The Sri Lankan Interlude

Appendix C

Special Forces in Sri Lanka

At the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, an Indian Peace Keeping Force was sent to help in the disarming of the Tamil militants and oversee a ceasefire. Amongst the first troops to land as part of the IPKF, was the 10 Para Commando. This was the beginning of the long involvement of Special Forces in the Sri Lankan conflict. The Para Commandos were also the last unit to withdraw from the island.

10 Para Commando is attached to the Western Command, and was optimised for Desert Operations in Rajasthan. It has been also referred to as Desert Scorpions. However like all elite troops, they would soon adapt to the rigours of urban combat and jungle warfare thrust upon by the LTTE. The first incident for 10 Para Commando would be a sign of the problems ahead. As the accord was souring, a five-man, unarmed Para Commando unit, out to pick up rations was surrounded by the LTTE in the market place. The men were lynched publicly, by neck lacing (have burning tires placed around their necks).

When the inevitable fighting started, 10 Para Commando spearheaded many of the thrusts. A company of Para Commandos were involved in a heli-borne assault to capture the LTTE leadership in Jaffna University. Unaware that their radio communications were monitored, the commandos flew in Mi-8s and landed on a soccer field. They were immediately pinned down by a hail of gunfire. 6 commandos were killed instantly.

The commandos knew that further helicopter sorties were impossible. They collected their dead and fanned out towards the objective. But in the booby trapped alleys of Jaffna University it proved to be a difficult task. As daylight approached, they came under observed fire and broke of contact. Observing excellent fire discipline and battle craft they kept the LTTE at bay till a column of tanks with their CO, Lt. Col. Dalbir Singh, broke through to rescue them.

Troops, from 10 Para Cdo, disembark from an Mi-8 helicopter. [Image ?? Pushpinder Singh, World Air Power Journal]

As the Indian Army realised it was overstretched, it paused to build up. Among the units flown in were the 5th Para Btn. However its deployment was marked by confusion. It was initially assigned to the 18th Brigade, then shifted to 72nd Brigade before being reassigned a week later to 18th Brigade. Consequently both brigades could not use the resources properly. After the Jaffna operations, 5th Para shifted to the East while 10th Para Commando was in the Jaffna area.

Slowly the nature of operations shifted from elite infantry to true special forces operations. The advantage of using Special Forces in quick raids sunk in and subsequently a Special Forces HQ was formed to control all special forces in the theatre. 10 Para Commando made a heli-borne assault in the town of Moolai in November. 25 LTTE men were killed and a large quantity of arms seized.

Wherever required the Indian Air Force's Mi-24 helicopters were used to airdrop troops and also to provide tactical air support. The better armoured Hinds were bought into action to drop troops, after some of the Chetaks were damaged by the LTTE machine gun fire. [Image ?? Pushpinder Singh, World Air Power Journal]

The Para battalions continued to rotate to give the other units combat experience. A 12-man unit was also stationed in Colombo to provide security to the Indian mission. 9 Para Commando replaced 10 Para Commando in early 1988. It conducted a series of air assaults in the coastal swamps around Mullaittivu.

While the Paras did participate in the grand operations, involving multiple battalions, it was in small strike units when they provided spectacular successes. However various deficiencies were thrown up, some which could be addressed while others had to be addressed in the future. Initially the Paras were used as infantry and tended to make the same mistake of seeking security in large numbers. Once the small unit value was realised, there was a dramatic improvement in operations.

Small units would go out to set ambushes. In order to go native, they would be barefoot or wear slippers like the LTTE personnel. But in spite of all this their ability to operate for prolonged periods was limited. One of the main problems was water. The few fresh water resources in the deep forests was either booby trapped or poisoned by the LTTE. This meant carrying your own water. Perhaps this necessitates the need for a elite jungle warfare unit, capable of sending five-man sections in the jungle to live of the land for prolonged period of times. Another need was for them to have their own helicopters. In addition the individual weapons and ancillary equipment were bulky and needed to lightened considerably.

On the midnight of 21 October 1987, an Indian Navy destroyer moored 5 miles outside Jaffna Harbour. 18 men slipped over the sides into two Gemini motorised assault craft. Clad in black wet suits with light sub machine guns, underwater explosives and daggers strapped to their sides they were a deadly lot. Each Gemini craft towed a wooden raft strapped with more explosives. The target: the narrow & heavily mined channel leading to the Guru Nagar jetty, the hub of LTTE supplies to Jaffna city. In addition to the booby traps, LTTE snipers and machine guns overlooked the channel from high rise building around it.

The journey took three painstaking hours as they had to pause to unhook the mines, every few, now & then. Once in sight they switched to the wooden rafts and paddled so that noise of the Gemini craft would not give them away. One team attached explosives to the jetty while the other sorted the LTTE's Yamaha motor equipped 35 knot speed boats. While placing explosives on the boats they were spotted and came under a hail of machine gun fire. They fired back at the tell tale flashes. Within five minutes the 2 Gemini craft roared back into the harbour and opened up covering fire.

By dawn, the 18 men were back on their mother ship with no casualties. This was the second mission of the newest special force of the Indian Armed Forces, the Navy's Indian Special Marine Force. Patterned & initially trained after the US Navy Seals, they soon proved capable of taking any mission on land, air or sea. Their debut occurred a few days before, when they were air dropped in the beleaguered Jaffna Fort. With the help of 10 Para Commando, they broke out and cleared the heavily-mined Navanturai Coastal Road, all the time under constant fire from roof tops and sniper positions. This allowed the crucial link up between 1 Maratha Light Infantry in the fort and the advancing elements of 41st Brigade.

Three days after the Jaffna lagoon raid they were back to destroy the remaining boats. This time they swam for more than a mile under water to reach their targets. Under fire they suffered a few wounds but managed to destroy the remaining boats. Lt. Arvind Singh in charge of all three raids was awarded the MVC (Maha Vir Chakra) for his outstanding performance. Throughout the IPKF operations, the IMSF was used to launch raids in the areas bordering the lagoons.

The IPKF operations gave the first opportunity to use special forces to their full potential. The war against the LTTE required a combination of stealth, surprise, speed and innovation which the special forces could offer. However a combination of factors from lack of good intelligence, paucity of equipment for independent operations, poor personal equipment and initially the fear of failure, prevented them from being very successful. The last is especially pertinent.

Initially there was a tendency not to operate in small units because of the possibility of getting wiped out by a rebel unit and the disgrace that it would bring to the regiment. But as the going got tough, small unit raids were launched on specific intelligence and paid rich dividends. More importantly the experience would come in handy in the future, when low intensity war in Kashmir, escalated to dramatic proportions in the mid-90s.