Sri Lanka and the United States appear to be shedding mutual animosities and reservations about each other to build a military partnership if not a strategic alliance.
After the British were asked to leave Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, by the socialist and non-aligned regimes of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a military vacuum which was not filled till the war with the Tamil militants began in the early 1980s.
At that time, the pro-West Sri Lankan President, J.R.Jayewardene,tied up with Israel to fight the Tamil terrorists then backed by anti-West India.
Sri Lanka bought fast boats and Kfir fighters from Israel. As the war progressed into the 1990s, the Sri Lankan military bought planes and choppers from theformer Soviet Republics and ammo and infantry weapons from China on a commercial basis.
India and US did not sell or give any weapons on political grounds. New Delhi, under pressure from Tamil Nadu, did not want to be seen arming the Sri Lankan State, and the US at that time, generally went along with India in its Sri Lanka policy.
But a change came about when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was spearheading the separatist war on the Tamil side, took on the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) which had been inducted in 1987 to help implement the India-Sri Lanka Accord on the ethnic question. More than 3,500 Indian troops were killed in the 1987-1990 conflict.
Although India did not supply weapons to Sri Lanka, it did begin training Lankan servicemen in its military institutions and supplied radars.
The US came into the picture later, with the signing of a Ceasefire agreement and the start of a peace process in 2002. A pro-peace, pro-West and pro-Indian government led by Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe had come into being in 2002.
While India sent former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt.GenSatish Nambiar to advice on measures to maintain the ceasefire through deterrent measures, a US Pacific team came to advice on what the three arms of the Sri Lankan military should do to counter any moves by the LTTE to break the ceasefire.
The US team conducted a study from September 12, 2002 to October 24, 2002 on the capability of the Lankan armed forces to face the LTTE if the ceasefire agreement were to breakdown. At the end of the study it recommended the use of cluster bombs, which, at the time was not banned. The ban on these came only in 2010 when the Cluster Munitions Convention came into effect.
It was suggested that the Kfir fighters and MI-24 helicopters of the Lankan Air Force be armed with guided weapons. To strengthen the navy, and enable it to interdict LTTE vessels bringing in ammunition and other military material, the US donated the cutter SLNS Samudura.
Agreements were signed to give Sri Lanka assistance in terms of military training, military technology, intelligence, special training in counter-terrorism, and direct monetary assistance for military development.
On March 5, 2007, while the final Eelam War IV was going on, the US Defense Department and Sri Lanka signed theAcquisition and Cross-Services Agreement (ACSA), which provided for logistics and re-fuelling facilities in Sri Lankan ports to US naval vessels.
During the last 2006-2009 (Eelam War IV) war was on, the US Pacific Command along with India provided intelligence on the movements of the LTTE’s “floating warehouses”.
Armed with accurate intelligence given by the US and India, the Lankan navy destroyed eight “floating warehouses” which eventually led to the collapse of the LTTE.
But towards the closing stages of Eelam War IV in 2009, the US and Sri Lanka fell out with each other. The US wanted the war stopped purportedly to save thousands of civilians who were cornered a small patch of land on the coast of Mullaitivu. Perhaps it also wanted to rescue the LTTE leadership to beable to use them to serve US policy later. But the Sri Lankan government rejected the American demand because it wanted to crush the LTTE and be rid of the scourge of terrorism irrespective of the collateral damage.
This led to the US whipping up an international movement against the Lankan military’s “war crimes” and motivating the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to pass stringent resolutions against Sri Lanka.
Eventually, the US succeeded in making Sri Lanka co-sponsor a resolution against itself when a pro-West regime took over Sri Lanka after the January 8, 2015 Presidential election.
Enjoying a cozy relationship with the new regime headed by the pro-West Prime Minister RanilWickremesngheand also to keep China at bay, the US Pacific Fleet conducted a “humanitarian disaster relief and response exercise” at the Hambantota Port and its environs in collaboration with the Sri Lankan, Japanese and Australian navies in March 2017.
That the exercises was held in Chinese built Hambantota port was seen as significant in the context of American concerns over China’s increasing presence in Sri Lanka and fears that China could use the Hambantota port for military purposes.
In August 2017, the US and Sri Lankan navy divers conducted a Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE) at the US Naval Base in Guam.
Soon after, on September 1, 2017, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice G. Wells, told an Indian Ocean conference in Colombo: “We are also expanding our navy-to-navy relationship with Sri Lanka, with our first-ever naval exercise set for October.”
That exercise was called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) and was held off Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka.
Wells said that countries of the Indian Ocean region must be able to effectively counter security threats in the Indian Ocean.
“Through joint capacity building and exercises, we can share the security burden in this increasingly complex region,” she said co-opting Sri Lanka as a member of the US-led defense team.
“The United States has sought to improve intelligence sharing among regional partners and capacity building in areas like community policing, counter-narcotics, aviation security and forensics analysis.”
“There is also a critical need to expand engagement on maritime domain awareness. In the increasingly crowded maritime environment, the sharing of reliable information is the foundation for greater cooperation,” Wells said.
After a US-Lanka partnership dialogue in November 2017, the two countries issued a statement acknowledging the bilateral and regional strategic benefits of increased military cooperation.
The kind of cooperation envisaged included the U.S. Marine Corps’ role in helping establish the Sri Lanka Marine Corps; sending Sri Lankan candidates to professional military academies in the United States; holding several bilateral exercises; ship visits and engagements among top military officials.
The US also announced the gifting of a second Coast Guard cutter to the Sri Lankan navy.
Lanka Seeks US Military Technology
Most recently, prospects of a US-Lanka military alliance improved with the arrival of a US House Armed Forces Committee in Colombo in May, 2018.
When President Maithripala Sirisena met the US delegation,he asked American help to upgrade the technology used by his country’s armed forces.The Lankan President stressed the “necessity of using more technological knowledge to further promote US-Lankan training programs.”
“In the modern world, there is no defense without technology,” Sirisena added.
The Congressional committee members replied that the internal security of Sri Lanka is important for regional security and world peace.
“We are in Sri Lanka to find out what can be done to strengthen cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries,” they said.
The U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Atul Keshap said that “across the U.S. government, we see value inexpanding our security partnership in ways that benefit the United States and Sri Lanka.”
But Keshapput a condition and that is, Sri Lanka should show progress as a democracy that will protect the rights of all its citizens and promote their prosperity regardless of ethnicity or religion.
“Thatwould create opportunities for our growing military-to-military cooperation,”Keshapreasoned.