The elite naval commandos | Daily News
Special Boat Squadron

The elite naval commandos

For seven decades the Sri Lanka Navy has secured our maritime domain. Apart from its ocean-going fleet the Navy has augmented its combat capability on land with elite Special Forces personnel. One of the formidable fighting units of the Navy is the Special Boat Squadron (SBS). They are the toughest and well-trained strategic combatants, with amphibious assault capacity in our country. They perform their clandestine missions with stealth and speed surprising the enemy. During a visit to Trincomalee, I was able to visit their headquarters located deep within dense forest, at an undisclosed location. The drive took me along paths where deer and monkey crossed at random. Upon reaching their camp, the first image visible was that of a mounted black statue beneath which the squadrons motto was painted ‘Fortune favours the Brave’.

In retrospect, as the LTTE increased its sea borne threats by using suicide boats, divers, mines and littoral attacks in lagoons and coastal water, the Sri Lanka Navy had to outsmart the enemy. One of the pioneers in the Navy who realized the need for a special force element was Lieutenant Commander Shanthi Bahar, who led a team of specially trained sailors into the jungle thickets of Trincomalee. They searched and engaged concealed enemy positions. The history of this Naval outfit dates back to 1993 when a dynamic young officer named Lieutenant Commander Ravi Wijegunartne was inspired to form a special unit with rapid strike capability (he rose to become an Admiral and Commander of the Navy). Along with a likeminded comrade Commander Cedric Martenstyn there were 30 men who volunteered for this dangerous task at that time. The Special Boat Squadron of the Sri Lanka Navy was formally raised on January 18, 1993, at the SLN Elara Base, Karainagar, in the Northern Province.

Later a total of two officers and 76 sailors also became part of the team. Training in the secluded hot beaches of Karainagar the team enhanced their skills. Cdr. Martenstyn was later killed in action. In the early stages the SBS focused their training to fight in brown waters and coastal shallows. Their first mission was to support an amphibious landing near the Pooneryn Army Camp, which they successfully did under enemy fire moving from Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC). They managed to reinforce the camp. The SBS functions under the Director General Operations, Navy Head Quarters who is assisted by the Director Marine Special Forces. The elite SBS operates in a wide spectrum of clandestine operations – they include securing a beach head prior to an amphibious operation, beach reconnaissance, gathering intelligence in enemy dominated coastal areas (during the war), waterborne infiltrations to destroy enemy assets, offensive mining and mine clearance, anti-ship hijack missions and hostage rescue tasks, combat diving operations, counterterrorism operations and even VIP protection.

Joining the SBS is not an easy task. It is a process that tests your physical and mental endurance filtering the toughest sailors. Prospective candidates are enlisted persons serving in the Navy. They have to pass a hard PT test that includes swimming, which is a vital part of SBS operations by day and night. Once chosen, the aspiring officers and sailors are committed to one year of intense training. Stage 1 has six weeks of orientation where the trainee is made physically fit. During this period they do endurance marches beginning from 3Km and gradually going up to 30 Km carrying a full pack with an assault rifle. The aspiring trainees encourage each other to complete these demanding marches. The teams firing capability is increased along with swimming skills. Combat swimming is very different from swimming for recreation in serene waters. Here the Naval fighter must not make any noise or cause ripples in the water. Further the lagoon or sea area he is entering can have concealed nets and mines. The teams operate in the sea, lagoons and rivers: each area of water presenting its natural hazards. Rivers are home to crocodiles and some species of snakes. Recruits are taught to stay submerged in the water for many hours at times encountering jellyfish that deliver a painful sting. At any cost they must hold their position to duly finish the task. During the jungle training phase, these young men must navigate the forest paths by day and night. The jungle has its own wild threats from lone elephants, roaming bears and poisonous snakes. Each man must do a 4Km jungle trek at night alone.

Once they have completed the training the men will operate in small teams. According to an officer the eight man team has a leader, scout, gunners, communicator and medic. They have undertaken dangerous missions often going Behind Enemy Lines. During these deployments they survive on high protein ration packs. Lighting a fire and cooking will produce smoke and give away the concealed position thereby alerting the enemy. Those sailors who excel in these tasks are absorbed into the highly covert LRRP Team (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol). The SBS has members who specialize as snipers, combat divers and parachute jumpers. These skills when combined extend the operational reach of the Special Boat Squadron. The present Commanding Officer of SBS is Captain Nissanka Wickramasinghe.

Over the years, the squadron has expanded its mission capability, being able to excel in jungle and maritime warfare, asymmetric warfare, urban fighting and VBSS. The VBSS teams (Vessel Boarding and Sea Search) experience high-octane action. VBSS takes place in the deep sea, where a raiding party attempts to board a moving vessel, entering the vessel by climbing on a flexible ladder. Engaging is such tasks truly requires nerves of steel. The SBS operatives also excel in anti-ship hijack operations. They train regularly to keep themselves in prime condition. In the recent past, the SBS reached new heights of excellence where they trained Naval commandos from USA, China, India, Pakistan and Nigeria. This is testament to the combat experience that the Sri Lankans have accumulated, especially in small team operations. Joining the Navy and becoming a member of the Special Boat Squadron is the ultimate Special Forces career induced with adventure, for any young man.