SPECIAL REPORT : Part 42September 23, 2014, 12:00 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
At the onset of Eelam War IV, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had five reconnaissance and maritime patrol aircraft, including two Beechcraft, acquired from the United States. The remaining aircraft consisted of two Searcher MK II Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and one US built Cessna 421 Golden Eagle, deployed for photo reconnaissance.
The SLAF took delivery of four Israeli-built Blue Horizon UAVs, in 2007, at the height of the Vanni battle.
The Beechcraft (Ratmalana based No 8 Light Transport Squadron), along with Searcher MK II (Vavuniya based 111 UAV Squadron) and Blue Horizon II (Anuradhapura based 112 UAV Squadron) provided the much needed intelligence, required by the armed forces, battling the LTTE. In addition to the US built aircraft assigned to the No 8 Light Transport Squadron, the SLAF had, in its inventory, altogether 18 US built helicopters (Bell 412, Bell 212, as well as Bell 206 Jet Ranger).
The Aerial Tribute: The Role of Air Power in Defeating Terrorism in Sri Lanka authored by Dr. Nirosha Mendis, on the invitation of the then Air Force Commander, Air Marshal H. D. Abeywickrama (incumbent Chairman of Bank of Ceylon (BoC), Abeywickrama holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal) explained the momentous role, played by the Beechcraft, as well as the UAVs, during Eelam War IV. There hadn’t been a better endeavour to record the SLAF’s role, particularly during Eelam War IV.
Even over five years after the conclusion of the conflict, the government is yet to examine the conflict as regards the role played by various countries, particularly during Eelam War IV (August 2006 – May 2009).
In spite of the US moving a strongly-worded resolution targeting Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), for reasons best known to the Obama administration, it would be pertinent to study the US support to eradicate the LTTE. Loss of US aircraft, in service with the SLAF, at an early stage of Eelam War IV, could have had a debilitating impact on the entire war effort. It would have had caused irreparable damage to the overall military strategy, encompassing ground operations on the Vanni front, as well naval action. Jet squadrons, as well as No 09 attack helicopter squadron, received target coordinates from Beechcraft. The loss of reconnaissance and maritime capability, at a crucial state of the offensive, could have prolonged the conflict. The SLAF adopted tough security measures to ensure safety and security of the Beechcraft B200 Super King Air for obvious reasons.
But what the SLAF didn’t envisage was one of the precious US aircraft coming under friendly fire by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN). The incident, involving a Beechcraft and the SLN, in Trincomalee, on the night of June 5, 2007, sent shock-waves through the defence establishment. SLN gunners fired anti-aircraft guns at the aircraft approaching China Bay airfield, believing an LTTE fixed-wing aircraft was approaching SLN troop career, Jetliner. The SLAF China Bay, too, had wrongly identified the approaching aircraft as an LTTE fixed- wing plane, on a destruction mission, and directed a missile attack, though it didn’t materialised.
Had the SLN brought down the aircraft, piloted by Wing Commander Melvin Kurukulasooriya, and Squadron Leader, Amal Perera, it could have caused a heavy blow at a time the SLA was still struggling on the Vanni central front. The ground offensive couldn’t have succeeded without air strikes and the success of the air campaign largely depended on intelligence provided by air assets of the US and Israeli origin.
The case of friendly fire should be examined, in the backdrop of a devastating LTTE attack on Anuradhapura air base, on the night of October 22, 2007, resulting in the destruction of the Beechcraft, acquired in 1983, and two Blue Horizon II UAVs.
The SLAF acquired its first Beechcraft way back in 1983. According to an SLAF publication, issued in March, 2001, to coincide with its 50th anniversary, the Beechcraft had been originally used as a VVIP transport aircraft with a seating capacity of nine (in the VVIP role) and 15 in the utility role. The acquisition was made during the period of Air Vice Marshal Dick Cutbert Perera.
For want of dedicated aircraft required for reconnaissance missions, the war effort suffered badly. In fact, the SLAF sought Israeli help to transform the Beechcraft, from its original role, to dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. The Israeli took over a year to equip the aircraft. The SLAF took delivery of the modified Beechcraft in early 1997. During the previous year, the SLAF acquired three Israeli-built Super Scouts UAVs. The Super Scouts were replaced by Searcher MK II in 2001.
The bottom line is that Eelam War II (June 10/11, 1990 to January 8, 1995) was fought without proper reconnaissance capability. Although the Eelam War II erupted on April 19, 1995, the military was deprived of air reconnaissance capability, until 1996, when Israeli UAVs joined the fleet.
The Beechcraft had the capacity to intercept, jam and also to monitor enemy communications.
SLAF acquires US spy plane during CFA
The SLAF acquired a second Beechcraft, in 2004 during a ceasefire, arranged by the government of Norway. Unlike the previous Beechcraft, which had to be modified, the second one came fully equipped to play a dedicated role. In spite of the ceasefire, the SLAF deployed its Beechcraft and UAVs to survey the LTTE-held territory, hence gathering vast amount of intelligence ahead of Eelam War IV.
On a number of occasions, the LTTE complained to the government of Sri Lanka, through the Norwegian government, and the Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), regarding UAV flights. However, the LTTE never complained about the deployment of Beechcraft as it hadn’t been aware of their role at that time. The UAVs spotted the construction of an LTTE runway at Iranamadu, on November 25, 2003, and the first LTTE fixed wing aircraft on January 12, 2005.
Following gradual development of the technology available to the SLAF, in 2008 the service achieved the capability to provide near real time imagery to the Katunayake-based jet fighter squadrons, as well as the Mi-24 attack helicopter squadron. The same imagery was made available to the 57 Division (deployed on the Vanni Central front, under the command of Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias), the 58 Division (deployed on the Mannar front, under the command of Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva) and the 59 Division (deployed on Weli Oya front, under Maj. Gen. Nandana Udawatte).
Beechcraft undertake nearly 1, 900 missions
In spite of the LTTE destroying one Beechcraft, on Oct 22, 2007, at the conclusion of the conflict, the SLAF reported the Beechcraft carried out nearly 1,900 missions. Had the SLAF not acquired a second Beechcraft, from the US, in 2004, the ground offensive, on the Vanni front, would have suffered a major setback. Long range artillery and multi barrel rocket launchers engaged many targets on the basis of target coordinates, provided by the Beechcraft. The gunners had the advantage of receiving further instructions from Beechcraft while they engaged targets identified by the Beechcraft.
The US never interfered with offensives, directed against the LTTE, during the conflict. In fact, Sri Lanka’s main supplier of armaments, Israel, began its relationship with Sri Lanka in the early 80s, with the blessings of the then US administration. If not for the US, Israel wouldn’t have thrown its weight behind President JRJ when India intervened here for political reasons. The US and Israel remained committed to Sri Lanka’s war against LTTE terror, hence it wouldn’t be a bad idea to post-war evaluation of support given by various countries by way of armaments as well as political support.
A veteran career service diplomat asserted that the government had failed to capitalise on what he called US-SL common ground and developed an adversarial posture by default. Referring to a secret cable, dated January 9, 2009, originating from its diplomatic mission in Colombo (cable No 33) exposed by Wiki Leaks, the expert pointed out that the US had recommended the US hunt for LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and other hardcore members in case they escaped. The then US Ambassador, Robert Blake, advised State Department: "We should also be prepared to help locate, detain and hand over to Sri Lanka, or India, Prabhakaran and other senior LTTE leaders, should they leave the country."
While asserting that the Sri Lankan Army was now in a position to expel the Tigers from the Northern Province than ever before, the US embassy predicted, what probably Ambassador called a new even more lethal phase of LTTE terrorism. The LTTE fighting cadre collapsed on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in just over four months, since that particular cable (cable No 33).
US, India influence EU ban on LTTE
In the run-up to Eelam War IV, during the second week of August, 2006, the European Union proscribed the LTTE, in spite of strong opposition from Norway. The EU ban couldn’t have come at a better time for the Sri Lankan government. If not for the US intervention, the EU would never have proscribed the LTTE. The US went to the extent of sending high level special envoy, Christina Rocca, to Europe to campaign for the banning of the LTTE. The Norwegians suffered a debilitating setback. The US intervention, at the highest level, ensured the banning of the LTTE. Unfortunately, the government never really realised the US role in the EU ban on the LTTE. In fact, the EU ban could be Sri Lanka’s biggest ever diplomatic victory, since the US banning the LTTE in October 1997.
Eight years after the EU ban, Tamil Net, in a special report quoted the then head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission Maj. Gen. Ulf Henricsson as having said: "It was a big mistake for the EU to ban the LTTE. There was pressure from the USA and the Sri Lankan government. I would say that was a big mistake, because it stopped the possibility to get a peaceful solution and negotiation."
The EU ban really hurt the LTTE, especially because it was a member of the four-nation Co-Chairs to the Sri Lankan peace process. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never realised that EU ban would never have been a reality if not for direct US intervention. The Indian government, too, strongly backed the EU ban. The EU prohibition, which came into operation close on the heels of the Canadian ban, undermined the LTTE strategy.
It would be pertinent to mention that the US also influenced the EU to impose a travel ban on LTTE representatives, in the wake of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination, in August,2005. The continuing forcible recruitment of child soldiers, too, contributed to the EU decision. Although, some members had been reluctant to impose restrictions, the US pushed the EU leadership to take a hardened stand on the group. The travel ban was followed by the proscription of the group, in spite of a very expensive campaign in Europe against it. Much to the discomfort of those who had been supportive of the LTTE’s efforts in Europe, India, too, threw its weight behind President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to have Prabhakaran’s group banned.
India proscribed the LTTE in 1991, close on the heels of the assassination of one-time Premier Rajiv Gandhi. The US and UK proscribed the organisation, in 1997 and 2001, respectively.
UNP, TNA, LTTE miscalculate US intentions
In hindsight, the LTTE, the UNP, the TNA, as well as a section of the Western community, wrongly asserted that the US wouldn’t assist Sri Lanka in the wake of the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa narrowly defeating UNP presidential candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the November, 2005 presidential election. In fact, the LTTE-TNA engineered Wickremesinghe’s defeat by ordering Tamil speaking people not to exercise their franchise, in support of either Rajapaksa or Wickremesinghe. That directive was meant to deprive Wickremesinghe of the Tamil vote. They felt what had been then perceived as an international safety net comprising the US, India and EU wouldn’t be available to Sri Lanka following the change of government. They never realised the readiness of President Rajapaksa, as well as his brother, Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, to work closely with the US. The relationship automatically influenced the EU as well as India’s position on Sri Lanka. Unlike the vacillating Wickremesinghe, the Rajapaksas weren’t hesitant to go ahead with a security agreement (Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement aka ACSA) with the US.
US-SL logistical agreement
Sri Lanka and the US signed a deal to give reciprocal logistical support for the military forces of the two countries, on March 5, 2007. The finalisation of the ACSA coincided with the launch of the 57 Division on the Vanni Central front. The 57 Division was the first fighting formation to commence ground operations, west of the A9 road.
The 10-year agreement provided a framework for increased interoperability of the forces of the two countries. The then US Ambassador, Robert Blake, and Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, signed the agreement.
After having finalised the agreement, Ambassador Blake’s office said: "The Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) will allow the United States and Sri Lanka to transfer and exchange logistics supplies, support, and re-fueling services, either in kind or at cost, during peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations and joint exercises."
US-SL pact to thwart ICC
The ACSA came into being four years after the then Premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, reached a bilateral agreement with the US to prevent handing over of their nationals to the International Criminal Court. The EU opposed the US move. The US move was prompted by fears that the ICC could engage in politically motivated prosecutions of US political as well as military leaders. The US entered into similar agreements with many countries, including regional powers, India and Pakistan.
Although the US had discussed the ACSA with Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader didn’t want to go ahead with it for political reasons. Wickremesinghe delayed his decision until the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga seized three key ministries, leading to parliamentary polls in April, 2004. The US -Sri Lanka relationship surprised many. Although some believed the US could rescind its decision to hand over the USCGS Courageous in the wake of change of government, it went ahead with the transfer in June, 2004. The vessel departed from the US for Sri Lanka in February 2005. The US ship (P 621) bolstered Sri Lanka’s aging fleet of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), which hunted down floating LTTE arsenal on the high seas. Of the eight LTTE ships sunk, the US provided the intelligence required to track down the last four on September 10, 11, 2007, and Oct 7, 2007. Could we forget that the US intelligence on LTTE ships followed the ACSA agreement, though it wasn’t in anyway meant to exchange intelligence.
The US and Sri Lanka should examine the war-time relationship and make an honest assessment without being influenced by furore over accountability issues here. The swift arrest and handing over of a hardcore al Qaeda suspect, taking refuge in Sri Lanka during Premier Wickremesinghe’s administration, to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), earned Sri Lanka a place among the countries involved in extraordinary rendition (extrajudicial transfer of people from one country to another). The whereabouts of the person handed over to the CIA is not known, though the possibility of him being held at Guantanamo Bay military detention facility cannot be ruled out.
For want of understanding on the part of the US and Sri Lanka, the relationship has turned sour today.
Ratmalana airbase, home to No 8 Light Transport Squadron: Beechcraft takes off on a night reconnaissance mission. During eelam war IV, Beechcraft carried out nearly 1,900 missions. (Top) The then Director of Air Operations, AVM Kolitha Gunatilleke (incumbent SLAF Commander, Gunatilleke holds the rank of Air Marshal) greets US Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith at an airbase capable of accommodating C-130 (in the background). Lt. Col. Smith played a vital role in enhancing relations between the two countries. (pics courtesy SLAF)