Lanka's climbing war budget gets diminishing
19 October 2000
Talking realistically about the war in Sri Lanka often reminds one
of the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes, particularly since Prime
Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka began declaring that victory is at
hand. Once the horse deals are over the biggest task before the new
government would be the prosecution of the war.
There are few options for the PA to work around it and take the
country on a path of economic advancement and prosperity.
The war budget will have to increase this year, placing a greater
burden on the economy and the people. And it is quite clear that
defence spending will keep going up and up unless there is a
sustainable cease-fire or a clear victory in the battlefield. What
would be the purpose of the increased war budget this year and next?
Firstly, a large part of it will go into increasingly high tech,
fire intensive efforts by the army to shift the strategic balance in
its favour in the Jaffna peninsula. There is certainly a stalemate
in Jaffna, at least for now.
The interesting point here is that everyone has accepted,
unconsciously, the current status quo in Eelam War III as the
standard by which to judge the army’s progress in the battlefield.
Compare what was expected in return for the money spent on the war
in 1998 with what the government expects the army to do now for a
much-increased budget this year.
The war budget in 1998 was primarily meant to capture the northern
part of the Wanni between Paranthan and Mankulam on the north-south
axis and between the Mannar coast and Mullaithivu coast on the
east-west axis. It was also for the deployment of adequate troops to
dominate the east and southern Wanni and the whole Jaffna peninsula.
Now, two years later, the object of a war budget which will be much
greater than that of 1998 will mainly be to pour more military
resources into stopping the LTTE from advancing any further into
Jaffna and for the deployment of less troops in the east and the
much shrunk parts of the Mannar and Vavuniya districts.
The new government is going to demand more and more resources from
the economy and the people just to keep the pressure on the LTTE
positions which are now inside Jaffna.
In short, expectations as to what the army ought to achieve are
decreasing imperceptibly while the money spent to achieve the
diminishing returns from the war keeps increasing by billions of
Now let’s take a look at what it takes at this conjuncture to
maintain the status quo by keeping the military pressure up on the
LTTE inside the peninsula and by deploying the minimum required
number of troops in southern Wanni and the east to defend the areas
held by the army currently.
The army concentrated almost four and a half divisions to the
defence of Jaffna since December 1999. They were the 51, 52, 53, 54
and some elements of the 55. The 54 is now a non-operational
The 21, 56 and the 55 hold parts of the Vavuniya and Mannar
districts. The 21 and 56 are not full strength divisions. They are
much short of manpower.
Div. 22 and 23, both of which are also quite short of troops, hold
Ideally, each of these divisions should have at least nine thousand
troops including supporting artillery and amour units. Therefore in
theory the army should have 81 thousand troops deployed against the
Tigers in the north and east now.
Informed military analysts say that at any given time there are at
least 15-20 thousand soldiers who have deserted their ranks and are
still at large. Then it is estimated that the army has lost at least
six thousand soldiers who were killed or reported missing in action
and who were wounded permanently since the LTTE unleashed Operation
Unceasing Waves III on November 1999.
The recruitment since April this year has not gone much beyond the
number required for filling the vacancies due to soldiers retiring
and leaving (the natural depletion rate).
Hence we can safely surmise that there are about of 55-60 thousand
soldiers actually deployed in the north and east currently. The
average strength of each of the nine divisions in the north and east
is therefore, hypothetically, around 6000-6500.
What is the current strength of the LTTE which these divisions are
The army says that the hardcore manpower of the LTTE is around 8-10
thousand. The auxiliary forces raised in the Wanni by the Tigers
since 1998 are estimated to number at least 40 thousand. (These are
now being reorganised into a more formalized militia called the
Makkal Padai with its own commissariat and command structure along
the lines of a conventional army) Reports from the Wanni indicate
that the Tigers have mobilized at lease ten percent of the
population there in to the semi conventional militias. (According to
the Vavuniya Kachcheri there are approximately 375,000 people
currently living in the LTTE controlled part of the Wanni.)
Here we see a gradual and imperceptible process whereby force levels
in the overall military balance in the north and east are getting
equalized. In this context we have to take note that the LTTE has
not made any attempt so far to mobilize the Tamil population living
in areas under its control in the eastern province. This process
towards equalizing of force levels is also bringing about, again
imperceptibly, a reduction in the overall offensive capability of
Given the fact that the two army divisions in the east and the two
and a half divisions in the Vavuniya and Mannar districts are not
deployed in full strength, it is obvious that the army cannot pull
out enough troops in either region to concentrate enough forces for
any decisive offensive operation against LTTE positions there.
The only place where the army can achieve adequate concentration of
forces to go on the offensive against the LTTE is the Jaffna
peninsula. But again, the troop and fire concentrations required for
offensives against the Tigers in Jaffna keep rising to unprecedented
levels, although the returns to show for them are perceptibly
decreasing. Compare what it cost for Op. Kiniheera to take part of
the Chavakachcheri town with what it took for the army only three
years ago to take Nedunkerni and Puliyankulam from the Tigers.
Therefore, in the final analysis, the central question before the
government in prosecuting the war against the Tigers for the next
six years is to arrest the processes whereby force levels are
equalizing and the offensive potential of the army is facing
limitations that may be beyond its control.
Otherwise spending infinitely more for inexorably diminishing
returns in real military terms is inevitable.
The options available to the new government for overcoming this
situation are few and bitter. One of course is to call for a
ceasefire and begin talks with the Tigers. The other is for the army
to draw the LTTE into a destructive war in Jaffna which could
eventually sap its real strength by achieving even greater
concentration of forces in the peninsula at the cost of temporarily
losing a little real estate to the Tigers in the east and Wanni.
And this seems to be the course which the government is most likely
to follow. Politically it has painted itself into a situation where
it cannot consider the first option. Hence more war at greater cost
is the only course left open for the PA now.