Situation Report

24th August 1997

Was it a Stinger missile?

By Iqbal Athas

mapIt was dinner time at Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital in Kotte last Tuesday night when rows of ambulances with sirens wailing drove in to unload over 50 wounded soldiers.

They were transferred to stretchers and rushed for medical care in three wards. At ward seven, with a plate of string hoppers and kiri hodi, a soldier whose leg was amputated after stepping on a land mine early this year, was to begin his dinner when he heard the groans of a young colleague, who was placed on a bed a few feet away. He stuck a pair of wooden crutches under his arm pits and limped forward with his plate in hand. He placed the sawn off stump of his leg on the bed, put aside the crutches and stroked the head of the young soldier with one hand. Like all others who were admitted that night, he had been airlifted from the battlefields in Puliyankulam. Amidst groans from a hurting wound, he was complaining of hunger.

The old soldier broke the kiri hodi soaked string hoppers and fed him with his own hand. In between offering him a bite after another, he soothed the wounded colleague with assurances that things would be okay for him soon. For many others, a hurriedly prepared meal of rice and dhal came later. That episode epitomises the recurring human drama that unfolds in the country's leading hospitals every time a fresh military offensive or a guerrilla attack occurs. It was no different that Tuesday. The 55 Division moving north (from Omanthai) and the 53 Division on the right flank heading south west from the direction of Nedunkerny linked up on August 6, some three kilometres south of Puliyankulam. This strategic junction was where the two flanks were originally intended to link up. Heavy guerrilla resistance prompted them to change. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, rows of ambulances with wailing sirens disrupted the heavy traffic along Galle Road, from Ratmalana (the domestic airport) to the city's leading medical institutions — the Military Hospital in the Army Headquarters complex, Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital in Kotte, the National Hospital, the Eye Hospital at Lipton Circus and the Colombo South Hospital in Kalubowila.

The injured who are first airlifted from the battle areas to the Medical Reception Station (MRS) at Vavuniya are thereafter rushed to these hospitals as well as the base hospital in Anuradhapura.

The all too familiar sirens have become the first signal to discerning city residents that something had gone wrong and war casualties were arriving. The more ambulances there were, the more their curiosity would be aroused. Telephone lines would become busy with the news starved trying to find out what has happened.

It is hours thereafter that the print and electronic media spread the official word from the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence — the only source of information for Sri Lankans and the outside world. This is if one were to disregard the LTTE's own information net-work. In the past two and half years of the so-called "Eelam War Three," the media remains debarred from the battle areas, an exceptionally unique omission in theatres of conflict in any part of the world. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, the sirens wailed for the injured men of "Operation Jaya Sikurui." With a break on Thursday, they resumed again on Friday and continue. In the four days of combat, over 360 have been wounded and rushed to hospitals in the city and Anuradhapura. More than 60 soldiers were killed and seven more were missing in action.

The link-up of 55 Division (astride A 9, the main highway linking Vavuniya to Kilinochchi) with the 53 Division (advancing south westerly from the direction of Nedunkerny) on August 6, was short of the objective during phase one of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" — a link up at Puliyankulam.

Whilst the troops took a two-week long break after that day, military planners were busy formulating strategies to overcome Tiger guerrilla resistance and capture Puliyankulam.

They were of the view that the consolidated defences of the newly captured areas should encompass this important junction. This was the subject of intense discussion when the Joint Operations Co-ordinating Council (JOCC) met in Colombo. The unified body is made up of commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Inspector General of Police, heads of intelligence agencies and the Overall Operations Commander.

It was for this meeting that the OOC, Major General Asoka Jayawardena, made a whistle stop visit to Colombo as exclusively revealed in these columns last week.

The conference is learnt to have examined various moves including a suggestion to veer away westwards from the point of link up and thereafter move to encompass the Puliyankulam junction. Such a move, it was suggested, necessitated the co-operation of troops from the Sri Lanka Air Force who have been tasked to be in charge of the Puliyankulam junction. SLAF Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, did not favour the idea. As previously agreed, he said he wanted his men to take over the sector once it was captured.

A plan was thereafter worked out and Major General Asoka Jayawardena flew to his tactical headquarters in Vavuniya that very day.

As dawn was about to break on Tuesday (August 19), the 55 Division and the 53 Division broke out from the left and right flanks of A 9, the main highway. The next four days saw some of the bloodiest battles. Taking cover behind concrete bunkers, Tiger guerrillas fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and artillery bombardments on troops advancing on the two flanks.

It seemed that the re-capture of the remaining three kilometres to Puliyankulam had turned out to be the toughest in "Operation Jaya Sikurui" which is 103 days old today. During four days of fighting with over 60 soldiers killed and more than 360 wounded, troops had advanced just over a kilometre to capture the Puliyankulam Railway Station and its environs. Besides the human losses, Tiger attacks disabled six Chinese built T 55 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). At least two of them have become non battleworthy. The LTTE also seized a Russian-built amphibious, tracked armoured personnel carrier (BMP) mounted with a 73 mm gun. The APC alone is said to be worth over Rs 5 million.

On Wednesday, an incident involving a Kfir C2 fighter operating in a ground attack role, fuelled fears that the LTTE may have acquired a fresh stock of surface to air missiles (SAM). Squadron Leaders Priyantha and Wijetilleke of the SLAF were returning after an operational sortie in Mullaitivu that morning.

They were over Puliyankulam when a SAM was reportedly fired at one of the Kfirs.

The incident figured prominently at a discussion Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte had on Wednesday morning with the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

A press release issued that afternoon by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence said "While the aircraft were above Puliyankulam, a ground to air missile was fired by the terrorists at the leading aircraft. The pilot of the second aircraft having observed a missile being fired at the leading aircraft warned the pilot and consequently the pilot of the first aircraft took prompt evasive action and also at the same time activated the anti missile system." The press release added: The pilots observed that the missile suspected to be a "Stinger" exploding in the air on collision with the anti missile flares fired by the aircraft." As the Op Hq of the Ministry of Defence says, the question whether the heat seeking missile reportedly fired at the Kfir was a Stinger is still a matter of suspicion. However, Military Intelligence had warned two months ago that the LTTE had acquired a fresh stock of Surface to Air Missiles though it had not been able to positively establish whether they were Stingers. The fact that the LTTE had added Surface to Air Missiles to its arsenal came to be known on April 28, 1995 when an SLAF HS 748 Avro was downed in Palaly. The next day, a second AVRO was shot down. Intelligence reports and other information the defence authorities then received confirmed that the two aircraft were hit by Surface to Air Missiles. Were they the former Soviet Union made SAM 7 or the American made Stinger missiles? The debate has continued to plague the defence establishment. Some foreign experts hired by the SLAF did not think that the aircraft were downed by missiles at all. The confusion was further confounded by confessions of some LTTE cadres who were arrested in the past years. Their descriptions suggested the LTTE possessed Stinger missiles. One Tiger guerrilla in custody, when shown a picture of a Stinger shoulder fired missile launcher, had confirmed that was the identical one the LTTE had. .

In the past, it was known that the LTTE did possess SAM 7 missiles. Extracts from SITUATION REPORT of May 7, 1995, gives the background. "LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran's yearning to acquire surface to air missiles dates back to over a decade.

"On 8th November, 1986, Police in Tamil Nadu, conducted a simultaneous raid on 30 LTTE camps in the South Indian State. The man responsible for the operation was K. Mohandas, DIG Intelligence. In his book MGR: The Man and the Myth (Pages 144 to 147), Mohandas speaks of the raid code named "Operation Tiger." He says 40 crores of military hardware (approximately Sri Lanka rupees 700 million) was found. Among the items were SAM missiles, AK 47 rifles, rocket launchers, pistols, etc.

"In early 1987, according to one source, ten LTTE members had undergone training in a secret location in Uttar Pradesh in India on how to handle Soviet made SAM 7 surface-to-air missiles. The group was led by Pulendran (from Trincomalee), a Tiger guerrilla responsible for several civilian massacres. Pulendran was one of 17 who committed suicide at the Palaly Base together with Batticaloa leader, Kumarappa, after they resisted moves to airlift them to Colombo in 1987. "The authoritative source told me that the LTTE had acquired at least 12 SAM missiles by the time the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had arrived in Sri Lanka in July, 1987. The code name the Tigers gave the SAM 7 missile was "Thambimuththu." What influenced them to name it after a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MP was his first name - SAM. Sam Thambimuththu himself fell victim to an LTTE bullet outside the Canadian High Commission in January, 1991. "According to the same source, LTTE had used two SAM 7 missiles at the IPKF. One was fired at a helicopter gunship but hit a rocket that was fired from it. Another had missed a target. Later an IPKF search party had recovered one SAM 7 missile in the ceiling of a school teacher's (Mr. Krishnaraja) house in Chundikuli. The teacher was arrested and released but was later shot dead by EPRLF cadres.

"The source said the LTTE at that time encountered serious difficulties in using the first generation SAM 7 surface-to-air missiles. They came in packs of two with three thermal batteries. Problems have arisen over the shelf life of the batteries and Tiger leader, Prabhakaran had ordered the withdrawal of the issue...." The speed and effectiveness of a surface to air missile attack can be gauged from an account by Pilot Scott O'Grady of the US Air Force who was on a combat mission. In June, 1995, he was shot down by a Serbian missile over Bosnia and was on the run from hostile soldiers for over a week. In his book Return With Honour, O Grady observes: ".....Suddenly Wilbur's (a fellow pilot's) warning system told him he was "spiked" - that an enemy radar on the ground might be looking at him. This didn't mean they were actually shooting at him, but they sure might be thinking about it. After 10 tense seconds, the equipment registered it as a false alarm. Full speed ahead. "Shortly after, at 3.03 p.m. precisely, my radar warning receiver sounded. I felt uneasy. I didn't like being stared at - especially when the staring might preface a missile aimed straight at my gut. I gazed out through the canopy, looking for the telltale white smoke plume of a rocket motor. Nothing.

Six seconds after the spike, I heard a new signal, louder, like a car alarm. Heart sinking, I realised I'd been locked on. There was no false alarm. Somebody was shooting at me. The missile might already be in the air. I began to duck and manoeuvre in three dimensions, pushing the F-16 to its limit.

Three seconds went by and in a brilliant red flash to my right, a missile exploded in the air between my plane and Wilbur"s. "We weren't safe yet - SA 6s come packaged in threes. A second later, a murderous bang swallowed me whole. The missile soared up from my blind spot and struck square in the belly of the fuselage. For the briefest instant I felt pitched up, as if uppercut by a giant fist, and then savagely down as the plane sheared in two, the nose and cockpit breaking away..." The circumstances with the Kfirs may be dissimilar in some aspects. The F16 is an advanced combat aircraft with sophisticated counter measures and yet it took only a mere TEN SECONDS for the SA 6 missile, fired from a missile battery, to blow it. That too after the on board advance warning systems became automatically activated. The SA 6 of the pre 1960s was the precursor to the man portable SA 7 or MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defence System) as it is commonly called in defence and military circles.

In the late 1960s the SA 7 "Grail" (or Russian Kolomna KBM Strela -2) became the first generation of Soviet man portable surface-to-air missiles. Matching this was the American Hughes Missile Systems' Redeye, the fore-runner to Stingers. Although these were classed as "fire and forget" types, these Manpads were easily overcome by solar heat and, when used in hilly terrain by heat from the ground. But newer generations of Manpads soon arrived. The SA -14 "Gremlin" became operational with the Soviet Army in 1994 and has since been followed by two others - SA 16 "Gimlet" and SA - 18 "Grouse." Among the other countries which came out with Manpads were China (Hongying-5 and 5A), Pakistan (Anza Mark 1), France (Mistral), Japan (Type 91 Kin-SAM), Sweden (RBS 70). Many of these products are used in Asian countries including Indonesia and Thailand.

But suspicions about LTTE missiles have centred around Stingers. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, United States made available to Mujahiddin large quantities of Hughes Missile Systems' Stinger. They were reported to have had a strong impact on the use of Soviet helicopters and tactical support aircraft. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, some of the Stingers have surfaced on the black-market, according to Asian diplomats in Colombo. One source said that early this year, the black-market price of a Stinger was as high as US $ 150,000 to $ 200,000.

Pentagon has launched a programme to buy back these Stingers and thus prevent it from falling into the hands of guerrilla groups. The programme is still under way but the expected quantum has still not been recovered. Stinger, Redeye's successor, became operational in the US Army (82nd Airborne Division) in 1982. It is an infra-red missile which enables the soldier to engage effectively low-altitude high speed jet, propeller driven and helicopter. Many advanced versions have since been developed.

In the case of last Wednesday's Kfir incident, it is a case of a suspected shoulder fired Stinger, chasing the Kfir in front. It is spotted by the pilot in the rear Kfir. He warns the pilot ahead on radio. It is then that the pilot in the first aircraft takes evasive action and counter measures. Defence experts of the Government are seeking the assistance of foreign experts to ascertain whether a Stinger in fact could have been used. For this purpose, they are meticulously piecing together the accounts of the incident, as narrated by the Kfir pilots taking into consideration the time lapses.

Whilst "Operation Jaya Sikurui" continues to be the main pre-occupation for the country's defence establishment, there were other developments of significance relating to the separatist war last week.

Delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been engaged in secret negotiations with the LTTE to secure the release of the North Korean owned cargo ship "Mo Ran Bong". After the LTTE agreed to surrender the boat to its owners, the ICRC's Colombo office made a formal announcement on Thursday. Some exceptionally important humanitarian considerations prompted the ICRC to talk to the LTTE over the release of the vessel.

Yesterday five crewmen from "Mo Ran Bong" went to Mullaitivu under ICRC escort to examine the condition of the ship and whether it could be independently brought to Trincomalee. In the alternative, the team was also to determine whether it could be towed.

In order to guarantee the security of the team, the Army, Navy and Air Force refrained from military action within an area three miles radius from where the "Mo Ran Bong" lay beached. They also refrained from military action on the road between Puthukudiyiruppu and Mullativu which the ICRC escorts and the crew took to reach the area. The team is due in Colombo tomorrow and further action was to follow thereafter.

LTTE hijacked "Mo Ran Bong" on July 8 off Vettilaikerny when it was Colombo bound after unloading cargo in Point Pedro. One of the 38 member crew was killed during the hijack and others who were captured complained of assault.

Another unpublicised development was the arrival in Sri Lanka's maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar of an Indian Coast Guard ship. They were escorting personnel of a private salvage firm to retrieve two fishing vessels belonging to Tamil Nadu fishermen that lay sunk off the Mannar coast. Whilst the Coast Guard ship weighed anchor off Talaimannar, the salvage firm's personnel raised the two fishing craft and later towed it. The Sri Lanka Navy played host to the civilian personnel and exchanged messages of goodwill with the Coast Guard ship. This is the first time in over ten years that a Coast Guard ship had sailed up to Sri Lanka's maritime boundary. With "Operation Jaya Sikurui" inching its way, the Government has been unable to make political capital of a successful operation. With the Government in its third year of its mandate, it solely needs an electoral boost to its flagging image of unfulfilled promises and some questionable performances. The new found energy of the main opposition United National Party and bickering within the constituent partners of the PA requires some political re-energising.

With a slow moving economy and rising cost of living, the one issue that can lift the morale of the public is a victory in the battlefield, an aspect not sustainable by success in cricket and athletics. Hence "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is not a matter of opening a land based main supply route alone. It has turned out to be, equally a battle for political survival.

Go to the Fifth Column

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Situation Report Archive