Group Captain Ravi Jayasinghe said that though the LTTE fighting cadre had been defeated once and for all on the northern battlefields, the possibility of an air borne threat could not be ruled out.
In an interview with The Island, the Overall Operations Commander of the National Air Defence System said they could not neglect air defence as long as the LTTE remained active overseas.
Recalling the 9/11 Al Queda suicide missions directed against the US, Jayasinghe said that the end of war should not cause the establishment to lower its guard. The landing of a light aircraft in the Red Square decades ago by a German youth was evidence that no country could take a chance with its air defence.
Responding to our queries, he said that the SLAF was in the process of establishing a radar station at Piduruthalagala. A Chinese-built YLC 18 radar station would be set up there. Sri Lanka would also take delivery of a second radar of the same type in the near future, he said.
Wing Commander Saman Pallawela, senior sector director of the Air Defence Command and Control Centre said that this would be part of their overall strategy to meet a future threat. Pallawela would succeed Jayasinghe who is scheduled to leave on an overseas course shortly.
Jayasinghe said that a cohesive air defence would not have been a reality without able guidance given by Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke and Director Air Operations Air vice Marshal Kolitha Gunathilake. Though there had been shortcomings, the SLAF had succeeded in destroying the so-called Air Tigers in less than two years. They launched their first attack on March 29th, 2007 targeting the Katunayake based Kfir and MiG 27 squadrons. Had they succeeded, the war effort would have suffered a heavy setback, he said.
Group Captain Janaka Karunarathne, the Commanding Officer of the No 4 Air Defence Radar Squadron said that timely detection was of critical importance in coordinating air defence. Over the past few years, the National Air Defence System had been developed to meet the threat posed by Air Tigers. The senior officers in charge of the operation emphasised the importance of maintaining maximum possible readiness to meet any eventuality.
Although, several countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh had supported Sri Lanka’s efforts against the Air Tigers, India and China spearheaded the operation. The SLAF commissioned Indra Mk II radars at Vavuniya, Katunayake, Palavi and China Bay and a Chinese JY II radar at Mirigama.
The first Indian radar station set up at the Vavuniya air base had been activated on February 16, 2006 under the command of Squadron Leader Rohan Jayasundera, an experienced sector director involved in many "air defence missions". At the same time, the SLAF commissioned a second Indian radar at the Katunayake air base. The SLAF launched two more Indian radar units at China Bay and Palavi on February 1 and May 18, 2007, respectively.
Sri Lanka’s first 3D radar of Chinese origin came into operation at Mirigama on May 18, 2007.
The LTTE mounted its first strike on March 29, 2007 and almost succeeded in targeting Sri Lanka’s precious jet squadrons. It was followed by an attack on the Jaffna High Security Zone on April 23, 2007. The Air Tigers again targeted the Katunayake-based jet squadrons on April 29, 2007. Although the SLAF had failed to bring down any of the enemy aircraft on all three occasions, the Air Tigers had failed to cause significant damage. But these forays embarrassed the government while giving the LTTE and its supporters hope that the government could be brought to its knees. Disruption of routine operations at the Bandaranaike International Airport and the possibility of an attack on the Colombo harbour brought the government heavy pressure.
The Air Defence Command and Control Centre unsuccessfully deployed Mi-24s and Chinese F7 jets to bring down the two enemy aircraft involved in the April 29, 2007 raid. Although, the radar at Palavi made an attempt to direct the F7s at the approaching aircraft, they managed to keep their course towards Katunayake. Group Captain Karunaratne said that after failing to zero-in on Katunayake based jet squadrons, the enemy had turned towards Ratmalana air base, home to SLAF’s transport fleet.
Although the Air Tigers carried out altogether nine raids, the SLAF succeeded only once in bringing down an aircraft on September 9, 2008. But both the offensive and defence actions carried out by the SLAF ensured that the Air Tigers could not operate freely in any part of the country. "We never allowed them to take targets freely," Group Captain Jayasinghe said, emphasising that LTTE plans went awry due to commitment of all levels of officers and men.
The SLAF acknowledged that though two pairs of F7 had been available with the SLAF since 1991, they didn’t have a missile capability. Sri Lanka took delivery of two pairs of F7 GS of Chinese origin, the most advanced jet in service with the SLAF in January last year. The new jet with in-built air interceptor radar is capable of carrying four air-to-air heat seeking missiles. In a recent interview with The Island, Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne, Commanding Officer of the No 05 Squadron told The Island that ground based radar controllers play a critical role in their operations. Wickremeratne who is credited with the SLAF’s solitary successful missile strike on an LTTE aircraft over Iranapalai on September 9, 2009 said that a lot depends on the ability and competence of the ground staff who would direct interceptors to approaching enemy aircraft.
The LTTE struck again on October 28, 2008 causing heavy damage to the Kelanitissa power station. Although the enemy had failed to take any military target, they caused chaos in the South and returned to their base.
The Air Defence Command and Control achieved its major success on February 20, 2009 after Jayasinghe took over control in the aftermath of the October 28 fiasco. Under his overall direction, the 32 Land Based Air Defence Wing brought down two LTTE aircraft over Colombo and Katunayake with accurate anti-aircraft fire. Wing Commander Senaka Fernandopulle is in charge of the 32 Land Based Air Defence Wing.
Squadron Leader Nilantha Piyasena, Officer Commanding Air Defence Artillery Control told The Island that IGLA missiles (SAM 16) were in their arsenal. He said deployment of a range of guns had been effected according to a plan to ensure maximum possible protection to important targets. He also said that though the army and navy, too, had deployed some anti-aircraft guns, the overall deployment of Sri Lanka’s anti-aircraft assets come under the control of the SLAF. A case in point is that SLAF anti-aircraft gunners were deployed at navy as well as army bases, he said. The guns which brought down one of the two-LTTE aircraft on February 20, 2009 were SLAF guns based at the Rangala navy base.