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Effective deployment of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and Beechcraft on surveillance and intelligence gathering missions, had been one of the critical factors in Sri Lanka’s successful military strategy against the LTTE.

The No 11 Squadron comprised of two types of Israeli built UAVs and US-built Beechcraft of the No 08 Squadron had facilitated a three-year-long offensive spearheaded by the Army which brought the LTTE to its knees last month.

Wing Commander Dilshan Wasage, Commanding Officer of No 11 Squadron and Wing Commander P. B. Ekanayake, senior officer in charge of the Anuradhapura based No 08 Squadron, responsible for operating Beechcraft, said that their squadrons operated day and night in support of the war effort. They said that what they have achieved with available resources was tremendous though the public seemed to be unaware of their contribution. They said analysis of footage obtained by them and follow up action had been of vital importance, but there had been limitations over the years, but they had perfected the art during Eelam war IV.

Ekanayake, a veteran flyer with about 12,000 flying hours to his credit, in an interview with The Island said that Beechcraft logged about 6,150 flying hours during Eelam war IV. "We flew 2,186 missions," he said, adding that the squadron lost one of its two Beechcraft in an LTTE attack on the Anuradhapura air base in October 2007. He said that though the loss caused immense difficulties, the SLAF succeeded in meeting a daunting workload. In fact, the remaining Beechcraft operated continuously until the SLAF acquired another several weeks before the Army finished off the LTTE leadership in the third week of May.

Responding to our queries, he said that Sri Lanka had acquired the required technology and expertise to turn the aircraft to a sort of command and control centre capable of facilitating both offensive and defence action on the ground.

According to him, the squadron had been engaged in information gathering in the Northern and Eastern regions even before the outbreak of fighting in June 2006.

During the then UNF government, the LTTE repeatedly urged the government to cease surveillance operations undertaken by UAVs and Beechcraft on the basis such flights violated what it called the spirit of the CFA.

He said that once the Katunayake-based jet squadrons or Mi-24 helicopter gunships of the No 09 Attack Helicopter Squadron had engaged enemy targets, Beechcraft had been deployed to assess the damage. Depending on that assessment, some times, the SLAF had engaged the same target again, he said, adding that the bottom line was that Beechcraft had been an integral part of their biggest air campaign.

He emphasised that Beechcraft crews had facilitated heavy bombardment of enemy positions. "We provided ‘real time intelligence’ to service chiefs in Colombo, as well as frontline ground commanders, thereby making the decision making process easier," he said. A Beechcraft crew comprised six personnel, including two pilots, he said, revealing that rest of the crew had been responsible for operating sophisticated equipment used to monitor LTTE movements. The LTTE, he said, couldn’t carry out a sizeable deployment of men and material due to their constant vigilance.

According to him, there had been instances when Beechcraft crew directed ground forces to zero-in on major LTTE assets. He said that the Beechraft flew until the end of the final battle in the Nanthikadal lagoon area.

He said that Beechcraft also helped the SLN to move troop carrier Jetliner between Trinomalee and Kankesanthurai. According to him, keeping Sea Tigers under constant surveillance, particularly during major sea movements between Trincomalee and KKS, had been an important task. "We have been the ears and eyes of our ground forces" he said, adding that Beechcraft crew and ground forces got on well.

According to him, LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) deployed in clandestine missions behind the enemy line in the Vanni theatre, had access to footage obtained by Beechcraft. In fact, their deployment too, was facilitated by the availability of authentic ‘ground pictures’ on enemy positions from hardened underground shelters to training facilities used by Black Tigers.

In the last three months of the offensive, Beechcraft clocked about 950 flying hours, he said, emphasising that Y 12s of his light transport squadron too, met the challenging task of transporting personnel and cargo and evacuation of the wounded.

He said that the crew of Beechcraft had been able to launch the aircraft in 15 minutes. Squadron Leader Kapila Weerakoon and Squadron Leader Nuwan Welagedara with about 9,000 and 4,000 flying hours to their credit, respectively, had spearheaded Beechcraft operations with Flight Lieutenant Nishantha Seneviratne making a significant contribution. They were among altogether eight pilots and a set of officers and men dedicated to keep the aircraft serviceable.

Ekanayake said that Beechcraft had operated as low as 7,000 feet though the LTTE had an anti-aircraft capability.

He said that Beechcraft had spotted Sea Tiger craft coming out of Farah III which ran aground off Vellamullivaikkal on the north-eastern coast. The LTTE had cut a huge opening on one side the ship to accommodate Sea Tiger craft, he said, adding that jets had engaged both Sea Tiger craft and radar also mounted on the vessel.

He played a glowing tribute to Surveillance Section commanded by Squadron Leader Damien Weerasinghe who had contributed significantly to their success. He said that their exploitations with modified Beechcraft to speed up the collapse of the LTTE could be an example for any other air force.

Wing Commander Dilshan Wasage said that since the acquisition of four Israeli-built Super Scout UAVs in 1996, the SLAF had come a long way. The Vavuniya-based UAV operations involved five officers and 15 men, he said, adding that he took over UAV operations in 2000 after stints with the Regiment and No 7 helicopter squadron. By then, the SLAF had lost three of the UAVs which Wasage described as first generation machines. In 2000, the SLAF had acquired two Searcher Mark II UAVs and after initial training at Ratmalana, had moved to Vavuniya.

Wasage said that over the years, the No 11 Squadron had implemented a series of changes to improve and enhance UAV operations with the formation of Vavuniya and China Bay based 111 comprising Searcher Mark II and Anuradhapura based Blue Horizon Unmanned Aerial Systems acquired in 2006, particularly in support of ground forces. The 111 and 112 are commanded by Squadron Leader Shehan Wijenayake and Squadron Leader Mohan Balasuriya. The 112 had also launched operations from Weerawila.

Responding to queries, he said that, No 11 squadron, too, facilitated LRRP operations and during Eelam war IV, they logged over 2,000 flying hours. During Wasage’s tenure as senior officer in charge of UAV operations, the squadron had brought in changes with the advent of technology to speed up the decision making process. Years ago, it took days to reach a consensus on intelligence made available by UAV, but Eelam war IV changed everything, he said.

He said that Israeli-built Kfirs mounted raids on targets ‘laser designated’ by UAVs. According to him, only Kfirs had been equipped to direct bombs at targets pin pointed by UAVs. He said that UAVs played a critical role in facilitating ground action by coordinating UAV operations. The stepping up of a battle management command centre too, had been part of their overall strategy. He said that laser designated bombs had been directed at Soosai’s home and several other targets, including one armoured fighting vehicle and artillery pieces as well as Sea Tiger assets.

The LTTE destroyed two Blue Horizon Unmanned Aerial Systems during October 2007 attack on Anuradhapura air base, but Israelis had replaced the two machines out of the four without any additional cost to Sri Lanka.

 


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