Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – 2000s
Makeshift light tank – one produced (converted from pre-existing vehicles)
Makeshift or improvised vehicles are a very common occurrence in modern, asymmetrical conflicts. The origins behind the creation of these vehicles can be very diverse. In some cases, it can be to try and make something which originally was not a fighting vehicle into one, or to bring mobility to a weapon system. One may, for example, mention the numerous Toyota Land Cruiser 70 series-based technicals which have been created by dozens of international and state actors in many different conflicts. In other cases, improvised vehicles take the form of modifying already existing vehicles, often captured or seized from a pre-existing force, to repurpose them, or perhaps reuse components of operational vehicles to create a functional one (for example mating a functioning turret from the hull of a broken down vehicle onto another hull, or creating a new turret for a functional hull which lacks one). In some cases, an improvised vehicle may even best be described as a combination of two already pre-existing types – such is the case of a light tank that was created by the rebel/terrorist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), often known simply as the Tamil Tigers, of Sri Lanka. This vehicle combined the turret of a British FV601 Saladin armored car with the modified hull of a Chinese YW531 to create what was now a tracked light tank.
Conflict in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a large island located to the south of the Indian subcontinent, with which it has had cultural, trade and diplomatic relationship for a particularly long time. The island was ruled by a number of local kingdoms in its history, the last being the kingdom of Kandy, while Portuguese and later Dutch colonization of coastal areas started in the 16th century. The Kingdom of Great Britain seized control of the island off the Batavian Republic during the Napoleonic Wars, with the last local king expelled in 1815 and the entire island falling into the control of the British East India company and the British crown.
Sri Lanka’s ethnic situation is fairly particular. The biggest ethnic group is the indigenous Singhalese people, 70% of the island’s total population. They have their own language, Sinhala, and in majority tend to follow the Buddhist faith. However, the country has large minorities of Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors, which differ significantly from the Singhalese majority. Their most common faiths tend to be Hinduism for the Tamils and Islam for the Moors, while both mostly use the Tamil language. These populations are mostly concentrated around the north of the island as well as its eastern coast. They mostly descend from previous peoples, traders for example, which settled in Sri Lanka in past centuries.
From the early 20th century onward, there was a movement for the independence of Sri Lanka, which, uniquely, united both the majority Singhalese population and the large Tamil minority.
Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948. During the first eight years of its independence, there were several prominent Tamil members in the ruling cabinet. The newly proclaimed Dominion of Ceylon appeared to be somewhat pluralistic at this point. This changed significantly in the 1950s though, with the rise in power of a new Prime Minister in 1956, leading to Sinhala being recognized as the sole official language of Sri Lanka, and pro-Singhalese policies being generally put in place. From the 1960s onward, Sri Lanka also implemented socialist policies and approached China and the Soviet Union to an extent, though relationships with the United Kingdom were not relinquished despite Sri Lanka declaring itself a Republic in 1972.
The early 1970s were generally a time of turmoil. A large Singhalese Marxist uprising led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front) failed in early 1971. Around the same time, the Sri Lankan government also instaurated policies restricting access to Sri Lanka’s universities to the Tamil population by creating a quota by language.
It is during the 1970s that the first Tamil insurgent movements appeared, opposing the governmental pro-Singhalese policies. One of these, the Tamil New Tigers, was founded in 1972, and would eventually become the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. The group’s goal was the creation of Tamil Eelam – A Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Though the first actions against Sri Lankan officials had been undertaken previously, the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War is generally considered to be an LTTE attack on a Sri Lankan Army patrol in July 1983, which would lead to a large pogrom against Tamils on the island, when several hundreds to thousands were killed. At this point, the Tamil insurgency grew in size considerably, and notably, during the first phase of the conflict, would receive Indian support.
The conflict would know four different phases separated by ceasefires – the first, from 1987 to 1990, after which a truce would be upheld by an Indian peacekeeping contingent. 1995 would see a 100-days truce separating the second and third parts of the conflict, with the third phase ending in 2002. By the end of this third phase, the Tamil Tigers had effectively managed to seize large portions of northeast Sri Lanka, where they were effectively able to operate as a de facto state. A ceasefire was brokered in February of 2002 and would last until July of 2006, when the Tamil Tigers closed access to a water reservoir to government-controlled areas, cutting water supplies for thousands of villages, which led to a renewal of large-scale fighting. It is in this last phase of the conflict after the LTTE had held significant ground for years and would reasonably operate in ways more as a standing army than a pure guerilla organization, that armored fighting vehicles would be the most widely used by the rebel group.
Armed Forces of the LTTE & Armored Fighting Vehicles
The Tamil Tigers comprised a number of conventional and unconventional fighting forces. Before going deeper into their operations with armored fighting vehicles, it ought to be noted that these unconventional forces, including a wing which often engaged in suicide operations, the Black Tigers, would often resort to methods typically used by terrorist groups, which would eventually land the LTTE a classification as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union, Canada, India, and others over the years. It also ought to be noted that the ethnic and religious aspects of the conflict naturally resulted in large quantities of war crimes and executions of prisoners or forced relocation being committed both by the LTTE and other rebel groups on one hand and the Sri Lankan military on the other.
The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) sourced its vehicles from several different providers. The island’s former colonial overlord, the United Kingdom, provided a number of wheeled armored fighting vehicles – notably 18 to 27 Saladin armored cars in 1971 and two batches of Saracen armored personnel carriers, one of 32 vehicles in 1971 and one of 35 in 1990. A number of purchases were made from China, including 10 YW 531/Type 63 armored personnel carriers in 1988, 25 Type 59 tanks in 1990, and 40 Type 85 armored fighting vehicles, 20 of the armored personnel carrier and 20 of the infantry fighting vehicle model, in 1991. More recently, in the 2000s, large numbers of WZ-551 wheeled APCs and IFVs were purchased. With the conclusion of the Cold War, the SLA would also acquire large numbers of surplus T-55s from Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. 27 T-55s in 1991, 18 T-55AM-2 in the 1990s and 36 T-55AM-2 in 2000-2001, as well as a small number of BMP-1 and BMP-2s from Ukraine in 1994. This fleet of vehicles would be widely engaged in operations against the LTTE during the course of the Sri Lankan Civil War, particularly as the group appeared to be holding an ever-increasing amount of ground in the 1990s. 47 Buffel mine-resistantant vehicles had also been acquired from South Africa in 1985-1987, as well as perhaps some other mine-protected vehicles from South Africa.
With the rising size of the Tamil insurgency, some of these armored fighting vehicles used by the SLA would start falling into the hands of the LTTE, which was able to maintain them in service thanks to its ability to hold territory. The first known armored vehicles to fall into LTTE hands were two T-55s captured during a battle at the military base of Pooneryn in Northern Sri Lanka, in November 1993. Although one of the vehicles would be swiftly knocked out of action by the Sri Lankan Air Force, the other would be in service for good. This would be the first of several T-55 tanks, including some T-55AM-2s, which would fall into the hands of the LTTE and be re-employed by them.
Other armored fighting vehicles used by the Sri Lankan military eventually fell into the hands of the LTTE. Notably, two FV601 Saladin armored cars and four FV603 Saracen armored personnel carriers are known to have been captured at the Kanakarayankulam base, likely during the SLA disaster that happened there in December 1997. A BMP-1 was captured during riots in August 1997. A number of Buffel mine-protected vehicles and other MPVs, and at least one YW531, were also captured.
Some of these captured vehicles – notably the Buffels – would be subjected to local modifications, with a variety of armaments, including on one example a 40 mm autocannon, likely a Bofors, being installed. At the same time, LTTE workshops would begin creating their own armed and/or armored vehicles by converting existing, mostly civilian chassis, equipping them with armament and armor plates. This included trucks and buses where the cargo or passengers compartment was converted into an armored cabin, some limited number of improvised mine-resistant vehicles, and some more classic technicals mounting armament on the back of pick-up trucks. These field conversions would, for some of them, get more and more complex and advanced over time. Likely one of the very last performed would be a light tank created by combining elements of the FV601 Saladin and YW531 armored personnel carrier.
A Frankenstein of British and Chinese AFVs
The light tank which was created by the LTTE was a combination of the turret of the FV601 Saladin armored car with the hull of the YW531 armored personnel carrier. The use of this type of turret very likely dates the vehicle’s conversion to after 1997, though it may realistically be a lot later than that. Indeed, no footage of the vehicle in Tamil Tigers service has appeared, only of it after it was captured by the SLA. The Sri Lanka Army appears to call the vehicle “BMT armored tank”, the origin of this name being unknown. While there is at least some imagery of the vast majority of armored vehicles known to have been used by the SLA in active LTTE service – including some vehicles being spotted on several occasions in different places over the years, such as the LTTE’s sole known BMP-1.
What information is available on the vehicle merely comes from a few known photos of it, which lend some interesting indications on its design. Nonetheless, no internal views of the vehicle are known, nor any detail on its creation process. A likely possibility is that the LTTE possessed a non-operational FV601 Saladin armored car with a usable turret, which was mounted on the hull of an available YW531 as a light tank armed with a 76 mm gun was viewed as more valuable than an armored personnel carrier. This was not however a rushed job, with both the hull and turret receiving some considerable modifications.
The YW 531 Hull
The hull of the LTTE light tank was taken from a YW531 armored personnel carrier. This original vehicle is a welded steel amphibious armored personnel carrier, armed with China’s Type 54 12.7 mm machine gun on a pintle mount. It has four road wheels with a torsion bar suspension, and moves through water with the movement of its tracks. The vehicle has a crew of two, and an infantry complement of 10, located to the rear of the hull. The engine was located to the right of the vehicle, between the driver and the infantry compartment. Armored protection was 14 mm of armor at its thickest point. It has a length of 5.48 m, a width of 2.98 m, and a height of 2.58 m.
The length and width of the original YW 531A were likely the same on the hull of the LTTE light tank. The same can not, however, be said for the height. The hull of the light tank was considerably lowered, though by exactly which amount is unknown. This appears to have been performed by cutting off a vertical “slice” of the hull – the need for internal hull space likely being considerably diminished by the infantry carrying function of the vehicle being ditched.
The engine on the converted vehicle appears to have been moved from the front-right to the rear of the vehicle. This is indicated by a view of the rear of the LTTE light tank, where one can observe radiator grills that were installed on what was formerly the infantry’s main door on the rear of the vehicle. This transformation was likely very much necessary, as the turret would otherwise likely have sat partially on top of the engine, an impossible configuration. The vehicle may retain the original engine of the YW531, a Deutz BF8L413F diesel engine of German origin producing 320 hp. However, this cannot be confirmed.
The suspension does not appear to have received any change. It has sometimes been claimed that the LTTE light tank was not based on the YW531/Type 63, but rather on the later Type 85, procured in both APC and IFV models (the IFV model using the same turret as the ZBD-86, itself a copy of the BMP-1). The suspension disproves this claim entirely, as the later Type 85 ran on five road wheels.
The crew configuration of the hull part of the LTTE light tank is not known. Logically, the vehicle would likely retain the ability to mount two crew members in front of the hull. On the YW531, this was the driver to the front left and commander to the front right. In turreted vehicles, as the LTTE light tank is, the commander is traditionally placed in the turret, and an aid-driver may or may not be viewed as unnecessary and disposed of. However, seeing as the vehicle uses a two-man turret, and as the LTTE is an unconventional force, it may be imaginable that the commander may actually sit in the hull on the vehicle, with a gunner and loader in the turret.
Some other changes can be observed on the hull. The original headlights of the YW531 were removed and replaced by some taken from a Saladin. The vehicle otherwise appears to have two spare track links mounted at the rear of the hull, likely on each side.
The FV601 Saladin Turret
The turret installed on the LTTE light tank was taken from a captured FV601 Saladin armored car. This British armored car developed in the post-war era featured a two-man turret of welded construction, armored at 32 mm at its thickest point. The main armament of the turret is a Royal Ordnance L5A1 76 mm gun. This is a fairly low-velocity gun centered around High-Explosive (HE) and High-Explosive Squashed Head (HESH) shells. It can also fire smoke and canister ammunition. Coaxially, the turret features an M1919A4 7.62 mm machine gun. Smoke dischargers are present on both sides of the turret.
Like the hull, the turret used in the LTTE light tank did receive some considerable modifications. Most notably, the addition of a heavy machine gun on top of the turret in the shape of a 12.7×108 mm DShKM of Soviet origin, seemingly located on the axis of the turret. It would likely be operated by the loader, which may or may not also assume the role of commander of the tank.
Additionally, some form of slat armor appears to have been applied on the turret sides from the mantlet all the way to the rear bustle. Curiously, this slat armor would impede the operation of the smoke grenade dischargers, which have not, however, been removed from the vehicle.
A Tank of Unknown Capabilities
Sadly, the LTTE light tank only being known through a series of photos means that many aspects of its performances remain uncertain.
First among these is the vehicle’s weight. A large number of factors to take into account make this hard to estimate starting from the original weight of the YW531 (12.6 t). The vehicle being lowered and infantry carrying capacities being removed would likely reduce the weight, but the addition of the turret as well as ammunition stowage would make it rise back up. The number of rounds available for the vehicle’s three weapons is also unknown.
Linked to the weight, the amphibious capacities of the vehicle are a mystery as well. The YW531 was fully amphibious and moved through water thanks to the movement of its tracks, not any device such as hydrojets. Cutting down part of the hull and adding a turret would have some impact on the buoyancy. However, it is unknown whether or not it may be enough to make the vehicle incapable of floating or not.
The maximum speed, power-to-weight ratio, etcetera are likewise unknown. Even the crew composition is. The LTTE light tank likely has a crew of either three or four, which cannot be confirmed. If the crew is of four, whether the commander acts as the loader or remains in the hull is also in question.
Conclusion – The Tamil Tigers’ oddity
Whether the LTTE light tank saw any service within the forces of the Tamil Tigers is uncertain. In 2009, the SLA launched a decisive offensive against LTTE holdouts, using its manpower and firepower advantage to its full extent and conducting essentially a large-scale military campaign that was able to decisively defeat the group. It is likely during this offensive that the LTTE light tank was captured by SLA troops, with all known photos of the vehicle dating from after its capture. With the death of the LTTE’s leader and the surrender of most of the group, this offensive also marked the end of the 25-years long Sri Lankan Civil War.
The LTTE light tank was part of a military exhibition in Colombo: this was the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Sri Lanka Army, held from October 3rd to October 7th 2009. What fate it has been given as of now is unknown. While a very obscure vehicle, it is also an incredibly interesting piece of equipment that has been given little to no attention. The Sri Lankan conflict is often ignored by Western viewers more aware of the Middle East instead – the same which could be said of the Tamil Tiger’s conversions and armored vehicles in comparison to those of militant groups in Syria or Iraq, for example.
Tamil Tigers light tank specifications
|Dimensions (L-W)||5.48 x 2.98 m|
|Engine||Likely Deutz BF8L413F diesel, 320 hp|
|Crew||Likely 3 to 4|
|Main gun||76 mm L5A1|
|Secondary armament||12.7 mm DshKM
7.62 mm M1919A4
|Hull armor||14 mm maximum|
|Turret armor||32 mm maximum|
SIPRI Arms Trade Database
Sri Lanka Declares Victory, The Wall Street Journal, May 19 2009
Army.lk (official Sri Lanka army website)
With special thanks to Leander Jobse who provided helpful aid in researching this article.