December 24, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes
Image Credits: The Sri Lankan Navy/ Twitter
In the past, Sri Lanka’s maritime diplomacy and aspirations were perhaps not fully realised largely due to the preoccupation with the three-decade conflict with the LTTE. This appears to be changing and Sri Lanka’s current approach to regional security in the Indian Ocean region arguably could be characterised as being ‘more assertive’. While the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) has come up with a strategy document titled ‘2025 Maritime Strategy’ looking at the transformation issues facing the SLN;1 Sri Lanka’s maritime strategy is yet to be crystallised in an all-encompassing policy document that takes into account all the strategic dimensions such as; national security, trade, and foreign policy.
The path for smaller states like Sri Lanka is not one of extending traditional inter-state power projection but rather to signal to its many of its cooperative partners, a willingness to undertake a greater share of the burden when dealing with collective security threats. To meet such maritime aspirations, it is necessary to chart a pathway that will look at some of the crucial elements necessary in fulfilling the overall transformation objectives. This LKI Blog will discuss three avenues that Sri Lanka need to make greater investments in the future to ensure that it remains a relevant and credible player in the region.
For a small state, Sri Lanka possesses a relatively battle-hardened navy specifically in the sphere of asymmetric maritime warfare. Surface vessels of various capabilities were used in numerous operations ranging from counter-insurgency swarming operations, military transport, to intercepting floating armouries in the high seas. In the post-conflict period, Offshore Patrol Vessels and other patrol crafts remain essential to maintaining Sri Lanka’s maritime border security. Sri Lanka has in the last few years acquired four Advanced Offshore Patrol Vehicles (AOPVs) which has substantially increased the Sri Lankan Navy’s blue-water capabilities.2 They remain crucial in the interdiction of persons and organisations engaging in criminal maritime activities such as piracy, drug trafficking, and arms smuggling. Sri Lanka’s efforts to curb these activities are starting to bear fruit as the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Coast Guard have successfully demonstrated by seizing record drug hauls in the recent months. SLN has seized more than 430 kg of Heroin in 2020 thus far, more than double the amount apprehended in seizures in 2019.3 Historically, Sri Lanka has relied on lease agreements or as gifts when procuring some of these vessels. In addition, to current capabilities, Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) should look at ways to expand additional capabilities to existing ships where possible to increase the cost-effectiveness during operations. It is worthwhile exploring the possibility for example of the possibility of including systems such as towed array sonars on existing frigates.
As the SLN looks to expand its fleet Sri Lanka should determine if there is any scope to increase the commissioning of smaller vessels (other than OPVs) to domestic manufacturers such as Colombo Dockyard. With the support of the Export Development Board (EDB) and the Ministry of Defense, it should also explore the possibility of exporting such vessels to small states in the Commonwealth or developing countries in Africa. Any form of defence-related industrial base that is self-reliant could have a series of direct and spillover benefits as long as such programs are cost-effective, remain reliable and can meet industry standards. However, unless there is a way to adequately maintain a steady number of orders either as domestic purchases or through exports it would be difficult to maintain an industrial defence base.
Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is most commonly defined as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment”.4 MDA is simply not one item but a collection of actions including tracking conventional vessels through systems such as Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and coalescing the shared information within fusion centres. Sri Lanka’s MDA capabilities have improved substantially owing to developments such as the acquisition of aforementioned AOPVs, the installation of Coastal Radar Surveillance Networks and the steady growth of Sri Lanka’s Coast Guard as an additional layer among Sri Lanka’s other defence service branches.
The underwater domain perhaps needs to be looked at distinctively from surface maritime activity. Adequate understanding of the underwater domain is also crucial to build and maintain Sri Lanka’s historical commitments to keeping the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. The Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOZP) was a declaration initiated by Sri Lanka at the 26th UN General Assembly in 1971.5 When analysing the text of the declaration, it is clear that the declaration is not simply envisaging the mere absence of conflict, but rather one which encouraged the exclusion of the main contributory factors such as “Great power rivalries, bases conceived in the context of such rivalries,… and nuclear weapons” within the Indian Ocean.6
Given the fact that the IOZP proposal has failed to gain any traction among larger players, Sri Lanka needs to ensure that its territorial waters are not used as part of geostrategic calculations by larger states in a destabilising manner.7 This could probably mean enhancing Sri Lanka’s both underwater and surveillance capabilities through a combination of coastal sensors and a fleet of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for patrolling purposes. The use of UUVs is potentially more cost-effective than operating maritime patrol aircrafts. Some of the advanced options when it comes to state-of-the-art maritime patrol aircrafts such as the Boeing P-8 Poseidon remain prohibitively expensive both in terms of acquisition and operation even if the US were to greenlight such a sale in the future. The use of UUVs also be necessary for the fight against drug trafficking, as there is ample evidence in other oceans that partially or fully submerged vessels are being used by non-state actors to transport narcotics.8
Improving Sri Lanka’s underwater domain awareness should also be closely tied in with Sri Lanka’s broader economic interests in the maritime sphere. If Sri Lanka plans to conduct advanced industrial activities in its maritime domain such as deep-sea mining, it would be necessary to increase the monitoring capabilities of Sri Lanka’s underwater domain. Improving underwater domain awareness could also go a long way to ensure the protection of undersea cables which are largely responsible for carrying the vast majority of intercontinental internet traffic.9
Unlike other regions in the world, the Indian Ocean region’s governance structure remains at a nascent stage. While the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) remains arguably the most prominent organisation in the sphere of Indian Ocean cooperation, IORA has been slow to embrace security aspects. Most notably, the charter itself does not contain any reference to security at all.10 However, as IORA members’ views continue to evolve, maritime safety and security has become one of the key priority areas as evidenced by the creation of the working group with Sri Lanka designated as the coordinating country.11 Despite the secretariat of IORA being based in Mauritius, Sri Lanka should look to making Colombo the central node for many of these negotiations and discussions. To improve Sri Lanka’s credibility as an honest broker, the country needs to upscale the capacity of relevant departments in the Sri Lanka Navy and the Ministry of Foreign Relations. It is also crucial to support the work of national think tanks undertaking research on the maritime domain and tertiary educational institutions offering programs in subjects such as maritime law, maritime security, oceanography and maritime economics.
Undoubtedly, Sri Lanka’s economic destiny and potential to be a high-income economy is closely intertwined with its ability to secure and exploit maritime trading routes. In this story, one of the most crucial aspects of infrastructure are Sri Lanka’s ports. Therefore, in addition to the avenues mentioned previously, Sri Lanka needs to continuously evaluate and improve the integrity of its port security systems. All of the avenues discussed thus far need considerable resources that present economic conditions may hinder immediate action. However, it is of critical importance that Sri Lanka’s policymakers look to formalise a maritime transformation plan that can shed some light of what is required, and what is indeed possible.
1 Ferdinando, S. (2019). A Bigger Navy for Post-war Sri Lanka. [Online] The Island. Available at: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=207175 [Accessed 12 August 2020].
2 Sri Lanka Navy (2019). Sri Lanka Navy Fleet. [Online] Available at: https://www.navy.lk/fleet.html [Accessed 15 September 2020].
3 Sri Lanka Navy. (2020). Heroin Seizures 2011 -2020. [Online] Available at: https://www.navy.lk/assets/template/slnavy/img/drug_bust/reports/pdf/heroin_2020_04_11.pdf [Accessed 16 February 2020].
4 Maritime Security Policy Coordinating Committee. (2005). National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness. [Online] Available at: https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/HSPD_MDAPlan.pdf#page=6 [Accessed 18 March 2020].
5 UN General Assembly. (1971). Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, 16 December 1971. [Online] Available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/528c9f6b4.html [Accessed 18 March 2020].
7 Singh, A. (2015). The Indian Ocean Zone of Peace: Reality vs. Illusion. [Online] The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2015/01/the-indian-ocean-zone-of-peace-reality-vs-illusion/ [Accessed 17 March 2020].
8 Kropiwnicka, M. (2018). Drug-trafficking: from narco-submarines to cargos with GPS tracking.University of Navarra. [Online] Available at: https://www.unav.edu/web/global-affairs/detalle/-/blogs/drug-trafficking-from-narco-submarines-to-cargos-with-gps-tracking [Accessed 18 March 2020].
9 Gray, A. (2016). This map shows how undersea cables move internet traffic around the world. World Economic Forum. [Online] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/11/this-map-shows- how-undersea-cables-move-internet-traffic-around-the-world/ [Accessed 18 March 2020].
10 United Nations. (2014). Charter of The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). [Online] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/ga/sixth/70/docs/iora_charter.pdf [Accessed 18 March 2020].
11 Ministry of Foreign Relations -Sri Lanka. (2019). Sri Lanka led IORA Maritime Safety and Security Working Group Finalises Work Plan. [Online] Available at: https://www.mfa.gov.lk/iora_wg-_eng/ [Accessed 18 March 2020].
*Malinda Meegoda is a Research Associate at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, nor do they necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.