Monday, 8 April 2013

In the absence of intimidating air power…

War on terror revisited : Part 125

The Katunayake based No 10 squadron consisted of Israeli built Kfirs in service with the SLAF since 1996. The Israeli built multi-role fighter spearheaded the air offensive against the LTTE during eelam war IV, with Russian MiG 27s, Mi 24s as well as Chinese interceptors during the Vanni offensive (March 2007-May 2009) playing significant roles.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Air Vice Marshal MJT de S. Gunawardhane succeeded Air Marshal A. W. Fernando as the commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) on February 16, 1990. His deputy was Oliver M. Ranasinghe. Due to the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) here in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord from July 1987 to March 1990 and peace talks between the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), the SLAF had totally ignored the need to enhance its firepower.

The SLAF’s last major involvement had been during Operation Liberation (late May 1987 to the second week of June 1987), in the Jaffna peninsula. Since then there hadn’t been any real action, though at the onset of IPKF operations, during the second week of Oct 1987 against the LTTE, the Indian military had called for the SLAF’s support. The first such instance was the deployment of an SLAF Bell 212 to support Indian troops, including para commandos engaged in a raid on the Jaffna University on the night of Oct. 11,1987. The LTTE thwarted the Indian assault, causing heavy losses to the raiding party.

The SLAF’s deployment was contrary to the Indo-Lanka accord. However, the direct involvement of an SLAF crew in the Jaffna University battle gave the SLAF an opportunity to closely study the anti-aircraft capability of the LTTE. During the Jaffna University battle, the fire from the ground had been so intense, that the Indian Air Force (IAF) couldn’t induct the required number of men during a specified number of missions. Unfortunately, the SLAF never learnt from the IAF’s experience. Had the SLAF closely examined the ill-fated Indian operation and India’s response, it wouldn’t have been in serious difficulty in 1990. By end October 1987, India deployed Mi 25 helicopter gunships in support of ground forces. The Mi 25 carried 23-mm cannon, 57-mm rockets and 500 kg HE bombs. Although at the beginning of IPKF operations during the second week of Oct 1987, India assured that heavy firepower wouldn’t be used, fierce LTTE resistance forced the IPKF to bring in heavy equipment, including T 72 main battle tanks as well as BMP 1 Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV). In spite of clever tactics and superb fighting techniques, the LTTE could never match the firepower of the IPKF. The deployment of helicopter gunships alongside main battle tanks and artillery, regardless of the consequences, stunned the LTTE. Mounting loss of civilian lives didn’t deter the IPKF from using maximum firepower.

In fact, the UNP never realized the need to enhance the firepower of the armed forces, though it realized the LTTE couldn’t be trusted. The UNP leadership deprived the armed forces of an opportunity to build-up fighting capabilities since the deployment of the IPKF in July 1987 to the outbreak of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990. Successive UNP governments never felt the need to prepare the country to face any eventuality, hence giving the LTTE the upper hand.

SLAF strengthened

During 1982, the SLAF established units in Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Koggala and Sigiriya in accordance with overall expansion. Air Vice Marshal Dick Perera was in command (May 1981 to April 1985). During the 1983-1985 period, the SLAF acquired 11 Bell 212 helicopters, four Bell 412 helicopters, three Siai Marchetti SF 260s (light ground attack aircraft), two Cessna 337s, one Avro HS7 48 and one Beech King. The SLAF managed with available assets. In 1986, the SLAF acquired three more Bell 212 helicopters, five more Siai Marchetti SF 260s and two Y 12s light transport aircraft. The SLAF further increased its transport capability by taking delivery of another Avro.

In the run-up to Operation Liberation, the SLAF tasked six Siai Marchettis with fighter/ground attack role. The SLAF could have definitely done a better job, if it had been equipped with better aircraft. Although Siai Marchettis could operate from smaller airfields, it lacked the firepower and an accurate system to deliver its ammunition. That was a major drawback.

The SLAF had the opportunity to conduct operations in an extremely hostile environment in late 1989 when it deployed helicopters against the Indian trained Tamil National Army (TNA), particularly in the Eastern Province. The TNA damaged half a dozen helicopters during confrontations in the Ampara and Batticaloa sectors alone. The TNA had anti-aircraft weapons courtesy the IPKF, which recruited, trained and armed a large group of Tamil youth in line with a directive to strengthen the then provincial administration of Chief Minister Varatharaja Perumal. But when the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the SLAF was wholly unprepared to face the challenging task. In the absence of the required firepower, the SLAF top brass experienced the daunting task of maintaining offensive and defensive operations in the wake of the army suffering a series of heavy battlefield defeats.

Having lost Kokavil (second week of July 1990), Kilinochchi (last week of July 1990), and Mankulam (last week of November 1990) camps, Elephant Pass remained the only base situated along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The base at Elephant Pass guarded the overland route to the Jaffna peninsula. The army also vacated Jaffna Fort in late September 1990, after having sacrificed about 200 personnel of the first battalions of the Sinha and Gajaba Regiments to rescue those trapped in the Dutch built fort. The armed forces also had Palaly and Kankesanthurai under their control, though they remained two separate bases until they were linked in Oct. 1990.

A section of the army at that time accused the SLAF of failing to provide air support, a charge strongly denied by Air Marshal Gunawardhane. The SLAF’s role came under fire in the wake of a massive LTTE onslaught on the Elephant Pass base during the second week of July 1991. Amidst one of the bloodiest battles in eelam war II, the SLAF was accused of refusing to conduct operations in support of those under siege at Elephant Pass. Some alleged that Operation Balavegaya, the largest ever amphibious assault during the conflict launched to break the siege on Elephant Pass, was in jeopardy due to the failure on the part of the SLAF to play its role.

SLAF chief speaks out

Air Marshal Gunawardhane strongly denied allegations against the service, while vowing to sustain operations with available assets. Addressing a hastily arranged media briefing at his headquarters, the SLAF chief explained the operations undertaken by those under his command in support of the army (SLAF chief denies ‘not enough air support’ allegation-The Island July 1991). That was perhaps the only media briefing called by Gunawardhane during his tenure as the SLAF chief (Feb. 16, 1990 to Feb. 16, 1994). The Air Marshal was flanked by Chief of Staff, Ranasinghe.

Reiterating the SLAF’s commitment to the battle at Elephant Pass, the SLAF chief said that one aircraft had been hit during action, though there had been losses of either fixed wing aircraft or helicopters. Gunawardhane revealed that the LTTE had acquired a weapon far superior to that of the five zero, much to the discomfort of the pilots, but the SLAF never avoided its responsibilities. An irate Air Marshal said that the SLAF shouldn’t be accountable for other people’s mistakes. The Air Marshal declined to identify whom he referred to as other people, though it was widely believed the reference was to the army. Commenting on Operation Liberation, he said that the SLAF had been accused of refusing to fly, fearing missile attacks as early as May 1987 during operations in Vadamaratchchy.

The SLAF declared that it had deployed Siai Marchettis and helicopters in support of troops under siege at Elephant Pass and those engaged in the rescue operation. Gunawardhane and Ranasinghe explained operations undertaken by aircraft and helicopters based at Kankesanthurai and Anuradhapura. They said they felt that the new anti-aircraft guns mounted on vehicles could pose a serious threat. Both declined to comment on India expressing concerns over the possibility of the LTTE acquiring dedicated anti aircraft guns and shoulder fired missiles, with the support of some Western powers. In fact, one-time Indian Deputy High Commissioner, Nirupam Sen (currently senior UN advisor), told the writer there was the possibility of some interested parties helping the LTTE to acquire heat seeking missiles. Sen made the assessment in the wake of Indian troops recovering a missile and launcher in the run-up to Nov. 19, 1988 provincial council polls in the then temporarily merged North-East Province. The recovery was made in the Nallur area. Sen expressed concern over the possibility of the LTTE having received missiles of Soviet origin through an agency or an organisation hostile to India. The recovery was made by Indian commandos (LTTE SAM was of Soviet make––The Island Aug. 5. 1988).

Heavy burden

As the army had lost the overland Jaffna-Kandy Main Supply Route (MSR) at the onset of eelam war II, the navy and the SLAF had to deploy most of their resources to ensure uninterrupted supplies to the armed forces deployed in the peninsula. Thanks to the acquisition of four more Y 12s and the first Y 8 heavy transport aircraft in 1987, the SLAF had the capability to meet major commitments during eelam war II. The SLAF acquired two Y 8s, the Chinese version of the Russian AN 12. The army never acknowledged the crisis caused by its failure to maintain an overland lifeline. For almost two decades, the army received its supplies by air and sea, until the troops restored the MSR in Jan. 2009. That was one of the major accomplishments during eelam war IV.

The LTTE shot down one Y 8 on the afternoon of July 5, 1992, north of Elephant Pass, killing 19 personnel, including six officers. Among the dead was the then Flight Lieutenant A. P. W. Fernando, the only son of former Air Force Commander Walter Fernando. At the time of the tragedy, Fernando was the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, having replaced General Ranatunga. The aircraft was carrying a large stock of ammunition and explosives when the LTTE blew it up. The SLAF initially ruled out sabotage or LTTE anti-aircraft fire, though subsequently, admitted losing the Y 8 to anti-aircraft fire. The then Squadron Leader, D.F. Cassieer was among the 19 personnel on board the ill-fated aircraft and the highest ranking officer to die in eelam war II up to that time.

The war would never have lasted three decades if the army had not lost the MSR to Jaffna compelling successive governments to deploy a range of assets just to keep bases in the Jaffna peninsula supplied with arms, ammunition and equipment and move troops between Palaly and Ratmalana, home of the SLAF’s No 2 Transport Squadron. With the gradual expansion of army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, the Navy and the Air Force, too, had to increase their own role to meet the Army’s requirement. Had the LTTE succeeded in its efforts to thwart Navy and Air Force efforts, the Army would have been compelled to abandon all its bases in the peninsula. The Army had planned to abandon the Jaffna Fort even before the outbreak of hostilities, as it felt the base couldn’t be defended in case of an attack. According to military officials who had been assigned to assist the then UNP chief peace negotiator Minister A .C. S. Hameed (May 1989-June 1990), LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham went to the extent of suggesting that the Army could remain in the Jaffna Fort. The unexpected suggestion was made during discussions at Palaly. The LTTE probably felt it could wipe out those stationed at the Jaffna fort at an early stage of the battle. The Army deployment at the Jaffa fort at that time comprised not more than 60 personnel. In Sept. 1990, the army undertook a costly operation to save the lives of 60 men at the expense of 200 personnel who fought under the command of Lt. Colonels, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, of the Gajaba and Sinha Regiments, respectively. The army lacked a cohesive counter strategy or contingency plan to meet the LTTE conventional military challenge. The absence of a political strategy and the Defence Secretary being a mere official, instead of an influencing factor, undermined security forces efforts.