Speaking at an awards ceremony on January 3, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that the government would be deploying a navy vessel to the Red Sea to help defend shipping lanes. Wickremesinghe pointed out that the disruption of shipping lanes in the Red Sea would lead to increased freight charges and cargo costs, increasing import prices in the country. Arguing that this was not in Sri Lanka’s interest, he declared that the government would do what it could to contribute to stability in the region.
The announcement came as a surprise to many, not least since the president revealed it only toward the tail end of his speech. Soon after, the government launched a feasibility study for the proposal. Wickremesinghe had earlier admitted that deploying a vessel would cost the government 250 million Sri Lankan rupees ($775,000) every fortnight, while a Sri Lanka Navy spokesman stated that the Red Sea operation required clear “logistics supplies” and “a robust weapon outfit.”
The Sri Lanka Navy has since confirmed that it will be dispatching a number of vessels to the region. While no date has been finalized yet, the Navy has stated that the deployment will be in support of Operation Prosperity Guardian, the United States-led multinational initiative combating Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.
The Houthis have vowed not to back down until Israel ends its attacks on Palestine. Since December, they have planned and carried out a series of drone and missile strikes on vessels in the Red Sea, which have forced cargo ships to reroute. In response, several countries, including India, have deployed vessels to the region.
Sri Lanka is the latest country to join these efforts, but its entry seems to have left more questions than answers.
For one thing, the Red Sea operation marks the first major military confrontation between the United States and the Houthi rebels. This has several crucial geopolitical implications. The U.S. and its allies have justified their intervention on the grounds of protecting international trade and shipping lines, while the Houthis have justified their attacks as a show of solidarity with Palestine and Gaza. The rebels are allegedly backed by Iran, which has belittled or ignored U.S. warnings, and has gone so far as to deploy a warship in response to escalating tensions.
Complicating matters further, U.S. allies themselves seem less than forthcoming about their involvement. When Washington launched Operation Prosperity Guardian in December, the Pentagon announced a united campaign of several countries, many from Europe. Yet apart from a few like the United Kingdom, most of them have kept their participation under wraps. The more forthcoming among them have made relatively modest contributions, while key allies such as Germany have been ambivalent about the extent of their intervention.
On the face of it, Europe’s indecisiveness has left an opening for U.S. allies in other regions to assert their strength in the Red Sea operation. India, for instance, has dispatched escorts, including frigates and destroyers, for Indian container ships.
The United States has invited New Delhi to join its coalition, the Combined Maritime Forces, expanding its reach in the Red Sea as well as in adjacent regions. Yet while India has been willing to commission vessels to the Red Sea, it has preferred to maintain its own presence rather than joining a coalition.
As of now, tellingly, no Asian country apart from Bahrain – the sole Gulf country to join – has deployed vessels for the operation; Singapore and Seychelles have agreed to take part, but only to contribute to information sharing.
Sri Lanka’s willingness to join with U.S. forces is hence perplexing. Ostensibly, it is filling a gap no other Asian country has: in December, it became the 39th country to join the Combined Maritime Forces partnership. While details of the vessels that will be dispatched to the Red Sea have yet to be confirmed, reports indicate they will be stationed outside the immediate Houthi weapons range, given the near absence of air defense and counter-missile systems in Sri Lankan Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). When these vessels enter the Red Sea, they will be placed under the command of U.S. Task Force 153.
Yet however perplexing these developments may be, they are hardly unpredictable. The Sri Lankan and the U.S. navies have been engaging and cooperating with each other for a fairly long time. Last year, for instance, they embarked on a series of training sessions to prepare for disaster relief and “maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.” These exercises and sessions will be conducted this year as well.
The U.S. Navy has also handed over ships and coast guard cutters to the Sri Lankan Navy. In fact, two of the three ships that have been proposed for the Red Sea operation, SLNS Gajabahu and SLNS Vijayabahu, were gifted by the United States in 2018 and 2021 respectively. Given these engagements, the Sri Lankan Navy’s willingness to deploy ships to the Red Sea under the U.S. Fleet’s command is not entirely surprising.
There are arguments for and against the proposal on both the domestic and foreign policy front. On the domestic front, perhaps the biggest concern is cost. The operation is expected to burn up 250 million rupees every two weeks at a time when Sri Lanka is still recovering from its economic crisis and sovereign debt default. The government has justified the expense on the basis that securing the Red Sea would help stabilize import prices. On the face of it, this is true. Marine insurance rates have more than tripled since the rebels began their campaign in the Red Sea, while at least one major shipping line has diverted to the longer alternative route around the Cape of Good Hope.
But opposition lawmakers, critics of the government, and ordinary citizens have denounced the proposal on the grounds that it brings no immediate benefit to Sri Lanka. Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, for instance, questioned the need for such a campaign at a time when people are reeling from grinding austerity measures, including a highly unpopular Value-Added Tax, which has led to massive price hikes nearly everywhere, and on every item.
Predictably, the move has also been condemned as hypocritical: while forcing Sri Lankans to practice economies at home, the government is doing the exact opposite abroad, and what’s worse, as the country’s leading political and foreign policy commentator Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka observed, in a conflict that is “not our fight.”
According to political researcher and archivist Uthpala Wijesuriya, however, the problem hasn’t just to do with cost, but also with capability. While there has been no shortage of supporters of the proposal who confidently point at the Sri Lanka Navy’s past successes, including its operations against illegal drug peddling in the Arabian Sea and its supposedly untarnished historical record, the Navy relies almost exclusively on vessels gifted by foreign governments that have the latest capabilities.
“The question in that sense isn’t whether we have money for these kinds of operations, but whether we have the capabilities we need and if not, who is going to give them to us,” Wijesuriya argued.
This is a valid concern. On the other hand, though, former Chief Hydrographer of the Sri Lankan Navy Rear Admiral Y. N. Jayarathna (Retd.) sees the proposal as a massive investment opportunity for the country’s military. He pointed out that Sri Lanka’s OPVs require equipment like thermal cameras and stabilized platforms, and argued that the government’s decision could spur investments in such “operational necessities.”
While conceding that the media may portray the government as a “U.S. partner” vis-à-vis its operations in the Red Sea, Jayarathna contended that it is time the Navy extends its activities to areas like the Gulf of Yemen and the Arabian Sea in partnership with other countries.
At the same time, however, international relations commentator Rathindra Kuruwita argued that there is a manpower problem in the military. “Motivation is at an all-time low in the army and the navy, because their members are feeling the impact of austerity, reduced food rations, and so on.” Against such a backdrop, Kuruwita said that no number of investments would motivate them to embark on such a risky mission in the Red Sea.
Moreover, perceptions of the Sri Lankan government joining up with U.S. forces could make Sri Lanka vulnerable to attacks abroad, especially since the Houthis have vowed retaliation on anyone joining the U.S. coalition. This has only been compounded by what Kuruwita views as Sri Lanka’s problematic stance on the Gaza issue.
“On the one hand, we are voting with the rest of the Global South on Palestine at the U.N.,” he said. “Yet on the other, we are sending our youth to Israel to meet labor shortages there after they expelled Palestinian workers.”
According to Kuruwita, the Gaza issue has become particularly sensitive for Muslims in Sri Lanka and everywhere else. “The government is now acting in a way that is hurting their feelings. That could generate a backlash in the not-too-distant future.”
All that, he concluded, could boomerang on the country, particularly as the Houthis have vowed to attack any ship connected to Israel, and the Sri Lankan government is about to join the United States, Israel’s number one military partner, in the Red Sea.
These developments underlie the immense complexities that Sri Lanka faces in the current geopolitical context. The decision to deploy vessels to the Red Sea has turned the Sri Lankan Navy into more than just a passive bystander; it is now an active participant in the tensions mushrooming in the region. While supporters of the decision may make grandiose claims about the Navy’s past successes, there is no doubt that it has opened a can of worms in Sri Lanka, the full repercussions of which will be felt in the months to come.