Thursday, 30 May 2013

A difficult beginning: SLAF re-enters jet era with acquisition of F7s

*War on terror revisited : Part 139


 Sri Lanka’s first team of supersonic fighters (L to R) Flying Officer Janaka Wijetileke, Flt. Lt. Priyantha Gunasinghe, Sqn. Ldr. Harsh Abeywickrama, Fg. Off. Sudarshana Pathirana and Flying Officer Sajeewa Hendawitharana in front of F7 BS on apron at Katunayake following a mission 1993.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa asserted that whatever the armaments at the disposal of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) during Eelam war IV (August 2006 to May 2009), it was the man at the controls who made a difference in the battlefield. He was addressing SLAF top brass at the Katunayake air base on June 11, 2009, at a ceremony to mark the conclusion of air operations against the LTTE.

The war ended on the morning of May 19, 2009 with the recovery of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s body on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Among the audience were the then SLAF commander, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke and the then Air Vice Marshal Harsha D. Abeywickrama, who, in his capacity as the Director of Operations/Director of Air Operations, oversaw the devastating air campaign directed against the LTTE. Abeywickrama, who assumed the post of Director Operations in May 2006 at the onset of eelam war II with the rank of Air Commodore, was subsequently elevated to the rank of Air vice Marshal with his appointment as the Deputy Chief of Staff. Abeywickrama was appointed Commander of the SLAF on Feb. 28, 2011 and was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal following a short stint as Chief of Staff.

In the immediate aftermath of the debilitating LTTE raid on the Anuradhapura SLAF base on the night of Oct 22, 2007, the SLAF created the post of Director Ground Operations, a responsibility hitherto handled by Director Operations. With the creation of the new post, Abeywickrama was made Director, Air Operations.

The writer was present at the function at Katunayake, which culminated with the impressive show by the Katunayake-based jet squadrons. Thanking the SLAF on behalf of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary emphasised the critical importance of having capable and courageous men in charge of operations. Rajapaksa went on to praise the SLAF’s fighting, air surveillance as well as support units with special emphasis on the three jet squadrons, comprising Israeli, Chinese and Russian aircraft and the Hingurakgoda based attack helicopter squadron, which caused irreparable damage to the LTTE.

SLAF chief speaks out

For want of better arms, ammunition and equipment as well as political direction at the highest level, the armed forces had been struggling for three decades before the LTTE could be finished off, Air Marshal Abeywickrama told The Island, in his first interview since taking over the service. AM Abeywickrama said: "A case in point is the SLAF’s failure to acquire a suitable jet at the onset of the conflict. Had our armed forces obtained appropriate armaments at the right time, we could have had the upper hand at the beginning of the conflict. Although counter-insurgency operations got underway even before the unprecedented LTTE attack on the SLA claimed the lives of 13 personnel in July 1983, we never realised the importance of having suitable equipment, along with a corresponding increase in our strength. Two years into major anti-insurgency operations after the July 1983 killings, the SLAF acquired three Siai Marchetti SF 260 TPs for deployment in the role of light attack/trainer. Having acquired SF 260s in 1985, we also went for the Siai Marchetti SF 260 W in 1990. Sadly, the Italian built light attack aircraft wasn’t the best buy. It didn’t give us the required edge over the LTTE."

Abeywickrama, who had flown both versions of the SF 260s during his days as a Flying Officer said: "Had the SLAF secured the Brazilian built Tucano fighter instead of Siai Marchettis, it could have made a difference. Unfortunately, we had no option but to go for the Siai Marchettis due to political compulsions. Such meddling had a catastrophic impact on the overall strategy. The bottom line was, we couldn’t secure the right equipment at the right time, hence we lost an opportunity to exploit the situation."

Abeywickrama recollected the difficult conditions under which the Siai Marchetti team comprising him, C.T. Gunawardena, R. Pakyanathan, Salgado and Shirantha Gunatilleke had striven to accomplish the challenging task of providing air support. Commenting on operations undertaken by Siai Marchettis during Operation Liberation (May-June 1987) in the Jaffna peninsula, Abeywickrama said that the SLAF could have had done a better job if a better aircraft had been made available. "Unfortunately, we had to manage with Siai Marchettis. They were followed by the Argentine built IA58 FMA Pucara. The Pucara ground attack aircraft was the first of its kind to join the SLAF. The SLAF acquired Pucaras in 1991 during eelam war II to enhance ground attack capabilities. We had no option but to acquire whatever was made available to us due to restrictions placed on the sale of armaments to Sri Lanka at that time. We never had the wherewithal to go all out against the LTTE and other terrorist groups during eelam war I (July 1983 to June 1987) as well as eelam war II (June 1990 to August 1994)."

Slow build-up

During the period, 1983 to 1985, the SLAF acquired 11 Bell 212 helicopters, four Bell 412 helicopters, three Siai Marchettis, two Cessna 337s, one Avro HS 748 and one Beech King. The SLAF took delivery of 3 Bell 212 choppers, one Avro HS 748, five Siai Marchettis and two Y 12 light transport aircraft.

Although the SLAF had experience in operating the UK built Hunting Percival Jet Provost MK 3 A (1959-1979), MiG 15 UTI (1971-1981) as well as MiG 17 (1971 -1981), when the eelam conflict erupted in July 1983, the service didn’t have a genuine ground attack capability. The then government took two years to acquire a light attack/trainer aircraft in the form of Siai Marchettis after the outbreak of major hostilities and six more years to obtain Pucaras. Both the Siai Marchettis and the Pucaras, though being capable of playing an anti-insurgency role, weren’t jets.

Had the then government formulated a contingency plan, the armed forces could have had obtained the required armaments and prepared themselves to face any eventuality during the suspension of hostilities, during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the then temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Province (July 1987 to March 1990). The political leadership overlooked the need to enhance the fighting capabilities of the armed forces, believing direct talks between the government and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990) would pave the way for a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the top brass remained passive onlookers fearing the wrath of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who warned them to ensure an incident-free environment, whatever the provocation. According to SLAF records, during President Premadasa’s fragile peace with Prabhakaran, Sri Lanka acquired four more Y 12 transport aircraft of Chinese origin and one Y-8 heavy transport aircraft.

SLAF chief Abeywickrama recalled the crisis caused by the sudden Indian declaration that the Indian Air Force (IAF) would carry out a food drop over the Jaffna peninsula on the late afternoon of June 4, 1987. Abeywickrama said: "India intervened as the ground forces were making progress on the northern front. Two columns of troops under the command of the then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne were deployed on the front. India wanted the government not to interfere with the food drop, warning of dire consequences in case we resorted to hostile action. In view of the Indian warning we were directed to move Siai Marchettis out of the operational areas and hide them in the south. We resented the Indian move. We could have had an opportunity to push towards Jaffna if not for Indian intervention. "

Even if President JRJ had wanted to oppose the Indian move, the SLAF would not have been able to do so vis-a-vis a group of five IAF AN 32 transport aircraft of Russian origin approaching the Jaffna peninsula. AN 32s deployed for the airdrop codenamed ‘Operation Poomalai’ had been escorted by the IAF’s Mirage fighters of French origin. The air drop took place against the backdrop of the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) thwarting a flotilla of civilian craft carrying food stocks crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. The IAF flew over the Palaly air base. The Indian action was meant to humiliate Sri Lanka.

A dearth of the required number of pilots to serve the SLAF was a major problem, particularly during the early stages of the eelam conflict. The SLAF had no option but to retain the services of foreign pilots. Even after the acquisition of Siai Marchettis in 1985, the total strength of SLAF pilots’ contingent tasked to operate attack aircraft, transport as well as helicopters consisted of less than 40 peronnel. At the time, the SLAF established No 5 jet squadron comprising Chinese aircraft the service had about 55 to 60 pilots representing all categories. The formation of the fully fledged No 5 squadron in 1992 paved the way for the SLAF to acquire Israeli Kfirs (1996), Russian MiG 27 (2000) and Chinese F7 GS (January 2008), to augment the offensive capability. SLAF Commander Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama is of the opinion that in spite of the conclusion of the war, the armed forces should retain an effective fighting capability. The veteran flyer insisted that contingency plans were a must to meet any eventuality. Abeywickrama said: "The country had to pay a very heavy price for neglecting its defence needs over a long period of time. Now that we have crushed terrorism, we should have a comprehensive security strategy. The bottom line is that the threat of terrorism remains, though the LTTE no longer retains a fighting capability. Sri Lanka cannot ignore particularly the Diaspora factor, and those still pursing the eelam project. "

Air Marshal Abeywickrama said that during the IPKF deployment here in accordance with the Indo Lanka Accord (ILA), the SLAF had carried out several missions in support of the Indian Army, before the IAF brought in Mi 24 helicopter gunships in October 1987. As the IPKF never felt the need to engage in large scale operations here at the time of its deployment in July 1987, it had not bothered to avail itself of air assets in the contingent assigned for peace keeping duties here, Abeywickrama said. The SLAF deployed a Bell 212 in support of an operation involving para-commandos and the Sikh Light Infantry on the night of Oct 10/Oct 11, 1987 to seize the Jaffna University. The air-borne raid ended in disaster.

Enter Chinese jets

The SLAF felt the urgent need for genuine jet fighters after the LTTE had scored a spate of significant battlefield victories at the onset of Eelam war II. The SLAF asserted that it could no longer provide effective support for ground forces with Siai Marchettis and Pucaras. Abeywickrama said: "In the wake of a major LTTE build-up targeting SLA bases in the Jaffna peninsula as well as the Vanni mainland, the SLAF simply struggled to sustain operations with available aircraft. We really wanted a real fighter aircraft which could make a significant difference. We pushed for a squadron of A5s of Chinese origin. But due to external factors, China, one of the few countries supportive of our military effort, indicated only F7 BSs and FT 5 jet trainers can be made available to us. We bought altogether seven aircraft."

The then (1) Flying Officer Avindra Mirando, (2)Flying Officer Sajeewa Hendawitharana, (3) Flying Officer Janaka Wijetileke, (4) Flying Officer Sudarshana Pathirana (5) Flight Lieutenant Priyantha Gunasinge and (6)Sqn Ldr Harsh Abeywickrama with Chinese crew

The transaction almost went awry due to another major problem. The Chinese said that only a pilot with 250 hours of jet flying experience could get into an FT 5. As the SLAF hadn’t operated a single jet since 1981 with the phasing out of MiG 15s and MiG 17s, the service didn’t have a single pilot to meet the Chinese standards. But Flying Lieutenant Abeywickrama accepted the challenging task and much to the delight of the SLAF delegation flew the aircraft. A smiling Abeywickrama said: "It was a new experience, a challenging task. But I felt I could do it. When I was asked whether a jet squadron could be operated, I accepted the assignment. Overnight, SLAF headquarters issued instructions regarding the formation of No 05 squadron comprising F7s and F5s. To facilitate the operation of jets, the SLAF extended its runway at China Bay."

Unlike Siai Marchettis and Pucaras, Chinese jets required a longer runway. Siai Marchettis and Pucaras operated from Anuradhapura, Vavuniya and China Bay.

Flying Lieutenant Abeywickrama was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader and placed in charge of the SLAF’s first jet squadron. It was an unenviable task.

Then the SLAF project suffered another setback. The Chinese had declined to teach SLAF pilots ground attack techniques as their agreement envisaged only flying training. Sri Lanka had to turn towards Pakistan to secure the required expertise. Successive Pakistani governments had been supportive of Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism efforts and the then administration in Islamabad paved the way for SLAF pilots to undergo training in Pakistan.

The newly promoted Squadron Leader Abeywickrama was given the unprecedented opportunity to pick his own team. Abeywickrama said: "Of the six officers picked by me, only one declined to join the first group of pilots assigned for No. 5 squadron. They were the best and readily accepted the challenging task of operating in a new environment."