Thursday, 30 May 2013

US powered Israeli jets enhance SLAF capability

* War on terror revisited : Part 140

Israeli built Kfir on the Katunayake runway. Powered by US engine, Kfirs of the No 10 squadron spearheaded the offensive

by Shamindra Ferdinando
On the night of April 27, the LTTE mounted a lagoon borne assault on Kayts Island situated west of the Jaffna peninsula, killing 18 soldiers and injuring several others. It was the worst attack on the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) since the LTTE resumed hostilities in the early hours of April 18, 1995, with the sinking of two Chinese gunboats anchored at the Trincomalee harbour (Tigers break truce, sink two boats––The Island April 20, 1995). The LTTE mounted the unprecedented underwater attack on SLNS Suraya and SLNS Ranasuru just three hours after the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was informed of the LTTE’s decision to break off negotiations due to the reluctance on the part of the government to vacate the army base at Pooneryn, grant the Tigers permission to carry weapons in government-held areas in the Eastern Province and lift restrictions placed on the fishing community as well as movements of food beyond Vavuniya.

The SLA wanted to transfer some of those soldiers wounded in Thursday’s raid on Kayts to the Anuradhapura hospital. Having received treatment at the Palaly Military hospital, four personnel joined the passengers onboard an HS 748 Avro, the first flight out of the Palaly airfield on April 28, 1995. Although the LTTE had been on the offensive in both the northern and eastern districts, the SLAF continued routine flights. The Avro was on a regular flight. The then Northern Zonal Commander of the SLAF Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe was among the passengers. The LTTE brought down the aircraft immediately after it took off from Palaly. Those on the ground saw one of the two Rolls Royce engines of the British built aircraft on fire before it exploded. The then military spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe as well as SLAF headquarters strongly denied an LTTE hand in the disaster when the writer asked them whether an LTTE missile had brought it down. (Air Force plane explodes––40 killed; Engine trouble causes major accident after take-off from Palaly air base ––The Island April 29, 1995).

Kolitha Gunatilleke is pictured at the Anuradhapura air base in the early 90s. Argentine-built Pucara attack aircraft in the background
Although a section of the military feared an LTTE hand in the destruction of the aircraft, SLAF headquarters felt it was an unfortunate accident. As the then SLAF chief Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe felt an urgent need to inquire into the incident, a senior team of officers left for Palaly the following day.

A group of investigators joined the first military flight to Palaly from Ratmalana via Anuradhapura on the morning of April 29, 1995. The LTTE brought down the second Avro as it approached Palaly airfield killing 52 officers and men. Among the dead were Wing Commander Shirantha Goonetilleke, brother of Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke and three other officers holding the same rank namely D. S. Wickremesinghe, S. Pathirana and Kamal Welgama. Immediately after the attack, SLAF headquarters admitted that both Avros had been shot down by heat seeking missiles. With that the war took a new turn (Tigers down second air force plane with strap line all 52 passengers dead––The Island April 30, 1995)

The SLAF had no option but to suspend transport fights to Palaly, hence causing a major worry for those stationed in bases in the Northern region (SLAF suspends transport flights to North––The Island May 1, 1995). The deployment of anti-aircraft missiles sent shock waves through the political and military establishments. The morale of troops hit a new low, as senior ground commanders struggled to cope with the unexpected crisis. The LTTE was now threatening both air and sea supply routes to the Jaffna peninsula. For want of an overland main supply route, Jaffna based troops entirely depended on air and sea supply routes. Jaffna forces were in peril.

Courageous action

In the wake of the rapidly deteriorating crisis, the then Squadron Leader, Harsha Abeywickrema, the commanding officer of the No 5 Jet Squadron comprising Chinese fighters volunteered to fly over LTTE held territory to show the SLAF’s commitment to the war effort, in spite of the missile threat. SLAF Commander, Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrema was reluctant to talk about his exploits during the conflict. In fact, Abeywickrema, even after taking over command of the SLAF on February 27, 2011, declined to discuss his war-time experience. AM Abeywickrema discussed a range of issues with the writer in a recent interview. In fact, AM Abeywickrema lamented the failure on the part of successive administrations to adopt tangible measures to neutralise the threat posed by the LTTE.

Commenting on the April 1995 missile crisis, AM Abeywickrema said: "The shooting down of two Avros over Palaly within 48 hours greatly demoralized the armed forces. The loss of almost 100 officers and men, including the then Northern Zonal Commander disturbed the military. I was stationed in China Bay as the deputy to Zonal Commander Salgado. I was also in command of the No 5 Jet Squadron based in China Bay. In my capacity as the Commanding Officer of the only Jet Squadron in service at that time, I volunteered to fly a mission over enemy held territory. I sought approval from Air Marshal Ranasinghe to show the LTTE that we were still up and kicking"

Having obtained Air Marshal Ranasinghe’s approval, Abeywickrema and Flying Officer Janaka Wijetilleke, the only other jet pilot available at China Bay, had undertaken the mission. AM Abeywickrema said: "I briefed FO Wijetilleke of the mission and instructed him to just hang to my wing and to follow. Some of those based at China Bay felt that it could be our last mission. As we got into the cockpits, some personnel waved at us as at least one of us could end up as the latest missile victim. We took two bombs each and 30mm cannon. We dived north of SLA’s forward defence line (FDL) north of Elephant Pass (EP) base and directed bombs at LTTE fortifications and manoeuvred towards the eastern FDL of the EP base, while firing cannon at the enemy. We continued at tree-top level over Velvetiturai and Thondamannar and pulled up over the sea. We flew over the peninsula regardless of the consequences, as we felt nothing could have boosted the morale of those under siege in the Jaffna peninsula. Later, I was told how troops at Elephant Pass and Palaly cheered seeing jets flying low over LTTE-held territory. Although they fired anti-aircraft guns at us, we were too fast. Our mission infused confidence in the pilots. Gradually, we developed strategies to counter threat posed by missiles. Although the LTTE brought down several other aircraft with heat seeking missiles, the SLAF didn’t lose a single jet fighter to a missile attack or anti-aircraft fire.

Shortcomings in strategy

AM Abeywickrema said that the armed forces had averted a major crisis by quickly adopting counter measures to face the missile threat. "Had there been a long delay in meeting the new threat, the entire security forces deployment in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Jaffna Islands would have been vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught. Missiles could have deprived the northern bases of urgently needed supplies as well as air support in case of major attacks." AM Abeywickrema acknowledged that until the destruction of the two Avros over Palaly, the SLAF had never felt the need to acquire anti-missile capability.

Abeywickrema recollected the LTTE firing a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) towards a fixed wing aircraft immediately after it landed at the Palaly airfield at the onset of the conflict. Those who had been on the airfield at that time couldn’t explain what really happened. A subsequent search led to the recovery of a part of the used RPG, hence the SLAF was able to identify the type of weapon fired at the aircraft. Luckily it had missed the target. "Had we acquired arms, ammunition and equipment following a careful study, the country would have had a better arsenal to meet the LTTE threat. Unfortunately, we always ordered weapons to counter a particular threat posed by the LTTE. The SLAF having to acquire an anti-missile capability, too, is a case in point. The LTTE exploited our weaknesses to their advantage. Once the armed forces realized their limitations and took remedial measures, the LTTE began to gradually lose ground."

The then head of the LTTE Political Section, S. P. Thamilselvan, declared in Jaffna on May Day 1995 that the war had entered a new phase with the deployment of missiles. Although the LTTE never targeted the Indian Air Force (IAF) with missiles during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) during the Oct. 1987 to March 1990 period, Indian para commandos on August 2, 1988 recovered a surface to air missile and a launcher at Nallur. The then Deputy Indian High Commissioner, Nerupam Sen told the writer that Indian military intelligence had launched a full scale investigation into what he called the missile affair while identifying the recovered weapon as a heat seeking missile of Soviet origin. An irate Sen said that the country of manufacture was not the issue, while emphasizing the pivotal importance of identifying those who had sold missiles to the LTTE (LTTE SAM missile was of Soviet make - Deputy Indian HC ––The Island August 5, 1988).

Flying Kfir over Dead Sea

Heat seeking missiles rendered Italian built Siai Marchettis and Argentine Pucaras in service since 1985 and 1992 virtually useless, compelling the China Bay based No 05 Jet Squadron to take full responsibility. The SLAF was under heavy pressure to introduce another fighter as quickly as possible. The LTTE build-up forced the then government to move quickly.

AM Abeywickrema said: "The SLAF had to bolster its firepower swiftly to meet the emerging threat. The then SLAF leadership felt that the Israeli built modern multi role fighter the Kfir, could meet the challenging task."

Squadron Leader Abeywickrema had been chosen to fly a Kfir in Israel. An SLAF team headed by the then Air Commodore Jayalath Weerakkody (now Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad. Weerakkody holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal), Squadron Leader Abeywickrema and an electronics engineer visited Israel covertly to examine the aircraft. Abeywickrema had the first opportunity to fly a Chinese jet fighter in spite of not having the basic requirement of 250 jet flying experience at the onset of eelam war II. AM Abeywickrema said: "I flew a couple of missions in Israel with their test pilots who proudly displayed the capability of Kfir flying to its limits. I was impressed and recommended it instantly. The main highlights that impressed me was its J 79 engine made in the USA and the WDNS (weapon delivery and Navigational system). I was there for 10 days studying various systems and flying. Israel is the only country one can fly below sea level and I was privileged to fly six times over the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a large place in the middle of the country some 1300 ft below sea level and we flew just over water and that was an unbelievable experience. That’s the time we looked at a special camera system that was later fitted to Beech craft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles too."

Having returned to Sri Lanka, Abeywickrema was fully involved with ground school for Kfirs and flying. But before the Kfirs could be deployed against the LTTE, Abeywickrema was made zonal commander, East as well as Base Commander, China Bay. Priyantha Gunasingha succeeded him. The SLAF deployed Kfirs against the LTTE in 1996.

Kfirs from the Katunayake-based No. 10 Jet Squadron played a pivotal role in the offensive against the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s premier Jet Squadron caused irreparable damage to the LTTE during eelam war IV, with a devastating campaign that gradually eroded the LTTE’ s confidence on the battlefield. Katunayake based No 10 squadron as well as No 12 and No 05 squadrons comprising Russian MiG 27s and Chinese F7s respectively, inflicted heavy damage on the LTTE.

AM Abeywickrema recalled proudly how the SLAF had developed an integrated system that allowed SLAF headquarters to do away with time consuming procedures to facilitate swift action. "During eelam war IV, we had the ability to know what was going on behind their earth bunds. Real time intelligence made a significant difference in the decision making process. We had the time and space to deploy air assets simultaneously, at different locations. In fact, during the Vanni campaign, senior ground commanders had an opportunity to access video footage made available by UAVs and Beech craft. Once fighter pilots visited the Western front to meet the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) 58 Division and Brigade Commanders to discuss ways and means of neutralizing major LTTE fortifications."

As the Task Force I/58 Division was pushing towards Pooneryn on the western front during a critical stage of the ground offensive, Air Vice Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke received appointment as the Director Air Operations on Nov. 1, 2008-a position he held until being named Chief of Staff on Feb 27, 2011. Gunatilleke, who had flown Siai Marchettis as well as Pucaras during the 1985-1995 period later moved to the Transport Squadron close on the heels of the SLAF removing the Argentine-built twin turbo-prop fixed wing aircraft from the frontline due to missile threat. The SLAF headquarters split the Directorate of Operations into two sections––Air Operations and Ground Operations in the wake of the devastating LTTE raid on Anuradhapura air base in late Oct. 2007. The then AVM Abeywickrema, who had been responsible for both air and ground deployment in his capacity as the Director Operations since May 2006 was the first to oversee air operations since the split of the directorate.