Forces: Sri Lanka's Big Fleet of Little Boats


April 9, 2006: Sri Lanka's navy has been rarely discussed in recent years, with much of the focus being on a long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better known as the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers). However, Sri Lanka's navy is often involved in this war, as a frequent engagements off the northeast coast demonstrate.

Sri Lanka was a major naval base for England for years. In 1942, Japanese carriers attacked the bases there in an effort to destroy the Eastern fleet. Today, Sri Lanka's independence has left it without the protection of the Royal Navy. Independence (granted in 1948) will do that to a country. But until the civil war began in the 1980s, Sri Lanka had no enemies at sea. Once the LTTE violence began, the threat at sea was mainly LTTE ships (small freighters and large fishing boats) smuggling people and weapons into northern Sri Lanka. The only weapons on these boats were small arms and RPGs, although some were rigged with explosives, with the LTTE crews killing themselves and the navy patrol boat alongside.

The Sri Lankan Navy of today makes do with a large assortment of patrol craft. Many of the larger vessels were purchased from China. The only domestic vessel is the Jayesagara, the survivor of a class of two. The other was sunk by a Tamil Tiger attack in 1994. Perhaps the most powerful ships are two Reshev-class missile craft purchased from Israel, modified with the deletion of three Gabriel II anti-ship missiles. These vessels give the Sri Lankan Navy a potent punch against surface vessels. Sri Lanka's largest vessel is the SLNS Sarayu, purchased from India, a 1,650-ton patrol ship armed with three 40mm cannon and four 12.7mm machine guns. Sri Lanka operates three Shanghai II-class patrol craft (the survivors of a batch of six that were acquired), two Luchan-class patrol craft, one Haiqing-class patrol craft, and nine Haizhui-class patrol craft (a modified version of the Shanghai II-class patrol craft).

The Sri Lankan navy also has 83 small patrol craft from American, Israeli, British, Korean, French, and Sri Lankan sources. There is also a small contingent of landing craft, one Yuhai-class landing craft and two Yuqin-class landing craft from China, two landing craft built in Sri Lanka, a British air-cushioned landing craft, and two Australian catamaran personnel transports.

This is a force that has gone through the effects of a lengthy civil war - particularly one where there is very little fighting on the naval front. The fighting that has occurred is often a small skirmish that involves small arms. This is a situation where large warships are more of a liability than an asset. Internal peace is probably the biggest requirement for Sri Lanka developing a more powerful navy. - Harold C. Hutchison ( [email protected])




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