Military Expert Warns Lanka Against Accepting Aged Warships Even As Gifts
In conversation with Sri Lankan military expert, Adm.Dr. Jayanath Colombage
COLOMBO: A leading Sri Lankan military expert, Adm.Dr. Jayanath Colombage, has warned Sri Lanka against buying aged warships or accepting such vessels even if they are offered as “gifts” from other countries.
“Old naval vessels, gifted or bought, would have finished their service with their mother navies. Given their age, the engine and other equipment on board, and the hull, will have to undergo frequent maintenance and repairs. The vessels might have to docked for considerable periods of time. All that is going to add to the cost of the vessel. Even if the vessel had been given as a gift, it would still have to be maintained at a high cost,” Adm. Colombage said.
“Sri Lanka would have to carefully assess its needs and go for appropriate purchases, and not accept hardware simply because it has been given free,” he added.
According to Adm.Colombage, the Indians have given Sri Lanka the best deal so far. While some of the vessels given by India are old, they had been re-fitted. India has also constructed vessels specially for Sri Lanka.
The other problem that could arise with accepting gifts from various countries is the weapons systems’ compatibility and inter-operability with the already existing equipment.
“The systems used may vary from country to country.
Handling and integrating multiple systems would be a challenging task. And getting spares could turn out to be problematical,” Colombage, a former Commander of the Sri Lankan navy, said.
Geo-politics of Gifting
Sri Lanka is in no pressing need of military equipment at the moment because the 30 year war against the Tamil militants had ended in May 2009 with the total annihilation of their military capability.
But powerful nations, both regional and global, have been offering Lanka gifts of military equipment, especially war ships, because of the raging competition between the West and India on the one side, and a resurgent China on the other, to take control of the Indian Ocean, Adm.Colombage, who has authored a book on Asymmetrical Sea Warfare, said.
Countries which had refused to sell arms to Sri Lanka during the internal war with Tamil militants on the grounds that Colombo should strive for a political and not a military solution of the Tamil problem, are now bending over backwards to ‘gift’ arms to the island nation.
This is because it is in their geo-political interest to do so, Adm.Colombage said.
The Western nations, Japan and India are anxious to thwart the entry of resurgent China into Sri Lanka. The West and India refuse to believe that China would not use Hambantota port (which it had built and taken on lease for 99 years) as a naval base to target their interests in the Indian Ocean.
Japan, especially, is firmly of the view that China will impose its hegemony in the Indian Ocean in the same way as it is allegedly doing in South China Sea.
High Stakes in Indian Ocean
More generally, all world powers think that they must control Sri Lanka in one way or the other, because of its strategic location near the East-West main sea route for the transportation of oil and other strategic goods besides civilian goods.
“Adm Harry B.Harris, former Commander, US Pacific Command, told the Galle Dialogue that Sri Lanka is important for three reasons. And the three reasons are; location, location and location!” Adm. Colombage recalled.
Before China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, and began to construct ports across Asia to integrate them with its global economic and strategic interests (the String of Pearls) the other powers were turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka, ignoring its strategic value.
It was only when the Mahinda Rajapaksa government got the Chinese to build a port in Hambantota, at the southern most tip of Sri Lanka, and China said that it would be part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that the West, India, Japan and Australia woke up.
At first the West tried to browbeat Rajapaksa into abandoning China. It tried to corner Lanka on the war time human rights issue. Harsh resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) were passed against it. After effecting a regime change in the island in 2015, the West softened on the rights issue, and wanted Sri Lanka to help counter China in the Indian Ocean region.
Fresh Militarization of Lanka
Thus began a fresh militarization Sri Lanka, with all sides stepping up their military links with the island.
“The number of warships that belong to different countries visiting Sri Lankan ports is evidence of such militarization. From 2009 to 2017, a total of 398 war ships had visited Sri Lankan ports. A breakdown of this is as follows: India- 82; Pakistan- 24; Japan- 67; Bangladesh- 23; China -31; USA- 18; and Russia- 26,” Adm. Colombage notes.
India had given two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) during the war. SLNS Sayura was sold in 2000 and SLNS Sagara was leased in 2006 and handed over to Lankan navy in 2015 to enable the Lankan navy to intercept the “floating warehouses” of the Tamil militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In 2014 Sri Lanka ordered two Advanced OPVs from India for US$ 74 million each. First ship joined SLN fleet in August 2017. The sister ship was delivered in March 2018 and commissioned in 20 April 2018.
The 105.7-meter-long and 13.6-meter-wide vessels have a full-load displacement capacity of 2350 ton, with an overall beam of 13.6 meters, and a hull draught of 3.6 meters. The OPV can reach a top speed of 24 knots and accommodate a crew of 118, and a helicopter on its flight deck.
Australia was the first Western alliance country to gift naval vessels to Sri Lanka after the war as it was keen on securing the latter’s cooperation to end human smuggling. The first patrol boat was gifted in April 2014. It had earlier served the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. In June, Australia gifted its second patrol boat .That was also old.
With a maximum speed of 24 knots, the two boats could cover a range of 3,000 nautical miles.
In November 2016, the US Maritime Raid Force Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted training with the Sri Lankan Navy Special Boat Squadron Sailors during a Theater Security Cooperation event at Sri Lanka Naval Base, Trincomalee.
It was in 2004, before the last phase of the war started, that the US gave a used “cutter” to Sri Lanka. The second cutter was offered in November 2017. The Secretary Class High Endurance Cutter would allow Sri Lanka to more effectively police its coastline and Exclusive Economic Zone and to protect its sea lines of trade and communication, the US said.
Japan has agreed to provide Sri Lanka with a grant of up to US$18 million for the Sri Lanka Coast Guard to receive two new patrol boats to help expand coverage 2.5 times.
The 30-meter vessels, powered by 1,440 kw diesel engines, will displace 100 tonnes and be capable of reaching speeds of 27 knots.
During the war years, China was a major supplier of weapons to Sri Lanka (apart from Israel, Pakistan and East European countries). The Lankan navy bought four Shanghai Class gunboats. With US$ 1 billion in sales, China’s was Sri Lanka’s largest arms supplier during the war.
Chinese Jian-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons had played a central role in the war. An analysis by the Stockholm based SIPRI shows that in 2008, Sri Lanka received US$ 75 million worth of Chinese arms shipments. It was US$10 million in 2006.
China stopped selling arms to Lanka after the war ended in 2009. But given the post-war Western moves to thwart its economic and strategic ambitions in Lanka, in July this year, China announced that it would “gift” a frigate to the island nation.
With Chinese encouragement, Pakistan, reportedly boosted its military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly U$100 million during the war. Pakistan supplied Chinese-origin small arms and trained Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision guided attacks. As of now, Pakistani aid is confined to training of personnel.