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Sri Lanka suffered almost 33 years of LTTE menace because of not paying proper attention to its defense capability. India manipulated Sri Lanka's LTTE situation by using muscle power. During the conflict with LTTE, Sri Lanka was begging for help from Pakistan and India, and sending their military personnel to those two counties plus Bangladesh for training. Pakistan sent its officers and soldiers to design military strategies and even to fire Pakistan-supplied howitzers or MLRSs. However, when Sri Lanka finally defeated LTTE in 2009, they subsequently canceled all the defense procurement contracts with Pakistan.

In my opinion, even in peacetime, a powerful military helps a country to pursue a semi-independent foreign policy. Sri Lanka doesn't pursue a semi-independent foreign policy.

For instance,

Why does Sri Lanka have so small a military? Why don't they try to develop their military?

For example, almost all the neighboring counties of China have strong militaries. See Taiwan and Vietnam.

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This seems like it confuses 2 issues:

  • why did Sri Lanka struggle with the LTTE counter insurgency?

  • why doesn't Sri Lanka buy more weaponry to support its foreign policy? (not buying JF-17s)

I am not going to give much of an opinion on the second issue, the motivation for Sri Lanka's limited weapon acquisitions, besides noting that

  • its $4152 GDP/capita and 109th world ranking in that criteria doesn't allow for too many purchases.

  • Sri Lanka is a somewhat remote island and it is hard to see how much actual military threat it is under from external powers. If anything, its geographic location makes it imperative to stay on India's good side first and foremost and buying Pakistani weaponry would be counterproductive.

  • and as for the examples of Vietnam and Taiwan: they share a very good reasons to maintain high-end militaries: China, which has previously invaded the first and threatens to invade the second.

On the first issue, it would be incorrect to assume that an army well-equipped for standard warfare (the ones supported by high tech weapons) would necessarily be well-equipped for COIN (Counter Insurgency) warfare.

Successfully carrying out a COIN operations typically involves more:

  • military intelligence - tracking who supports the rebels
  • ground troops, and more specially, police
  • slow airplanes that are optimized to identify civilians vs enemies, rather than fast traversal of a hot airspace.
  • avoidance of low-precision, high-lethality, weaponry (i.e. MLRS)
  • mine and ambush resistant armored vehicles (as opposed to say tanks)
  • (very important) military trained to engage with, rather than antagonize, civilians susceptible to insurgent influence.
  • etc...

So, basically, to deal with the LTTE Sri Lanka needed a specialized counter-insurgency force (as well as a much better political appeal to the Tamil population).

That force would, almost by definition, be of limited interest to further Sri Lanka's foreign policy at a military level.

To give another example, the Pentagon is belatedly waking up to the fact that 2 decades of procurement to support COIN operations in the Middle East has weakened capabilities against a peer enemy like China or Russia (admittedly, US military personnel enjoys an extreme edge when it comes to combat experience).

Finally at 21M inhabitants, with armed forces of 346K personnel, it's hardly a "small army", and its expenditure of 2.2% GDP is rather higher than the NATO average.

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    LTTE was a "military", rather than a "group". LTTE was the only rebel or insurgent group in the world that had its own air force. So, simple COIN wouldn't have worked. – user366312 Feb 26 at 12:00
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    +1 The last sentence would suffice as an answer. 346000 personnel and 2.2% of GDP is not a small army. It's a pretty big army. If it's not very strong, or impressive, it's because Sri Lanka is a quite poor country. They probably had the best army they can afford. – Rekesoft Feb 26 at 13:49
  • @user366312 the air force was 5 cessna types so hardly a real air force. But yes, I will allow that LTTE was defending a clearly marked territory in the north so there was an element of normal warfare. Still, at 18000 troops it seems to me they would have been beaten more easily IF the Sinhalese majority had been more conciliatory towards the Tamils - a restrained COIN-type operation rather than what they ended up doing, which involved shelling mixed rebel/civilian areas with heavy artillery at the end. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Feb 27 at 3:48

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