"Geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas. Its only when we are strong in the seas and break the dominance our enemy now has that we will be able to retain land areas we liberated and drive our enemies from our homeland."
~ Velupillai Prabhakaran
This observation by the LTTE chief succinctly encapsulates the importance of naval power for the LTTE. This realization dawned on the Tigers when the Sri Lankan Navy successfully thwarted the LTTE's attempt to capture the strategic Elephant Pass in 1991. The Tigers captured the Pass nine years later (April 2000) extensively using its naval wing - the Sea Tigers. The militants realised the importance of owning high speed boats in the early 1980s when they were frequently crossing the Palk Straits by fishing trawlers.
Coastal Sri Lankan Tamils, especially its fishing community locally known as Kariyar (to which Prabhakaran belongs), are traditionally expert boat builders and sea farers. It is perhaps this factor which was responsible for the LTTE building its naval wing at a faster pace from scratch. The Sea Tigers have now become a vital part of the LTTE's combat capability.
The strength of the Sea Tigers is around 5000 to 6000, which includes sea-going units, onshore marine engineering and maintenance personnel, naval communications and intelligence cadres and the commando and Black Sea Tigers units. (But, the tsunami, which struck last year, is suspected to have killed over 2000 Sea Tigers). Under the command of 'Col' Soosai since its inception in July 1992, the LTTE craft vary from heavily armed gunboats, troop carriers to ocean going supply vessels, interestingly designed and built indigenously. Some of the LTTE vessels are capable of gaining a top speed in excess of 50 knots during combat. The Sea Tigers reportedly possess radar-evading stealth boats (perhaps North Korean built) and are suspected to be going in for submarines. Major Sea Tiger bases and facilities are situated in and around the coasts of Mullaitivu and Mannar.
The naval wing of the LTTE is meant to serve two major purposes:
Combat: Since Sri Lanka is an island, the Sea Tigers have been incorporated into the LTTE's strategic thinking. The major aim of the combat arm of the Sea Tigers is to engage the Sri Lankan Navy. Its sophisticated communication systems enable it to launch multi-vessel 'wolf pack' attacks on Sri Lankan convoys. During conflict the naval wing is tasked with ferrying the LTTE cadre to appropriate places of conflict, when land route is unavailable. The Sea Tigers also defend its coastal areas to prevent the Sri Lankan Navy from landing its troops. The Sea Tigers are skilled in rescuing LTTE militants trapped in Sri Lankan Army held territory.
Its diving unit is tasked to infiltrate harbours to lay mines, conduct reconnaissance and recover material from sunken naval crafts. Naval commandos are meant for guerrilla raids behind Sri Lankan naval lines or gather intelligence or assault coastal targets. The Black Sea Tigers (suicide unit) is the most important arm of the LTTE's naval wing. This unit was initially established to challenge the technical superiority of the Sri Lankan Navy. Black Sea Tigers use small boats packed with explosives to race in under covering fire from other craft and trigger an explosion alongside the targets which, along with the attackers, rarely survive. This unit's boats are specially designed with frame on the front of the boat bearing holding spikes that fasten the boat to its target once they have collided.
Supplies: The supply unit is designed to keep the marine supply lines from overseas open for the LTTE. Its ocean going vessels are now capable of delivering everything the LTTE's growing conventional army needs, ranging from surface-to-air missiles and artillery pieces to medicines and special combat kits. Most of its operations are in the Indian Ocean, especially in the waters linking Southeast Asia and Northeastern Sri Lanka. The Sea Wing is estimated to have around 10 freighters under 'Pan-Ho-Lib' flags (Panama, Honduras, Liberia), which mostly transport legitimate commercial goods for a charge. The modus operandi usually is to off-load the weapons in the high seas into small high speed boats and taken them to jungle hide outs in LTTE controlled areas. The procurement of arms and other military supplies are taken care of by the LTTE support network under 'KP' in Southeast Asia. The important countries of operation include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Due to the vital importance of controlling the seas one is not surprised with the LTTE's demand for recognition of its Sea Tigers and sovereignty over waters proximate to the areas under its control. Any effort to defeat the LTTE militarily would fail without weakening the Sea Tigers.