War on terror revisited : Part 126April 9, 2013, 8:21 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
A major drawback experienced by government forces was the lack of combat troops necessary to proceed with large scale operations. Cabral is one of those who always felt a major expansion in the fighting strength was a prerequisite for the successful execution of war against terrorism. Even the Indian Army had failed in its bid to totally eradicate the LTTE, in spite of deploying over 100,000 personnel in the then temporarily merged North-East Province, Cabral asserted, pointing out that the battlefield victory over the LTTE would never have become a reality if the political leadership had deprived ground commanders of adequate combat troops. During eelam war IV, the government enhanced combat forces by increasing the army’s strength to over 210,000, paving the way for the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to conduct operations on almost 10 fronts in the Vanni simultaneously.
Having served 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.
The then Air Vice Marshal M.J. T. De. S. Gunawardhana (Feb. 16, 1990 to Feb. 16, 1994) introduced the zonal concept soon after succeeding Air Marshal A.W. Fernando (May 1, 1985 to Feb. 15, 1990). The new concept resulted in the decentralization of the decision making process.
Cabral moved into the Northern Zonal Command about 10 weeks before the outbreak of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, after the massacre of over 600 police personnel in the Eastern Province. He had been previously assigned to the celebrated No 4 helicopter wing (now it is called No 4 Helicopter Squadron), tasked with a range of duties, including the transportation of VVIPs as well as commercial flights as and when required. Cabral’s stint with that particular formation (Dec. 1987 to April 1990) was during the deployment of the Indian Army (IA) here (July 1987 to March 1990). The No. 4 formation also handled logistical requirements.
Cabral recollected his wartime experience in a wide ranging interview with the writer with the focus on major operations at the onset of eelam war II. "We found ourselves in deep trouble at the beginning of an unprecedented LTTE offensive. Suddenly, isolated and undermanned bases in the Jaffna peninsula, in the Vanni mainland as well as in the East came under siege. We were stunned. Obviously, the top brass didn’t have a contingency plan to meet the threat," Cabral said. The LTTE deployed a substantial number of units to cut off all overall access roads to isolated bases, hence making them vulnerable to sustained attacks. It wouldn’t have been an easy task to engage almost all bases manned by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and SLAF in the Northern Province simultaneously. "The LTTE must have planned that offensive taking advantage of the truce between the then President Premadasa and Prabhakaran," Cabral said.
Having led the UNP to victory at the presidential and parliamentary elections, President Premadasa in April 1989 invited the LTTE for direct talks, after having armed it to cause maximum possible damage to the IPKF. President Premadasa held direct negotiations with the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), in a bid to reach an understanding.
‘Wall of fire’
"During eelam war I, LTTE cadres used to run away when helicopter gunships approached targets. They feared the fighting machines. We always had the upper hand in engagements during eelam war I battles. We noted a significant change in the attitude of LTTE cadres as well as their tactics only after fighting resumed during the second week of June 1990. During the battle for Kokavil, we quickly realized that they intended to engage helicopter gunships. The LTTE deployed 30 to 40 cadres to fire T-56 and AK 47 assault rifles simultaneously at approaching helicopters, hence creating a ‘wall of fire’. Until the LTTE had acquired shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles, it adopted the strategy quite successfully," Cabral said.
Tigers benefit from IPKF experience
Cabral is of the opinion that the LTTE had benefited immensely from its experience in fighting the Indian Army (IA) and the Indian Air Force (IAF). The LTTE had overwhelmed heli-borne Indian troops spearheaded by para commandos on the night of Oct. 10/11, 1987 much to the dismay of the Indian top brass. India never managed to induct the required number of troops on the Jaffna campus grounds due to heavy anti-aircraft fire. Cabral said that engagement must have been a massive moral booster to the LTTE. Although Cabral couldn’t recall the SLAF playing a role in the raid on the Jaffna campus, an SLAF Bell 212 had been assigned to carry out a diversionary strike west of the intended landing ground for para commandos across the railway track (Descent into danger-The Jaffna University helidrop -BHARAT RAKSHAK).
Within weeks after the Jaffna University debacle, the Indian Air Force inducted Russian built Mi-25 helicopter gunships in support of ground forces. According to its official website within three weeks, the IAF had carried out some 3,000 tactical transport and assault helicopter sorties to disarm the LTTE, in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord.
Cabral asserted that confronting IAF fighting machines, particularly the Mi-25 had given the LTTE the confidence and an opportunity to develop strategies over a period of two years. During eelam war II battles, the enemy displayed new tactics, he said, adding that Prabhakaran’s experience in fighting two armies and a number of rival Tamil groups, too, would have helped the group to enhance its skills.
The isolated detachment at Kokavil was the first to fall during the second week of July 1990. Of some 60 personnel based at Kokavil, perhaps only one or two escaped. It was an embarrassing defeat, the worst experienced by the army up to that time. Cabral recalled an abortive attempt made by the SLAF to land at Kokavil at the height of the battle to evacuate the wounded and also to provide urgently needed supplies. The mission involving three helicopters went awry due to heavy LTTE fire directed from the ground. Cabral said: "We couldn’t land, though we managed to drop in whatever the supplies available from air. Saline and water tubes were among the items dropped from air. It was a pathetic situation. Had we landed at Kokavil, we wouldn’t have been able to take off as the enemy was in full control of the area surrounding the small camp. Ours was the last mission or the last attempt to evacuate the wounded."
Last mission at Mankulam
Shortly before the army vacated the Mankulam detachment in late November, Cabral and Sagara Kotakadeniya landed there in a bid to evacuate some wounded personnel. Kotakadeniya was in control of the daring flight, though Cabral declared he was in charge of the mission fraught with danger. Under small arms and mortar fire, the chopper had landed between the camp and a church situated a little distance away to carry out the evacuation of the wounded. The LTTE had fired from the church, prompting the army to urge the pilots to leave. Those who had survived the battle so far carried their wounded colleagues to the chopper amidst a firefight and both the SLAF and SLA personnel felt it could be the end of casualty evacuation due to heavy LTTE resistance. In a desperate bid to provide the required ammunition to those trapped in Mankulam, the SLAF dropped mattresses embedded with 30,000 rounds of ammunition. On the instructions of the military hierarchy, troops had wrapped mattresses embedded with ammunition with mattresses before dropping them from helicopters. Unfortunately, that stock of ammunition ended up in the hands of the LTTE, as the army had to vacate the base soon after the air drop.
Had the SLAF failed in its task, the SLA would have found itself in an extremely difficult situation. The SLA couldn’t have survived without air support. The SLAF carried out a series of missions to break the siege on SLA bases at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan, south of Mannar, during the third week of March 1991. Cabral had been at Anuradhapura when he received a call from the then Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa. An agitated war veteran told Cabral to act fast as Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan bases were under heavy enemy pressure. At the time of the assault, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had been at Talladi, the main base in the Mannar administrative district to discuss ways and means of taking tangible measures to meet the threat. The Northern Commander had acknowledged that he didn’t have the required troops at his disposal to save those under siege. Cabral said that all officers and men based at Anuradhapura had worked as one until the LTTE suspended the attack after having suffered heavy losses due to devastating SLAF attacks.
The SLAF had followed the Israeli concept of rapid turnaround by helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in the operation, thereby greatly reducing the ground time. Cabral recalled that five helicopters and six Italian built Siai Marchetti ground attack aircraft had been available for the operation. The SLAF also mounted guns on a Chinese Y 12 fixed wing transport aircraft as the Anuradhapura air base threw everything it had against the LTTE battling the army at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan. In a bid to further intensify the operation, the SLAF established a temporary refueling point at Talladi to ensure that as many helicopters were air borne, while Siai Marchettis flew non-stop for almost 75 hours, until the LTTE withdrew leaving over 100 bodies scattered in and around the defended area. The Anuradhapura base simply instructed that helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in the operation should use the entire ammunition stock, instead of saving them for the next mission. The Israelis had successfully practised rapid turnaround during the six day war against some Arab countries, Cabral said, adding that the Jewish State was one of the few countries supportive of Sri Lanka’s battle against terrorism.
Cabral remembered with gratitude the role played by Shirantha Gunatilleke (Roshan Gunatilleke’s younger brother), during the Silavaturai battle. At that time, Gunatilleke had been the Chief Instructor/Commandant at the Anuradhapura Flying School. He had been Siai Marchetti pilot credited with many missions during his career before an LTTE missile claimed his life in late April 1995 over Palaly. He was among about 100 security forces personnel killed in two missile attacks on two consecutive days at the beginning of eelam war III during the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure.
Commenting on longstanding Sri Lanka-Israel defence cooperation, Cabral recalled a visit undertaken by a Sri Lankan military delegation to Tel Aviv some time before the launch of Operation Liberation (May –June 1987). The tri-services delegation comprised Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, Mohan Samaranayake and Squadron Leader Cabral. Having met many Israeli experts, the team returned home and made presentations with regard to the future course of action against about half a dozen Indian trained groups active in the Northern Province. Much to the surprise of the delegation, the then UNP government insisted that it didn’t have the time to implement those proposals. Instead, the government wanted all Tamil groups neutralized within six or seven months in time for the next parliamentary election. Cabral alleged that successive governments hadn’t realized the need to adopt a cohesive strategy to meet the LTTE threat. They had always given priority to political agendas, he claimed, adding that the military had been forced to work according to some unrealistic timetables, at the expense of overall security objectives.
Those who had served the SLAF along with Cabral initially went into battle as Pilot Officers and Flight Lieutenants. At the time they joined the SLAF, they would never have thought of spearheading helicopter operations against terrorists. Cabral remembered with warmth and pride those who had served with him on the front. They had been the first to mount helicopter attacks on those recruited and trained by India. Cabral recalled Prasanna Ratnayake, Sujith Jayasekera, Rajan Gunaratne Lasantha Waidyaratne, Tennyson Gunawardena, Roshan Gunatilleke, Roger Weerasinghe and Premachandra. They were followed by Namal Fernando, Kapila Jayampathy, Romesh Mendis, Upul Samarakoon, Gagan Bulathsinhala, Ranil Gurusinghe, Kapila Jayampathy, Sumangala Dias and Royce Gunaratne. All of them fought in eelam war I. Some of them still serve the SLAF. Initially, the SLAF had just a few Bell 212, though over the years, it developed its capabilities, including forward firing as well as side firing capacity. It had been a gradual process, with former Special Air Services (SAS) officers sharing his expertise with the SLAF in those crucial days. The then government had no option but to hire some foreign pilots to fill vacancies. Hiring of foreign experts to meet local requirements was nothing but a necessity, he said. However, over the years, the SLAF managed to meet the requirement itself.