Securing Sri Lanka’s maritime boundaries:Russian Gepard 5.1 Class Frigates

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By 2017-10-16

By Sugeeswara Senadhira

Sri Lanka is an island nation geographically situated close to a strategically important international sea lane and focuses on being a regional sea hub. Hence, maritime security of the country is of paramount importance. The threats faced by the critical sea lanes in the Indian Ocean range from the traditional security threats to the non-traditional, like piracy and maritime terrorism.

The measures taken to address the threats in the sea lanes are also different and have an impact on the long term sustainability and efficacy of the measures.

The Indian Ocean littoral states have been primarily driven by the collective efforts in the region and this has yielded most success as piracy rates have dropped in the region in recent years. In contrast, the international community has been driving most of the measures taken in the Gulf of Aden with a nascent regional effort underway in the form of the Djibouti Code of Conduct. Yet, the piracy rates have continued to increase, despite the presence of the international forces.

Under these circumstances, it is necessary to increase Sri Lanka's capacity to secure our waters with greater surveillance and striking capabilities. The first step in this direction is to strengthen the capacity of the Navy and, if required, establish a Naval Air Force Wing. It should be a Joint Naval Command with the Air Force and with a Joint Communications Network with air and maritime capabilities. Such a force must be supported by Army, Navy, and Air Force intelligence and reconnaissance services and those services would have to be modernized.

During the last three decades, especially after the withdrawal of Indian Forces in March 1990, the Sri Lanka Navy was primarily developed to fight with the Sea Tigers (LTTE). The vessels such as Israeli Dvoras acquired by the Navy were fast moving and highly manoeuvrable small craft, with reliable medium calibre surface guns and optronics with day and night vision capabilities.

Similarly, the small boat concept was introduced to attack LTTE suicide boats. The inshore patrol craft and arrow boats were manufactured locally and Special Forces personnel were trained to handle them.

However, after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, it was observed that the fast attack craft (FAC) squadron had nearly 57 craft, but their role was very limited after LTTE capabilities were completely destroyed out at sea by the Navy.

Galle Dialogue

In 2015, during the Galle Dialogue; International Maritime Conference, the Navy launched "Sri Lanka Navy's Maritime Strategy 2025" as an initial step towards formulating a much needed maritime policy document under the leadership of the then Vice Admiral, Ravindra Wijegunaratne. This unclassified document was approved by the government as the road map for fleet expansion of the Navy and 'rightsizing' the Navy considering present threat perception.

The team of experts recommended the purchase of Russian Gepard 5.1 class frigates after inspecting several frigates offered by other countries including India. The then Navy Commander, Wijegunaratne said that Gepard 5.1 class frigates were ideal for the multifaceted tasks of the Navy.

A senior government source said that it was a government-to-government agreement and payment was under the concessional loan extended by Russia. "Hence, there is no question of third party middlemen or underhand commissions," he said.

Moscow also confirmed that the Russian Federation was concluding an agreement with Sri Lanka on the credit purchase of Gepard-class frigates. Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) Spokeswoman, Maria Vorobyeva said, "The delivery of the project Gepard 5.1 to Sri Lanka is planned on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement on providing a state export credit for its financing."

Navy experts

Navy experts are of the opinion that acquisition of state-of-the-art Gepard 5.1 class frigates will enhance its capabilities in the Indian Ocean immensely. Such a frigate can be used for more than 50 years, the Navy said.

The Navy's Maritime Strategy 2025 report suggested that the Navy plans on acquiring two frigates by 2025. In order to achieve the objectives of the fleet expansion plan, one frigate needs to be acquired in 2018. In this context, the acquisition of a Gepard 5.1 class frigate from Russia was negotiated at government-to-government level under the line of credit offered by the Russian Government.

Russia provided Sri Lanka with a line of credit in the amount of US$ 300 million for a period of 10 years for the purchase of Russian military equipment. The Russian Government also disclosed that apart from Sri Lanka, two other Asian countries - Vietnam and Bangladesh - are also negotiating possible purchases of Gepard-class frigates from Russia.

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