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The Crumbling of Muhamale

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The Crumbling of Muhamale
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With at least two previous failures of a successful breakthrough through the Tamil Tiger Devil's garden along the KILALY/MUHAMALE/NAGARKOVIL axis, mainly due to indirect fire via anti personal/ anti-armor mines and arti/mortar units, battleplanners in this sector set about to destabilise the Tamil Tiger FDL using crumbling operations to force the enemy's defensive cohesion to flood away thereby destabilizing the FDL. Further as I have mentioned in an earlier brief lengthily such a series of crumbling operations allows the Sri Lankan battle planners to master their opening game as well as shore up the morale of its soldiers.

With the Tamil Tigers having more than 5 years to perfect their defences along the 7 miles stretch spanning from KILALY to NAGARKOVIL, this front provides the most fortified line in the current Sri Lankan conflict. The Tamil Tiger defences had provided them with concealment, cover, combined arms integration and more importantly a depth of 14kms towards EPS. The Tamil Tiger trenches and bunkers were irregularly distributed, formulaically interconnected, carefully camouflaged, combining ballistic protection with real concealment to withstand offensive fire. These positions were well fortified with anti-tank ditches, protective minefields and wire entanglements. Any cover the SLA could exploit were limited with interlocking fields of fire by positioning adjoining weapons so that each weapon can fire across the other's fronts. The defences were further strengthened with MG posts and mortars. Machine guns are direct fire-flat trajectory weapons and attackers can use directional cover by obscuring the line of sight (LOS). Mortars and artillery on the other hand can fire over intervening obstacles and engage targets without LOS. Hence working together, machine guns and artillery/mortars compliments for each other's weaknesses. Such interlocking fields of fire reduces the cover or dead space thus complicates things for the attacker to find and exploit concealed positions.

Classic military doctrine suggests that attackers need 3:1 ratio against defenders. Once the defender has integrated combined weapons tactics with fortified positions the force ratio required for a breakthrough increases. Hence against well entrenched positions it jumps to 5:1. It is very rare for any commander to have the 3:1 let alone 5:1 force ratio which military theorists consider essential to break a fortified line but it is possible to gather the necessary superiority at least locally by using deception, tactics and surprise.

Intermingled amongst these defences were observation posts and covering forces operating far from the main defences. The main defensive forces to the rear are to be warned by these cadres with warning of attack. Other than observation these covering forces are expected to carry out other functions such as intercepting SLA recce teams, slowing attackers' movements, canalising an assault and conducting their own reconnaissance. Even though it sounds straightforward in theory, this requires the cadres to often carry out orders from high command in the face of superior forces and in the case of a massive assault to manoeuvre and break contact with a superior attack force and fall back before being overrun while calling in reserves at the rear.

With constant Monty style crumbling operations causing daily attrition, the Tamil Tigers were compelled for a compromise.The Tamil Tigers knew their forward bunkers and observational posts were targets for such attacks hence they rationally reduced bunker manning levels leaving fewer on watch and relying more heavily on tactical warning to give units time to reoccupy bunkers in the event of a ground attack. Meanwhile the 57/58 Divisions were fast approaching the Tamil Tiger political capital and the environs of the JAFFNA lagoon. Urgent reinforcements were required to halt the enemy advance. This was another reason for unmanned bunkers due to overstretched cadre base where more reinforcements were required in defending the PARANTHAN-KILINOCHCHI axis. Hence much to the surprise of the attacking small units at MUHAMALE, men found a higher fraction of unmanned defending posts at the time of attack than would have been the case.

With the 58 Divisions occupying the strategic POONERYN peninsula on the 19th of November, battleplanners rapidly set about positioning indirect fire batteries and making 58's first move towards PARANTHAN. With the POONERYN peninsula gone, for the battleplanners it was one less Call-for-fire zone (CFFZ). CFFZ is an area in enemy territory that the commander wants suppressed, neutralized, or destroyed. This also meant the battleplanners Artillery target intelligence zone (ATIZ) was limited to areas South of MUHAMALE and the PARANTHAN environs. ATIZ is an area in enemy territory that the commanders wish to monitor closely. With these developments elsewhere the time was ripe for the National front to flare up and occupy the already crumbled Tamil Tiger FDL which lay just 500m ahead of them. This perfect coordination between 58/53/55 and the loss of strategic POONERYN meant the Tamil Tiger fortifications across the lagoon at MUHAMALE/KILALY were under fire from additional fire support bases. Further it also meant that its own howitzers stationed at K-point were no longer able to continue suppressive fire towards SLA's artillery batteries in areas such as KODIKAMAM/MIRUSUVIL and MSRs carrying reinforcements and medevac missions to and from the theatre of engagement.

This well coordinated movement of 58 and 53/55 not only made the Tamil Tiger ground cadre thin out, but also its limited indirect fire units. A fraction of these mortar/arti units which have proved to be anathema to the troops of 53/55 have been compelled to be diverted to suppress troops of 58 moving along the B69 KILALY lagoon. The reserves meant to defend the KILALY/MUHAMALE axis were drawn into an area where the same reserves will engage the 58 and 53/55 when the need arises. This thinning out greatly reduced the Tamil Tiger Force to Space Ratio (FSR) which is the number of troops per linear km. As said above it is very rare for any commander to have the 3:1 let alone 5:1 force ratio which military theorists consider essential to break a fortified line. With the Tamil Tigers moving a fraction of its men and assets to protect its rear, the battleplanners got the edge over the numbers they were hoping for; for an ultimate forward thrust.

The breaching Sri Lankan armed forces made extensive Small unit manoeuvre, dispersion, cover and concealment thanks to modern tactics. The breaching effort was spearheaded by combat engineers operating under the cover of artillery, MBTs and smoke rounds with infantry support immediately available via Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) advancing immediately behind the echelon. The long and medium range artillery/MBRL support suppressed or destroyed enemy support fire bases until assault teams approached within around 300 meters whereupon 60mm/81mm mortars and direct fire from troops took over. Meanwhile fixed and rotary wing aircraft provided vital Combat Air Support (CAS) and electronic warfare units jammed Tamil Tiger communication systems and used Tamil Tiger radio emissions to provide targeting data of Tamil Tiger forward command posts. Such a combination of air and ground technology in which indirect fire served essentially a suppressive purpose - it induced the Tamil Tigers to take protective postures that reduced their ability to return fire, thereby reducing their effectiveness even without killing them directly.

Facilitated by extensive rehearsals this complex combined arms manoeuvre focused their efforts simultaneously on the objective area exploiting what little cover the terrain provided thus presenting the Tamil Tigers with few opportunities to engage isolated forward operating units on their own favourable terms. The paraded corpses of fallen soldiers in previous engagements within this sector were mainly of such forward operating men.

The extensive rehearsals conducted prior to the battle ensured that even junior soldiers were trained well enough to operate independently in small units, using their own tactical judgement to solve problems and keep the assault moving forward, for any bogged down strike team on unfavourable ground can leave the team and the mission highly vulnerable. The units engaged in battle were so professional that unit leaders on the scene were making their own decisions, seizing fleeting opportunities and exploiting idiosyncratic local conditions. Extensive battlefield rehearsals and intelligence gathering also meant the commanders were well aware of Clausewitz's culminating point. They very well knew that by halting their immediate operation with just one FDL under their occupation and fortifying the defences according to their requirements was suffice at least for the time being.

The reason why the culminating point was set just after this FDL and the main thrust halted with limited aims was this operation was NOT designed for a breakthrough. Rather this operation was intended to exploit the temporary advantage garnered by the series of coordinated crumbling operations carried over the last few months. By occupying this FDL the SLA have seized important terrain and major sections of the Tamil Tigers' prepared positions. This positional advantage can then be used in subsequent offensive operations; i.e more crumbling type operations to engage as many Tiger cadres as possible within this sector before engaging them in the dense jungles of MULATIVU where they might withdraw. In military parlance this is termed as Fixing attacks where the Tamil Tigers can be pinned into place at little cost to the attackers.

The main advantage of such operations holding limited aims is that it avoids over extension of troops and in the same time reduces its vulnerability to counterattack. In military doctrine any defender that holds a defensive depth as deep as 14kms (as the National Front) is expected to concede initial ground in the event of a forward thrust. Depth is a tradeoff for the defenders and 14kms of depth gives time for an astute defender in the likes of the Tamil Tigers to counterconcentrate troops in sufficient strength to grind the 53/55 military machine. Such depth also allows the Tamil Tiger battleplanners to rectify any miscalculations of their defence. To regain the lost ground which was lost initially, a counterattack is relied upon. Hence breakthrough attempts create such counterattack opportunities for the Tamil Tigers as seen previously. And with each counterattack, the attrition the Tamil Tigers will suffer to its experienced reserves is not easily replaceable since new junior recruits lack the experience, the morale, the skill and coordination to perform complex manoeuvres to push back the superior Sri Lankan forces.

With the commanders of 53/55 finding lesser resistance, barring the weather, it will not be long before the National Front will flare up again with assault teams adding pressure on the remaining FDLs of the Tamil Tigers. With 58 troops having breached the earth bund defending the PARANTHAN town limits, it will be not long before the Tamil Tiger reserves based around the EPS region be under severe pressure facing a dilemma similar to the troops of 54 Division faced in 2000. If the Tamil Tigers are to withdraw and lose EPS and PARANTHAN it is sure to abandon what's left of KILINOCHCHI as well because the KILINOCHCHI area will become a massive salient. A salient is a battlefield feature which projects into enemy territory and any Tamil Tigers within this area will become highly vulnerable.

There lies yet another strategically significant reason for the SLA commanders' need to push down from the National Front. If there was one counterstrike that could tip the balance in favour of the Tamil Tigers that would be the one to regain the Jaffna peninsula. Any daring counterstrike with the remaining cadre strength is sure to deplete the Tamil Tigers further of its cadre base and its assets, for with the current strength it will have to vacate its entire cadre base of the Wanni and mobilise it to accomplish the strike on Jaffna. Thus such a large scale ambitious counterstrike simply put; is a risky gamble for the Tamil Tigers. By doing so it is sure to lose the entire Wanni. This means it can choose only either Jaffna or the Wanni.

If it opts for Wanni as it is doing at present and launches a counterstrike with all its might to regain a region of the Wanni for example POONERYN; it may succeed with its entire cadre base being mobilised for this objective. However, whether it will be the Gordian knot for its woes is the million dollar question. POONERYN holds no population base hence the Tamil Tigers will not be in a position to recruit its lost cadre. It may manage to replenish a small fraction of its supplies across the Palk Straits however, it will fail to meet the requirement since annihilating 58 Division alone to reach POONERYN will not mean the Tamil Tigers have seen the back of the Sri Lankan armed forces. By having mobilised its entire cadre to regain POONERYN means it would have lost the entire Wanni barring POONERYN and will be staring down the barrel of the rest of the offensive divisions.

Therefore if the Tamil Tigers are to launch a successful counterattack, it has to be a region that holds a sizeable population base for new recruits and an area that is close enough to smuggle in vital supplies. Out of the entire Northern theatre of operations ONLY the Jaffna peninsula brings forth such rich dividends. Jaffna peninsula holds a population base of over 650000 compared to the sparsely populated Wanni which estimates are thought to hold less than 300000. And it is in close proximity to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where many Tamil Tiger safe houses are known to exist. With the entire peninsula under its control it will have plenty of coastal belts to continue its smuggling operation with impunity.

By mobilising the 53/55 Divisions and making them go on the offense and force its way South completely negates the Tamil Tigers' ability to launch ANY counterstrike to get a foothold on the Jaffna peninsula - the cultural centre of the Eelam ethos. This is why earlier I briefed my avid readers that any counterstrike by the Tamil Tigers after 53/55 have been mobilised may come too little too late.

By : Long Ranger


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