Alarming increase in LTTE firepower
Air Tigers acquired a twin-engine aircraft before Tsunami
By Our Defence Correspondent

The Air Tigers took delivery of at least one twin-engine aircraft last December, when an LTTE ship brought in a consignment of arms and high-tech equipment a few days before the Tsunami, sources in LTTE-controlled areas of the North said.

This development marks an alarming increase in the offensive capabilities of the LTTE, as the twin-engine aircraft can carry a much large bomb load and fly faster and further than single-engine ones. The single-engine aircraft can carry up to 1,000 kilogrammes of cargo, while some twin engine ones can carry many thousands of kilogrammes. A twin-engine aircraft could also carry a larger load of air-to-surface missiles to attack targets on the ground, and machine guns and air-to-air missiles to take on air force aircraft, than a single-engine one.

The new development is likely to cause much alarm for the government of India as well. Any twin-engine aircraft would also be able to fly much farther into India, although a single-engine one can comfortably fly about 150 miles into southern India and return.

The twin-engine aircraft would require a slightly longer runway to operate from, but the airstrip southeast of Iranamadu is definitely long enough, being approximately 1.1 kilometres long.

The twin-engine aircraft has been assembled in the Wanni, sources said. However, it has not taken to the air so far. It is clear that the LTTE is keeping it under wraps for now. The type of aircraft and its origin are not yet clear. It is also not clear whether the twin-engine aircraft is being stored at the new Iranamadu airstrip, or somewhere else.

Incredibly, none of the country’s numerous intelligence agencies have yet detected the presence of the twin-engine aircraft. But this is not surprising, given that none of them had a clue of the presence of the single-engine aircraft until the air force sighted them on the runway at Iranamadu, a runway that had been clearly visible for more than two years!

Meanwhile, the Air Tigers conducted several flights with its single-engine aircraft to carry out reconnaissance over the coastline of the Mullaittivu district immediately after the Tsunami, to determine the amount of damage caused to the area by the killer waves, sources said. It had been one of these aircraft that was sighted by an Israeli-built Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) of the Sri Lanka Air Force, at the Iranamadu airstrip.

The Tigers have often used the period of the Northeast Monsoon between November and February to sneak in shipments of weapons by sea, taking advantage of the fact that the bad weather and high winds make it difficult for air force aircraft to carry out proper surveillance in the busy shipping lane, and the navy’s Dvora patrol craft find it difficult to patrol the seas due to the strong waves. The Tigers are also affected by the weather, but the ships they use are more able to sail during such times, as they are bigger and heavier, although unloading cargo would be quite difficult.

The SLAF has been very slow to correctly analyze the information that it has obtained from many sources over the years, and the government has been even slower to act on the reports provided by the Air Force Chief.

For example, as far back as 25th November 2003, the SLAF observed that the LTTE was clearing a large area of jungle southeast of Iranamadu. Daily surveillance of the area by the UAV showed that the shape and size clearly indicated that it was probably a runway. Bear in mind that the Air Tigers had built a smaller airstrip at a nearby location as far back as 1993 in Eelam War II, and the SLAF bombed it with its Argentine-built Pucara Ground Attack Aircraft and Israeli-built Kfir jets, making it unusable. Following the start of Eelam War III the Tigers rebuilt this airstrip, and the SLAF destroyed it again in 1995.

So it came as no surprise to the SLAF when the UAV showed the new runway being prepared in November 2003. However, amazingly no action was taken to even raise the issue with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and the Norwegian government.

This is a clear example of petty politics taking precedence over matters of national security. Bear in mind that the detection of the airstrip occurred a few weeks after President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sacked the Minster of Defence and the Secretary of Defence and seized control of the Ministry (among three Ministries). Whether the SLAF brought the matter to her notice, or to the notice of the Ministry, is not yet clear. But what is very clear is that absolutely nothing was done. Forewarned is forearmed they say, but not with the government of Sri Lanka.

Indeed, if the matter was not brought to the attention of the President, then a serious lapse has taken place on the part of the SLAF. After all, the President, as Minister of Defence and Commander In Chief of the Armed Forces, meets with the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force on a weekly basis. Could it be that the SLAF, after spending billions of rupees over the years to acquire its present surveillance and strike capabilities, sat on the information without passing it on to the President? If so, then an immediate investigation should be conducted by an external agency as to the reasons why, and who was responsible for the lapse. The objective should be to ensure that such lapses will never occur in the future.

In fact, the government did not raise the issue of the runway for more than two years. It was only after the single-engine aircraft was seen parked on the runway that the government belatedly bleated to Norway that the LTTE had violated the ceasefire agreement by constructing a runway. Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has gone! What was Norway to do about it, two years after it was built? Send Norwegian Air Force planes to bomb it?

Or is it that the President was told, but did nothing? Either way, the government owes the nation an explanation as to why an issue of national sovereignty, not to mention the global war on terrorism, was ignored. By not bringing the matter to the notice of the world, Sri Lanka missed a priceless opportunity to gather the support of the international community, as all countries are now united in the war on terrorism. Even now, the government has not done enough to have the international community bringing sanctions on the LTTE, apart from having a few countries "voice concern." There is no question that every country would support Sri Lanka since the LTTE is the only terrorist organization in the world that possesses an air strike capability. Even the famous Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda never obtained aircraft, although they had many trained pilots. Recollect that the four aircraft used by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001 were hijacked airliners. The fact that the LTTE was building a runway scarcely two years after September 11, would have brought about action against the LTTE very quickly, and more severely than now, three and a half years after September 11, when the world’s attention and consensus have been divided and diverted following George Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq on the pretext of battling terrorism.

Even now, the SLAF’s assessment of the threat posed by the Air Tigers is way off the mark. The LTTE is well aware of the surveillance capabilities of the UAVs, and clearly deliberately kept the single-engine aircraft out in the open for the SLAF to see.

The Top Secret SLAF report to the government that was published last week speaks of five possible reasons for the "sudden appearance of air assets on the runway." They are: To protect the aircraft after the tsunami; to create an impression of strength following losses to the Tigers in the tsunami; to impress the Tamil population; to prepare for offensive use; to begin air transport of cadres.

But not one of them is correct. The SLAF has not even raised the possibility that the Air Tigers deliberately floated a red herring to make everyone concentrate on the single-engine aircraft, while keeping the more powerful twin-engine aircraft under wraps. In fact, the SLAF report even makes a passing mention of the fact that the runway is long enough to accommodate much larger aircraft, even the massive C130 Hercules built by the United States, but does not raise the possibility that the Air Tigers may have actually acquired larger aircraft! Surely someone in the SLAF should have reasoned that the LTTE wouldn’t build a huge airstrip capable of flying off large aircraft, if the Air Tigers were only going to use it for single-engine light aircraft?

The LTTE would have figured that the single-engine aircraft would soon be detected anyway, since they were being flown on tsunami-evaluation missions and they were bound to be spotted by someone very soon. As it is, the fact that they weren’t spotted while over Mullaittivu is a lapse on the part of intelligence agencies, but then, this was immediately after the tsunami when everyone was otherwise engaged.

What will the LTTE do with its now very considerable air strike capability? Remember, the LTTE has always given itself the "first strike" capability by seizing the initiative and going back to war with little or no forewarning, as in June 1990 and April 1995. The prospects are alarming. We hope we never see it in practice.


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