Small Wars Journal

A Guerilla War At Sea: The Sri Lankan Civil War

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Counterinsurgency case studies typically focus on the terrestrial aspects of the conflict for the unsurprising reason that the target population of the conflict lives on land.  Insurgent maritime forces are typically small to insignificant and have a correspondingly marginal effect on rebel courses of action.  The counterinsurgent side’s naval forces usually overmatch the insurgent’s and thus key elements of the maritime aspects of counterinsurgencies become relegated to the appendices of the relevant analysis.

The Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) is thus somewhat of an anomaly.  Both the Sri Lankan government and the insurgents fielded capable naval forces that directly affected the flow of operations during the war.  The rebel Tamil Tigers required secure sea lines of communication to supply their forces with the apparatus of modern warfare and used the open maneuver space of the sea to attack the Sri Lankan armed forces, government and economy.  Over time, the Sea Tigers, the insurgent maritime force, developed into a highly capable and aggressive organization that was able to operate in all maritime domains across the spectrum of conflict.  The Sri Lankan naval forces were initially hampered by their government’s lack of resolve and interest.  At the start of the war the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) was seen more as a support organization for the Army and was tasked accordingly.  Over time the duties and responsibilities of the SLN expanded and eventually it was able to wrest control of the vital approaches to the island nation away from the insurgent forces.  While the effects of the maritime component of the conflict are still under review, the conflict demonstrates the range of maritime operations that insurgents are capable of conducting, and the power that maritime counterinsurgent forces can apply to help win a complex irregular war. 

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The views presented are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

About the Author(s)

Paul A. Povlock is a faculty member of the Joint Military Operations Department at the Naval War College.  He retired from active service in 2009 following twenty five years of service in the United States Navy.  A 1984 graduate of the Naval Academy, he also holds Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland and in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College.