Friday, 19 April 2013

Evolution of SLAF capability

War on terror revisited : Part 128 

by Shamindra Ferdinando
Wounded troops being carried by their colleagues to a Bell 212 helicopter (not seen) deployed for casualty evacuation mission in the Jaffna peninsula in the late 1980s (Pictures courtesy Sunil Cabral formerly of the SLAF)

Now that the conflict is over, the government should decide on a doctrine in case of another battle, says Sunil Cabral, formerly of the Sri Lanka Air Force. "We never had a policy until 2006 when the incumbent government resolutely faced the LTTE’s conventional military challenge. But now we need to agree on a cohesive response to meet any eventuality." He says Sri Lanka’s conflict shouldn’t have been called a war. "It was a grave mistake on the part of successive governments, the military as well as the media. A domestic dispute between the state and terrorists should never have been called a war.

During eelam war IV, the political and military leadership showed how any obstacle could be overcome with determination and resolute action. Keeping that in mind, post-conflict Sri Lanka should carefully examine the evolution of terrorism, political developments as well as the international response to pave the way for a doctrine which cannot be altered to suit the political agenda pursued by any party.

Young Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) officer Sunil Cabral was flying a US built Bell 212 from Vavuniya to Talladi when he observed three vehicles parked in the dense Murunkan jungles. Cabral realised the possibility of terrorists leaving them there for subsequent use. The vehicles could have belonged to the LTTE or any other terrorist group. Having met Gotabhaya Rajapaksa soon after landing at Talladi, Cabral told him of the unidentified vehicles in the Murunkan jungles. Cabral recollected how Rajapaksa had reacted swiftly having heard of the presence of mysterious vehicles. Cabral said: "Gota instantly called a group of his men. There were perhaps about ten personnel. Those under Gota’s command were ready to leave within ten minutes. They got into the Bell and soon we were flying towards Murunkan. I dropped them a little distance away from those vehicles and was ready to intervene in case of a confrontation. The soldiers, within minutes, secured the location. Rajapaksa, who was the senior officer on the ground, waved at me, signaling my presence was no longer required. Soon soldiers were seen driving the vehicles towards Talladi."

High risk mission

The incident occurred during an early stage of eelam war I (1983-July 1987). Cabral believes it could have happened during the 1985 to 1987 period, perhaps before the launch of Operation Liberation in late May 1987 to liberate Vadamaratchchy.

The possibility of terrorists waiting in ambush near the vehicles hadn’t discouraged troops from going on a high risk mission. Obviously, the SLA (Sri Lanka Army) had no presence in the Murunkan area at that time. In spite of having little or no intelligence at all, the SLA swiftly acted on available information regardless of the consequences. Cabral asserted that had there been a terrorist presence, the sudden arrival of troops could have triggered a major firefight. At that onset of the conflict, that would have been a major incident. Perhaps, the unexpected arrival of troops by air may have prompted the terrorists not to confront them.

During eelam war I, the SLA battled several terrorist groups, though the LTTE was the dominant one. In spite of a dearth of troops, the SLA retained the ability to launch small scale heli-borne operations due to the sparse deployment of terrorists on the ground.

Having served in the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) during eelam war I (July 1983 to June 1987) and II (June 1990 to Aug 1994), veteran helicopter pilot Sunil Cabral retired with the rank of Wing Commander in Dec. 1993. During his unblemished career, Cabral held several important commands, but nothing could be as important as his tenure as the Northern Zonal Commander from April 2, 1990 to Dec. 14, 1993.

At that time there were no special air mobile units, though commandos and other infantry troops routinely took part in heli-borne operations. Cabral said: "During eelam war I, a platoon or two heli-dropped troops in enemy held territory could have survived until additional troops reached the scene. A Bell 212 had the capacity to carry ten armed troops. We used to deploy three Bell 212s to move a platoon plus troops to a target. The Murunkun incident highlighted the SLA’s confidence in going on a mission with just one helicopter. Towards the latter stages of eelam war I, the SLAF used to carry out multiple sorties required to deploy troops on a special mission. Terrorists never had the strength to thwart such heli-borne operations. We always had the edge over the enemy."

During the period 1983 to 1985, the SLAF acquired 11 Bell 212s and four Bell 412s. The SLAF took delivery of three more Bell 212s during 1986.

Missed opportunity

There hadn’t been any requirement for new Bell helicopters during the 1987-1990 period when Sri Lankan security forces suspended all offensive/defensive operations under the Indo-Lanka accord. Although the SLAF took delivery of three Russian built Mi-17 transport helicopters in 1993, there hadn’t been any effort to acquire a dedicated gunship to counter the growing LTTE threat. In fact, the SLAF hadn’t even considered the possibility of acquiring a dedicated helicopter gunship during eelam war II (June 1990 to August 1994), though some sections of the service felt that an overhaul of tactics was necessary. Unfortunately, the then government didn’t realise the urgent need to boost the SLAF’s fire power during eelam war II. The SLAF struggled to meet the LTTE challenge until major purchases of aircraft and helicopters were made during 1996, under the guidance of the then Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe.

Cabral recollected the difficulties experienced by those engaged in Bell operations during eelam war II. Although the SLAF had additional Bell helicopters, their firepower remained the same with the 7.62 mm being the main armament. Cabral said: "We quickly realised that even if we managed to land even four platoons of infantry, including commandos, the enemy had the wherewithal to confront them. Unlike during eelam war I, during the second stage, we were battling the LTTE, whereas other terrorist groups sided with the government. We were under tremendous pressure. With the LTTE adopting new tactics, the SLAF couldn’t achieve any surprises during eelam war II, though there were instances when it managed to carry out initial landings without being detected. At an early stage of eelam war II, those at the control of Bell helicopters, grasped that they couldn’t carry out evacuation of the wounded from some SLA bases under siege in the Vanni without the support of ground attack aircraft."

The SLAF acquired three Italian Siai Marchetti SF 260 TP categorised as a modern light attack/trainer aircraft during 1985. The following year, the SLAF took delivery of five more Siai Marchetti SF 260s. Four years later, the SLAF took delivery of several Siai Marchetti SF 260 Ws.

With the benefit of hindsight, Cabral believes that that the armed forces could have thwarted the LTTE offensive at an early stage of eelam war II if they had acquired firepower even in the absence of an enhanced ground fighting capability. Unfortunately, the government of the day as well as the military top brass pathetically failed to realise that the LTTE could train its guns on the SLA, though it cooperated with the then administration during the 14 month-long ceasefire (May 1989-June 1990).

Transport fleet to the rescue

According to records maintained at SLAF headquarters, during the deployment of the IPKF in Sri Lanka (July 1987 to March 1990), the service refrained from enhancing its offensive capability, though some transport aircraft were acquired from China. The SLAF added to its inventory four Yunshuji 12 (light twin-engine aircraft capable of carrying 17 personnel) and one Yunshuji 8 (medium lift transport aircraft able to carry 100 passengers) in 1987. Both types of aircraft joined the No 2 transport squadron. During the previous year, the SLAF acquired two Yunshuji 12s. There hadn’t been any other significant development during 1987-1990, other than the forming of a maritime squadron comprising Cessna 337 Skymaster fixed wing aircraft from No 1 Flight Training Wing and one Bell 212. The operation was mounted from China Bay.

When the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990, the SLAF found itself in an unenviable position. Helicopters had to be deployed both in the northern and eastern districts simultaneously in support of the army, which was struggling to meet the LTTE threat. Although the first battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) and the sixth Sri Lankan Light Infantry (6 SLLI) deployed in the Batticaloa District gave a sterling example in a fight back in the wake of the unprecedented massacre of over 600 police officers and men during the second week of June 1990, the same couldn’t be said about the reaction of the army in some other parts of operational areas.

The army in Batticaloa fought fiercely and held on to three of its bases in the district having vacated two until reinforcements fought their way in. In Batticaloa too, the SLA had to depend on the SLAF for air support until the army mustered a force large enough to mount a two-pronged advance to break the siege on I GW and SLLI bases in the Batticaloa District. For those responsible for helicopter operations, it was nothing but a nightmare to drop urgently needed supplies, including water, saline as well as ammunition over about ten bases which were under siege.

The acquisition of transport aircraft came in handy when the SLA lost control of the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road beyond Vavuniya during the second week of June 1990. Overnight, the army deployed in the Jaffna peninsula was deprived of an overland Main Supply Route (MSR). Hence the entire deployment in the peninsula became vulnerable. The SLAF had to sustain an ‘air bridge’ between Palaly and airfields outside the peninsula under extremely difficult conditions, as the Palaly airfield was well within LTTE firing range. Unlike today, Palaly was relatively a small base, with the LTTE having heavy gun positions to engage aircraft approaching the airfield and those taking off. During those days of turmoil, Yunshuji 12s, in service with the SLAF since 1986 played a pivotal role in ferrying both men and material to Palaly. Air crews as well as support units worked around the clock to ensure adequate supplies to those under siege.

Had the SLAF failed to sustain the supply route, Palaly wouldn’t have survived the LTTE onslaught. It would be important to keep in mind that at the onset of hostilities, the LTTE cut off the overland route between Palaly and Kankesanthurai and even if the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) had brought in adequate supplies to the Kankesanthurai harbour, it wouldn’t have benefited those under siege at Palaly. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the SLA lost overland access among bases in the Jaffna peninsula with Elephant Pass being totally cut off.

Cabral, who executed the operation as the then Northern Zonal Commander, recollected the SLAF having had to launch a special operation during the first week of July 1990 to reinforce those troops under siege at the Jaffna Fort with a recoilless weapon. The then Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa wanted the SLAF to move a recoilless weapon along with a stock of ammunition and a new commanding officer to take over the Jaffna Fort. Codenamed Operation Eagle it had been one of the most daring operations undertaken by the SLAF at that time––War on terror revisited series dealt with that particular operation to some extent in its 109 installment––in the wake of the government under heavy public pressure due to a string of battlefield difficulties. The writer mistakenly identified the SLAF officer who had landed a Bell 412 carrying the recoilless weapon within the defended area as Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyasekera instead of Waidyaratne. The chopper was co-piloted by the then Flying Officer, Mirando.

Cabral said that the government as well as the military hierarchy had been under tremendous pressure due to the media coverage given to the crisis at the Jaffna Fort, though all bases were under siege at that time. The government had no option but to do something to boost public morale. Had it gone wrong, the entire military effort would have suffered a heavy blow. At one point, the SLAF headquarters suggested that another Bell should accompany Squadron Leader Waidyaratne’s chopper. However, Cabral disagreed on the basis that the loss of two helicopters could have a catastrophic effect on the military.