In a far corner of the Sri Lanka Air Force Zonal Headquarters complex in Anuradhapura, officials were busy early this week monitoring hectic preparations in the Wanni by the LTTE in an apparent bid to counter an anticipated security forces thrust.
As is now well known, a military offensive is imminent any time. That is to achieve the Government 's declared aim of linking Jaffna peninsula with the rest of the country. This is by ousting the LTTE and re-capturing the Wanni areas between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi.
In the farming village of Omanthai, some 72 kilometers north east of Anuradhapura, civilians living closer to the once bustling highway to Jaffna, were evacuating their homes. Some of them were also helping Tiger cadres dig trenches or pile sand bags around make shift bunkers.
What was happening on the ground was coming out clearly on the high resolution TV monitors inside a containerised console elaborately equipped with high tech equipment. From the outside, it resembled a shipping container and was positioned securely in one corner of the Zonal Headquarters in Anuradhapura.
Inside it, Air Force Ground Controllers were directing a drone, UAV (Unmanned/Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle) or simply a spy-in-the-sky plane - a piece of expensive and "disposable" high tech equipment used more in the support of conventional operations to obtain tactical intelligence.
In this role the UAVs are employed within a short range of the defence line. Beyond this tactical range, information of strategic value are usually obtained by satellite and other sophisticated means including deep penetration by stealth aircraft or by electronically equipped spy planes.
The 12 feet long, four feet wide, two and half feet high UAVs powered by a two stroke engine are equipped with state-of-the-art video cameras that can beam sharp, high resolution colour pictures to the TV monitors in the ground unit. With an endurance of four hours, they can reach altitudes upto 15,000 feet and are usually not visible to the naked eye when deployed on operational tasks.
Last Wednesday, SLAF Ground Controllers scrambled the UAV over the Wanni skies for a string of operational sorties. Among their task was to determine LTTE artillery positions, particularly where they would conceal the heavy artillery weapons seized from the Mullaitivu Military base. Encouraged by the response, they repeated the exercise on Thursday.
Shortly after 9 a.m. that day, the skies over Wanni were bright when Controllers rolled off the UAV. They were remote controlling it from their console. The UAV reached an altitude of 8,000 feet over Omanthai. The pictures were coming through crisp and clear. Barely half an hour thereafter, the TV monitor at the ground control unit went blank. The blip on the radar screen disappeared. Controllers fought hard with levers and push buttons to re-activate the UAV. But the signals did not bounce back.
Senior officials at the Zonal Command immediately informed SLAF headquarters in Colombo that there was a "link failure" with the UAV. It meant Controllers had lost contact.
Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, was away on an official tour inspecting southern SLAF bases at Koggala and Wirawila. Orders went out from the Air Force Headquarters to conduct an immediate search operation.
Two Russian built MI 17 transport helicopters took off from Anuradhapura to launch an aerial search for the missing UAV. With a brief re-fuelling stint at Vavuniya, they searched Omanthai and the surrounding areas until last light Thursday. There was no trace of the spy plane. As the search ended, the fate of the UAV was entered in the Air Force lexicon as missing. It became the 18th aircraft to be written off from the dwindling inventory of the SLAF fleet. That is in just two years of Eelam War Three.
Thursday's loss brings to four the number of Air Force UAVs lost in the past six months. Every one of them crashed or went missing due to reasons not related to enemy action.
According to officials at the Zonal Command Headquarters in Anuradhapura , it was out of the question that the UAV would have been shot down last Thursday. This is both in view of the smallness of the UAV (compared to other SLAF aircraft) and the altitude of 8,000 feet making it impossible to be spotted for LTTE anti-aircraft gunfire.
Serious questions on the efficacy and mechanical condition of the UAVs the SLAF acquired have come to the fore after last Thursday's crash. Were they purchased directly from the Israeli manufacturer or from a third party through an agent? The answers may turn out to be as shocking as they can be revealing.
Contrary to much publicised claims by highest ranking SLAF officials (in interviews in the national media) that the UAV cost only a mere 500,000 US dollars (approximately Rs. 28.5 million), the purchase price agreed upon has been very much higher.
The Sri Lanka Air Force, I understand, contracted to buy three UAVs and the Ground Unit for a total package (inclusive of training, spares etc) of eight million US dollars or around Rs. 479.2 million. Files available at the Ministry of Defence not only confirm this but also contain the agreement entered into by the SLAF with the foreign supplier.
Of the UAVs so acquired, two crashed in the skies over Anuradhapura and its environs during Controller training missions. The first occurred in November, last year whilst the other took place in February, this year. The wreckages of these two crashes were retrieved from their sites, both in the Anuradhapura district. If these two UAVs were added to SLAF losses during Eelam War Three, it would total 20.
The third UAV was flying over Kayts area on January 6, 1997 when it developed engine trouble (SITUATION REPORT January 26, 1997) and fell into the Palk Straits. When the engines of this pilotless aircraft failed, controllers at the ground unit had switched the UAV to battery power. But its life span had been some 20 minutes and had not been adequate to guide the aircraft back to base. It plunged into the sea. An SLAF search with the Navy to locate the UAV proved futile.
What now remains with the SLAF is just one single (subsequently acquired) UAV and the original ground unit. Though these UAV losses have occurred before the end of their reported life expectancy the Government will be forced to pay the full fee agreed upon in the purchase agreement. Only a part payment has so far been made since the UAVs and the Ground Unit were acquired by the SLAF.
It will also cost the Government well over Rs.100 million for every additional spy plane it wants to purchase (without the ground unit).
The UAV fiasco becomes the latest dilemma of a once coveted arm of Sri Lanka's defence services.
It was only last week I revealed in these columns (SITUATION REPORT April 27) how a fourth AN 32 of the SLAF (out of an acquired fleet of seven) became non airworthy after it virtually crash landed at the Ratmalana Airport. All four were involved in incidents not related directly to LTTE action.
There was more AN 32 woes for the SLAF this week too. One concerned a training flight where the Instructor asked a trainee pilot to feather (knock off) an engine whilst flying. This is part of a routine test for qualifying pilots and among other things, intended to test their reflexes.
The trainee pilot acted pronto and the AN 32 remained airborne on one engine. Trouble came when he was told to fire (re-start) the engine and continue the training flight. The trainee pilot made several attempts but the engine failed to start. The flight was forced to make an emergency landing with one engine working. Instructions have now gone out from the high command not to feather engines whilst on training flights.
Another related to an AN 32 tasked to fly a complement of Army personnel to Palaly early this week. Some high ranking officers and a full load of soldiers had boarded the flight. Take off preparations were under way when it was discovered that the engines could not be started. The aircraft power unit (APU) had packed up. The brushes in the starter generator had reportedly burnt out. All of them were asked to alight and wait for over an hour until another AN 32 was lined up.
This incident forced senior Army officials in the northern operational areas to make representations to their higher command. They have expressed fears that younger officers and soldiers were seriously concerned about the disturbing state of affairs.
"If they did not fear the enemy, they dreaded the flight that took them in and out of the battle areas of the north", one senior officer said. He added "they have their heart in their mouth - frightened and very anxious."
It was not just officers and men who were frightened and anxious about SLAF flights. Last week there was another group who entertained similar apprehension, at least for a while.
It was none other than a group of foreign experts commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to probe the circumstances under which the Argentine built Pucara fixed wing bomber exploded in mid air. The incident occurred on March 16 over the skies near Hatharaskotuwa, the gateway to Trincomalee, forcing the pilot to eject. The wrecked remains of the Pucara fell on a dry tank bund (SITUATION REPORT March 23).
The group took off in a Chinese built Y12 aircraft from the Ratmalana Airport. Within a matter of minutes the pilot hurried back to make an emergency landing reportedly due to an engine fault. It was well over an hour when they could resume their flight.
The group is conducting a detailed inquiry into all aspects of the Pucara incident including claims by the SLAF high command that it was sabotage.
Early this year, the Indian Air Force (which is exactly eleven times the strength of the SLAF) came in for heavy criticism for what was called its "appalling flying accident rate. " From 1993 to 1996, there were over 70 crashes. Needless to say that any of them were related even remotely to enemy action. Last year alone, 16 crashes had occurred.
The Indian Defence Ministry immediately set up an expert Committee headed by its Scientific Advisor, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to investigate the reasons that tarnished the image of the world's fourth largest air force. In the 1980s, a similar probe was headed by then retired air chief, Air Marshal D.A. La Fontaine.
Compared to a total SLAF fleet of much less than 50 with all type of aircraft put together, the Indian Air Force has an enormous inventory of aircraft. According to the London based Institute of Strategic Studies, its transport fleet alone includes 105 AN 32s 43 Dornier 228, and 29 British Aerospace-748 and 45 Ilyshin 76. Among other fleet, its fighter aircraft include 244 MIG 21, 26 MIG 23, 65 MIG 29 and 35 Mirage. The Fighter Ground Attack fleet include 54 MIG 23, 88 Jaguar, 148 MIG 27 and 80 MIG 21. These are just but a few.
The more than 70 IAF crashes from 1993 to 1996 is from an enormously vast fleet which included the above. But in the case of the SLAF, the majority of the 18 aircraft it has lost in the past two years has been unrelated to enemy action.
This clearly indicates that there is something radically amiss in the technical administration of the SLAF. This has been regularly highlighted in the national media for many months. Yet, these incidents continue, in fact becoming increasingly frequent as time goes on.
What is more surprising is the more than deafening silence maintained by the defence establishment including its apex body, the Ministry of Defence. One does not expect the MOD to reveal all the inside factors which have contributed to the state of affairs in the SLAF, as some of them most likely would be sensitive.
However, the MOD and the Air Force cannot wash their hands off from the larger aspect of accountability to the public. This responsibility is both in terms of financial accountability as well as the impact of these incidents towards the overall contribution by the Air Force in its operational role in the conduct of the Eelam War.
As often repeated, the Government and the security forces must realise that they are conducting this war on behalf of the public. In this regard there has been much reportage on the blatant lack of transparency in regard to procurement of military equipment. The public are well aware that these procurements run into billions. They are also aware that the ever increasing defence budget at the expense of national development, public welfare and cost of living.
Whilst the public have to face the ever increasing burden of these hardship, they are not blind to the ostentatious lifestyles of some of those directly or indirectly connected with the procurement process. There are serious doubts that corrupt elements in the defence establishment are in any way anxious to terminate the war and may let it drag on.
Recent exposures which remain unanswered by the defence establishment certainly contribute to the formation of such views in the public mind.
In this mood of public dejection, it is even questioned whether it is not in the long run wiser to give in to the political issues of the war rather than let the country bleed economically to the benefit of the few, a few whose actions are as traitorous as that of terrorists themselves.
On the separatist war front, perhaps in more than any other sector, there is a crying need not only to eliminate corruption but also to ensure transparency of governance is established as a way of public life.
This was one of PA Government's biggest pledges that won for it public confidence at the polls. A delay to enforce it effectively will not only spell economic ruin, place the lives of soldiers/civilians in peril but also threaten the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. A delay, therefore, will cost heavily.
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