The Sri Lankan Interlude 1987-90

Appendix A The IPKF Performance

The IPKF Performance

The Indian Army had been accustomed to wars of 2 to 3 weeks. The COIN operations in the North East were not even close in comparison to what it had to handle in Sri Lanka. The 2?« year operations against the LTTE proved tough and many were found wanting. It was brutal toughening process for the Army as an institution.


The war in Sri Lanka was primarily an infantryman's war and sadly the infantryman was found wanting in the initial stages of the war. There are a number of valid reasons for this, from organisational neglect to operational mistakes to inadequate equipment.

Organisationally, the Army and its senior leadership had been caught up in the process of fighting the next war with Pakistan in a NATO/Warsaw Pact type clash. The emphasis in the preceding years was big exercises with mechanised forces and division and Corps level manoeuvres. The basic principles of infantry combat were neglected due to lack of time & resources committed to the above mentioned exercises. Furthermore periodic tinkering with the rank structure at the unit level, caused units & sub units to stall at the death or wounding of its commander. No matter how many JCOs and NCOs are present, true responsibility & ability rest with the officers and it is unfair of JCOs and NCOs to be expected to fill the breach without any long term training.

Operationally almost all the units in the initial phases were not to full strength. Brigades were without 1 or 2 battalions and battalions without 1 to 3 companies. Many were away in course, at firing ranges and on leave. Self imposed restrictions meant hardly any supporting fire. A brigade had six 105mm guns for fire support. Maps were in short supply and antiquated. The Battle of Jaffna was fought by units with maps of 1937! Till Tamil language courses were set up, there was a shortage of translators. The LTTE had fought and built up this environment since 1983. In contrast the Indian Army had fought its last war in 1971.

The cumulative effect of all this was a tendency to crowd in numbers. The basic tactics of fire and movement was absent. Patrols would go out in large numbers making it easy for the LTTE to keep track of them. In fact it was possible to monitor the position of IPKF patrols from LTTE intercepts. The IPKF patrols failed to use this to lure enemy ambushes into traps. Add to this the impatience of the Generals caused more troops to be thrown into this furnace. Fire discipline was poor resulting in a tendency to fire off all the ammo at the enemy. patrols would advance in single file and would leave and return by the same way. More worrying was the tendency to allow weapons to be snatched from the dead and wounded.

Add to this the IPKF equipment at the unit level was poorer than the LTTEs. The Indian soldiers' semi-automatic SLRs were no match in close quarter combat to the LTTE's AK-47s. The LTTE also had better webbing, lightweight machine guns and superior radios. The standard issue DMS boot, rotted in the jungle. The VM series of radio sets were too weak in built up areas. The non availability of nickel cadmium batteries meant the ANPRC-25 radio sets could not be used as standard sets.

The other problem was the aging officer corps. There were commanding officers and company commander who were in the 40 to 45 age bracket. While the younger Majors and Lt Cols performed well, these older men were found wanting. One such commander would go into operations riding the BMP open hatch. A veteran of the 1971 war, he brushed aside his men's warnings. One day a burst a heavy machine gun fire ripped him up.

The IPKF slowly learnt to cope the hard way, in the field. Training bases were provided to train the newly inducted men the techniques of urban combat and COIN operations. Camouflaged canvas was used to create an LTTE like webbing. While some men converted their 7.62mm SLRs into full auto, the army equipped a few men in every section with the 7.62 IC with burst fire. However there were two opinions about the success of this version. While some felt its barrel would drop after a burst of fire, others felt it was fine. The Army also imported 70,000 AK-47s from Eastern Europe and flew them straight to Sri Lanka. Using the principle of infrared beam shooting, torches with extremely focused light was strapped to the rifles and the circuit connected to the trigger guard, for point & shoot. Metal sheets and thick wooden planks, help deflect bullets from sift vehicles. Sandbags were used in the beds of trucks to soften the impact of mines.

In the end whatever the shortcomings there was an abundance of courage and heroism. Even in situations with more than half the men dead or wounded there was no panic and positions were held tenaciously.

Special Forces

This was an ideal war to utilize special forces. Initially however the special forces were part of the division HQ. Later a separate Special Forces HQ, was created to better utilize them. Initially the Special forces were used like normal infantry and suffered from many of the same problems. The only difference was superior battle craft skills and better fire discipline saved the day. Later as they were used in small groups, using speed & deception, they performed exceptionally well. However there was a paramount need for better & lighter equipment, more long life rations for lengthier missions and their own helicopters and supporting fire.

The other special force in Sri Lanka was the Indian Special Marine Force (ISMF) now called the Marine Commando Force (MCF) or MARCOS. This unit made its debut in the IPKF operations and came through with flying colors. Being a small startup force it did not get caught in the infantry mode, the Paras got in to.

Mechanised Forces

The terrain is not suitable mechanised operations.. It had built up areas, lagoon, and water-logged fields. Tanks were used in direct fire mode to blast opposition in built up areas. They were used to get units surrounded by the enemy to safety. eg. Paras in Jaffna Univ raid. Initial deployment was poor with no supporting infantry on the flanks, but once the infantry battalions were to full strength they were well flanked with infantry. The T-72s managed to cope with the narrow lanes, an indication of its size and manouevrability. It was exposed to severe RPG-7 fire that helped determine its weak points. About three T-72s were lost due to drums packed with 200 kg of explosives. These had been inserted before the road was tarred.

A number of BMPs were also deployed. While some commanders complained about lack of terrain to use it effectively, others did adapt and make good use of it wherever possible. Mostly it had to be used in the dismounted role as fire support platform. In the initial stages, some BMPs were lost to LTTE drum mines. Both, T-72s and BMPs, were used to run over anti personnel mines and IEDs. Overall losses of both T-72s and BMPs were less than 10.


Deployment of artillery was restricted, because of political orders to not use heavy weapons. Although as an area weapon it was not always the weapon of choice to flush a couple of houses full of LTTE militants, it was useful in speeding up advances when troops were held up especially outside of the built up area. The artillery observers operating with infantry units performed well. Observers lying in Cheetahs were not only useful to help being down fire, but also in forcing the LTTE to not fire its mortars lest they give away their positions.

However the paucity of guns resulted in their deployment in troops and many a times fire support to patrols were limited. The lack of night vision devices limited AOP flights.


The Engineers were in action from the time they set foot in Sri Lanka. Even before the conflict started they were involved in defusing booby traps and mines. In fact the first casualty was an engineer and two sappers in August 1987. The engineers were involved in a number of tasks, many of them civil reconstruction projects. On the military side they provided;

1. Support to infantry troops by laying mines and booby traps and defusing those of the LTTE.

2. Building helipads and roads to maintain axes of supply as far as possible.

3. Their assault boats (BAUTs) were used for patrolling and raiding the various lagoons.

4. Improvise and extend the airfields at Palaly, make the jetty at KKS functional.

On the civil side: they were involved in repairing accommodations, electric and water supplies to the towns and hospitals as well as repairing roads. The sheer variety and ingenuity of the Tiger's use of explosives came as a rude shock in the beginning. The use of plastic jerry cans and coconut shells to negate mine sweeping devices was a novelty. Still most of the casualties were due to carelessness on the part of individual or groups.


This was one of the more secretive units of the IPKF. Led by Chief Signals Officer, Southern Command, Major General Yashwant Deva, the first task was to set up a communication hub. After scouting the locations, Mandapan in Tamil Nadu was selected. It would extend broad band microwave communication to the island, interface it with the mainland troposcatter and other field communications. The relevant info about the defunct Indo-Sri Lanka microwave system (1979) was dug up and with the help of the Sri Lankan Army reactivated. With a considerable amount of innovation all Sri Lankan cities and towns were linked into our own.

Once the IPKF was inducted C3I nodes were created in Plalay, Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Batticaloa. They provided;

1. HF radio with Burst Error Control System for Teleprinter

2. Troposcatter links and satellite channels

3. Hot lines from HQ OFC down to Divisional and Brigade HQ

But it was in SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) that the Signals were hard pressed. The Tiger's ran an extremely efficient communications network based on Japanese ICON sets utilizing (148 - 150 MHz). The receiver could lock on to one of 10 preset frequencies which posed problems for intercepting. These were overcome with the capture of a few sets. These captured sets were later used for jamming the LTTE network. The captured set would be utilised for generating the required frequency and then amplify it. LTTE messages were short and used a number of codes. Intercepts were quickly recorded before passed on for transalation and analysis.

In order to locate LTTE transmissions, Hungarian Direction Finding equipment was flown in. The success of this is mixed. LTTE transmitters in Tamil Nadu continued to be active for a long time. VHF sets were weak for built up areas. In the future the trend should be HF sets. Radio procedures were outdated and tended to be verbose. Many a time the communications were irrelevant. Better use should have been made of other Indian languages to delay deciphering. Ground-to-air communication was poor. Many a times, the solution was to have the army officer sit in the helicopter with an PRC 25 set, to provide communications between the pilot and ground troops.

Logistics - Army Service Corps

If there was one are where the IPKF performed magnificently it was in logistics. Originally an Army Maintenance Area was created in Madras. Even then supplies came through Supply Depot, Madras it meant to cater to 10,000 troops. But the number of troops increased rapidly forcing a rethink in strategy. Although the best process would be to obtain most of the requirements in the island itself, the resultant price increase would have caused a furor. So everything had to be brought in from India.

To store petrol and aviation fuel, more tankers were brought in. Till adequate storage facilities were developed, surplus fuel from transport aircraft were offloaded in Palaly. The aircraft then flew to Colombo for refueling before flying back to India. The logistics also required coordination between all three services. Everyday late at night men from the three wings would hash out plans to ensure an uninterrupted flow of materials the next day. The men of the ASC also organised their own security while transporting goods to various units. This was the first time such composite operations were carried out and everything had to be learnt.

Appendix B

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Appendix C

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