Why Sri Lanka needs an Enhanced Naval Fleet | Daily News

Why Sri Lanka needs an Enhanced Naval Fleet

SLNS Parakramabahu
SLNS Parakramabahu

The global maritime domain and the role of naval power in peacetime have changed significantly in recent decades. With the sea as the area of operations naval forces are an essential instrument for the State not only in war, but in peacetime as well. In comparison to the Army and Air Force, naval forces are useful to the State outside a war context as they provide prosperity to the State through the protection of shipping lanes and civilian vessels.

The importance of the sea sounds self-evident, especially for island nations. Because they possess both mobility and a light footprint, the navy has the ability to be simultaneously present in a given place while being minimally intrusive. International waters actually cover 71% of our earth’s surface. Developed nations are similarly dependent on uninterrupted maritime trade. Protecting this critical peacetime economic link is a vital national interest and a pillar of global stability.

The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world through which major sea lines have been established from West to East and East to West across this large ocean space. Therefore, any disruption to the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) in this region can directly affect the economy of the entire world. Thus, all coastal states in the region are responsible for keeping SLOC secure and unencumbered. As per international obligations, Sri Lanka Navy has been the authorized body to keep open Sea Lines of Communication and ensure the safety of all ships which are transiting from West to East and East to West, closer to Sri Lankan territory, convincing them that they are free from any form of maritime security threat when they are in IOR. Further, protection of maritime resources within EEZ is another aspect to increase the number of offshore patrol vessels having advanced technology and high endurance, other than to ensure the security of sea lines. As long as the Military, Diplomatic and Constabulary roles in the maritime domain is concerned, the Sri Lanka Navy is regarded as the maritime power of the nation that is entrusted to keep island waters open, safe and secure to help achieve national aspirations.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe signs commissioning warrant of the SLNS Vijayabahu.

Sri Lanka Navy is our islands first line of diligent defence, built on seven decades of solid experience. During the conflict years the naval fleet was upgraded amidst many challenges. The Army and Air Force contributed positively with great sacrifice to fight the enemy. Defence analyst now endorse that it was the consistent deep sea patrols of the Sri Lanka Navy that engaged and destroyed the LTTEs arms bearing vessels and limited the combat capability of the LTTE land forces, depriving them of their weapons and food supplies. Specialized units like the Fast Attack Flotilla (Dvora Squadron) boldly engaged enemy craft and escorted larger naval vessels. The Cedric Class Boats of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) acted as a strong deterrent to the Sea Tigers strike capability, in our littoral waters. In addition the Landing Ship Tanks (LST) of Sri Lanka Navy contributed in taking food and medicine to the people of the Northern Province, when the land routes were cut off during periods of deadly combat encounters.

The sea has always been a competitive space universally. Countering malign behaviours short of armed conflict requires sufficient naval capacity and integration to maintain forward presence, especially for island nations like Sri Lanka. As an island our threats will always be seaborne. Agile naval forces offer dynamic and flexible options from which to project combat power. We must maintain our advantage at sea with new platforms and new technologies that enhance distributed naval operations. Alliances and partnerships are true force multipliers in times of crisis, for any region of the world. Understanding the modern linkage between navies and the effective functioning of the global economic system requires us to nurture a truly global viewpoint. Navies protect their nations’ economic prospects.

Let us look at some developed countries. The UK maritime doctrine also draws attention to the identity and tradition of the UK as a maritime nation: “The UK is an island nation and with that comes a maritime heritage that is woven into our national history” (UK Maritime Power 2017). The US naval doctrine states that: “Naval forces alone, however, never were intended to have every military capability needed to handle every threat or crisis that the United States may face. Just as the complementary capabilities of naval forces compound overall strength, the combined capabilities and resources of other Services and other nations in joint and multinational operations can produce overwhelming military power”.

Former US President Theodore Roosevelt read American naval theorist Alfred Mahan’s powerful book The Influence of Sea Power on History and he became a true believer in sea power and diligently pushed for a strong American Navy. He dispatched the Great White Fleet on a world tour to announce America’s arrival on the world stage.

Modernization efforts are also underway in Russia. Its military prioritizes nuclear and advanced missile systems, attack and guided-missile submarines, missile frigates and state-of-the-art air defenses. Our trusted neighbour India has also made tremendous advances in its naval fleet upgrade and capacity.

Globally the Navy is omnipresent in every major geographic area around the world. The very presence of naval ships simultaneously deters military aggression, safeguards the sea lanes and the commerce that flows through them and duly preserves territorial waterway boundaries. Naval forces’ unique attributes generate options and decision space for national leadership. Violent extremists and criminal organisations all exploit weak governance at sea and gaps in maritime domain awareness. Piracy, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other illicit acts leave Governments vulnerable. Sri Lanka being an island can face the above issues, that will impact overall national security. Transnational crime and terrorism are not new but have morphed in recent years. The French counter insurgency theorist, David Galula states that an insurgency is a competition between the insurgent and the Government for the support of the people. Today, small groups can create devastating effects with far-reaching consequences. New technologies and the vulnerabilities of the increasingly interconnected maritime transportation system have raised the potential impact of crime and terrorism to a strategic level. Also, ships and vessels themselves can be used as weapons of terror, or to smuggle weapons of mass destruction or terrorists across maritime borders for violent attacks ashore.

The importance of Off Shore Patrol Vessels (OPV) has grown manifold in the recent years due to the changing nature of the maritime threat. While frigates form the bedrock of a fleet and are the principal surface combatants in many small to medium navies, OPVs have carved out their own niche because of the range of options they provide which makes them cost effective force multipliers for a range of naval operations. Sri Lanka Navy has a few OPVs and Advanced OPVs - SLNS Vijayabahu (P-627), SLNS Gajabahu (P-626), SLNS Parakramabahu (P-625), SLNS Sindurala (P-624), SLNS Sayurala (P-623), SLNS Sagara (P-622), SLNS Samudura (P-621) and SLNS Sayura (P-620). It has been my privilege to go on onboard all these ships. In addition to this the Sri Lanka Coast Guard operates SLCGS Suraksha and SLCGS Jayasagara. The OPV is a highly versatile ship, designed to perform Economic Exclusion Zone management roles, including the provision of maritime security to coastal areas and effective disaster relief. The OPVs of the Sri Lanka Navy help meet naval requirement for undertaking ocean surveillance in order to prevent infiltration and transgression of maritime sovereignty.

Acquisition of high endurance vessels to the SLN fleet will enable the country to achieve its maritime security aspirations resourcefully, as Sri Lanka inherits an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that is seven times larger than the landmass. In such a backdrop, the Navy needed to deploy its offshore patrol vessels in wide-ranging operations that include conservation of marine resources, search and rescue of naval and fishing communities in distress and countering non-traditional security threats in the Indian Ocean Region effectively in future, while making its waters safe and secure.

We build trust and interoperability with our allies through combined exercises, theatre security cooperation and capacity-building efforts. The Naval ships across the world will pursue an agile approach to fleet modernization. Though Sri Lanka is a small nation in comparison to UK, USA, China, Australia and India we must diligently join the race to upgrade and sustain a modern navy. Our defence spending must empower the navy as a priority. An investment in sea power is most appropriate and effective at a point when threats are not apparent.


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