ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44
Columns - Situation Report

Air Tiger thunderbolt jolts nation

  • Explosive inside stories of midnight attack on the SLAF main base
  • Not so modern Indian radars were repaired by Sunday but not switched on
  • Vavuniya STF gave the alert, but SLAF thought it was a Silk Air flight

By Iqbal Athas

The unidentified pilot of the Zlin Z-143 aircraft that carried out the bomb attack on the Air Force base in Katunayake. He poses with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The locally made 25 kilogramme bomb containing C-4 explosives and razor balls.

The pilot and co-pilot boarding the Czech built Zlin Z-143 light aircraft.

It was close upon midnight last Sunday when commandos on duty at the Police Special Task Force (STF) detachment in Ganeshapuram, between Vavuniya and Mannar, heard the roar of engines overhead. Though visibility was restricted, they figured out that the noise came from two low flying aircraft with no lights. This aroused suspicion.

Chief Inspector Channa Sirimanne, Officer-in-Charge, promptly telephoned the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Vavuniya to give them the news. His telephone call was connected to the Operations Room of SLAF headquarters in Colombo. CI Sirimanne repeated the details. He also alerted the STF Headquarters in Colombo. He was to later record the encounter in the Information Book at the detachment. So did his colleague Chief Inspector Upul Jayawardena, who was also a witness.

SLAF bases in Anuradhapura and Vavuniya went into action. They switched off all lights. So did the Army installations and the Police in Vavuniya. The only exceptions were lights inside the buildings. Additional sentries were moved into guard the outer perimeter and vital points. In Colombo, checks were being made whether any international flights were operating at that time over Wanni skies. It turned out there was one. It was a flight from Silk Air, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. This lulled them into believing there were no threats. They were thus unaware that Tiger guerrillas were only minutes away from a deadly mission.

Some 45 minutes ticked by. At 12.45 am, after Monday had dawned, three loud explosions rocked the SLAF's main base at Katunayake. This base is separated from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) only by the runway, used both by military and civilian aircraft. The blasts were heard several kilometers away. In Nugegoda and Mirihana, south of the City, police officers said they heard the explosion. So did residents in Katana, Dankotuwa, Kimbulapitiya and other outlying areas of the BIA. Telephones began to ring and news spread that the air base was under Tiger guerrilla attack. Yet, no one knew how exactly it came about. Some wondered whether a mortar attack was under way. Others thought Tiger guerrillas had infiltrated the air base for a second time. The first was in July 2001.

At the Operations Room of the SLAF headquarters in Colombo, they were trying to piece together a correct picture of what had gone wrong. Air Traffic controllers at the BIA were told to divert all inbound aircraft to other airports in the region. Some were told to proceed to Trivandrum, others to Chennai, and yet others to Male in the Maldives. Colombo flights that had not taken off from foreign capitals were told to stay on ground. At the BIA, passengers were checking in for outbound flights. In fact some of them had boarded Singapore Airlines flight SQ 469, a Boeing 777 due to depart for Singapore 1.10 a.m.. They were told to hurriedly disembark. Passengers were only aware the airbase was under attack but did not know how.

There was panic inside a Cathay Pacific aircraft due to depart to Hong Kong. Crew had seen the sporadic illumination of the night sky. They heard rapid bursts of gunfire. Commandos, Air Force officials said, moved in to evacuate them and assure that the airport was not under attack. Security Forces and Police sealed off the airport preventing those inside from leaving. Similarly, no one was allowed entry until a thorough search was carried out. That took over two hours.

At the SLAF airbase in Katunayake, it became clear there was no guerrilla intrusion through the ground. Some airmen at the Air Defence facility had heard the noise of an aircraft just overhead. Much later, they heard reports of another light aircraft hovering around some three kilometres away. A Corporal began pouring anti aircraft gunfire into the sky. They were unable to see the aircraft overhead due to darkness. There was no night target acquisition capability either. The gunfire was to give rise to rumours, spread through the telephone that gun battles had begun at the BIA. Before long, the noise of the aircraft engine faded away.

The destruction left behind became clear. Three bombs had exploded at the zinc sheet covered building that housed the Aeronautical Engineering Wing. The roof and the walls had crumbled. Nearby, airmen, all members of the Air and Sea Rescue team, were sleeping. They were on call any time of the day or night when there is an emergency rescue mission. Three died and 16 were injured. Air Force officials said helicopters in the adjoining Four Squadron suffered slight damage. The shattering effect of the bombs had led to glass windows breaking. At least five such helicopters were later repaired. They insist there was no damage to any fixed wing aircraft.

The Air Tiger bombs were clearly meant for the Kfir and MiG 27 squadrons that lay not far away from where the bombs fell. Through bombing raids, the guerrillas had wanted to retaliate for the string of air raids conducted by the Air Force both in the North and the East. If guerrilla efforts to procure state-of-the-art Surface to Air Missiles from the United States ended up in a fiasco due to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting, the LTTE had now demonstrated their air strike capability as some measure to counter the threat. However, the aircraft failed to drop the bombs in the hangars where the fighter jets lay parked.

If it were to fall there, it could have caused unimaginable mayhem and destruction. Some of the fighter jets remained armed with 250 kilogramme bombs and the attack could have triggered off massive secondary explosions. Some Air Force officials believe the pilot of the guerrilla aircraft may have been disoriented after he was unable to locate the hangars. As a standard operational procedure, lights in the fighter bomber hangars are switched off at night.

The intrusion of the Tiger Air Wing light aircraft was made possible because the Indian built air defence radar was not operational. Technicians had sought and obtained permission from the SLAF Directorate of Operations for it to be shut down from March 19 to 23 for servicing and repairs. Thereafter they had sought an extension of two days that was to end on Sunday March 25. Ironically, The Sunday Times learnt that the servicing had been completed by last Sunday evening. It was operational. However, for some unknown reason it had not been switched on. Did information of such a shutdown reach the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)? Did that pave the way for the surprise attack?

Answers to these and a number of other questions are being sought by an investigation that is being conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Among other aspects being probed by a team led by Mahes Perera, Senior Superintendent of Police, is whether there was any lapses by any party that led to Monday's attack. On Friday detectives recorded the statements of Chief Inspectors Channa Sirimanne and Upul Jayawardena of the STF.

Confirmation that the two light aircraft of the Air Tiger Wing were used in the attack came from Air Traffic Controllers at Bandaranaike International Airport. They had spotted on their radar two unidentified aircraft. By then, they were heading in a northwesterly direction towards Wanni. Air Force officials believe the two light aircraft took off from an unknown location in the Wanni and veered westwards past Ganeshapuram. Thereafter, they flew southwards along the coast astride the Wilpattu National Park to veer left towards the SLAF airbase. They had taken the same route to return though not over Ganeshapuram.

SLAF headquarters and its air base in Vavuniya began tracking the fleeing Air Tiger aircraft. The SLAF scoured into the sky a Chinese built K-8 jet trainer, which has night flying capability, to intercept them. But it was more than 20 minutes later. Both SLAF headquarters and its base in Vavuniya found much to their chagrin that the two aircraft had gone off the radar screens somewhere in the skies above Mannar. The K-8 had to be ordered to return to base. The use of Kfirs or the recently acquired MiG 27s to intercept the two light aircraft was not possible due to a number of important reasons. Despite the very heavy investment of public funds, they lacked some features. For obvious reasons they cannot be spelt out.

Later, after sunrise on Monday morning, Kfir jets pounded several areas near Mannar and north of it. This is on the basis of suspicion that the light aircraft landed somewhere in that general area. Air Force officials estimate that the two way journey for the Zlin Z-143 aircraft would have taken not more than 90 minutes. That is with each journey lasting only 45 minutes.

Though the LTTE had constructed a 1.2 kilometre runway in Iranamadu, capable of even landing a C-130 Hercules transport plane, senior Air Force officials are doubtful whether the two light aircraft took off from there. Iranamadu is located in the Kilinochchi district west of the A-9 Jaffna-Kandy highway. One source said, "the use of a large stretch of road both for take off and landing cannot be ruled out." Photographs released by the LTTE showed the Zlin Z-143 aircraft with a metal frame in the under belly to hold the bombs.

The aircraft used for the bombing has been conclusively identified by the Air Force as a Czech built Zlin Z-143 four-seater light aircraft. This was after the LTTE released photographs of the aircraft as well as a group of light blue uniformed guerrillas of the Air Wing, some sporting flying brevets, posing for photographs with their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Further confirmation of this was obtained by The Sunday Times from foreign aviation experts and intelligence sources.

The Sunday Times made a string of exclusive exposures on the LTTE constructing an airstrip east of the Iranamadu irrigation tank in the Kilinochchi district and acquiring aircraft. On March 6, 2005 this newspaper revealed exclusively how the United States has helped the Government identify an aircraft photographed by a UAV to be the Czech built Zlin Z-143. On March 27, 2005 this newspaper exclusively revealed a top secret report by the Air Force on the air capability developed by the LTTE. There were several other reports during 2005 and 2006.

The Zlin Z-143 is said to have a maximum range of 630 nautical miles (1,170 kilometres). The cost in 2005 is said to be around US $ 259,350 for a basic model. This aircraft, used for training and acrobatic purposes, is capable of carrying an ordinance load of 240 kilogrammes. Experts say such a load could be doubled or made more if only one pilot flies the aircraft as a "flying bomb." Though there were fears earlier that suicide missions could be carried out with the aircraft, by hindsight it is clear the LTTE will not risk such a move unless they become desperate. This is both in view of the costs of the aircraft as well as the time and money invested to train the pilots abroad. Intelligence sources say the pilots for the guerrilla air wing were trained both in France and in the United Kingdom.

Of the four bombs that fell at the Katunayake SLAF base, one did not explode. The firing mechanism did not trigger. It was broken into large pieces. That gave Air Force the detailed characteristics of the bomb. It contained C-4 explosives and had been mixed with large quantities of steel razor balls. The Sunday Times (Situation Report) revealed last week how over a million such steel balls were seized by the Navy in Kalpitiya on February 16. The new discovery confirms that more stocks of steel balls had been smuggled in earlier.

As confirmed from pictures released by the LTTE, the improvised fin stabilized gravity bombs had been attached to the under belly of the aircraft by a metal frame. According to a senior Air Force official who did not wish to be named, each bomb weighed 25 kilogrammes. He said there was an electrical cable linked from the fuselage to the frame of each bomb that hung at two points. The bombs, he said, had been held electromagnetically until they were dropped.

The Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke, has appointed a three member Court of Inquiry to probe Monday's attack. This is to identify lapses, if any in the Air Force, and the corrective measures to be taken. The Court is headed by Air Vice Marshal P.B. Premachandra, Chief of Staff and comprises Group Captain Ranil Gurusinghe, Commanding Officer, SLAF base, Ratmalana and Group Captain Clyde Weerakoon, Staff Officer in the Directorate of Training. Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara, Staff Officer in the Directorate of Administration has been named as the Secretary to the Court.

In 2005, when the SLAF received confirmation of the construction of the LTTE airstrip, they were able to discern that the guerrillas had only two aircraft. Thereafter, confirmation that they possessed five came in a briefing note a high level Sri Lanka Air Force team received from their Indian counterparts. The 14 page note, seen by The Sunday Times, revealed that the LTTE had "Up to five light aircraft having 600 nm (nautical miles) range with maximum speed/height of 200 kts (knots) / 15000', capable to carry 250 kg of explosives." The briefing note came as India gifted Air Defence radars to Sri Lanka and invited a high level SLAF team to visit their air base in Bangalore to discuss matters relating to it.

The Indian offer prompted the former Government to cancel an order placed with China for 4 Dimensional radars. India was to first install two Dimensional radars and later integrate 4 Ds. Whilst the 2 D radars indicate direction and distance of a target, the 4 D provides the height in addition to the other two factors.

The Indian note observed: "Though an MoU for ceasefire has been signed by the GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) with insurgent groups, there are confirmed reports of the LTTE developing infrastructure for operating in third dimension. The conflict has been restricted to ground level activity till recently. Acquisition of light twin/four seater aircraft, development of airstrip at Iranamadu and ongoing training of pilots by LTTE has opened the third dimension of war from air. GoSL is exceedingly concerned with this development. GoSL has expressed a desire that GoI (Government of India) help them in assessing their AD (air defence) requirements to enforce her sovereignty in airspace over its territories."
The note listed the following threats perceived by the Government of Sri Lanka:

  • Colombo and economic targets in and around Colombo.
  • National leadership.
  • Use of aerial route by the LTTE to bring in critical military hardware.
  • Suicide attacks on centres of gravity.
  • Parallel attacks on number of VAs (Vulnerable Areas) and VPs (Vulnerable Points) to undermine the morale of the people.
  • Use the air assets to get their demands accepted and threaten the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

Based on inputs given by the Government, the Indian Air Force made some deductions. Among them:

  • The aircraft has adequate range to do a tactical routing from the sea to attack targets in Colombo, Southern Sri Lanka and East Sri Lanka coast. However, the COG (centre of gravity) being located in Colombo, the attack if any to achieve the desired result would be in and around Colombo.
  • The attack on VA/VPs in Colombo emanating from West (sea) is the most challenging to Air Defence set up of Colombo area.
  • Runway at Iranamadu can take on operation of C-130 type of aircraft which can carry 10 to 15 ton load.
  • Jungle around the Iranamadu runway provides good concealment of airborne assets of the LTTE.

This is the second time that the SLAF airbase has come under attack from Tiger guerrillas. The first was on July 24, 2001, when guerrillas infiltrated the area and mounted attacks both on the international airport and the adjoining SLAF base. Civilian and military aircraft were destroyed.

Following top level inquiries into the incident, the Ministry of Defence then decided to shift the Kfir and MiG-27 squadrons to a location near the SLAF base in Sigiriya. The idea was to make sure the international airport was secure. The move drew fierce protests from environmental groups who said this could cause damage to the Sigiriya frescoes and other historical sites. Hence, the moves were suspended.

Most Sri Lankans woke up last Monday morning to realize that the face of the near-two decade long separatist war has changed. During the undeclared Eelam War IV Tiger guerrillas have for the first time demonstrated their air strike capability. It came at a time when the people were made to believe that the LTTE has been badly weakened and 95 per cent of the battles have been won. Until last Monday, wars were fought only on the ground and at sea. Now, the defence and security establishment are forced to cope with a new threat from the air, one that has many ramifications.

Whilst the Ministry of Defence pondered over a long term response, searchlights and communications sets were issued to troops in the front lines of the north. They were told to alert their bases if they sighted any suspicious aircraft. In what seemed a move that bordered on hilarity, Sri Lankans were asked to telephone 116 if they sighted any suspicious aircraft.

Monday's LTTE demonstration of their air strike capability, even if it sounds primitive to some, means the defence establishment will have to evolve counter measures to secure military installations, naval assets at sea and on land, troop transport ships, VIP residences and a host of others who are now targets. To a nation that is reeling under an economic crisis, such measures would be a costly burden.

Already, foreign suppliers are girding themselves to offer air defence mechanisms and a host of other related hardware to the Government to overcome the threat. Like what has happened in the past, such procurements would lead again to the birth of some more millionaires or billionaires, both in and out of uniform. That is at a time when those who disclose such blatant rip offs and rackets in the media have become the second, (or is it the first), enemy.

Through high-pitched official propaganda they have already been warned of the dubious titles they will qualify for through those exposures - being branded as acolytes of the enemy and even named traitors. They are destined to remain in the graveyard of silence or suffer the consequences for saying the truth. That is Sri Lanka today.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.