LTTE's Human Wave Tactics Redefine Guerrilla Warfare

19 Nov, 1999    ·   289

Sabil Francis analyses the human wave attack tactics of the LTTE and explains how it is very unlike of a guerilla outfit to employ these methods

Two years after Operation Jaya Sekuri ("Sure Victory!"), Sri Lanka 's bloodiest and longest military operation (May 1997-November 1998), the Sri Lankan army has lost almost all the territory it had captured to the LTTE. Next in line is Vavuniya, under continuous army occupation since 1990. One of the reasons for the LTTE to graduate from being a guerrilla force to becoming the world's most powerful terrorist group, with the military capabilities of a small army, is its intelligent use of conventional tactics in guerrilla warfare.



In the present fighting, the LTTE gave up useless territory to make the army disperse its forces. It then effectively defeated them. The LTTE often wins against superior forces, because it fights battles without regard for either human life or economic cost. Among the tactics used by the LTTE is the human wave attack. This is unlike the tactics usually employed in guerrilla warfare where single isolated attacks are preferred. Also, the main aim of guerrilla warfare is to inflict maximum damage on the enemy with the minimum of force, a reflection of the fact that most guerrilla forces do not have the firepower that regular armies can muster. Again, the aim is to keep casualties on the guerrilla side to the least possible.



The LTTE, by using human wave tactics is an exception to this rule. Often the LTTE cadre swoops down on the Sri Lankan army in waves. For example, on January 7, 1996, over 1000 LTTE cadres, led by hordes of suicide bombers, launched a pre-dawn surprise attack on the Paranthan military camp, capturing the base within three hours.



"Human wave" attacks have been used before by regular forces like the Chinese army. Reports suggest that the Indian army used the same tactics for recapturing Kargil. In Korea , the Chinese would overrun a small position with manpower and persevere in the same for larger objectives, despite suffering enormous casualties. For example, in an attack against Fox Company, 7th Marines, at Toktong Pass during the retreat from Yudam-ni, in South Korea , in 1953, the Chinese left 2,000 dead around the Marine position defended by 200!



The principle of the human wave attack can be traced back to Maoist thought. Mao emphasised the need to attack the enemy at the moment's of one's choosing, and with superior force, at his weakest links. The LTTE seems to be applying the Maoist version of the concept of "mass" in the sense of concentrating forces in mass attacks to overrun a position, aiming for overwhelming superiority in manpower to ensure that the final objective is won.



The main problem before a guerrilla commander is that he opposes a superior force. Guerrilla commanders have always tried to get over this aspect. For example, T.E. Lawrence, send by the British to Arabia , had to face a Turkish force that was five times the size of the tribal army that he could muster. His tactic, therefore, was to attack the Turks and then vanish into the desert night.



The LTTE, on the other hand, prefers to swamp its opponents, after decimating them with a wave of suicide attacks, on the principle that a suicide bomber takes many others along with him. In addition, the LTTE has a leader to whom the cadre is fanatically loyal. Like many other aspects of LTTE ideology, this cult has deep roots in Tamil myth and ideology. The Purnananuru, an ancient Tamil epic, makes several references to the practice of ancient Tamil warriors sacrificing themselves for the leader. It was considered the ultimate tribute. However, the LTTE cannot retain the positions it has taken, since it faces the same problem of spreading out its forces. There is a fall in recruitment to the LTTE. Forced conscription cannot fill the LTTE ranks.



Sooner or later, the Sri Lankan army is bound to recapture the area it has lost now, since the LTTE will find it is easier to capture an area than to defend it.