On the eve of his retirement, as the most successful air force commander, Air Chief Marshal W. D. R. M. J. Goonetileke told The Island that the target killing of LTTE Political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvan by the SLAF on Nov 1, 2007 had demoralised the LTTE. Asked whether the SLAF had targeted the top Tiger to avenge an LTTE commando raid on the Anuradhapura air base the previous week, the soft spoken Goonetileke said: We were hunting for LTTE leaders long before the raid on Anuradhapura and Thamilselvan was on our hit list. The Intelligence Services worked on targets and on Nov. 1 we received specific intelligence regarding Thamilselvan’s presence in Kilinochchi. We assigned a pair of attack aircraft (Kfir and MiG 27) to bomb Thamilselvan’s hideout in a ‘built-up’ area. It was an extremely difficult task, but our pilots scored direct hits. The target killing increased pressure on the LTTE. The enemy never knew how we had established Thamilselvan’s presence in Kilinocchchi, thereby forcing key leaders to go underground. Their absence on the battlefield demoralised the LTTE fighting cadre. The rest is history.”
Commenting on the availability of ‘real time’ intelligence, ACM Goonetileke said: “I felt data obtained from UAVs and Beech craft should be made available to political and military leaders to facilitate the decision making process. Earlier, we used to move data from Vavuniya to Colombo and by the time we had them it was always too late to take action. But during Eelam War IV, on the instructions of the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, we set up a mechanism to provide ‘real time’ intelligence to field commanders. Our ground commanders had the advantage of ‘real time’ intelligence to call on air and artillery strikes as and when required.” (RG on SLAF’s pivotal role in Eelam War IV with strap line SLAF Chief steps down after illustrious career-The Island Feb 25, 2011).
Having retired on the eve of the SLAF’s 60th anniversary celebrations, ACM Goonetilike assumed office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a post he held in an acting capacity after former Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka quit the post on Dec 1, 2009, to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Goonetileke succeeded Air Marshal Donald Perera on June 11, 2006, as the 12th Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force to spearhead the air campaign against the LTTE.
At the onset of the Eelam War IV, the SLAF had about 800-900 officers and about 19,000 men. Two years and ten months later, when the LTTE crushed on May 19, 2009, the SLAF comprised about 1,500 officers and 35,000 men. With the gradual expansion, the SLAF was given additional responsibility to hold onto newly liberated territory. In addition to new deployments, the SLAF had to maintain a strong presence at Morawewa, where troops were tasked with monitoring and intercepting north/south movements of the LTTE.
LTTE aircraft spotted during CFA
Unlike the navy, the SLAF didn’t resort to unilateral action in spite of spotting two fixed wing aircraft on ground in the Vanni during the Ceasefire Agreement. Having received specific information regarding LTTE ship movements, the navy, on March 10 and June 14, 2003 intercepted two vessels in northern waters. The navy kept the then UNP led UNF government in the dark until it was, too, late.
Israeli-built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) spotted two LTTE fixed wing aircraft on the ground in the Vanni long before the outbreak of fighting at Mavil-aru in July 2006. The SLAF explored ways and means of acquiring anti-aircraft capability as part of its overall strategy against the LTTE. With the support of India, the SLAF set up an air defence network and acquired some of the armaments and equipment from several other countries. The SLAF acquired Chinese jets in January, 2008 especially to put LTTE aircraft out of action.
Until the eruption of the Eelam War IV, the SLAF always played a supportive role and threw its weight behind major offensives as well as defensive action, though it never had an opportunity to spearhead combined security forces action.
Before further discussing the SLAF’s role in the war against the LTTE, it would be important to examine the circumstances under which the then ill-equipped Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) was deployed in support of the police and the army to quell the April 1971 insurgency. It would be pertinent to discuss the gradual evolution of the service as a lethal force since its role in battling the April 1971 insurgency. The JVP’s first attempt to grab state power through an insurrection failed due to shortcomings on its part. The JVP move took the Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government by total surprise. The government sought military assistance from friendly countries, including the UK. The British swiftly arranged for the RCyAF to receive some helicopters to hunt for insurgents operating in the provinces.
The RCyAF took delivery of six US built 47-G2 helicopters on April 17, 1971. The emergency acquisition was made in the wake of the JVP launching an insurgency on April 5, 1971. Heavy transport aircraft of the Royal Air Force touched down at the Katunayake air base carrying six choppers to boost the firepower of the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. Following a weeklong training programme, the RCyAF deployed the choppers in support of ground operations, though by late April the JVP wasn’t in a position to militarily challenge the government. The RCyAF mounted the newly acquired choppers also called bubble with 7.62 mm weapons. Subsequently, they were used for training purposes.
The Indian Air Force took over security at the Katunayake airbase and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport. The Indian deployment helped the RCyAF to re-deploy its personnel in support of the army. India also ensured that there would not be any effort to bring in outside support. This was extremely important in the context of the perceived involvement of North Korea in the 1971 insurgency. Pakistan provided a few pilots to facilitate operations. It was a clear case of both world and regional powers responding to Sri Lanka’s desperate call. Had they ignored Sri Lanka’s plea, the destiny of our nation would have been different.
Mrs. Bandaranaike also obtained help from the former Soviet Union. Sri Lanka acquired MIG (Mikoyan Gurevich) 15 UTI, the trainer version of the MIG 15 fighter along with the MIG 17, a formidable fighter aircraft which served the RCyAF/SLAF from 1971 to 1981. The Soviet era fighters joined the British built Hunting Percival Jet Provost (JP as it was known) MK 3 A acquired in 1959 to hit the JVP. JP was the first jet aircraft to join the service. Both the US and the Soviet Union came to Sri Lanka’s rescue swiftly. The government deployed jets to terrorise areas which were perceived to be supportive of the JVP. Jets screamed over areas dominated by the JVP. This terrorised the organisation and its supporters.
The RCyAF was named SLAF on May 22, 1972, after Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The single engined Bell 47-G2s acquired to fight the JVP were in service with the SLAF until 1981.
JRJ’s government ordered US built Bell 212 which had acquired a reputation for itself during the Vietnam War. The twin-engined chopper used extensively as a helicopter gunship was inducted in 1984 and a year later the Bell 412, a four-rotor version of the Bell 212, joined the SLAF fleet. The Bell 412 is primarily used for VIP travel.
But due to negligence on the part of successive governments and the SLAF leadership, Sri Lanka failed to take the upper hand by increasing its firepower until 1995 and 1996, when Mi 24s and Kfirs joined the service. Unfortunately, even after acquiring them and subsequently adding the powerful MiG 27 in 2000, the SLAF failed to deliver for want of a cohesive war strategy and the weaknesses on the part of political leaders.
The SLAF, which had its origins as the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) with a fleet of a dozen Chipmunk aircraft is now a formidable force with over 100 different types of aircraft and helicopters, ranging from the Y 12, a light aircraft built in China, to the sophisticated F7 GS, also a Chinese product.
Over 3,000 missions in three years
Jet squadrons and Mi 24 helicopter gunships carried out over 3,000 missions during Eelam War IV. Of them, some 1,900 targets were taken mostly in the Vanni theatre under difficult circumstances due to the presence of civilians. The SLAF also transported about a million personnel, airlifted about 10 million kgs and evacuated 21,000 casualties during this period.
The LTTE and a section of the media always targeted the SLAF. They alleged that the SLAF had cluster ammunition in its arsenal, targeted civilian infrastructure, including schools, and deployed Pakistani fighter pilots in its campaign.
The LTTE had a range of anti-aircraft weapons in its arsenal, including mobile anti-aircraft guns also known as peddle guns acquired from China and surface to air missiles. The LTTE had hit some of the Mi 24s engaged in operations, but never managed to bring one down. Unfortunately, the SLAF lost one Mi 24 months after the end of the war, flying over the South.
During the CFA, the LTTE strongly objected to any form of air reconnaissance, particularly by UAVs.
The SLAF used general purpose ammunition against targets, particularly buildings, while special ammunition (deep penetration bombs), were directed at runways. To target runways, the MiGs had to dive and bomb at a height of about 100 metres flying at a speed of 1,000 kmph. Each bomb released at that height was fitted with a parachute to ensure flying shrapnel wouldn’t hit the bomber.
Although the SLAF targeted LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on several occasions, he and his family survived only to be shot on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon last May. Once, jet squadrons deployed five MiG 27s, four Kfirs and three F7s to engage two targets in the Vanni, believing Prabhakaran could be at one of the locations. Seven jets targeted an LTTE hideout at Jayanthinagar, and the remaining aircraft bombed Puththukudirippu.
Sri Lanka acquired Italian-built Siai Marchettis, a light attack aircraft in 1985. It was capable of carrying just two 50 kg bombs. Argentine-built Pucaras joined the fleet in 1993, but were grounded in 1995 after the LTTE introduced shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles.
Since the acquisition of Kfirs in 1996, the multi role aircraft had played a pivotal role in the war against the LTTE. Although a computerised bombing programming system was available with Kfirs, bombs had to be released manually.
Had Sri Lanka retained a jet capability after phasing out Hunting Percival jet provost MK 3 A and MiG 15 UTI and MiG 17 instead of going for Siai Marchettis and Pucaras, the LTTE wouldn’t have lasted over three decades. This shortcoming was similar to Sri Lanka’s unpardonable failure to acquire off-shore patrolling capacity to engage LTTE ships on the high seas.
Jet operations began only in 1991. Sri Lanka acquired a pair of Chinese FT5 jet trainers, one FT7 jet trainer and 4 F7 B basic single-seater jets in 1991. Sri Lanka didn’t go for Chinese jets again until January 2008. In January 2008, the SLAF took delivery of four F7 GS, the most sophisticated jet in the country’s arsenal today with in-built air interception radar. It could also carry four heat seeking missiles and no other jet in service with the SLAF has this capability.
Before the deployment of F7 GS, the Air Tigers had carried out five raids. Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne, the then Commanding officer of the No 5 squadron comprising Chinese jets is credited with the shooting down of the first LTTE aircraft over Iranapalai with a Chinese heat seeking missile as the enemy plane was returning to its base, following the attack on Vavuniya. Following the end of the war, a part of the No 5 squadron was moved to China Bay.
Today, the SLAF is over 30,000 strong with a sizeable ground deployment in different sectors. The SLAF Regiment, now a force to be reckoned with, is responsible for security at all bases, stations and units. The Regiment includes Special Forces and is responsible for turning out a range of improvised explosives devices (IEDs) and training security forces personnel in bomb disposal.
The SLAF’s objectives could not have been realised without light and heavy transport squadrons (No 8 and No 2), No 6 Mi 17 squadron and No 7 comprising Bell 212s and Bell Jet Ranger meeting their tasks. The pilot training wings too, played a significant role to meet a challenging task. Despite severe constrains, primarily due to lack of assets, the transport squadrons helped the war effort. Perhaps their task was far more difficult than various attack squadrons. In the absence of an overland route to Jaffna since June 1990 after the LTTE smashed Army bases north of Vavuniya, the SLAF and the Navy had maintained supply routes.