With the war against the LTTE spearheaded by the army coming to an end, the armed forces had discussed some of the operations undertaken by them, ranging from raids conducted by LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) deep inside enemy-held territory, to bloody ground assaults in the Vanni theatre.
In brief interviews with The Island, Commanding Officers of SLAF Jet Squadrons, Group Captain Sajeewa Hendawitharane (MiGs/No 12), Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne (F7s /No 5) and Wing Commander Shehan Fernando (Kfirs/No 10) said that they collectively caused irreparable damage to the enemy. The killing of LTTE frontliner S. P. Thamilselvam in November, 2007, close on the heels of an LTTE attack on the Anuradhapura air base had been one of the highpoints in their campaign.
Hendawitharane, who led the attack on Thamilselvan in Kilinochchi, said that the rising sun gave him in the much needed ‘cover’ to zero-in on the hideout. "I flew a MiG 27 with Shehan at the controls of an Israeli-built Kfir. We took off at 5.55 a.m. and carried out the bombing 25 minutes later taking advantage of the sun which gave perfect cover for our mission," he said. Responding to our queries, he said that they flew on a westerly direction from Iranamadu, east of A 9 and targeted the hideout with a heavy load of bombs. The then Director of Operations, Air Commodore Harsha Abeywickrema had been confident of Thamilselvam’s presence there on that day, he said, adding that Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetillike had been a tower of strength.
Hendawitharane said that he dived and manually directed four 500 kg bombs at Thamilselvam at a height of 1850 feet before the Kfir CO targeted the hideout with four 250 kg bombs. According to him, it was one of three locations identified by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). After a careful study of the terrain with the help of satellite imagery and pictures obtained from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), a pair of jet flying in what Hendawitharane called Panther formation had pulverised the LTTE hideout.
He said that they were warned not to take a look at the target before hitting it to take the enemy by total surprise. Had we alerted the LTTE, Thamilselvam would have taken refuge in a bunker situated next to his hideout, he said.
The Katunayake based No 12 squadron comprises seven MiG 27s and one MiG 23 trainer acquired in two batches in 2000 and 2007. Before the formation of the No 12 squadron, Hendawitharane had been with the No 5 squadron comprising both MiGs and Chinese F7s. Hendawitharane said that during eelam war IV, his squadron carried out 854 sorties. He estimated the weight of ammunition used by his squadron against the LTTE during this period at 1071 tons.
He said that though they used general purpose ammunition against targets, particularly buildings, special ammunition (deep penetration bombs), had been directed at runways. To target runways, the MiGs had dived and bombed at a height of about 100 metres flying at a speed of 1000 kmph, he said, adding that each bomb released at that height had been fitted with a parachute to ensure flying shrapnel wouldn’t hit the bomber.
He said that the successful attack on Thamilselvam helped them to swiftly avenge the devastating attack on the Anuradhapura air base.
Commenting on an attempt jet squadrons made on LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, he said that they 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 hit Puththukudirippu," he said.
He appreciated the support and expertise received from Pakistan, China, India, Russia and Israel to enhance jet operations. "Today we are self sufficient to meet our requirements," he said, highlighting the importance of tactics developed by Sri Lankan jet pilots over the past several years.
In the final stage of the ground battles in and around Nanthi kadal lagoon, Air Chief Marshal Goonetilleke had stationed two MiGs at China bay air base. The MiG chief said that he along with Squadron Leader Asela Jayasekera flew to China bay and stayed there for three weeks. Had the Sea Tigers made an attempt to rescue Prabhakaran and his chief lieutenants, we would have swung into action before the Airforce launched jets from the Katunayake air base. Our presence at China bay would have given us a shorter reaction time, he said.
He talked proudly of an attack mounted on an LTTE artillery point at the northern most point of the Pooneryn area in place to target Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka on a visit to the Jaffna peninsula.
Like many other jet pilots, Hendawitharane, too, had flown Italian Siai Mrchettis, a light attack aircraft acquired in 1985. A Siai Marchetti carried two 50 kg bombs, he said, adding that Argentine-built Pucaras joined the fleet in 1993 until the introduction of shoulder filed heat seeking missiles by the LTTE in 1995.
Wing Commander Fernando, who had been an instructor with the advanced flying training wing said that his No 10 squadron comprising ten Kfirs carried out about 1,400 missions. Since the acquisition of Kfirs in 1996, the multi role aircraft had played a pivotal role in the war against the LTTE. He said that though a computerised bombing programming system was available with Kfirs, bombs had to be released manually.
He said that their forte was accurate bombing. The strike on Thamilselvam was one among many successful operations undertaken by the squadron credited with causing heavy damage to the enemy over the past three years. He said that he delivered his bomb load at Thamilselvam’s hideout seconds after Hendawitharane.
Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne said that Sri Lanka should have retained a jet capability. "Unfortunately we didn’t expand our capability after phasing out Hunting Percival jet provost MK 3 A and MiG 15 UTI and MiG 17. Had we retained jets instead of going for Siai Marchettis and Pucaras, the situation would have been different," he said.
He said that Sri Lanka acquired two pairs of Chinese F7s in 1991 and used them effectively against the LTTE. In January 2008, the country took delivery of four F7 GS, the most sophisticated jet in Sri Lanka’s arsenal today with in-built air interception radar, he said. It could also carry four heat seeking missiles, he said. Responding to ‘The Island’ queries, he said no other jet in service with the SLAF had this capability.
According to him, an F7 GS could carry two 500 kg bombs or four 250 kg bombs. This was contrary to the belief that all pilots had to release bombs manually.
Wickremeratne had been the second-in-command of No 10 squadron before he received the appointment as chief of No 5 squadron tasked with meeting the threat posed by Air Tigers. The squadron, which is expected to move to China bay later this year comprises eight F7s (two types) and six pilots. According to him, his squadron had carried out about 400 missions in eelam war IV.
He said that before the deployment of F7 GS, the Air Tigers carried out five strikes. After that they mounted four attacks, he said, revealing that he shot down an LTTE aircraft over Iranapalai with a Chinese heat seeking missile as the enemy plane was returning to its base. Although security forces had been unable to recover the wreckage, there was no doubt it was a successful hit, he said.
Commenting on joint operations carried out by jet squadrons, he said once they deployed ten aircraft, four MiGs, two Kfirs and four F7s to engage the LTTE forward defence line at Muhamalai.
He appreciated the support received by Pakistan to attain a high standard in jet operations.
According to him, when compared with Kfirs and MiGs and even Mi 24s, F7s could react faster. "Our reaction time is between 5 to 7 minutes," he said, adding that F7s had intercepted an LTTE aircraft flying over Wilpattu and was on its way to Colombo last year. "I intercepted the enemy on six occasions while my two colleagues, too, intercepted the aircraft each on one occasion. Although all of us had radar locks, there wasn’t enough to fire missiles, he said. There had been another miss some time later, he said. Both F7s and Mi 24s made attempts to intercept the enemy, he said. He said that though he fired a missile, there hadn’t been no contact with the approaching aircraft.