Intelligence failures during Operation Pawan and the lessons for India

Despite getting regular information from RAW, IB, and other agencies, the DGMI did not submit analyses that may have aided IPKF operations. Similarly, the headquarters of the Southern Command failed to give relevant analyses or inputs.

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Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) served in the Indian Army, Armoured Corps, 65 Armoured Regiment, 27 August 83- 07 April 2007. Operational experience in the Indian Army includes Sri Lanka – OP PAWAN, Nagaland and Manipur – OP HIFAZAT, and Bhalra - Bhaderwah, District Doda Jammu and Kashmir, including setting up of a counter-insurgency school – OP RAKSHAK. He regularly contributes to Defence and Security issues in the Financial Express online, Defence and Strategy, Fauji India Magazine and Salute Magazine. *Views are personal.

India’s engagement in Sri Lanka in July 1987 was the country’s first foreign deployment outside of the UN charter since independence.

When this operation is analyzed, several problems in the planning and execution are still apparent.

Suppose war is the continuation of politics via other methods. In that case, it is critical first to establish the political objectives flowing into a national security policy before considering any successful use of force. Our Indian misadventure in Sri Lanka demonstrates a lack of defined political and military objectives and effective military measures.

Consequently, it is sad that India still lacks a specified national security plan more than seven decades after independence. Only such a strategy can identify the sorts of situations that the military is expected to confront, leading to the development of relevant military plans, doctrines, and capabilities that would define the structures required for the conduct of synergized Operations with the requisite communications and training requirements.

There was no consolidated national security organization in 1987 to make informed choices on national security problems. The Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) was the sole venue to carry out this responsibility. During the operations in Sri Lanka, a Core Group was created to handle day-to-day difficulties. This empowered group was led by the Minister of State for External Affairs and, in his absence, the Cabinet Secretary. Similarly, the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) was the only palliative capable of meeting the demands of Joint Services operations. It is worth noting that the Military Operations and Military Intelligence Directorates lacked specialized desks for Sri Lanka.

Armed forces fought conflicts in 1965 and 1971 with identical decision-making frameworks, most likely with flaws. However, because it was undertaken outside of India, India’s action in Sri Lanka stood apart. The Indian military in Sri Lanka was drawn into a confrontation that was neither anticipated nor prepared. 

Intelligence Set Up

The MI Directorate was formerly the biggest Directorate at Army Headquarters, with around 24 Sections and approximately 74 All Arms officers. Six of these sections were for counterintelligence, while the remainder were for operations. The Intelligence Corps officers manned the CI sections, while other weapons officers operated the operational sections. In one part, Sri Lanka was included with Indian Ocean nations, ASEAN, and Bangladesh. No officer in the Intelligence Corps could be described as a country specialist in Sri Lanka. 

Sinhala language lessons for military personnel began in the 1990s. It is the only Corps of the Indian Army whose strength was lowered after the recommendations of the Gen Krishna Rao Committee were followed. Before the IPKF operations began in 1987, the Intelligence Corps had a total strength of little more than 2500 all ranks. As a small corps, Military Intelligence has typically been used primarily for security and combat intelligence, with limited intelligence planning and battlefield collection skills. Until 1980, when it was given the mission of obtaining limited trans-border intelligence, Military Intelligence had no mandate or specific capabilities to do so.

The security focus of India was mostly on Pakistan. As a result, Sri Lanka was not one of Military Intelligence’s priority regions. Operation Brass Tacks had only ended in May 1987, two months before the Army was required to send a task force to Sri Lanka in response to the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) in July 1987.


R&AW was the primary agency in equipping and training the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It had infiltrated the other militant organizations and served as the coordinator for all negotiations before the induction of the IPKF and throughout the deployment.

While the IPKF was conducting operations, the involvement of Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) and its continued collaboration with the LTTE and other terrorist groups would be remembered as a tragic chapter.

The incapacity of R&AW and those involved at the macro level to predict the LTTE turning wild.

Having fostered LTTE, it failed to give a complete intelligence picture and a SWOT analysis of its brainchild.

Any intelligence exchange, if any, was done on a personal level rather than through an organized/structured distribution to the Formation HQs.

Intelligence Bureau

Throughout the IPKF operation, the Q Branch of the Tamil Nadu State Police and the Joint Directorate of the IB in Chennai gave no information. They possessed a wealth of information about the LTTE and its tendrils in Tamil Nadu that may have aided us in our anti-LTTE operations. Such information, however, was never delivered. This was mostly owing to the absence of formal directives from the state administration, which had taken a politically antagonistic stance towards IPKF activities. The IB would frequently dismiss our requests by claiming they only had political intelligence, even though in counter-insurgency, political information was also essential for military operations. The Jayalalitha government had prohibited the Q Branch from assisting the MI or the IPKF in general. Even contractors found it difficult to obtain supplies for the IPKF in TN and had to incur additional fees to get them from neighbouring states.

Military Intelligence Resources

Around May 1987, prior to the signing of ISLA, an intelligence team of one officer and six NCOs was transferred to Chennai from the parent unit in Gorakhpur to collect intelligence from Sri Lanka. This was the sole specialized intelligence resource available to the DGMI until the end of the IPKF operations. It was afterwards transformed into an intelligence unit.

A detachment from the Southern Command Liaison Unit was stationed at Headquarters Southern Command in Chennai. Despite the fact that the LU was a counterintelligence unit, the LU team served as an interface between the Command Headquarters and the state and central intelligence agencies in Chennai throughout the IPKF operations.

Following the entry of the 54 Infantry Division in Sri Lanka in the first week of August 1987, a few Tamil-speaking Intelligence Corps officers and NCOs were assigned to the OFC HQ in Chennai. On August 5, 2007, the intelligence personnel were despatched to Palali with no functional resources other than the attached individuals.

The team’s two MI officers reactivated their relationships with Sri Lankan Tamils to make monthly updates to the DGMI. 

When the situation with the LTTE grew hazy in September 1987, 57 Mtn Div Int & FS Coy with roughly 60 soldiers were sent to Palali. Its OC was promoted to the rank of Lt Col. This intelligence unit remained under the command of HQ OFC, which caused some unnecessary confusion in HQ 54 Infantry Division. Its intelligence officers were strictly forbidden from participating in any Div HQ discussions. They were told not to communicate with the LTTE during the political talks.

As the Jaffna operation began and soldiers were quickly inducted, the OC 57 Div Int & FS Coy was instructed to brief the troops before their operational induction. Similarly, the unit was tasked to interrogate all and sundry rounded up in the first flush of operations. 

Intelligence resources of the Advance HQ OFC

However, by the time two additional divisions were integrated into Sri Lanka and the organization of the OFC’s Advance HQ was codified, an intelligence unit expressly designed for IPKF operations known as the Ad Hoc Liaison Unit had been established. The team was capable of both intelligence gathering and questioning. The unit, led by a Lieutenant Colonel, had its headquarters in Chennai with teams in Vavuniya, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. It also has three rehabilitation centres for the three divisions (each with one interrogator). It had 12 officers and nearly 100 other ranks in all. One Sinhala-speaking officer was also assigned towards the end of 1988.

The EWCP provided communication intelligence. It worked closely with the troops and provided accurate real-time information.

MI Performance: Positives

In its evaluation to the DGMI in September 1987, the MI detachment stated that if the IPKF went to war, it would take three years to reduce it to manageable proportions. This prediction almost came true. Military Intelligence made efforts to recruit Tamils who spoke Sinhala.

MI personnel had built some helpful contacts in Jaffna and Trincomalee, both within the LTTE and among pro-LTTE civilians. They provided valuable input on the LTTE’s political moves as well as key issues such as the LTTE’s contact with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was carrying out its insurgency in Sinhala areas, the LTTE’s procurement of MANPADS, and contacts between Sri Lanka President Premadasa and the LTTE leadership. 

In two incidents, we got conclusive proof of complicity between Sri Lankan army forces and the LTTE in the form of images and wiretaps. These helped us grasp the depth of the Sri Lankan government’s collaboration with the LTTE.

In Sri Lanka’s National Intelligence Bureau, useful contacts were established.

MI Performance: Negatives

The DGMI’s failure to provide MI resources before the operation resulted in the absence of intelligence assets in Sri Lanka. This hampered the MI’s initial inability to give 54 Inf Div with timely and meaningful intelligence.

Despite getting regular information from RAW, IB, and other agencies, the DGMI did not submit analyses that may have aided IPKF operations. Similarly, the headquarters of the Southern Command failed to give relevant analyses or inputs.

In Tamil Nadu, there was limited MI input on LTTE operations. This was mostly owing to the Tamil Nadu government’s wholly hostile stance, which resulted in the total restriction of access to material on the LTTE held by state intelligence.

Throughout the operations, the LTTE operated with impunity throughout Tamil Nadu, exposing the forces to possible LTTE threats. This produced a tremendous uneasiness among our Tamil contacts, who believed we were not taking the LTTE seriously. 

When they were admitted, the majority of the MI officers had minimal understanding of Sri Lanka or its environs. Building regional experts is a prerequisite for MI officers throughout their careers.

Intelligence NCOs’ performance was substantially below standard. They were unable to conduct basic interrogations. Officers and NCOs both were prone to accepting unverified information from untrustworthy sources. The intelligence staffing in formation headquarters was inadequate. At one point, the GSO1 (Int) were low medical category officers in three of the four divisions; a handful of them had no intelligence experience. Because intelligence had few committed personnel resources, putting them in divisions was a bad idea.

The frontline soldiers’ understanding of managing captives, isolating them for detailed interrogation, and so on was weak. The Command HQ was in the greatest position to remedy such gaps by providing rotating short-term training to officers and NCOs from all arms. This was most likely not even considered, even though it had been done previously in 1971.

There was almost no information from Air or Naval Intelligence sources. This was remarkable because commercial ship officers in Colombo reported witnessing fishing boats flashing ‘LTTE’ in semaphore signals in the Gulf of Mannar, indicating frequent transit of boats supplying the LTTE from Tamil Nadu. 

Due to a lack of staff, the Tamil media in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was rich in open-source material that remained unexplored. Similarly, there was insufficient interaction with Indian journalists who had travelled inside LTTE territory, either discreetly or publicly. This valuable resource was also underutilized.

The Sri Lankan officers taking courses at our Training Institutions are another great source of intelligence. They must be groomed as assets that can confirm intelligence inputs gathered over time.

Intelligence collection is a continual activity that experts must address attentively.


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