Rise of the small boats

Rise of the small boats

Sri Lanka Navy’s experience provides lessons to maritime nations on bolstering counterterrorism strategies

Lt. Col. Alex Carter/U.S. Army and Capt. Damian Fernando/Sri Lanka Navy

Any country with maritime borders must have a plan for countering terrorist threats at and from the seas as part of its national counterterrorism strategy. Any strategy that lacks such a plan to safeguard maritime borders is inherently flawed and dangerously incomplete.

Too many counterterrorism strategies have neglected the nuances and threats of maritime domain in favor of the easier and more definable land domain out of convenience, ignorance or both.

Terrorists plan and execute attacks on maritime targets, often with devastating effect. The Sri Lanka Navy’s experience with battling terrorists at sea offers insights on how navies, large and small, may improve the efficacy of their counterterrorism strategies by using small boats to combat the terrorist threat on water.

Use of the sea and swarming tactics 

The motivation and likelihood for terrorist actions at sea can be measured by several factors. These include the degree of state sponsorship that a terrorist organization may have, how well-networked the organization is with other terrorist groups, the degree of involvement in drug trafficking, and whether the terrorist organization can base operations in safe havens, as Victor Asal and Justin Hastings described in a 2015 issue of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Any one or more of these factors can motivate terrorist organizations to initiate or mature their maritime strategies to achieve political goals through violence.

Such terrorist attacks at sea have taken many forms. Land-based teams can use trained divers to place improvised explosive devices on board ships, attack craft, suicide craft and even sea mines. Supporting technologies have ranged from speedboats, scuba, sea scooters — all helped typically by GPS, according to a 2001 report by security analyst Rohan Gunaratna in Jane’s Navy International. In one study, 15 terrorist groups, including Hamas, al-Qaida, Abu Sayyaf Group and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), conducted at least one maritime attack between 1998 and 2005, Asal and Hastings wrote.

Sri Lanka Sailors watch as the Samudura warship enters the Trimcomalee naval base in September 2007 as the civil war was ongoing. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

For many terrorists, the sea is undoubtedly an attractive place to carry out activities and operations that support their objectives. The sea can serve as a theater for an attack against high-value maritime targets such as a warship, oil platform or a port, according to Dr. Norman Cigar, now a research fellow at the Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia. The sea can also serve as an avenue of approach, line of communication and economic asset, as Cigar described in a May 2017 monograph titled The Jihadist Maritime Strategy: Waging a Guerrilla War at Sea.

Terrorists can use the sea to routinely move equipment and personnel from one location to another. The sea can also be used as an escape route, providing a way for terrorists to quickly leave an area once operations have been conducted on land. Economically, the sea can also be viewed as an asset by terrorists who can control and profit from illegal activities such as sea-based smuggling operations, such as human trafficking, illegal oil shipments and other oil-related trade, Cigar explained.

Due to any combination of the reasons and motivations stated, terrorist organizations have, over the years, conducted many successful attacks on high-value maritime targets. The most significant was the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 U.S. Sailors. Another was in 2002, when al-Qaida undertook its first successful attack against a commercial French supertanker, the Limburg, using a small boat packed with explosives. The attack was launched when the Limburg was 12 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen, killing one crew member, injuring 12 others and causing a spill of 90,000 barrels of crude oil along more than 72 kilometers of coastline. Terrorists also attacked Pakistani naval facilities in 2009 and 2011. An organization linked to al-Qaida or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) carried out an attack on an Egyptian naval vessel in 2015.

It is, however, the Sri Lankan government’s fight against LTTE that offers the richest source of documentation and history regarding terrorist maritime attacks. At the height of the LTTE’s military effectiveness, it destroyed about one-third of Sri Lanka Navy coastal patrol craft, ocean patrol vessels, fast attack craft and gunboats, Jane’s Navy International reported.

From the onset, the LTTE likely needed to conduct such devastating terrorist operations at sea because it “required secure sea lines of communications to supply their forces with the apparatus of modern warfare and used the open maneuver space of the sea to attack the Sri Lankan armed forces, government and economy,” Paul Povlock wrote in the Small Wars Journal in September 2011. The first maritime terrorism operations in Sri Lankan waters took place in 1990 when the LTTE launched its first suicide missions against the Sri Lanka Navy surveillance command ships Abeetha and Editharain. In 1994, a suicide attack was launched against a Sri Lanka Navy patrol vessel, Jane’s Navy International reported in 2006. This vessel, the Sagarawardena, was Sri Lanka’s largest warship in the sub-chaser class. In 1998, the LTTE damaged two Sri Lanka Navy vessels, killing over 50 Sri Lankan Soldiers. In 2000, LTTE suicide attack craft conducted seven separate attacks on Sri Lanka Navy vessels, destroying four fast-attack craft and killing or wounding 13 Sailors. In 2006, LTTE suicide attack craft conducted nine attacks, destroying six inshore and coastal patrol boats and killing or wounding 58 Sailors, according to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. A key battlefield tactic in these cases was the use of “swarming,” asymmetric warfare designed to overwhelm the target. Justin Smith wrote in a 2011 edition of Small Wars & Insurgencies that the LTTE’s suicide craft, “often indistinguishable and hidden among [the] attack craft, were used in swarm and suicide boat attacks.” An understanding of swarm tactics is of particular relevance to other navies struggling to deal with the terrorist threat at sea.

Swarming, according to a 2000 Rand Corp. study titled “Swarming and the Future of Conflict,” is an ancient form of fighting that is finding increasing popularity in the modern era. Swarm organizations typically show autonomous or semiautonomous behavior, a coordinated way of striking from all directions with sustainable pulsing of force or fire, stand-off and close-in capabilities, and an ability to disrupt cohesion of an adversary, the study said. Military swarming can strike at the target from different directions, with large numbers of small units that are well-connected from a communications or networked perspective as well as from a geographic or physical one, according to the study. Like the wolf pack in the animal kingdom or German U-boats and Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II, terrorist groups can swarm on the open water and high seas by coming together at a precise moment and location to inflict damage and then disperse quickly, the study said.

Sri Lanka Sailors conduct anti-terror drills in keeping with the Navy’s small boat concept, part of its strategy to counter terrorist threats. Sri Lanka navy

The implications are that “militaries may need to re-examine their close-in fighting capabilities and doctrines,” the Rand study said. For example, terrorist groups such as Hezbollah have used swarming to confront Israeli commando raids in southern Lebanon. This may explain Israel’s tactical withdrawal from southern Lebanon — an inability to adapt to its adversary’s swarming practices.

Swarming is an unconventional tactic for conventional militaries. This is particularly true with the challenges that navies around the world face in combating terrorist threats from the sea. In the case of the Sri Lanka Navy that faced many terrorist attacks from the LTTE at sea, the Navy grappled with how to develop doctrine and tactics to counter the LTTE’s swarming tactics. The Sri Lanka Navy’s experiences with the LTTE’s small boats can inform other navies struggling with this type of warfare.

Sri Lankan Experience 

Sri Lanka’s maritime challenges are vast. The South Asia region “sits above a vital sea line of communication along which significant amounts of trade, including energy, travels from Southwest Asia, via the Malacca Strait, to industrial Asia,” Dr. Cristopher Snedden, a Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies professor, wrote in 2016. Thus, the strategic location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean makes it not only important to the region but also to global commerce, much of which flows through the shipping lanes just south of Sri Lanka. A strong navy is paramount in protecting economic interests.

From a maritime perspective, the Falklands War in 1982, between the United Kingdom and Argentina, is the last known conventional naval conflict, in which two navies engaged each other on the seas. In the modern era, most navies have limited conventional combat experience in repelling and destroying aggressors at sea. Since 1982, however, the Sri Lanka Navy has been the only navy in the world to engage in naval combat operations of any significance in the Indo-Pacific region. These operations were against a credible threat: the LTTE. During Sri Lanka’s civil war, which began in 1983, the LTTE fought to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and the east of the island. Combat occurred on land and sea, in conventional and unconventional ways over 26 years. Finally, in 2009, the government of Sri Lanka defeated the Tamil Tigers.

During the height of the war, the LTTE fielded a sizable naval capability to combat the Sri Lanka Navy and government. The LTTE fleet consisted of upward of 4,000 personnel working in operations, logistics, communications, intelligence and other sections. The fleet had indigenously built, Fiberglass fast-attack vessels such as the four-man Thrikka-class craft, the six-man Suddai-class craft, the Muraj-class craft, and the two-man Idayan-class small boats used for suicide attacks on maritime targets, as Povlock describes in the Small Wars Journal. All craft, except for the Idayan-class small boats, were fitted with one or more heavy machine guns. The Idayan-class small boats contained explosives designed to detonate on impact with the target. Small boats were deliberately employed for several good, tactical reasons.

Small boats are hard to detect by most sensors — they lie low in the water and can take any shape. Additionally, the ease of moving a small boat or boats creates flexibility in choosing the time, place and mode of attack against a naval or commercial platform. Moreover, an innocent-looking fishing vessel, a personal water craft, a pleasure boat or any other specially designed small fast boat can easily be converted to a lethal suicide boat to carry explosives to inflict heavy damages. Small boats have the advantage of being able to maneuver in small places at slow speed such as through channelized shipping lanes or in areas with traditionally high numbers of vessels. Armed with a high payload, a small boat can cause extensive damage and destruction at the most inconvenient location and at the most inconvenient time.

A Sri Lanka Navy Sailor patrols a Dehiwala beach near Colombo in March 2009, two months before the civil war ended. REUTERS

Small boats are a perfect and deadly tool of choice to employ devastating swarming tactics to achieve violent effects at sea. Small boats disguised as fishing boats in congested areas can easily target merchant ships. The majority of global commerce is carried out on the oceans, and a single such attack on an oil or chemical tanker or even a passenger ship or cruise liner would have major impacts, politically as well as economically. A terrorist organization could easily use small boats to jeopardize the international maritime trade of Sri Lanka by damaging or sinking large container ships such as a Maersk Triple E-class ship in Sri Lanka’s capital and main port, Colombo. A naval fleet can also be targeted by small boats at chokepoints, such as harbor entrances. A delay in harbor operations for even a few days, let alone weeks, would be devastating.

The devastating effect the sea-borne LTTE suicide small boats had on the Sri Lanka Navy prompted changes in strategy and doctrine. Sri Lanka Navy Vice Adm. Wasantha Karannagoda developed a creative approach he called the “small boat concept,” based on new equipment and new tactics, as Smith wrote in Small Wars & Insurgencies. In effect, the new tactic was to “out-guerrilla the guerrilla,” as Povlock described. New tactics were desperately needed to combat the LTTE’s swarm tactics using small boats, some of which were the Idayan suicide boats. The Sri Lanka Navy doctrine grew to combat LTTE’s small attack boats with a much larger number of its own small boats, swarm against swarm. The small boat concept was to counter the LTTE’s swarming and suicide tactics with high-speed, heavily armed inshore patrol craft, Smith wrote.

A Navy Soldier stands guard at the main Colombo port in Sri Lanka in April 2018. REUTERS

According to one of the authors who participated in combat operations against the LTTE, the Sri Lanka Navy’s strategy and thinking behind the small boat concept was heavily influenced by a theory developed by a British engineer during World War I. Lanchester’s square law essentially states that the casualty ratio varies inversely as the force ratio. That is, a force outnumbering an opponent can expect to incur fewer casualties than the weaker opponent. Lanchester also showed the ability of modern weapons to operate at long ranges dramatically changed the nature of combat, with a stronger modern force being more powerful by a factor of two. This theory and set of principles fully supported the initiation and fielding of the Sri Lanka Navy’s small boat units.

Beginning in 2006, the Navy recruited officers and Sailors to operationalize the small boat concept. Two types of units were created — first, the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and then the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). SBS recruits underwent extensive training, including some advanced training from U.S. Navy Seals, U.S. Green Berets and Indian commandos, Povlock wrote. Their mission was to use small boats to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance inside LTTE territory. The RABS recruits were trained to operate small boats using swarm tactics, employing up to 30 craft during a combat engagement against the LTTE Sea Tigers. The results were crippling for the LTTE; attacks on the Sri Lanka Navy declined steadily and then sharply from 2006 to 2008. The new small boat tactics “shattered the Sea Tigers,” according to Povlock.  In fact, the “pivotal element of the government victory was the evolution of a successful maritime interdiction strategy by the SLN [Sri Lanka Navy],” Smith wrote.

Way Forward

The Sri Lanka Navy continues to evaluate and plan improvements in the near and long terms. Sri Lanka’s journey may be instructive, particularly to nations with developing navies that face traditional and nontraditional threats from the sea.

The Sri Lanka Navy deliberately chose to rebalance the size and scope of its naval fleet by building up its small boat fleet and maximizing its naval capabilities. For example, the concept of combining smaller boats with the bigger vessels gave the Navy the ability to better protect its traditional vessels, such as frigates and battleships, while providing a robust defensive capability through the small boats to address unconventional attacks from terrorist attacks at sea.

There must be greater awareness within the fisheries community about the importance of their role at sea. They must be more vigilant in identifying and reporting any suspicious or illegal activities. Failure to do so should be met with real consequences under the rule of law. Proper vetting and accreditation of local fishermen and their fishing vessels curbs many black-market activities. Along a similar theme of awareness and collaboration, education and coordination among the Navy, the Coast Guard and the police can also be improved as each service understands the capabilities of the others and, perhaps, participates in joint exercises to test integrated and joint capabilities against threat-based scenarios.

Sri Lanka Navy Vice Adm. Travis Sinniah speaks to reporters in August 2017. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Creating more opportunities for shared dialogue is also key for security. Sri Lanka holds an annual international maritime symposium called Galle Dialogue, which provides a setting to discuss the maritime terrorist threat. From a South Asia regional perspective, this topic should be part of the agenda at the South Asian Regional Conference to provide opportunities for discussions that lead to bilateral or multilateral arrangements and resource-sharing agreements.

Sri Lanka, like other developing nations, has opportunities to engage with partner nations such as India, Japan, South Korea and the United States to pursue joint training, education and intelligence sharing to collaborate against global terrorist threats.

As the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said, “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”

A counterterrorism strategy evolves based on the threats that a government must consider. While the land domain has been the scene of many terrorist events in the past, the maritime domain may receive more attention from bad actors in the future. The Sri Lanka Navy’s experiences fighting the LTTE at sea should reinforce the reality that it is not if, but when terrorists will strike ports, harbors, waterways and even on the open ocean. The use of small boats, although not high-tech or glitzy, to counter such threats should resonate with developing nations that are grappling with how to resize, refit and rebalance their navy forces to prepare for the worst-case scenario.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence or any agency of the government of the United States of America.