The Tamil Sea Tigers: Exploiting the Maritime Domain

Maritime Security and the Tamil Sea Tigers
A LTTE Sea Tiger fast attack fiberglass boat passing a Sri Lankan freighter sunken by the Sea Tigers just north of the village of Mullaitivu, North-eastern Sri Lanka. Photo: Isak Berntsen


Despite being geographically isolated and faced with conventionally stronger Sri Lankan government forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were able to maintain a high-intensity insurgency for decades. In the face of these challenges, what allowed the LTTE to continue conducting sophisticated operations? One significant factor was their exploitation of the maritime domain. The LTTE’s naval wing, known as the Sea Tigers, dominated Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast for the majority of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Through logistical operations and guerilla warfare tactics, the Sea Tigers furthered the LTTE’s onshore political and military agenda while severely hampering the government's ability to implement counterinsurgency measures. These maritime operations underscore the importance of maintaining strong maritime domain awareness and enforcement capabilities when contending with coastal instability. 

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - Getting Started

The LTTE created a formidable fleet by both procuring vessels illicitly and building them indigenously. The fleet included heavily armed gunboats, semi-submersibles, merchant ships, and fiberglass stealth craft. 1 At its height, the Sea Tigers group maintained well over 2,000 personnel assigned to departments in engineering, maintenance, communications, underwater demolition, and naval training and operations. The emphasis on technological innovation and specialized training created a fleet capable of executing very specific missions in support of LTTE objectives. 

The vessels of the Sea Tigers’ Exclusive Economic Zone Marine Logistics Support Team (EEZ-MLST) compensated for Sri Lanka’s relative geographic isolation by providing logistics support and subsidizing operational costs. Offices across the world belonging to the LTTE procurement directorate purchased military supplies for Sea Tiger merchant ships, dubbed Sea Pigeons, to transport through third-party ports for transshipment to Sri Lanka. 3 After arriving in Sri Lankan waters, smaller vessels would approach the Sea Pigeons and rapidly ferry the supplies ashore. (4, 5) Sea Pigeons also conducted smuggling, including human trafficking and drug running, and legal trading to finance the insurgency. An estimated 90 percent of the LTTE’s total financial support was derived from these licit and illicit forms of maritime commerce. 6  The Sea Tigers also augmented the onshore insurgency with illicitly acquired advanced weaponry. According to Sri Lanka intelligence officers, in 2003 the insurgency fraudulently secured enough consignments of ammunition, assault rifles, and light artillery from a foreign defense firm to fill a 70-meter cargo ship. The Sea Tigers’ refined logistics system combined with the government’s inability to interdict supply routes meant the LTTE could afford to maintain a protracted conflict.  

In addition to the use of the maritime space to fund and resupply the insurgency, the Sea Tigers relied on guerilla tactics to disrupt Sri Lanka’s naval operations and support their land operations. Hugging the coastline, the Sea Tigers’ fast-attack craft and suicide boats, manned by the infamous Black Sea Tigers, capitalized on local fishing boat traffic and radar limitations to make accurately detecting and classifying their vessels difficult.  8 The suicide boats proved especially effective by both destroying naval vessels and damaging morale, purportedly leading to a significant decline in Sri Lanka’s naval recruitment. 9 The Sea Tigers would also participate in combined operations with land forces to conduct amphibious assaults on isolated government outposts.

Maritime Space Vulerable to Exploitation From Groups Like the LTTE

The success of the Sea Tigers underscores the vulnerability of the maritime space for exploitation by armed groups. Without adequate maritime domain awareness and enforcement capabilities, government forces were unable to cut off LTTE’s supply routes and routinely conduct amphibious assaults against LTTE coastal military bases. The Sea Tigers continued to provide a lifeline to the LTTE insurgency until the government acknowledged the significant role of the maritime domain and began actively addressing its naval shortcomings. This included deploying naval assets more suitable to irregular warfare, like recently acquired offshore patrol vessels, 10 and increasing maritime domain awareness. Working in conjunction with Indian and US intelligence, for instance, allowed the Sri Lankan navy to locate and sink the infamous Sea Pigeons, severely limiting the LTTE’s ability to resupply. 11 As a result, the Sri Lanka Navy now possesses considerable expertise in countering other forms of illicit activity at sea, like smuggling, maritime terrorism, maritime mixed migration, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The lessons learned from the Sri Lankan Civil War are highly pertinent to modern-day counterinsurgency operations in coastal areas. By making the maritime domain a strategic priority, government forces can undermine an insurgency’s logistical and financial support base. On the tactical level, navies need to emphasize integrating doctrines that can contend with irregular warfare scenarios. Last, as highlighted in Stable Seas: Bay of Bengal maritime security report, the complexity of the maritime domain, where the lines between onshore and offshore operations become blurred, means interagency collaboration becomes crucial for denying safe havens and supply routes to illicit actors.  

 

  1. Molly Dunigan, Dick Hoffmann, Peter Chalk, Brian Nichiporuk, and Paul Deluca, Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare (Rand: 2012), 72,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.7249/mg1127navy.12.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Abc7d75b0b77b87aa9bb18eee19eeb750.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Paul A. Povlock, “A Guerilla War at Sea: The Sri Lankan Civil War,” Small Wars Journal, September 9, 2011, 19, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a549049.pdf.
  4. Ibid., 10.
  5. N. Manoharan, “Tigers with Fins: Naval Wing of the LTTE,” Institute of Peace and COnflict Studies, June 1, 2005, http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=1757
  6. Povlock, “A Guerilla War at Sea,” 25. 
  7. Dunigan, Hoffmann, Chalk, Nichiporuk, and Deluca, Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare, 75.
  8. Povlock, “A Guerilla War at Sea,” 30.
  9. Dunigan, Hoffmann, Chalk, Nichiporuk, and Deluca, Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare, 74.
  10. Peter Layton, “How Sri Lanka Won the War,” The Diplomat, April 19, 2015, https://thediplomat.com/2015/04/how-sri-lanka-won-the-war/.
  11. Povlock, “A Guerilla War at Sea,” 36.