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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > Coercive Airpower in the Eelam Conflict

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)


Coercive Airpower in the Eelam Conflict

19 May 1991

Israeli made Kfir Jets (use US General Electric made Jet engines) used in Eelam wars by Sri Lanka Air Force
The use of air power has been the most salient feature of the current conflict in the north and east. As a consequence of the fact that the LTTE controls a substantial portion of the north- the interior- there have been two types of air operations: tactical and strategic.

Tactical air power is used on the battle field. Strategic air power is used to attack targets behind the battle field- in the opponent’s territory. Tactical air power is part of ordinary military action which seeks to rout opposing forces on the battle field, whereas strategic air power is coercive, in that military coercion seeks to change the opponent’s behavior (agree for a ceasefire, give up conditions or territory, agree to hold talks on terms favorable to the assailant etc) and indirectly affect the opponent’s ability and will to sustain battlefield operations.

Right now in the context of the government’s stated and express desire to conclude, a temporary peace at least, the concept of coercion becomes crucial in examining the role of air power in the war against the Tiger. At the conventional level the military instruments traditionally used for coercion are strategic air and naval forces, while tactical air and ground forces are concerned with directly influencing events on the battle field. (Given the reduced vulnerability of modern states to naval blockades, air power has emerged as the main tool of conventional coercion.) Although technically this country cannot be said to possess a strategic airforce the need to affect the LTTE beyond the warfront in the territory it controls has given rise to strategic bombing.

The central question is, in the north, under what conditions is strategic bombing with conventional munitions likely to create the desired coercive leverage? Coercive air power can be directed at civilian and/or military targets. There are two models which exploit the vulnerability of the civilian population in the opponent’s territory. The first which seeks to gain the enemy’s compliance by slowly raising the risk of civilian damage is called the Schelling Model (the idea of manipulating the risk of civilian punishment for political purposes has largely come to be identified with the work of Thomas Schelling. Others also shared in the development of this idea chief among them Morton Kapalan in his Strategy of limited Retaliation).

Czech made 4-seater Zlin Z-143L aircraft
Key: Under this strategy bombing would gradually be escalated in intensity, geographical extent or both. “The key however is not to destroy the entire target set (population concentrations and the economic infrastructure that provides the population with essential goods and services) in one fell swoop.” This model’s premise is that coercive leverage comes from the opponent’s anticipation of future damage and hence spares a large part of the opponent’s civilian assets in order to preserve the threat of further destruction. In addition the assailant in this model gives a clear signal that the bombing is contingent on the opponent’s behavior and will be stopped if he complies with the assailant’s demands. (“To be coercive violence has to be anticipated...It is the expectation of more violence that gets the wanted behavior if the power to hurt can get it at all” – Thomas Schelling ‘Arms and Influence’)

The second counter civilian strategy is called the Douhet model- after its chief proponent Giulio Douhet. It rests in on the belief that infliction of high costs can shatter civilian morale “unraveling the social basis of resistance” and causing citizens to pressure the opponent to abandon his territorial and political ambitions. The Douhet model is simply what is known as terror bombing. However the military theoreticians and generals of the West have established the euphemistic concept instead. Under this strategy it is expected that civilian morale could be damaged by exposing large portions of the population to the terror of destruction by causing severe shortages of services and goods such as food water textiles and industrial goods.

Like the Schelling model the Douhet model focuses on population and economic targets. There is however a fundamental difference. The Schelling model holds ultimate ruin in abeyance. The Douhet model calls for immediate devastation.

The third and final strategy of coercive air power is the Interdiction model. Unlike the Douhet and Schelling models which aim at civilian vulnerability, the Interdiction model aims at the opponents military vulnerabilities. The fundamental premise of the model is that coercive leverage could be secured by attacking rear area military targets.

“The goal is to neutralize the enemy’s military potential before it can be brought to bear on the battle field.” Aerial interdiction sometimes includes economic targets to the extent that these are assumed to be part of the opponent’s ‘war machine.’ (The Industrial Web Theory put forward in the 1930s emphasized precision attacks against critical economic bottlenecks to cause an adversary’s war economy to crumble. During the bombing campaign against Germany, the eight air force targeted armament ball bearing and synthetic oil production as well as the German transportation network.)

Russian made transport-combat MI-35 used by SLAF in Eelam wars
The interdiction model assumes that in a conventional dispute or in a guerrilla war which is in the process of incorporating conventional methods, battlefield demands for resources are often inelastic especially in high input conflicts and therefore successful aerial interdiction of critical supplies can quickly lead to military disaster.

Air operations in LTTE controlled territory in the north con be tentatively classified into the Schelling and Interdiction models. How effective was the Schelling model in undermining the LTTE’s will to sustain the war?” (The Douhet model is not possible in Sri Lanka for two reasons. One it does not possess a modern strategic air force and the necessary conventional munitions. Two, the Tiger is not another government). The counter civilian strategy prescribed by the Schelling model is intended inter-alia to distance the people away from those prosecuting the war by posing the risk of destruction and hardship. It certainly led to an exodus to Colombo from the peninsula and presented the Tiger with a possible manpower crisis. But this strategy did not create the desired political crisis for the Tigers because civilian hardships were offset by supplies from Tamilnadu and the extraordinary volume of expatriate remittances.

Valvettithurai: The last occasion on which Valvettithurai was bombed thoroughly- only the Tiger base there was spared- it did not create the necessary volume of open civilian displeasure to coerce the Tiger leadership into considering methods other than war to mitigate the suffering of their kith and kin in their township. Coercive airpower in the form counter civilian Schelling model as used in the peninsula apparently failed to take note of an important fact: that from the late fifties one of the main tasks of Tamil politics has been to impress upon the Tamil population the need to countenance tremendous civilian punishment to achieve important political- and later- territorial aims.

The pogroms of 1958, 1977 and 1983 clearly strengthened the case. The net result is an almost indelible association among the ordinary Tamils between putting up with destruction of civilian assets and lives and the achievement of political objectives or the extraction of concessions from Colombo.

The counter-civilian models of coercive bombing presupposes that economic devastation will undermine civilian morale which in turn would divert the opponent’s attention away from the war front.

Major Muir Fairchild, Britain’s Director of Air Tactics and strategy in World War Two, referring to the counter-civilian coercive airpower had remarked, “ We obviously cannot and do not intend to kill or injure all the people. Therefore our intention in deciding upon this method of attack must be to so reduce the morale of the enemy civilian population through fear- fear of death or injury for themselves or their loved ones- that they would prefer our terms of peace to continuing the struggle and would force their governments to capitulate.” This approach is typical of the military leadership in societies where it is unequivocally under civilian authority dependent on the popular will for its survival.

Did the government gain any coercive leverage through the Schelling model of strategic bombing in the peninsula?

The Tiger’s unilateral ceasefire in January 1991 some may tend to argue was a consequence of it. This is incorrect because civilian vulnerabilities- the objective of the Schelling model- as it was quite evident as soon as the ceasefire was called off did not affect the political will of the LTTE to begin a rapid and intense escalation of its military operations. It is a fallacy amply exposed by many scholars on modern warfare that the punishment of civilian populations by strategic bombing with conventional munitions (unlike in the case of nuclear or biological munitions) can undermine or dislodge the real or assumed leadership of that population. But it continues to claim many adherents in modern military establishments mainly because the equation involved in the counter civilian model is simple.

The LTTE ran a war machine which is not an integral part of the northern economy. The war machine or in other words the infrastructure that is necessary to maintain its troops and battle field operation is located in the ‘interior’: the Tiger controlled portion of the north. Therefore the interdiction model is extremely crucial in determining the outcome of battles as well as in debilitating the LTTE’s ability to ‘oil’ its war apparatus.

Deep interdiction in the ‘interior’ theoretically has to be aimed at ammunition storage facilities food f fuel and explosive supply point communication bases camps and factories where mortars, shells and other war material are produced. Then it has to thwart the LTTE’s ground strategy by choking off the logistical flows on which the strategy is dependent: aerial interdiction of lines of communication between the battle front and bases or population centers.

Deep interdiction can be successful only if targets are correctly identified and if the industrial infrastructure necessary for the production of mortars and shells is part of the Jaffna economy. The problem, however, is that this industrial infrastructure that is necessary for metal casting, making of moulds, precision lathes etc is located in Tamilnadu.

Although camps had been on many occasions correctly identified they were more often than not bombed days after the Tigers vacated them. This rotation system of setting up camps in the peninsula has posed difficulties for aerial interdiction.

The often declared curfew in Kilinochchi is obviously for the possible aerial interdiction of LTTE’s lines of communication with the battlefront since Kilinochchi’s open spaces roads on irrigation bunds and channel banks can drastically expose and jeopardize Tiger supplies through t he district. But this tactical interdiction’s succss is possible only under the following conditions that Tiger supplies of men and material emanate from Jaffna; that the supplies are large; that they send convoys during the day when detection is possible as a result of the curfew which would preclude the possibility of civilian transport. Deep interdiction may seriously affect the LTTE when it launches a full fledged conventional ware dependent on an economic and industrial infrastructure located in the north. But that may never be because of the Tamilnadu factor. The LTTE rear base where its basic war material is secured is still Tamilnadu. Hence tactical interdiction may play a more crucial role in the future use of air power for coercive leverage.

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