An LTTE aircraft shot down by SLAF during a raid on Katunayake air base.
Although the Air Tigers carried out a total of nine raids, the SLAF succeeded just once in bringing down an aircraft on September 9, 2008. But both the offensive and defence actions carried out by the SLAF ensured that the Air Tigers could not operate freely in any part of the country. “We never allowed them to take targets freely,” the then Group Captain Ravi Jayasinghe, Overall Operations Commander, National Air Defence told ‘The Island’ in an exclusive interview. The officer emphasized that that LTTE plans went awry due to the commitment of all levels of officers and men. The national air defence plan brought all three services and the police throwing their weight towards one objective. Deployment of relatively small radars with the army and SLN, too, contributed to the success of the overall plan.
An LTTE air raid targeting Sri Lanka’s jet squadrons based at the Katunayake air base in late March 2007 triggered a major political battle, with the UNP flaying the government for its failure to neutralise the LTTE threat. Accusing Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of not taking necessary action to boost air defence, the UNP claimed that the military should be placed under competent people or face the consequences. The UNP warned of further debacles unless immediate action was taken to improve anti-aircraft defences at key security as well as economic targets.
That air raid was the second attack on Katunayake. In a pre-dawn attack on July 24, 2001, LTTE infiltrated the air base and the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) and wreaked havoc. In what could be described as the worst single terrorist attack, the LTTE blew up 13 aircraft, including two Kfirs, one MiG 27 and one Mi-24 helicopter gunship. The SLAF acquired Kfirs in 1996, MiG in 27s in 2000 and Mi-24s, in 1996.
Although the LTTE had failed in its second bid to wipe out the jet squadrons comprising Israeli Kfirs and Ukrainian MiGS, the daring attempt exposed the weaknesses on the part of the SLAF. Nothing could have humiliated the SLAF more than a terrorist attack on the only air base in the country, which could launch Kfirs and MiGs. It would be pertinent to examine Sri Lanka’s attempts to acquire anti-aircraft capability in the face of a rapid LTTE build-up.
The then President Chandrika Kumaratunga acted on the recommendations of SLAF Commander, Air Marshal Donald Perera to acquire air defences, though the UNP led-UNF government (Dec 2001-Nov 2003) did not pursue the initiative. Having decided to acquire an air defence system in March, 2005, the then President approved plans to go for Chinese radar. But, due to Indian intervention, Sri Lanka had to drop the plan after New Delhi asserted that it could install, operate and maintain an integrated air defence system covering the entire country. Sri Lanka was told that an Indian 2D system was more than adequate to meet the LTTE threat. India was of the opinion that Sri Lanka didn’t require personnel from any other country to man radar stations as it could take care of the system on its own. India reiterated its position in September, 2005, ahead of the Nov 2005 presidential poll (Govt. rejects UNP charge, CBK initiated air defence plan––The Island April 5, 2007).
The March 2007 LTTE attack exposed the deficiencies in the SLAF air defence system. The fact that LTTE aircraft involved in the March 26, 2007 raid on Katunayake air base had survived some 400 kms of flying distance and that, too, in the night, highlighted the urgent need to upgrade the system.
While the Chinese offered 3D radar, India installed 2D radar, thereby causing a major shortfall in the system. Sri Lanka had to accept the first generation 2D radar as New Delhi strongly opposed the installation of Chinese radar. Investigations revealed that the Indian radar didn’t even detect the approaching enemy aircraft until the radar at the adjacent BIA identified them. The BIA radar made the detection as the LTTE aircraft were about three kilometres off the air base. Although the SLAF didn’t know the specific target, troops deployed in the northern theatre of operations observed the aircraft flying southwards.
In the aftermath of the strike, the LTTE declared that about 40 per cent of the SLAF’s strike capability was gone.
Immediately after the raid, Sri Lanka raised the issue with the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The government stressed the urgent need to fully activate the air defence system as vital military and economic installations were at the risk of being bombed. Although three out of four radars promised by India had been installed by that time, there were operational problems. The fourth radar was to be installed in the north. Sri Lanka requested India to install it quickly.
Kadirgamar briefs US
In June 2005, the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar voiced concern over the LTTE acquiring an air capability. In his last visit to Washington, Kadirgamar pointed out the danger of allowing the LTTE to go ahead with its plans. Kadirgamar said that the international community should take tangible action to thwart LTTE plans as the acquisition of air capability could threaten not only Sri Lanka but also international civil aviation and commercial shipping. The issue was taken up at the highest level, with Kadirgamar explaining the situation to the then US Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. J.H. Croch.
Hours after the LTTE raid on Katunayake, former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, B. Raman, asserted that the LTTE air wing had been in existence for nine years without Sri Lankan intelligence services having the foggiest idea. Raman is a former additional secretary to the Indian Cabinet and regular commentator on Sri Lankan political and military affairs.
Sri Lanka pointed out the irrationality of Raman’s assertion in the wake of Sri Lanka deciding in March 2005 to acquire state of the art Chinese 3D radar to meet the LTTE threat. Raman was reminded how India had reacted to Sri Lanka’s plan. Having received credible intelligence as regards LTTE efforts, Sri Lanka in early 2005 briefed the five-member UN Security Council, plus India, of an air threat. Sri Lanka went to the extent of providing a comprehensive dossier, including a short video footage obtained by Israeli Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), in service with the SLAF of some LTTE assets.
In May 2005, the five-nation Scandinavian truce monitoring mission deployed under the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) declared that the LTTE air wing posed a major threat. The mission head, Hagrup Haukland asserted that the LTTE ‘air assets’ threatened not only Sri Lanka’s domestic security, but violated international laws as well. Haukland was quoted in the media as having said; “It not only threatens domestic security, but India has also expressed concern.” Haukland said that he had seen an LTTE air strip in Kilinochchi from an SLAF helicopter on March 4, 2004, two days after the then LTTE commander in charge of Batticaloa, Karuna, quit the organisation.
‘Col’ Shankar’s role
‘Colonel’ Shankar, alias Vythialingam Somalingham, an ex–aeronautical engineer with Air Canada, with an engineering degree in aeronautics from the Hindustan Institute Engineering Technology in Tamil Nadu was instrumental in forming the Air Tigers, whose leader was an old boy of Hartley College, Point Pedro. Shankar was killed by troops operating behind LTTE lines on Sept 26, 2001. The Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) facilitated the operation targeting Shankar before the then UNP administration exposed some of those involved in covert operations in the aftermath of the Dec. 2001 parliamentary polls (‘War on terror revisited’: The Aturigiriya Affair and Behind the enemy lines).
In the immediate aftermath of the March 2007 raid, President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for a united effort, against the LTTE. The President declared that Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism should be a joint effort regardless of political differences. On the day after the raid on Katunayake, senior representatives of all political parties, except for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), gathered at Temple Trees, where they unanimously resolved to support the war effort. The SLFP-led UPFA, UNP, JVP, JHU, MEP, SLMC, CWC, EPDP, UPF, CPSL, LSSP and Bhoomiputra party issued a joint communiqué calling for international support to neutralise the LTTE threat (All parties resolve to support government fight terrorism––The Island March 27, 2007).
SLAF strikes back
As troops battled their way into LTTE held areas in the Eastern Province, the SLAF stepped-up attacks on identified LTTE targets in the Vanni region. Jets launched from Katunayake zeroed in on LTTE targets regularly.
In the early hours of April 24, 2007, a low flying LTTE fixed wing aircraft dropped two improvised explosive devices near the Myladdy beach, killing several soldiers. The SLAF believed that the aircraft was on its way to drop bombs targeting Palaly air base when heavy security forces fire compelled it to turn back. The enemy aircraft escaped (Military thwarts LTTE aerial attack on Palaly air base––The Island April 25, 2007). Although both attacks (in March and April 2007) failed to cause any significant damage to military or economic targets, Sri Lanka came under heavy pressure to neutralise the LTTE threat. International airlines expressed serious concern over the growing threat posed by the Air Tigers. Some airlines asserted that they would have to review their operations unless immediate action was taken to ensure their security. The vulnerability of the Colombo and Trincomalee ports to an LTTE attack caused a major concern to shipping lines. The government struggled to counter LTTE operations. The military top brass was aware that ports could be simultaneously targeted by both sea and air. The then SLN spokesman, Captain D. K. P. Dasanayake asserted that crippling ports was high on the LTTE’s agenda. One successful strike could have inflicted massive damage to the economy and undermined the war effort, the official asserted. Although the LTTE never tried to mount a coordinated attack on Colombo, Trincomalee, Kankesanthurai and Galle ports during the conflict, the military assigned substantial assets to thwart a possible strike. War time SLN chief, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda asserted that the possibility of a three-pronged attack on a port was always a possibility. An underwater attack using frogmen could have led the way for a coordinated attack by Sea Tiger craft and Air Tigers, he said.
At the conclusion of the conflict, The Island had the opportunity to meet a group of officers involved in air defence operations at the height of the conflict.
The then Group Captain Ravi Jayasinghe––currently at the National Defence College, India, holding the rank of Air Commodore––said that though the LTTE fighting cadre had been defeated once and for all on the northern battlefields, the possibility of an air borne threat could not be ruled out.
In an interview with The Island, the Overall Operations Commander of the National Air Defence System said they could not neglect air defence, as long as the LTTE remained active overseas.
Recalling the 9/11 Al Queda suicide missions directed against the US, Jayasinghe said that the end of war should not make the establishment to lower its guard. The landing of a light aircraft in Red Square, decades ago, by a German youth was evidence that no country could take chances with its air defence.
The official explained the steps taken to establish a radar station at Piduruthalagala––a Chinese-built YLC 18 radar station––and to take delivery of a second radar of the same.
Wing Commander Saman Pallawela, senior sector director of the Air Defence Command and Control Centre said that it would be part of a strategy to meet a future threat.
Jayasinghe said that a cohesive air defence would not have been a reality without able guidance from the then Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke and Director Air Operations, Air vice Marshal Kolitha Gunathilake. Although there were shortcomings, the SLAF succeeded in destroying the so-called Air Tigers in less than two years. They launched their first attack on March 26th, 2007, targeting the Katunayake based Kfir and MiG 27 squadrons. Had they succeeded, the war effort would have suffered a heavy setback, he said.
Group Captain Janaka Karunarathne, the Commanding Officer of the No 4 Air Defence Radar Squadron said that timely detection was of critical importance in coordinating air defence. Over the past few years, the National Air Defence System had been developed to meet the threat posed by Air Tigers. The senior officers in charge of the operation emphasised the importance of maintaining maximum possible readiness to meet any eventuality.
Although several countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh had supported Sri Lanka’s efforts against the Air Tigers, India and China spearheaded the operation. The SLAF commissioned Indra Mk II radars at Vavuniya, Katunayake, Palavi and China Bay and a Chinese JY II radar at Mirigama.
The first Indian radar station set up at the Vavuniya air base was activated on February 16, 2006 under the command of Squadron Leader Rohan Jayasundera, an experienced sector director involved in many “air defence missions.” At the same time, the SLAF commissioned the second Indian radar at the Katunayake air base. The SLAF launched two more Indian radar units at China Bay and Palavi on February 1 and May 18, 2007, respectively.
Sri Lanka’s first 3D radar of Chinese origin came into operation at Mirigama on May 18, 2007.
The LTTE mounted its first strike on March 26, 2007 and almost succeeded in targeting Sri Lanka’s precious jet squadrons. It was followed by an attack on the Jaffna High Security Zone on April 24, 2007. The Air Tigers again targeted the Katunayake-based jet squadrons on April 29, 2007. Although the SLAF had failed to bring down any of the enemy aircraft on all three occasions, the Air Tigers had failed to cause significant damage. But, these raids embarrassed the government, while giving the LTTE and its supporters hope that the government could be brought to its knees. Disruption of routine operations at the Bandaranaike International Airport and the possibility of an attack on the Colombo harbour brought heavy pressure on the government.
The Air Defence Command and Control Centre unsuccessfully deployed Mi-24s and Chinese F7 jets to bring down the two enemy aircraft involved in the April 29, 2007 raid. Although the radar at Palavi made an attempt to direct the F7s at the approaching aircraft, the LTTE managed to keep its course towards Katunayake. Group Captain Karunaratne said that after failing to zero-in on Katunayake based jet squadrons, the enemy had turned towards the Ratmalana air base, home to SLAF’s transport fleet.
The SLAF acknowledged that though two pairs of F7 had been available with the SLAF since 1991, they didn’t have a missile capability. Sri Lanka took delivery of two pairs of F7 GS of Chinese origin, the most advanced jet in service with the SLAF in January last year. The new jet with in-built air interceptor radar is capable of carrying four air-to-air heat seeking missiles. In a recent interview with ‘The Island’, Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne, Commanding Officer of the No. 5 Squadron said that ground based radar controllers play a critical role in their operations. Wickremeratne, who is credited with the SLAF’s solitary successful missile strike on an LTTE aircraft over Iranapalai on September 9, 2009 said that a lot depends on the ability and competence of the ground staff who would direct interceptors to approaching enemy aircraft.
The LTTE struck again on Oct. 28, 2008, causing heavy damage to the Kelanitissa power station. Although the enemy had failed to take any military target, they caused chaos in the South and returned to base.
The Air Defence Command and Control achieved its major success on February 20, 2009 after Jayasinghe took over control in the aftermath of the October 28 fiasco. Under his direction, the 32 Land Based Air Defence Wing brought down two LTTE aircraft over Colombo and Katunayake with accurate anti-aircraft fire. Wing Commander Senaka Fernandopulle is in charge of the 32 Land Based Air Defence Wing.
Squadron Leader Nilantha Piyasena, Officer Commanding Air Defence Artillery Control, told The Island that IGLA missiles (SAM 16) were in their arsenal. He said deployment of a range of guns had been effected according to a plan to ensure maximum possible protection to important targets. He said that though the army and the navy, too, had deployed some anti-aircraft guns, the overall deployment of Sri Lanka’s anti-aircraft assets come under the control of the SLAF. SLAF anti-aircraft gunners were deployed at navy as well as army bases, he said. The guns which brought down one of the two-LTTE aircraft on February 20, 2009 were located at the Rangala navy base.