Sunday, 16 September 2012

Cohesive use of air power in an internal conflict

War on terror revisited: Part 45



 SLAF lost 38 pilots, 62 aircraft

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The International Alert in Feb 1998 published, Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons’ and among the writers who contributed to it were one-time Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit, Rev Father S. J. Emmanuel (leader of the Global Tamil Forum), Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchchi leader R. Sampanthan, Rohan Gunaratna and Air Vice Marshal (rtd) Harry Goonetileke.

It was edited by Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, the then Secretary General of International Alert, with its headquarters based at Glyn Street, London.

In a piece captioned ‘Country the costs of a weary war’, one-time Airforce Commander Goonetilike (Nov. 2 1976 to April 1981) declared that the Sri Lankan military was waging a costly and unwinnable war. Goonetilike called for immediate international intervention in Sri Lanka. He lost his eldest son, Wing Commander Shirantha, on the morning of April 29, 1995 as an Avro approaching the Palay air base was brought down by a surface-to-air missile attack. It was the second loss of an Avro within 24 hours. One hundred and two officers died (Tigers down second air force plane with strap line All 52 abroad dead––The Island April 30, 1995).

Shirantha was the Commanding Officer of the No. 02 squadron at the time of his death. Shirantha was among 38 pilots killed during the entire conflict. The SLAF lost 62 aircraft during the conflict. Goonetilike’s second son, Roshan was in the United States at the time of the tragedy. In spite of Roshan serving the Airforce, Harry Goonetileke continued to be critical of the war effort. He may never have thought Roshan was going to spearhead the SLAF campaign during eelam war IV, which was instrumental in destroying the LTTE. Despite setbacks including some debilitating ones, Roshan Goonetilike kept the air offensive on track, though some felt he didn’t have the strength to meet the challenging task. The war ended on the morning of May 19, 2009.

At the conclusion of the conflict, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited the Katunayake air base on June 11, 2009 to thank officers and men who had made victory over the LTTE possible. Addressing the gathering, the Gajaba regiment veteran said that the difference in the battlefield was made by those at the control of whatever the armaments deployed against the LTTE. The Defence Secretary paid a glowing tribute to the No. 09 squadron for providing close air support and mounting rescue missions deep inside LTTE held territory to rescue LRRP personnel. Commending the three jet squadrons for causing irreparable damage to the enemy without causing loss of civilian lives, the Defence Secretary also appreciated the ‘real time intelligence’ provided by UAVs and Beech craft. (Gota: what matters is the man at the controls of armaments––The Island June 12, 2009).

SLAF strategy

The SLAF adopted a two-fold strategy against the LTTE. It conducted both offensive and defensive operations in support of the army and the navy. The SLAF also provided transport facilities, particularly between Ratmalana and Palaly and carried out medical evacuations. Secondly, the SLAF mounted a well planned campaign of its own to destroy LTTE bases, support facilities, training camps, communication equipment and any other infrastructure belonging to the enemy.

In an exclusive interview with The Island shortly after the conclusion of the conflict, the first serving Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilike said the LTTE could have been destroyed much earlier had the government ignored the civilian factor. The soft spoken Goonetilike asserted that the LTTE had lasted two years and ten months only because the SLAF had gone out of its way to avoid civilian casualties (Air Chief: Civilian factor delayed forces’ triumph over Tigers–The Island May 29, 2009).

During eelam war IV, the SLAF experienced a severe shortage of pilots. Due to the absence of required strength, the SLAF found it difficult to conduct the campaign, though the number of pilots was increased subsequently. At one point, there were only 16 pilots to operate six Kfirs, five MiG 27s and five F7s and 20 pilots for No 09 Mi 24 attack helicopter squadron. Goonetilike acknowledged that the LTTE raid on Anuradhapura in Oct 2007 had been the worst single attack mounted against the SLAF during his tenure as the Commander, as well as the entire conflict. The SLAF lost eight aircraft, including two Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

During eelam war IV, the SLAF gradually developed a cohesive action plan to go all out against the LTTE. The SLAF launched missions on the basis of ‘real time intelligence’ provided by UAVs and Beech craft, close-air-support as requested by ground forces and coordinated bombings targeting enemy fortifications. The army would never have been able to advance, particularly on the Vanni front, without a sustained air campaign. The SLAF brought three Kfir, MiG and F7 jet and Mi 24 attack helicopter squadrons together to mount a devastating offensive to annihilate the LTTE.

No. 09 attack squadron

The Hingurakgoda-based Mi 24 helicopter squadron conducted almost 400 missions during eelam war IV. The then Commanding Officer of the squadron, Wing Commander Sampath Thuycontha, in an exclusive interview with The Island, said that the LTTE had hit Mi 24s on as many as 35 occasions during operations right across the Vanni theatre from the north-western coast to north-eastern coast. The officer attributed their success largely to freedom given to the squadron to coordinate attacks with field commanders (Mi 24s role in eelam war IV emphasised––The Island June 8, 2009).

(Thuycontha is following a course at the Defence Services Command and Staff College, Batalanda after a stint in Islamabad as Sri Lanka’s defence attaché. He holds the rank of Group Captain),

The then SLAF spokesman, Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara (May 2008 to Feb 2011), and the then Group Captain Ajantha Silva (2006-2008), strove to highlight the SLAF’s achievements. Nanayakkara and Silva now hold the rank of Group Captain and Air Commodore respectively. Their job wasn’t easy, as the army dominated the media at that time.

The No. 09 attack squadron was involved on four missions to evacuate members of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) tasked with missions deep inside LTTE-held territory. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka deployed LRRP teams both east and west of the A9 road in line with the overall military strategy to weaken the LTTE. Every effort was made to rescue LRRP personnel in case of an emergency. Thuycontha said that his squadron had carried out four rescue missions in the Vanni after the army called for swift evacuation of personnel. The chief of No. 09, who had been responsible for about 60 missions during eelam war IV, was involved in the daring evacuation of an LRRP patrol north of Thunnukai, Vanni east at the height of the fighting. Among the other evacuation missions was the one in which the No. 09 squadron landed in Vanni east to rescue LRRP personnel returning from a mission, which resulted in the death of Major Lalith Jayasinghe, a veteran of clandestine operations.

The No. 09 squadron, established on Nov. 23, 1995 with three choppers acquired on wet lease basis from Ukraine, expanded to 14 fighting machines.

The No. 09 squadron fired 19,762 80 mm rockets during some 400 missions. The 80 mm with a 3km range had a devastating effect on the LTTE, while the squadron mounted 23 mm twin barrelled system, 12.7 Gatlin, 30 mm cannon and 250 kg bombs depending on the targets defined for elimination. Regardless of the fire power, the No. 09 couldn’t have accomplished its objectives without the engineering section and electronics specialists, succeeding in their assignments.

US assessment

The US Pacific Command in Sept-Oct 2002, in line with a request made by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe examined the strength and weakness of the armed forces. The US didn’t find the SLAF capable of waging war against a battle hardened enemy. The US pointed out that the SLAF lacked aircraft and supportive equipment needed for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR capability). The US recommended that the SLAF acquire the capability to conduct operations in the night, suppress LTTE air defences and develop capacity to hit targets accurately. The US said that the SLAF should acquire spare parts, night vision goggles, upgraded avionics as well as guided weapons systems rather than new expensive aircraft to its inventory. The US asserted that in spite of having competent and committed officers and men, the SLAF experienced a critical operational shortfall, and therefore needed to rectify the shortcomings or face the consequences. The US study also found fault with the SLAF for not having a comprehensive air operational plan. The US pointed out that MiG 27s and C-130s had been acquired at the expense of other critical sectors. The US suggested that the SLAF enhance its ISR capability instead of acquiring new aircraft except for Mi 24s. At the end, the US recommended a four-phased air campaign to destroy the LTTE.

Jet squadrons

Obviously, the US underestimated the SLAF’s trust in its jet squadrons. Regardless of the US assessment, the SLAF continued to enhance its capability to launch operations by jets. The US team tasked with the study failed to see that a powerful strike force was needed to take targets through the development of ISR capability.

Close on the heels of the devastating LTTE attack on the Anuradhapura air base in Oct 2007, the SLAF executed its famous ‘target killings’ which sent shock waves through the LTTE. In fact, the LTTE leadership never recovered from the killing of its political wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan. Group Captain Sajeewa Hendawitharane, the then Commanding Officer of the No 12 jet squadron comprising MiG 27s told The Island that the killing of Thamilselvan had been one of the highpoints of the SLAF campaign. The then Wing Commander Sampath Wickremeratne, Commanding Officer of the No 5 F7 squadron and the then Wing Commander Shehan Fernando, Commanding Officer of the No 10 Kfir squadron, said that the three jet squadron had collectively caused irreparable damage to the LTTE.

The Island in a front-page exclusive captioned ‘Men who killed top Tiger speak’ on June 15, 2009 quoted Hendawitharane as having said: "The rising sun gave me the much needed cover to zero in on Thamilselvan’s hideout. I flew a MiG 27 with Shehan at the controls of an Israeli Kfir. We took off from Katunayake at 5.55 a.m. and carried out the bombing 25 minutes later, taking advantage of the sun, which gave perfect cover for our mission." He said that they flew in a westerly direction from Iranamadu, east of A9 and targeted Thamilselvan’s hideout with a heavy load of explosives. Responding to a query, the officer said that the then Director of Operations, Air Commodore Harsha Abeywickrema (present SLAF Chief) had been confident of Thamilselvan’s presence at that particular hideout on that day. The pair of aircraft directed eight bombs weighing 3,000 kgs at Thamilselvan’s underground hideout. It was one of the three locations identified by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), closely examined by decision makers with the help of UAV footage as well as satellite imagery. The No 12 MiG squadron comprised seven MiG 27s and one MiG 23 trainer. During the conflict, No 12 squadron carried out 854 sorties using explosives weighing 1,071 tons. Hendawitharane said that taking Thamilselvan was a retaliatory strike against the attack on the Anuradhapura Air Base.

The jet squadrons also made several attacks on locations believed to be frequented by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. A particular operation involved five MiG 27s, four Kfirs and three F7s to obliterate two targets, one at Jayanthinagar and the other at Puthukudirippu, simultaneously. Pakistan, China, India, Russia and Israel helped the SLAF to enhance its capabilities.

The No 10 Kfir and No 5 F7 squadrons carried out about 1,400 and 400 sorties, respectively. Altogether the jet squadrons carried out about 2,700 sorties during eelam war IV, hence playing a critical role in the air campaign against the LTTE. The No 10 Kfir squadron comprised ten machines and was considered one of the best offensive arms of the national military. The LTTE withered under Kfir strikes on a wide front. To meet the threat posed by ‘Air Tigers’, the SLAF in January 2008 acquired four Chinese F7 GS, the most sophisticated jet in Sri Lanka’s arsenal with an in-built air interception radar. (Sri Lanka acquired two pairs of F7s way back in 1991). The F7 GS is capable of carrying four heat seeking missiles and two 500 kg bombs or four 250 kg bombs. Regardless of an argument in some quarters that the SLAF should have enhanced the No 09 attack helicopter squadron, during the conflict, the service boosted its jet capability, which served the country well. It wouldn’t have been possible to dislodge terrorists from heavily fortified bases and forward defence lines by artillery strikes alone. Jets launched from Katunayake systematically targeted the LTTE with some sustained attacks on major fortifications with a devastating impact. Some operations involved ten jets. In fact, the war could never have been won if the SLAF had failed to do its job. Contrary to the US assessment, the SLAF achieved tremendous success, primarily due to the change of its approach. In fact, the SLAF never introduced new aircraft during eelam war IV, except for the acquisition of F7 GS in Jan 2008. The SLAF acquired F7s, Kfirs and MiG 27s in 1991, 1996 and 2000, respectively, though they had never been used the way the Rajapaksa government did during 2006-2009 military campaign which crushed the LTTE.