The Platform

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower operating in the Red Sea. (Keith Nowak)

Sri Lanka has joined the U.S.-led mission in the Red Sea to protect shipping vessels from attacks by Houthi militants.

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has zealously proclaimed that his government will position the Sri Lankan Navy in the Red Sea with the intent to shield trading vessels from the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are backed by Iran. This maneuver situates Sri Lanka at a strategic forefront as the island nation becomes the inaugural member from the South Asian region to align with the U.S.-led military operation named Operation Prosperity Guardian.

The military initiative, which commenced in December by the United States, has not garnered a favorable reception from long-standing U.S. allies, despite persistent solicitations to continental allies such as Italy and Germany. This lukewarm response from traditional European partners has indeed startled the U.S., which has catalyzed its interest in seeking new alliances. Amidst a scenario that underscores a significant threat to the global trade infrastructure, the inclusion of the Sri Lankan Navy within the Red Sea arena warrants an in-depth appraisal.

The bravery and seafaring tradition of the Sri Lankan Navy, venturing into international waters, is rooted in a storied past that dates to the epoch of King Parakramabahu the Great, a revered Sri Lankan monarch of the 1st century AD, who dispatched a fleet of four vessels to launch an offensive against Burma. Moreover, the blue water competence of the Sri Lankan Navy was conspicuously displayed when two Sri Lankan naval ships ventured into the deep seas on a quest to locate LTTE vessels. The successful mission executed by the Sri Lankan Navy during its fierce armed confrontation with the LTTE in 2007 stands as a testament to the combat capabilities of the Sri Lankan Navy in maritime engagements.

The Sri Lankan Navy’s participation in warfare, from its humble beginnings, has experienced a multitude of pivotal shifts. When the civil conflict erupted in the early 80s, the traditional maritime tactics employed by the Sri Lankan Navy were outflanked by the naval wing of the LTTE, dubbed the “Sea Tigers.” The epoch during which the Sri Lankan Navy was engaged in combat with the Sea Tigers on asymmetric battlegrounds fundamentally redefined the nature of the navy into a more advanced force with the proficiency to master unconventional maritime warfare. There were significant gaps that initially hindered the operational capacity of the SLN, such as its inability to decipher the maritime strategies employed by the Sea Tigers. However, the Sri Lankan Navy meticulously addressed these deficiencies in the subsequent stages of the war and the SLN emulated the tactical methodologies of the LTTE by incorporating the arrow boat concept, which guaranteed formidable triumphs for the Sri Lankan Navy.

In the aftermath of the internal conflict, the Sri Lankan Navy, in conjunction with a domestic private security enterprise, embarked on ventures in the international maritime security domain, which included the commercial sale of nine arrow boats to the nation of Nigeria. The innovation of the fleet of small vessels, widely recognized as “Arrow Boats,” was devised to be efficacious in the Sri Lankan Navy’s ongoing maritime confrontations with the LTTE. The expertise that the Sri Lankan Navy cultivated in asymmetrical naval warfare and its indomitable achievements in neutralizing the LTTE’s maritime assets on the high seas corroborated the navy’s capacity as more than just a defensive arm of a small island nation.

Furthermore, the maritime doctrine promulgated by the Sri Lankan Navy in 2020 highlighted the primary elements that the Sri Lankan Navy should embrace to foster stability at sea, which encompassed achieving a balance among the pillars of grand strategic, military-strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

Given the array of competencies that the Sri Lankan Navy possesses, its proactive involvement in the U.S.-directed Operation Prosperity Guardian appears to be a broad opportunity for Sri Lanka to enhance its stature amidst the global key players. Nonetheless, the reality that the Sri Lankan Navy is extending its might into an international naval operation introduces a set of perplexing dynamics as it may draw the country into the convoluted geopolitical entanglements prevalent in the Middle East. It is an incontrovertible fact that Iran is waging a proxy battle against Western forces by underwriting the Houthi rebels in Yemen, whereby Iran seeks to impair Israeli military operations in Gaza without escalating to direct conflict.

As the U.S. initiated Operation Prosperity Guardian targeting the Houthis, Iran persisted in its unwavering defiance by supplying sophisticated missiles and drones to the Houthi faction. Traditionally, Iran has maintained amicable relations with Sri Lanka, cemented through trade and cultural exchanges. Notably, Iran represents one of the primary markets for Sri Lankan tea exports, with Sri Lanka providing approximately 5% of its tea exports to Iran. Consequently, the cordial nature of the existing bilateral relations between the two countries could potentially be marred by Sri Lanka’s foray into the Red Sea, a matter of substantial concern for the policymakers in Colombo.

The murky waters of the Red Sea necessitate that Sri Lanka’s naval vessels be fitted with advanced surveillance technology, including thermal imaging and stabilized platforms—upgrades essential to counter adversaries equipped with sophisticated weaponry like anti-ship missiles and drones.

Sri Lanka’s foray into Operation Prosperity Guardian may raise eyebrows, but it signals a tightening alliance with the United States, rooted in a shared vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” This mission has been preceded by joint training exercises, a tangible effort to bolster military cooperation. The earmarked vessels for the mission, SLNS Gajabahu, and SLNS Vijayabahu, were donated by the United States in 2019, a gesture that underscores a strategic partnership far from unexpected.

Analyzing the debate around Sri Lanka’s dispatch of its navy to the turbulent Red Sea, one discerns a broader narrative. The Sri Lankan Navy’s past successes against formidable insurgencies lend credence to its capabilities as a blue-water force, promising to elevate its international standing. However, Colombo’s policymakers must tread cautiously, fully cognizant of the far-reaching implications of their maritime ambitions—decisions that will indelibly shape the nation’s strategic trajectory.

Punsara Amarasinghe holds a PhD in International Law from Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy. He also holds a Master of Laws from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed his undergraduate studies in law at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Previously, Punsara worked as a research assistant at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2018 for a project on Russian legal realism. He also held two visiting research fellowships at the University of Wisconsin Madison and at Paris's esteemed Sciences PO. For a brief period, he worked at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.