The Katunayake-based jet squadrons and Mi 24/35 "Hind" helicopter gunships operating from Hingurakgoda SLAF base are on the final stage of their offensive action against the LTTE east of the A9 road.
Despite on and off setbacks during the past two and half years, the SLAF has achieved tremendous success, particularly in the Vanni theatre of operations where No. 10 Kfir and No.12 MiG squadrons had caused heavy losses on the LTTE. The No. 9 Attack Helicopter Squadron, too, had scored some significant hits.
The latest addition to the jet squadrons is No. 5 Jet Squadron of Chinese F7 interceptors. All three squadrons are based at Katunayake. Had the LTTE succeeded in its ambitious attempts to hit jet squadrons, it would have given them a strategic advantage and caused irreparable damage to the overall war effort.
The SLAF’s much needed assistance had been essential in the destruction of LTTE fortifications, artillery pieces and providing support to the navy when required. The Sea Tigers had suffered sizeable losses due to air action facilitated by real time intelligence provided by Israeli built unmanned aerial vehicles. Although the UAVs had been in service with the SLAF since 1996, they had never been used like this to the advantage of the armed forces.
The SLAF marked its 58th anniversary last Monday (March 2) as Sri Lanka’s highly successful war on terror gradually moved closer to an end. As the army waged the last major ground battles on the eastern flank, it would be pertinent to study the SLAF’s role in the overall combined security forces campaign spearheaded by the army to destroy the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability as well as its air and sea assets.
By end of this month, the SLAF would run out of targets as the army gradually regained the area under LTTE control now down to about 45 sq. km including the 20 sq. km civilian safety zone on the north-eastern coast.
Presidential colours for the Ratmalana based No. 2 Transport Squadron, No. 4 Helicopter Squadron based at Katunayake, No. 9 Attack Helicopter Squadron, and Sri Lanka’s premier No 10. Kfir Squadron and the SLAF Regiment couldn’t have come at a better time.
The presidential colours were awarded at a ceremony held at the China Bay SLAF base on Saturday (March 7). President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s awarded the colours in the morning and later in the day viewed the commissioning parade of his son, midshipman Yoshitha as an Acting Sub Lieutenant at the strategic Trincomalee navy base.
Despite severe constraints due to shortage of aircraft, the No. 2 Transport Squadron based at Ratmalana air base had contributed significantly to the overall war effort. Although the navy had been primarily responsible for moving men and material to and from the Jaffna peninsula for over two decades, the SLAF, too, played a significant role.
The pioneer flying formation is undoubtedly the workhorse of the service but the absence of adequate number of aircraft had been a severe setback. Although its main task is transportation of troops and cargo, it had been deployed for casualty evacuation, aerial reconnaissance, aerial photography and bombing raids. During the early stages of the conflict, Y8 or Yunshuji 8, a medium lift Chinese-built transport aircraft had been used to drop 1000 kg bombs over identified LTTE targets. The SLAF acquired Y8s in 1988.
Years ago, besieged army bases in the Northern Province totally depended on arms, ammunition and food drops carried out by the transport aircraft.
The recent re-opening of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 for armed forces convoys would sharply reduce the workload of both the SLAF and navy.
Under Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke’s competent leadership, the SLAF had proved what it could achieve despite on and off high profile LTTE air attacks directed at economic and military targets in the south since the eruption of the eelam war IV in August 2006. The level of proficiency achieved over the past two years is a significant advance from the SLAF’s capabilities of the 80s-90s.
The SLAF went into extent of landing in the heart of the LTTE-held territory to evacuate soldiers conducting hit and run attacks behind the enemy lines. The unassuming SLAF Chief had spearheaded a lethal campaign which I believe is an integral part of the overall combined armed forces offensive under the political leadership of the Rajapaksas.
The LTTE’s attempt to assassinate Goonetileke in January this year in Colombo and the subsequent attempt to fly in an explosives-packed Zlin 143 into his headquarters were evidence of the terrorists’ wrath.
Had the SLAF leadership buckled under the pressure of the devastating LTTE assault on the Anuradhapura air base in October 2007 and subsequent raids on Colombo, it would have adversely affected the Vanni campaign. The assault on Anuradhapura came as the Task Force I under Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s command and 57 Division commanded by Major General Jagath Dias were battling strong LTTE forces on the western flank.
The losses caused by the Black Tiger commando raid on Anuradhapura air base would have weakened and discouraged even a bigger Air Force. But to the credit of the SLAF, it never looked back. Close on the heels of the Anuradhapura debacle, the Kfir squadron which received president’s colours yesterday, zeroed-in on LTTE Political Wing chief S. P. Thamilselvan hideout in Kilinochchi.
The deveastating strike directed at Thamilselvan was one of the finest operations conducted by the squadron formed on January, 1996 with six multi role fighter jets acquired from Israel with the blessings of the US.
The squadron has so far logged more than 2,800 hours of operational flying and delivered 3,500 tons of explosives on the enemy. The squadron devastated hardened LTTE shelters and artillery pieces and mortars as in the case of successful strikes on points at Kalmunai point and Pooneryn during eelam war IV.
While a section of the media and the UNP ridiculed the government for acquiring worthless aircraft, the SLAF with available assets played a critical role in the war against the LTTE. On one hand, it conducted operations in support of the ground forces in the northern and eastern provinces. And on the other hand, it carried out a consistent offensive of its own to destroy a range of LTTE assets including Sea Tiger craft. The SLAF’s two-pronged strategy had paid off handsomely.
The acquisition of MiG 27s from Ukrinmash, Ukraine in 2006 triggered controversy with the UNP and a section of the media accusing the government of a corrupt deal. The deal caused a media furore amidst heavy battles in the northern and eastern regions. Of the seven MiG 27 acquired in 2000, one (CF 732) had been destroyed during the LTTE raid on Katunayake in July 2000 and two (CF 736 and CF 734) crashed in December 2001 and January 2004 respectively. The remaining aircraft had been grounded in July 2004 for overhaul. The long delayed overhauling was done only after the LTTE triggered the eelam war IV. The SLAF also acquired four more MiG 27s in 2006.
The number of sorties carried out by Kfir and MiG squadrons during the eelam war IV was much more than the air attacks carried out by the SLAF during the previous phases of the conflict. The SLAF first acquired modern light ground attack/trainer aircraft in 1985. Although the SLAF had previously used Jet Provost, a British built advanced trainer, and MiG 15s and MiG 17s, Italian-built Siai Marchetti SF 260 TP was first attack/trainer aircraft acquired to meet the threat posed by Tamil groups.
Jet Provost and the two types of MiGs had been phased out of service by the time the eelam conflict erupted following the killing of 13 soldiers at Thinnaveli in the Jaffna peninsula.
The SLAF gradually enhanced its fire power with the acquisition of Siai Marchetti SF 260 W (1990), Chinese F7 fighter aircraft (1991), Argentine built Pucara (1991), Israeli Kfirs (1996) and MiG 27 (2000). The SLAF took delivery of Mi 24s in 1995. The acquisition of F7, the first Chinese fighter aircraft was preceded by the arrival of FT 5 and FT 7.
Had SLAF used jet squadrons and the Attack Helicopter squadron as effectively as under the present leadership, Sri Lanka would have overwhelmed the LTTE years earlier. Unfortunately some of the worst battlefield defeats including the humiliating loss of the strategic Elephant Pass and several large security forces bases east and west of the A9.
Although the SLAF had conducted many successful operations, the action hadn’t been part of an overall campaign directed at the LTTE. This was changed after when the LTTE triggered war in the second week of August 2006. The armed forces reacted resolutely and the SLAF’s action had been pivotal in the overall strategy.
One of the major reasons for the armed forces’ success was the free hand given in the decision making process. This facilitated swift decision making on the ground. Had the Rajapaksa administration failed to introduce decisive changes, the entire campaign would have been affected. A case in point was the attack on an LTTE training facility at Sencholai in August 2006. Although the LTTE accused the SLAF of attacking a children’s home, the government strongly defended the service. Right throughout the military campaign, the political leadership stood right behind the armed forces, thereby strengthening the hands of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the service chiefs.
The SLAF has conducted about 1,500 missions since the LTTE triggered the Eelam War IV in June 2006. Of them, the majority of targets had been taken by jets and the rest by helicopter gunships.
"We were there from Kanjikudichchiaru to Muhamalai and Kilinochchi," a "Hind" pilot told The Sunday Island recently. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he talked admiringly about the tips given by the Russian experts in handling the helicopter gunships.
The choppers armed with 81 mm rockets and 23 mm and 30 mm guns had caused havoc on the LTTE. The flying tanks first acquired in 1995 had never before been used as extensively and successfully as in the ongoing offensive.
The same could be said about Kfirs and MiGs acquired in 1999 and 2000 respectively, said another official. He expressed the belief that had they efficiently deployed jets earlier they could have achieved a lot but unfortunately it wasn’t the case.
The No. 9 squadron is one of the most formidable strike forces in service since 1995. The Kumaratunga administration ordered "Hinds" immediately after LTTE brought down two Hawker Siddley HS 748 in April 1995 and Pucara ground attack aircraft in July same year with heat seeking surface-to-air missiles. The squadron’s importance was such that the army delayed the trust towards Jaffna until the "Hinds" achieved what the SLAF called operational status. During the Jaffna assault (Operation Riviresa), the squadron had carried out 72 missions. Since its launch, the squadron had logged a staggering 1,167 missions and 2,116 combat flying hours. There was no doubt that some of the heaviest losses both in terms of men and material had been experienced by the No.9.
The other receipients the President’s colours, No.4 helicopter squadron and the SLAF Regiment had been exceptional. The No. 4 had taken part in almost all major operations until 1994 and some of the major operations after 1994. It had logged a staggering 46,000 combat flying hours. The No. 4 had been involved in some heroic action including the landing within the besieged Jaffna Fort in 1990 to evacuate wounded soldiers. In 1991 it had provided air cover to the besieged army base at Silavathurai on the north western coast to help beat back a massive LTTE attack spearheaded by suicide attacks.
Over the last ten years, the SLAF Regiment had expanded to a large force capable of taking a range of assignments. It had been in the forefront of SLAF ground action and over the past two years had expanded its deployment including in Trincomalee and Peraru sectors.
Jet pilots are of the opinion a better command and control structure, specific directions on the targets to be taken, excellent intelligence and, most importantly, flexibility in decision making had facilitated their offensive.
According to them, some of the important missions carried out during this period targeted enemy artillery pieces (Aug.15 and 19, 2006) deployed at Pooneryn, hideouts frequented by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran (Nov. 26 and 28, 2007, Sep. 17 and Dec. 27, 2008) in the Vanni, Voice of Tigers station (Nov. 27, 2007), S.P. Thamilchelvan (Nov. 2, 2007), an LTTE vessel carrying arms 160 nautical miles off the eastern coast (Sep. 17, 2006), a flotilla of Sea Tiger craft off Kankesanturai harbour (Nov. 9, 2007) and several LTTE boats and three artillery pieces in the Chundikulam area.
At the time jets zeroed-in-on the ship, they were flying low on fuel for their return journey to home base at Katunayake, 260 nautical miles away, the official said.
The SLAF has achieved a tremendous operational capability with expertise in surveillance and intelligence gathering.
Technicians at all levels and other branches had worked round the clock to support the air campaign. Without their support the jets wouldn’t have been air borne, SLAF spokesman Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara he said, adding that their ground deployment numbering about 10,000 personnel in the Vanni and the east, too, was a major factor in the overall strategy.
Although a lot of effort went into the setting up of an integrated air defence system to counter Air Tigers, the SLAF didn’t really managed to neutralise the air threat. To the credit of Air Tigers, they managed to raid Colombo even after the setting up of a Chinese 3D radar station to enhance the coverage provided by the Indian radar. But the army’s rapid progress on the eastern flank since the fall of Paranthan, Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi in early January had denied the Air Tigers the opportunity to continue with its operations. Hence last month’s suicide foray by two Zlin 143 fixed wing aircraft. Although the Chinese interceptors failed to shoot down them down, SLAF anti-aircraft gunners deployed at Katunayake brought one down. The other aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft units deployed in the city. The SLAF anti-aircraft unit under a new commanding officer had shown tremendous improvement as revealed during the last encounter. The bottom line is that the Air Tigers was history and the armed forces were unlikely to face an air threat before the army overrun the approximately 45 sq. km area under the LTTE control.
As the war rapidly comes to an end on the eastern flank, the failure of the SLAF to swiftly destroy the Air Tigers would always remain a disappointment. But the SLAF could be PROUD of its overall achievements during 58 years of existence, particularly the last two and half years in which