President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent disclosure that Sri Lanka intended joining the United States-led Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) in the Red Sea has triggered the inevitable response: Why are we fighting other people’s wars? Wickremesinghe, more than most, is acutely aware of the permutations and combinations of this equation both in the context of domestic politics (a presidential election at which he’ll stand is due this year) and foreign policy.
He well knows that the hearts of the vast majority of Sri Lanka’s people, together with most living elsewhere in the globe, are bleeding at the knowledge of what Israel is doing in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians living there. The heart-wrenching images are brought daily to homes everywhere by modern television communications. Added to that, as many as 9.7% of our population is Muslim, the third largest demographic in the country.
Whether the stated deployment intention will actually come to pass is yet an open question. Not much has been said about it by the government since the first disclosure. The president is on record saying that a single SLN vessel being deployed for OPG will cost Rs. 250 million a fortnight. We had declared ourselves as bankrupt not long ago and a majority of our people struggle to survive in the face of an ever rising cost of living as well as the impact of the VAT increase that kicked in this year.
Wickremesinghe urges that what the Yemen-based Houthi (‘Supporters of God’ or Ansar Allah) rebels are doing in the Red Sea will impact on prices of essentials here in Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere in the world. Their action on international shipping in the Red Sea area have already led to British and US forces launching attacks there. Iranian backing of the Houthis escalate the threat of a major global conflagration.
RW is undoubtedly right that Sri Lanka’s costs, both with regard to imports and exports, will rocket due to Red Sea shipping disruption. The SLN has already said with regard to the deployment cost, that whether its vessels patrol the country’s own maritime borders as it does at present, or whether vessels are sent to the Red Sea area, the cost remains the same.
In the first week of January this year, 18 one-way attack drones along with two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile were fired towards the British warship HMS Diamond and other commercial vessels. It was dubbed by Grant Shapps, the British Defence Secretary, as the “largest attack from the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date”. Shapps is on record saying “enough is enough.
” Uditha Devapriya, our regular defence and political analyst, discussing the pros and cons, has on this page painted a broad brush picture of what any deployment of the SLN in the Red Sea Theater means. At best, our Navy was equipped during the war to take on the Sea Tigers though on some memorable occasions during the near 30-year long civil war it succeeded in sinking LTTE arms carriers far from our shores in the high seas of the Indian Ocean. But the military capabilities of the vessels that were sunk were nowhere near what the Houthis command at this moment.
Given Sri Lanka’s economic predicament at present, including the fact that debt restructuring both internally and externally remains work in progress, scoring brownie points with the powerful nations of the world over the Red Sea matter would undoubtedly be useful. Whether we proceed to make a Red Sea deployment, at a US request – undisclosed up to now – or not must be part of the calculation.
The daily horror continues in Gaza, and most people rightly bracket the U.S. with Israel over what is happening there. The Houthis say they will stop their own attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea no sooner Israeli action in Gaza ceases. In this context, the decision on whether we should be part of a global coalition set up to protect international shipping presently under Houthi attack must be a delicate balancing act.
Already many US allies in Europe are dragging their feet in directly joining Operation Prosperity Guardian. India is very much a part of the effort of protecting international sea lanes, deploying substantial naval resources to protects her own merchant ships, but staying outside OPG.
It has been reported that that transshipment volumes in the Port of Colombo have already benefited from the impact of what the Houthi are doing in the Red Sea and the resulting precautions thereby compelled on international shipping lines. If an SLN deployment in that area is actually made, among the factors that must come into play is whether our ships are properly equipped to function in a theater of war against an enemy equipped with sophisticated drones and missiles.
We clearly do not have that capability now and whether such capacity and the accompanying training can be provided in the short term is an open question. It has been said our ships are likely to be deployed in the periphery of the operational area, out of reach of Houthi strikes. But these are all matters requiring further clarification.