ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29
Columns - Situation Report  

Showdown in the sky

  • Govt. declares flight restricted zones to protect military, strategic installations, Dalada Maligawa and Tangalle
  • High-powered Indian team here to discuss defence matters
  • Anuradhapura air base attack: More shocking details emerge

By Iqbal Athas

59 Division: Army's new addition

The Sri Lanka Army will soon raise its 59 Division bringing the number of such units to thirteen. That will be the latest addition to the Government's "war on terror" in the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV.

Brigadier N. Udawatte has been appointed as the officiating General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the new Division. His deputy will be Brigadier W.B. Jayasundera.

There will be three Brigades under this new Division. They are 591 Brigade whose officiating Commanding Officer will be Lt. Col. A.S. Ariyaratne. The 592 Brigade will be under the charge of Lt. Col. H.M.P. de Silva whilst the 593 Brigade will come under Lt. Col. P.P. Fernando.

Ten newly raised regular battalions and seven volunteer battalions will come under the new Division.Most Commanding Officers for these battalions have already been appointed. Others are to be appointed shortly, according to highly placed sources at Army Headquarters. The 59 Division will have its headquarters in Anuradhapura.

An Army Task Force 1, the precursor to the 58 Division is already operational. Its troops are among those actively engaged in operations in the general area of Mannar. The officiating GOC of this unit is Brigadier Shavindra de Silva.

The Army will incur considerable expenditure in equipping and arming the new Divisions.

Residents living around Katunayake and some in the City of Colombo and suburbs panicked. Telephones began to ring on Wednesday night as they asked one another whether Tiger guerrillas had launched yet another air attack. It took a while for the story to unravel.

It was not an air raid. It was a drill to prevent them from taking place. An Air Force (SLAF) aircraft, posing off as a Tiger guerrilla one, flew low towards Colombo. It happened with the full knowledge of the security authorities. As it came over Army Headquarters, searchlights focused on them. It did a circuit and flew back. The same drill was put in motion earlier over the skies of the Air Force base at Katunayake. Searchlights located them within seconds if not minutes. The drill came under the purview of a newly created designation in the SLAF - Overall Operations Commander - Air Defence (OOC-AD). Appointed to this post is Air Commodore Gagan Bulathsinhala.

The exercise was part of a rehearsal to be in readiness if Tiger guerrilla aircraft carried out any future attacks. In such an event, it would go beyond the motions practised. Gunfire will follow the locating of the aircraft with searchlights. They will come not only from anti-aircraft guns but surface-to-air missiles too.

The enhancement of air defence measures come after a closer study of acquisition of air capability by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Though the Czech-built Zlin Z-143 light acrobatic trainer aircraft had attacked military targets, it had not led to very extensive damage. Yet, a greater appreciation of future possibilities have led to enhanced security measures.

Interesting enough, such measures are not restricted to the skies over Sri Lanka only. Early this week Indian security authorities staged Operation Dakshin Prahar in neighbouring Tamil Nadu to protect oil tankers, nuclear installations and ports against air raids particularly from what has been billed as "non-state actors" in the region. It is no secret that there is only one such "non-state" actor in the entire region with air capability and that is the LTTE. The exercise focused on the rapid deployment of air defence systems, radar units and portable anti-air missiles to counter specific threats.

Reports said Indian Air Force used mobile radar units in a drill to detect low-flying aircraft in the southern coast and measures to counter possible attack on oil tankers or other large cargo vessels in the international waters near Sri Lanka. Whilst in New Delhi last week, I learnt that the acquisition of air capability by Tiger guerrillas has generated considerable academic interest in the defence and security establishment there.

So much so, a high-powered Indian defence delegation that arrives in Colombo on a three-day visit beginning tomorrow will focus considerable attention on air defence and related issues. The team, which includes experts on these subjects, is here to review matters relating to ongoing bi-lateral defence co-operation between the two countries. They will have top-level talks with defence and security officials. India has already equipped air defence systems in Sri Lanka and its Air Force has trained personnel for them. Its neighbour Pakistan has also helped the Sri Lanka Air Force enhance its air capabilities by providing training and refurbishing aircraft among other matters.

All that is left of the Beechcraft surveillance aircraft after the Tiger guerrilla attack.

It is in this backdrop that the Government promulgated new regulations declaring the territory and the territorial waters of Sri Lanka (12 nautical miles from the coastline) an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). It will apply to the Sri Lankan air space except the Ruhuna Open Skies Area. In the case of the latter, it would apply from 3,000 feet above the Mean Sea Level to the upper limit of the Sri Lanka air space within Ruhuna Open Skies Area.

The ADIZ has been created under a new Air Navigation (Air Defence) Regulations (No: 1 of 2007) published in a Gazette Extraordinary on November 23, 2007. It was released this week. Made by the acting Director of Civil Aviation, Parakrama Dissanayake the new regulations also make provision for Restricted Areas and Prohibited Areas. Two non-military locations have been declared as Restricted Area.

One is the skies over Tangalle, home of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family. No flight or aircraft will be allowed to operate within a circle of five nautical miles over Tangalle skies without prior permission from the Air Force. Any aircraft flying without such permission will be liable for interception.

The other is the skies over Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. The skies bounded by a circle of six nautical miles will cover this Restricted Zone. Here again, no aircraft will be allowed to operate without prior permission from the Air Force and intruders will be liable for interception. The skies over the City of Colombo have been declared a Prohibited Area. The co-ordinates covering this are have been identified. In terms of the regulations, no flight or aircraft shall operate within a Prohibited Area.

LTTE ATTACK ON THE ANURADHAPURA AIRBASE: The charred remains of a Mil Mi-17 helicopter inside the hangar.

Other Restricted Areas listed in the new regulations are the skies over SLAF bases located countrywide. Skies over five of them will cover a circle of five nautical miles radius. They are Anuradhapura, Minneriya, Vavuniya, Jaffna and Sigiriya. Whilst the skies over Trincomalee harbour will also have the same circle, the air space over the SLAF base in China Bay will have a ten nautical miles radius. The skies over Diyatalawa have also been declared a Restricted Area covering an air space within a circle of two nautical miles.

In terms of the regulations, no flight or aircraft shall operate within, into or out of an ADIZ without valid Air Defence Clearance (ADC). Aircraft flying without a valid ADC will be liable for interception by the Air Force. The regulations also set out the requirements, conditions and limitations for pilots or aircraft operating in the ADIZ.

These regulations are the direct outcome of the Tiger guerrilla attack on the SLAF airbase at Anuradhapura on October 22. The attack destroyed two Mil Mi-17 helicopters, one 206 Bell Jetranger, a US-built Beechcraft, one Chinese-built K-8 trainer, one Mi-24 helicopter gunship, two Chinese-built PT-6 trainers and two brand new Blue Horizon II UAVs. The latter was not part of SLAF assets.
Some seven weeks after this attack, more details of how it occurred have unfolded before two different military courts of inquiry and an investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), perhaps the last one by the Police into an attack on a military establishment. Investigations into any future attack, if they occur, will be the responsibility of the service arm concerned according military sources. A Court headed by the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, carried out a tri-service inquiry. This is in addition to the Air Force Court of Inquiry headed by its Chief of Staff, P.B. Premachandra.

Findings of the different inquiries make it abundantly clear that the LTTE had up-to-the-minute information about the layout and goings on at the airbase. No background checks were carried out on civilian labour that was deployed for construction activity related to the expansion of the runway and levelling earth among other matters. A private contractor tasked with the responsibilities, one source said, was so powerful that Air Force officers at the airbase were reluctant to broach the subject of security clearance for the labour he had hired. The main reason was that the person concerned would often use his mobile phone to ring powerful VIPs in their presence.

The extent of the knowledge the guerrillas had acquired to mount the attack on the airbase could be illustrated by one factor. A barbed wire fence protects the outer perimeter of the airbase. Anyone gaining entry into the complex would have to cross this and pass three more obstacles. The first is a chain link fence. A bed of sound mines along a thin stretch runs right round the airbase thereafter. Then another chain link fence sandwiches the sound mines, which are held together by a long running thread. As the name implies, the sound mines trigger off loud explosions, one after another, when an intruder steps on them.

The first group of guerrillas entered the inner perimeter of the airbase around 3.10 a.m. That was from the 23 end of the runway across the road from the Nuwara Wewa. Then they cut the chain link fence. After carefully cutting the cord that linked the sound mines, a guerrilla planted two sticks on the ground. They tied the two ends of the thread to the two sticks making way in the middle for them to walk.

Large mounds of earth, brought in for runway extension work, provided the best setting as they passed the nearest Guard Point. The infiltrating groups took cover behind them as they moved in. The first group walked straight to fire Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) at two Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships that lay parked. One was destroyed but airmen managed to douse the fire from the second. It was repaired later.

A second group walked along the runway and entered through an intersection near the Flying Training Wing (FTW) hangar. They began directing RPG fire there. Aircraft and helicopters inside the hangar were ablaze. The hangar door remained closed. A guerrilla climbed a Margosa tree and placed himself atop the hangar. From there he directed fire. An improvised fire grenade was hurled.

The Beechcraft and a Chinese built K-8 trainer that lay behind caught fire. Both aircraft parked near a summer hut and the canteen were destroyed. A third group had gained entry by this time. When they were moving in, they saw an Air Force armoured personnel carrier (APC) on patrol on the road near the runway. They fired RPGs. An airman who was manning the gun turret was wounded and fell inside. Gunfire had pierced the tyres of the vehicle. But the driver pressed on until he took the vehicle for parking near the air traffic control tower. Some of the airmen were alerted by the conversation between two female guerrillas. It was in Tamil.

It has now come to light that resistance offered by airmen, as a result of this, prevented the airbase from being completely overrun. The guerrillas had come prepared for that and were even armed with a LTTE flag. The kudos for a brave response went to an Air Force corporal who stood atop the air traffic control tower and used a sniper rifle with night scope to knock down guerrillas one after the other. This prevented the first group from reaching two Mi-17s that lay parked further away from the Mi-24s. When this was going on, some of the intruders had triggered off their "suicide" belts and killed themselves.

Joining into to engage in fierce firing against the guerrillas were airmen from two guard points near the air traffic control tower. Some of the guerrillas from the first group fell dead. One of them, who pretended to be hit by gunfire and lay on the ground, rose and directed fire at two officers who were in the Regimental Operations Room and were later crossing the runway. Both were killed.

It was then that the LTTE aircraft came into the scene, the first at 4.20 and the second at 4. 26. Bombs dropped by the first aircraft fell at the Army grounds, adjoining the airbase and the second at the airmen's married quarters. No one was hurt. The bombs from the second aircraft fell on a dairy farm next to the airbase and killed 16 buffaloes. A second bomb fell on the camp perimeter. The Air Force found that the crude bombs, weighing some 35 kilogrammes, contained C-4 explosives and large steel balls.

According to evidence that have unfolded before the investigators, it has been established that at least 21 guerrillas infiltrated the airbase. They brought in vast quantities of ammunition, RPGs and other military items. It has also been established that a further six guerrillas who remained outside the base made good their escape. In the aftermath of the attack on the airbase, the Air Force stepped up its retaliatory strikes on guerrilla targets in the Wanni. One in particular has triggered off an intense Air Force inquiry.

This was after the air raid on the clandestine Voice of Tiger (VoT) radio by Air Force bombers on November 2 7 - minutes before LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran delivered his "Maveerar (Great Heroes) Day" address. A MiG-27 bomber swooped low to bomb the tower at the LTTE broadcast station and was fired upon slightly damaging the tail cone. Did the fire emanate from an anti-aircraft gun or was a Surface to Air missile (SAM) used?

A similar incident on October 23 saw an Air Force bomber over the LTTE airstrip at Iranamadu being fired at. At that time suspicions were whether the guerrillas used a SAM. For a second time Air Force officials are trying to ascertain whether a SAM was used to attack the MiG-27 on November 27. On this occasion, the tenacity and courage of pilot had prevented the MiG-27 from being hit. He had manoeuvred it in such away to get away from guerrilla fire, return to the spot again and drop the bomb. The Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke has commended the pilot for his bravery.

The need for enhanced air defences comes at a time when the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV reaches newer levels. On Friday, Parliament gave approval by a resounding majority of 47 votes to the budget which has allocated vast amounts of money for military expenditure.

Also on Friday, the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, addressed his high-ranking officers at his headquarters. He made clear it was his intention to finish off the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas by August next year. He was confident he could achieve this. To this end, he wanted his top men to extend their fullest co-operation by giving their best. In a lengthy speech, he also wanted them to take measures to stop corruption and work even harder.

This means the ongoing separatist war will escalate to newer levels in the coming weeks and months. There are increasing signs that the guerrillas, who are mindful of these realities, are girding their loins too. The message to all Sri Lankans is thus clear - brace themselves for more "war on terror" and retaliation by the guerrillas. This is notwithstanding a Ceasefire Agreement that will be six years old in the next 37 days. Amidst all the sunshine stories, that is the bitter truth.

Top to the page

Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and the source.
© Copyright 2007 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.