SIOT or Special Action Infantry Teams: Their Origins and Critical Role in Eelam War IV

During m researches I discovered that the SIOT teams were a critical element in enabling the SL Army to outmanoeuvre the LTTE during Eelam War IV. Brigadier (Retd) Hiran Halangode has indicated[i] that General Sarath Fonseka was responsible for initiating this concept in 2001. He sent me a Memo written up Brigadier Ralph Nugera at some point in the past. Ralph Nugara (the correct spelling – altered in the military to rhyme with pronunciation?) is a Peterite whose skills were honed as a commando to the point where he led one of the special force units that crossed the Nandhikadal Lagoon on the night of 18th April 2009 and breached the fortified bunds of the LTTE on its eastern side. This was undoubtedly a remakable operation whihc demanded inovation and skill … as well as careful training beforehand against dummy embankments and defences re-rcreated well to the rear of the ongoing battles.

 I was fortunate in being able to interview Ralph before he retired in 2017; but this item is presented without recourse to my interview or memories thereof.[ii] I present the Nugera Memo sent by Brigadier Halangode.

Evolution of Training — Brig Ralph Nugera, WWV RWP RSP 

The tactical level of operations was dominated by small groups. This campaign was successfully waged across all levels of conflict from the tactical areas of responsibility and theatres of combat to the forums of international diplomacy. Prudent analysis of the past dictated the development of innovative concepts, blending conventional and unconventional warfare, concepts and tactics to suit the nature and environment of the conflict. Small groups of light infantrymen with meagre equipment sharpened individual and team skills, and this was an innovative approach to counter insurgency and defeat the LTTE.   There were a number of factors that influenced the introduction of this concept. Heavy casualties resulted due to the employment of mass formations against an elusive guerilla army. The LTTE’s concept was to combine guerilla warfare, positional defence and IEDs to slow down and inflict heavy casualties by the extensive use of indirect fires. Taking advantage of the ceasefire, the LTTE built its arsenal of artillery and heavy and medium mortars.   Another factor was enhancing combat power through a mix of human skill and affordable technology. GPS and NVDs were some of the simple affordable equipment, which were used by the Special Infantry Operation Teams in executing their missions. This was specifically important in the areas of surveillance and target acquisition.   Developing the overall quality and competency of the infantry was influential in the training process, as the infantry had suffered miserably from the last conflict. The need for its overall rejuvenation was evident in the number of casualties and rapid expansion. In addition, the introduction of a suitable doctrine compatible to local environment was highlighted. Having followed the British doctrine in the past, the need for a modus operandi suitable to Sri Lankan environment was felt by infantrymen.   The origins of this concept date back to 2001, to an event in which a failed divisional operation to clear 45 LTTE held positions in Northern Sri Lanka resulted in heavy casualties and a few missing in action. Remarkably, three soldiers separated from their units were able to make it back to their lines. This encouraged thought to the effect that infantry, trained and purpose built could operate in guerilla controlled territory. Hence it was wise that the infantry transform into small groups to gain the initiative and finally defeat the LTTE.   The primary reasons for developing this concept include to improve tactical intelligence surveillance and target acquisition, to enhance lethality by improving the effects of the superior firepower of the security forces, to improve decision-making and the application of combat power at decisive points, to reduce casualties by operating in disperse small groups and lastly, to reduce civilian casualties by improving precision in operations.   Special Infantry Operations Teams were trained and organised for small group operations on the lines of guerilla warfare. This includes sub conventional operations, guerilla and counter insurgency warfare. They were the watchmen of the Battalion Commander and capturing an area through dominance was their modus operandi. The concept exploited the inherent traits of the infantrymen born and bred in villages and possessing the same attributes as a guerilla such as familiarity with jungles, robustness to endure hardships and the free, uncaring attitude of operating independently.   The training and development of this force was done through carefully planned training exercises. Infantrymen for the Special Infantry Operation Teams were selected from a 44-day advanced infantry platoon training, which was designed to maintain the combat efficiency of the infantry platoon throughout the peace period. On being selected from this course, students underwent a comprehensive training programme designed to develop the skills essential for special infantry operations missions. The training was conducted for a period of three and a half months. The improvement of the operational efficiency of the infantry as a whole could be attributed to the conduct of realistic and objective infantry battalion frame. This included combined arms, joint warfare and real-life exercises inclusive of close air support.   The transformation and success of the infantry in defeating the LTTE through this concept could be expressed in three progressive stages: contest, impact and its success. The contest was for the jungles and the teams operated on wide fronts infiltrating and striking the terrorists from the front and the rear. They provided quality intelligence, which enhanced the lethality of the Security Force firepower and facilitated decision-making. The actions of these teams compelled the LTTE to commit more cadres and reserves to contest the jungles and this denied them of much needed reserves to counter other Security Force operations.   The next stage was impact: the teams dominated the jungles and gained moral ascendancy over the LTTE. This took time but the LTTE finally lost the contest for the jungles, their critical bases and ability to wage typical guerilla warfare. The teams suffered heavy casualties and thus had to be replaced by the basic infantry.   Finally, the success of the Special Infantry Operation Teams influenced the basic infantry to adopt the same concept, highlighting the transforming effect that took place. The small group approach to operations spread throughout the entire infantry and thereafter blended the infantry and the Special Infantry Operation concept.    The lessons learned from this operation are as follows:   It is all about ‘dominance’. Operations conducted by the infantry such as counter terrorists, counter guerilla or even counter insurgency are principally about dominance. A major proportion of the LTTE cadres with the exception of a few elite units had very basic training and relied most of the time on familiarity of terrain and freedom of action rather than actual developed skills. All that was required was shaping the infantry with the confidence to operate in small units.   A battle-tested doctrine served as an engine to inspire the infantry. Precision in civilian environments was imperative and the infantry small group operation was effective and achieved a fair amount of precision. Lack of adequate communication to meet the demands of many teams was a challenge that was persistent and at times could not be met. It also created the problem of situational awareness, and occasionally resulted in fratricide. Innovative methods of employing the claymore mine were developed by the infantry with advice from the field engineers and the special operations forces. Lastly, the concurrence of training and fighting: due to the number of casualties during the campaign, the Special Infantry Operation Teams were replaced with lesser-trained infantrymen. This was the implementation of the on-the-job training policy. The village youth was maybe the answer: the recruit from the village is a suitable match to a guerilla, terrorist or insurgent if trained systematically whilst retaining the natural attributes inherited from his environment.   In conclusion, the defeat of the LTTE was attributed to a number of strategic operational tactical successes. However, it was the equation on ground that was changed in favour of the Security Forces for the dedication, skill and will of the infantryman. – See more at: http://www.businesstoday.lk/article.php?article=3487#

A COMMENT from Michael Roberts

In one sense Brigadier Nugera’s account is reiterating programmes developed b commando forces in the Western World during World War II and subsequent wars. I am reminded here of the CHINDITS or British and British Indian troops commanded by Brigadier Orde Wingate who were parachuted or otherwise inserted behind Japanese frontlines in Burma. They had to learn how to acquire food and water from their environment and operate by stealth for long periods. However, the scale of the operation seems to have been enlarged by General Fonseka to encompass many infantry battalions.

….. a Chindit column

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chindits

ALSO NOTE

V. Shashikumar: “Lessons from Sri Lanka’s war,” Indian Defence Review, Issue Vol 24.3 Jul-Sep2009 , http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/lessons-from-the-war-in-sri-lanka/

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, Vol. 35/2, pp. 17-19. … and http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/aulimp/citations/gsa/ 2009157395/156554.html

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009d “Sri Lanka’s Experience in Counter-Insurgency Warfare,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Oct. 2009, Vol. 35/8, pp. 40-46.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009e “Good Education. Sri Lankan Military learns Counter Insurgency Lessons,” Jane’s Intelligence Review Dec. 2009, pp. 3-7.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010b “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010 30/4: 35-37. http://www.asiapacificdefencereporter.com/ articles/40/Sri-Lanka.

Govt Film Unit [SL] 2014 “Last Days at Nandikadal,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kEzLEafDss  OR https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?shva=1#inbox/148fce36b9866525?projector=1

Gray, David 2009 “A Day at the Front Line in Sri Lanka (Photographer’s Blog),” 27 April 2009, http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2009/04/27/a-day-at-the-front-line-in-sri-lanka/

Holmes, Maj-General 2018 “Maj-General Holmes deciphers the Eelam Wars,” 3 May 2018 https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/05/03/maj-genl-holmes-deciphers-the-eelam-wars/

END NOTES

[i] Email from Brigadier (Retd) Halangode, 20 May 2019.

[ii][ii] Ralph’s wife and daughter had visited me at my sister’s place in Wellawatte the year before with reference to one of the daughter’s pursuits. My interview was at the Nugera Army bungalow somewhere off Colombo in the Kotte area.

Brig Nugera at home …. and at some la-di-da function

 

2 Comments

Filed under cultural transmission, education, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, modernity & modernization, performance, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “SIOT or Special Action Infantry Teams: Their Origins and Critical Role in Eelam War IV

  1. Pingback: Gota’s Role in Eelam War Victory: Peiris challenges Roberts | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Pingback: Fine-grained Understandings of Warfare: Comprehending the SIOT Concept | Thuppahi's Blog

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