ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49
Columns - Situation Report

Govt. takes off for sky war

  • Air Force team to negotiate for state-of-the-art MiG 29 fighter jets
  • Sunday attack shakes country amidst reports Tigers might have upto ten aircraft

By Iqbal Athas

How security forces reacted to the pre-dawn Tiger air raid on Sunday. Exclusive photo: M.A. Pushpakumara

Some forty minutes after Sunday April 29 had dawned, air traffic controllers at the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Vavuniya observed two blips on their radar. No air movements had been reported to them during that hour. They figured out they were two aircraft from the Tiger guerrilla air wing heading in a southerly direction. The Air Defence Control and Command Centre (ADC & C) located at the SLAF main base in Katunayake was hurriedly alerted.

As the ADC&C Centre embarked on hurried measures, more reports were coming in. Troops on the ground at Mannar had seen the two aircraft. The SLAF detachment at Palavi near Puttalam had also observed them on their radar. Among those, the Centre alerted were the Operations Command Colombo (OCC), the Navy, the Army and Air Force headquarters and their base in Ratmalana. The OCC in turn was to alert other security installations in the City and order them to fire into the sky if the aircraft were sighted.

Though early hours of a Sunday morning are a rare occasion when most Sri Lankans choose to sleep it out, millions were awake that night and glued to their television sets. If many were in the safe confines of their homes, others had gathered at clubs, community centres, tourist hotels and in grounds in the City where large TV screens gave a live telecast of the World Cup cricket final between Sri Lanka and Australia. Suddenly their screens went blank. The OCC had ordered a blackout of the City and immediate suburbs. News spread that Colombo was under attack by Tiger guerrilla aircraft. Those who enjoyed the match were in panic and fear as they began rushing towards their homes.

By then, more developments were to add to this panic and fear. At various points Security Forces personnel and Police were firing into the night sky. At the Colombo Port, naval craft fired to prevent bombs from falling in the harbour. This was to give rise to rumours that the port was under attack. At Temple Trees, firing led to similar rumours. There were several other points too, including the SLAF base in Ratmalana and the Army Headquarters. For a considerable time even the hierarchy in the defence and security establishments were unaware what exactly was going on.

Whilst panic and fear gripped the City, the ADC&C was busy tracking the incoming guerrilla aircraft. After the report from the SLAF detachment at Palavi, 101 kilometres north of Katunayake, reported locating the two aircraft, the Centre was unable to track them on their radar. The aircraft had veered off some eight to ten kilometres into the sea. A while later a naval patrol had spotted the two aircraft at Uswetikeiyawa. One had made a turn towards Muthurajawela whilst the other was heading in the direction of Colombo Port.

Having gone over Kandana, the pilot of the first aircraft dropped two bombs at the Shell Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) facility at Muthurajawela. The first fell between two storage tanks on a fire control mechanism. It also caused some damage to machines. Air Force officials believe an anti collision beacon - a tower with a red light switched on - helped the pilot of the aircraft to identify the location of the Shell Gas complex. Thereafter, the aircraft had turned to drop a bomb at the adjoining Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's (CPC) storage facility. It, however, fell on a road bursting two water pipes and forcing a gush of water.

By then, the second aircraft had come from over the sea at Modera and headed towards the CPC's oil storage complex at Kolonnawa. One bomb fell near a diesel storage tank. It caused leaks to the tanks but CPC workers were able to plug it. The second bomb fell but did not explode and gave the authorities an idea of its components. It was one metre long and weighed approximately 35 kilograms. Air Force officials found the locally turned out bomb held a mixture of C-4 explosives and steel razor balls. They believe a third bomb fell into a tank storing furnace oil but are unable to still confirm this. This is because the bomb did not explode. They suspect it may have gone to the bottom of the tank since there were signs at the centre of a foreign object entering.

Air Force officials were disappointed they were unable to shoot down the aircraft over Kolonnawa oil installations with an SA 16 missile. Staff armed with these missiles had been positioned there fearing air attacks. On the night of the attack, the Air Defence and Control Centre had been on regular radio contact with an airman trained to handle the Surface to Air (SAM) missile. The missile had not locked on to the target, the incoming aircraft, though he could clearly hear the sound of the engine. The battery had knocked off after 15 seconds. He had thereafter loaded another missile and gone through the same process. It was dark and hence he could not lock the SAM mechanism on target to hit the aircraft.

Thereafter the aircraft that dropped bombs over Kolonnawa had proceeded over Borella, Nugegoda and was headed for Ratmalana. However, the intense firing into the sky that lit up the air space over the air base prompted the aircraft to change course. How the two aircraft returned to their hideout in guerrilla held Wanni is still not clear. However, confirmation they were on their way back came from ground troops in Mannar who had seen them overhead. They were flying northwards. That was how the blackout was relaxed and the firing frenzy ground to a halt.

This is the fourth successive LTTE air raid just over a month. The first, on March 26 was an attack on the SLAF air base at Katunayake that left three airmen dead and 16 wounded. The second came on an Army Engineers Unit in the High Security Zone at Palaly on April 23 where six soldiers were killed and 13 more wounded. A third attempt to bomb the Katunayake air base was made on April 26. In all these attacks, Air Force officials say, the Czech built Zlin Z-143 aircraft were used. Though it is known that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) possessed five light aircraft, intelligence sources were investigating reliable reports this week that the number was ten. They believe all the units had been smuggled in knocked down condition and assembled in the Wanni.

Though the physical damage from last Sunday's incident was minimal, the political and economic damage was enormous. The news of the fourth attack, that too over Colombo when Sri Lankans were watching the World Cup Cricket Final, was to make headline news worldwide. Some leading international airlines suspended flights to Colombo whilst others re-scheduled their flights for daylight hours. Many foreign governments revised their travel advisories to their nationals warning them against travel to Sri Lanka. Tour operators abroad were worried about a loss of clientele for their Sri Lankan packages.

Compounding the situation further was a decision to shut down the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) from 10.30 p.m. till 4 a.m. daily for the next three months. This is until more effective Air Defence systems are in place. Though the closure is for five and half hours, the move would mean the airport will remain non operational at least for over seven and half hours. This is because most airlines planned to ensure their flights departed or arrived before 9.30 p.m. or after 5 a.m.

The closure of the airport, an ill conceived move, seemed to clearly underscore the Government's inability to protect the airspace over the SLAF base and the international airport at Katunayake during nights. In a further move, the Government has banned SriLankan Airlines from flying their sea plane on domestic tours to areas close to hydro power reservoirs. One such flight is from Colombo to the Victoria Resevoir at Digana past Kandy. These flights occurred during daylight hours and were a favourite of tourists who wanted to play Golf.

With these unprecedented measures, Defence Ministry officials were busy this week examining measures to counter air threats posed by Tiger guerrillas. One such move is to ascertain the possibility of acquiring state-of-the art MiG-29 aircraft. A three member team from the Air Force headed by Air Vice Marshal Prashantha de Silva has been appointed for this purpose. The MiG-29s are not only equipped for night flying but also are fitted for air to air combat. Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Udayanga Weeratunga, has worked out a programme for the team to not only visit Russia but also to Ukraine. In the latter country, the team is to discuss matters relating to the overhaul of some SLAF aircraft. Mr. Weeratunga is concurrently accredited to Ukraine as well.

The SLAF has appointed a new Air Defence Co-ordinator, Air Commodore Gagan Bulathsinhala. He will be based at the Air Defence Control and Command Centre at Katunayake. A team of Army and Naval personnel has been placed under him to co-ordinate activities relating to their services.

India has already heeded a Sri Lankan request and made available another 2 D radar for the country's air defence system. A team of experts from the Indian Air Force arrived in Colombo in a special IAF aircraft on Friday to further assist in developing air defence facilities. India has already installed a number of 2 D air defence systems with an assurance that they would be upgraded to 3 D later this year. This is both at Katunayake and at Palaly. The Indian help came after their Principal Director of Air Defence Operations visited Sri Lanka in March-April 2005 after revelations of LTTE's construction of an airstrip and acquisition of air capability.

A Sri Lanka Air Force document on the need for immediate precautionary measures to counter potential Tiger guerrilla air threats, presented to the Ministry of Defence in 2005, noted that:
"Even if the radar coverage proposed is achieved, there can be no guarantee that a successful interception can be made owing to the absence of radar directed guns on ground and guided weapons on board Mi-24s. While early warning can be expected, being able to "shoot down" the enemy aircraft before it can accomplish its mission is another consideration.

"The SLAF has been attempting to procure the 'Spike ER' Guided missile system to enhance the combat effectiveness of the Mi-24 fleet. This weapons system is a guided weapon, where once it is initially aimed and fired, the missile can be guided to the "designated" target by the pilot. The weapon can also be used as a 'fire and forget' system where once fired it will automatically guide itself to the selected target.

"Expeditious procurement of this weapon for deployment on the Mi-24s will greatly increase the probability of these aircraft being able to secure a hit on an enemy aircraft and destroying it. Equipping the Mi-24 fleet with such 'guided weapons' will also enable the SLAF to engage other LTTE targets on land and sea as well, thereby giving the security forces a significant edge over the enemy.

"In the same light, if new radar guided AD guns can be procured the probability of a successful engagement can be greatly increased. Radar guided guns use an integral radar to detect and tract the target, after which the radar directs the fire of the gun to ensure a 'hit.' If an adequate number of these weapons can be deployed in and around Vas (Vulnerable Areas) and VPs (Vulnerable Points), the probability of negating the effectiveness of any LTTE air assets would be very high. Similarly, the SLAF can be initially equipped with a number of Man Portable Surface to Air Missiles, the AD net around VA's and VPs can be further strengthened."

This SLAF report went to the Ministry of Defence when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in office. Initially she had dismissed reports of the LTTE construction of an airstrip and acquisition of aircraft as attempts by the media to promote arms dealers to sell weapons that are more sophisticated. Hence, she did not show the same enthusiasm towards air defence as she did in attempting to procure large vessels for the Sri Lanka Navy. It is only after the United States helped identify one of the photographs obtained by a UAV of an aircraft on the ground as a Czech built Zlin Z-143 aircraft that she wrote to several heads of Governments but failed to heed the Air Force request for the guided missile system.

Last year, when a senior defence official visited a Chinese defence supplier, he was offered supersonic fighter jets to meet the LTTE air threat. He was also offered trainer aircraft. These jets had air-to-air combat capability and night flying systems on board. The official, however, opined that Sri Lanka was not facing an air threat and hence did not require any aircraft to meet air threats. MiG 29 are now being looked at to meet the current need.

Highly placed Government sources concede that acquisition of fighter aircraft and or other equipment to meet the rising Tiger guerrilla air threats would involve colossal sums of money. In fact when the need for such items was raised by the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera at a top level conference of security officials, President Rajapaksa was to sound a note of caution. He said financial resources were so scarce. But he said if they were inevitable requirements, he should go ahead.

Similar concerns were also expressed at the same meeting by the Secretary to the Treasury, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera. The expression of reservations by President Rajapaksa, who is the Finance Minister, and Dr. Jayasundera, the Secretary to that Ministry, underscored the dire economic situation. But the new procurements involving vast sums of public money come at a time when heavy restrictions are placed on the media from reporting corruption or irregularities over them.

This is not all. Air Force spokesman Wing Commander Ajantha de Silva also took part in a talk show of a private TV channel where he placed the blame on the media that led to the four successive air attacks by Tiger guerrillas in just one month. He dropped a bombshell when he declared men or women in his organization were corrupt for they sold information to the media for money. Now the loud mouthed spokesman, The Sunday Times learns is to face an inquiry that may lead to some action against him for bringing his own organization to ridicule and disrepute.

Whilst tougher counter measures to meet the Tiger guerrilla air threat are to take some three months, intelligence authorities have warned of more possible attacks, this time in the Weli Oya or targets in the East. Those prosecuting the war that is costing billions every week might argue, as before, that the guerrillas have been largely defeated. Not different to similar remarks by others during Eelam War II and III.

But the grim fact remains that the guerrillas had carried out four separate air attacks and got away. Besides calling them acts of desperation, the authorities have not been able to counter them. If it continues, it would only cause more desperation for them.


Top to the page

Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.