unit that landed at Alampil had all volunteered for the mission. Little did they know that the LTTE had overrun almost the entire Mulaithivu base and were ready in unusually large numbers. Colonel Lafir and his men fought their way in but were surrounded, ambushed, shelled and bogged-down by LTTE automatic fire. Colonel Lafir, in true Special Forces style was determined, dared (SF Motto: Determined, Dared and Done) and took every effort to complete his mission to the very end. Unfortunately, this was not the best day for the Army’s Special Forces and the unit lost many men and their CO, Colonel Lafir. But by the time of Colonel Lafir’s untimely death, the Special Forces had progressed from a Combat Tracker Team to an elite unit with three separate regiments specializing in Rapid Deployment operations (RDF-1SF) counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism warfare, reconnaissance and battle space preparation in the medium and deep battle-space and Jungle warfare.

The 2nd Regiment of the Special Forces was raised in 1994 with a focus on amphibious assault, Under-water Demolition (UDT) and sea-borne infiltration (water to land/air or land to water/air) reconnaissance missions. In 1996, the 3rd Regiment of the Special Forces was raised. This unit performs some of the Army’s most secretive of missions in medium and deep battle-space environments. The Alpha Squad of the 3SF is dreaded by the LTTE. Coupled with Military Intelligence, these units infiltrate LTTE areas and carry-out ambushes, offensive raids and sabotage missions.

The kill-ratio for the Alpha Unit is 1-400 (400 LTTE Killed for one SF soldier killed). Only on a very rare occasion have these troops been sighted and ambushed. Even when ambushed many troopers often return to base safely after spending as many as ten days inside the deep jungle, either on their own or as small teams. These extraordinary missions are conducted despite the deployment of the LTTE’s elite troops along the border. The LTTE has also deployed large numbers of its civilian forces, sometimes numbering in their hundreds to hunt a single team. Thanks to hide-and-conceal tactics and superior survival skills imparted to them in their specialized training, these soldiers operating in the deep battle-space have remained an effective and reusable force for the Army. DefenceWire has discussed other details of this unit in this same site. More details will be provided without jeopardizing the safety of these men and national security in months to come.

The Special Forces are also renowned for their ability to generate military break-throughs. In the fight to capture Vakarai a 40-man amphibious assault-team was used to break the LTTE’s determined forces that had dug-in for a conventional war with the Army. Prior to this exercise the Special Forces carried-out several ambushes and offensive raids inside Vakarai. One such operation resulted in the death of ‘Lt. Col’ Arivu, the Military-in-charge for the LTTE in Vakarai. The LTTE became demoralized and were outmaneuvered and outwitted when the Army switched to unconventional warfare using the Special Forces. Similar ‘softening-up’ operations are now continuing in the Vanni region.

The greatest possible threat to this unit has come from Sri Lankan politicians who have attempted in the past to engage in conventional warfare against the LTTE based on a political agenda. The results have been devastating for the Special Forces, with the two-thousand-man Brigade depleting to a few hundred during conventional operations against the LTTE’s Ceaseless-Waves in the Vanni. A similar blunder may have been averted when Colonel Prasanna Silva, the former Commander of the Special Forces refused to send his men into the Northern theatre of operation to meet a political deadline soon after the Vakarai and Thoppigala battles. He argued for precious time for planning an operation and for his men to recuperate from the battle-fatigue they had faced due to continued deployment in the Northern and Eastern theatres of war. Colonel Silva almost resigned from the Army after the dispute became an open conflict in the Army and the media gave wide publicity to the issue. Subsequently the Defence Secretary and also President Mahinda Rajapakse intervene directly to resolve the issue.

Another invisible threat is looming in the horizon for the Special Forces. This comes in the wake of government plans to expand the Home Guard force. On 27th August 2007, the first batch of Home Guards with specialized infantry training passed-out from the Galkiriyagama Combat Training School. The youth enlisting in the Home-Guards are from the North, North Central, North Western or North Eastern Provinces. This has traditionally been the base for Special Forces recruitment. The difficult terrain in these areas has conditioned many a man, and these men, in turn, have enriched the ranks of the Special Forces. It is doubtful whether this trend would continue as men get diverted from joining the Special Forces and instead get enlisted in the Home Guard Force. Although the services of the Home Guards needs to be upgraded, it should not be at the expense of the Army.

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