Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Once proud No 12 MiG squadron is no more




No 12 squadron pilots during the Eelam War IV (Aug 2006-May 2009) Pic courtesy The Aerial Tribute

By Shamindra Ferdinando

President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, awarded President’s Colour to No 07 helicopter and No 08 light transport squadrons at a spectacular parade held, at the Hingurakgoda SLAF base on March 02, 2019.

The President’s Colour is the highest accolade a military establishment/formation can receive once it completes 25 years of service to the nation.

The awarding of President’s Colour coincided with the 68th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

Since the successful conclusion of the conflict, in May 2009, several SLAF formations, including the celebrated No 10 Kfir squadron, received President’s Colour.

However, the No 12 squadron, formed in support of the No 10, is undoubtedly the most controversial SLAF unit. Nearly a decade after Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the No 12 squadron, that comprised Ukrainian MiG 27s, still attracts both print and electronic media. Acquisition of a section of MiG 27s, during the Rajapaksa presidency, has been widely claimed as one of the biggest frauds perpetrated by the war-winning administration. Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and political appointee, then Sri Lankan Ambassador in Moscow, Udayanga Weeratunga, have been blamed for what the critics called blatantly fraudulent MiG deal.

Some alleged the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, on the Attidiya Road, close to Bakery Junction, on the morning of January 08, 2009, was the direct result of that newspaper’s coverage of the MiG deal. Veteran The Sunday Times columnist, Iqbal Athas, dealt with the Rajapaksa era MiG deal, assassination of Wickrematunga and threats to his own life in the wake of explosive The Times revelations as regards the MiG deal, in a speech Athas delivered at the recent inauguration of the Sri Lanka Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR).

The Consultant Editor, Defence Correspondent and Political Editor Athas told the gathering at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute: "There was more disturbing news just two weeks before Lasantha Wickrematunga was murdered. A very highly placed source asked me to get out of the house that very night. I flew to Thailand. I had spent long stints there living in an apartment cooking food, washing clothes and working online. The next morning, my driver who was alerted, saw a man with an oversized bush shirt moving outside my house in a motorcycle. When there was strong blowing, the bottom part of the shirt went up. There was a pistol on his waist. The driver noted the registration number. I checked it on a secure phone from Bangkok. The registration plate belonged to a lorry. When the so-called Yahapalana government came to power, they set up the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). I made a statement to them in early 2015 and investigations began."

The media quoted CIR Executive Director Dilrukshi Handunetti, a former colleague of the writer, as having said: "The Centre is a collective effort of a group of journalists and media trainers who wish to raise the bar in Sri Lankan journalism. The Centre is conceptualized and driven by Sri Lankan journalists for journalists here."

In spite of the Fort Magistrate issuing a warrant for Udayanga Weeratunga’s arrest over his alleged involvement in the MiG deal, the suspect continues to evade court. It would be pertinent to mention that in the wake of explosive The Sunday Times revelations, the then SLFP heavyweight Mangala Samaraweera, in March 2007, lodged a complaint with the CIABOC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption) as regards what he called corrupt MiG deal. The incumbent government cannot neglect its duty to bring judicial proceedings into Lasantha Wickrematunga’s assassination as well as the MiG deal to successful conclusions. In addition to Lasantha Wickrematunga’s assassination, and the MiG deal, several other high profile cases, including the abduction and brutal assault on The Nation Deputy Editor Keith Noyahr allegedly by members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (May 22, 2008),attempt on the life of ‘Rivira’ editor Upali Tennakoon (January 23, 2009), disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda on the eve of the January 26, 2010, presidential election, and alleged abduction and murder of 11 Tamil youth in the period, 2008-2009 remained to be dealt with.

Those who had been at the helm of the previous government, too, certainly owed an explanation to the people as regards the accusations made against them. The SLAF, too, should come clean with the public regarding the MiG deal if it did play a role in a clandestine project. The issue here is whether Sri Lanka acquired MiG from a third party whereas the public were told it was a government to government transaction. In a country, where the Central Bank was ‘robbed’ twice in 2015 and 2016 large scale misappropriation of public funds, relating to military procurement, cannot be ruled out; hence the need for proper investigation and verification procedures, though the entire deal amounted to only several million dollars, and those aircraft did play a pivotal role in the final phase of the war.

Against the backdrop of corruption charges directed at those responsible for the MiG deal, it would be pertinent to discuss jet operations with the focus on MiGs.

An additional jet squadron

Let me examine the circumstances under which the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga acquired MiG 27s in 2000 in the wake of LTTE rapidly increasing its conventional military power in the northern theatre. SLAF acquired six MiG 27s and a MiG trainer. The newly acquired aircraft were assigned to the No 05 squadron consisting of Chinese F7s. All jet squadrons throughout the war were based at Katunayake, the only genuine facility capable of handling of jet operations. But, towards the end of the combined security forces campaign on the Vanni east front, the SLAF deployed two MiG 27s at the China Bay air base to thwart possible attempt to rescue LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The pair of MiGs was there for six weeks.

MiGs were acquired four years after Sri Lanka took delivery of Kfirs, a renowned Israeli product. Both Kfirs and MiG 27s were acquired during Kumaratunga’s presidency. SLAF resumed jet operations in 1991 after a lapse of a decade, with the acquisition of two Chinese FT5 jet trainers, one FT7 jet trainer and four F7B basic single-seater jets.

Much earlier the SLAF acquired MiG 15 and MiG 17 from the then Soviet Union in the wake of the first JVP inspired insurgency in 1971. They were phased out in 1981 – two years before the war erupted in the north with the elimination of a lightly armed mobile patrol at Thinnaveli, Jaffna.

At the time the SLAF took delivery of six MiG 27s and one MiG trainer, in 1999, the No 10 squadron comprised 12 Kfirs. However, SLAF couldn’t fully exploit jet power though they were used in both northern and eastern theaters of operations.

Later, the No 05 squadron comprised exclusively Chinese jets whereas No 12 squadron consisted of MiGs.

In the wake of the change of the Kumaratunga administration, in Dec 2001, the US stepped in with vital advice in respect of overall deployment of armed forces against the LTTE. An unprecedented US assessment of the Sri Lankan military followed a meeting the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe had with President Bush in Washington. The US made several recommendations in respect of No 10 and No 12 squadrons, in addition to No 09 attack helicopter squadron that comprised Mi 24 gunships. Interestingly, Mi 24s were initially attached to the Hingurakgoda based 401 squadron, subsequently named No 07 squadron which received President’s Colour on March 02, 2019.

The US found fault with both No 10 and No 12 squadrons. The US report seen by The Island pointed out a spate of shortcomings as regards operations undertaken by them. The report revealed that in spite of having Kfirs and MiGs, the government and the SLAF top brass never bothered to procure the required weapons systems/ammunition for them. On the basis of testimony of both Army and SLAF personnel, the US pointed out the failure on the part of No 10 and No 12 squadrons to destroy targets. The US also asserted that unguided high explosive or ‘dumb’ iron bombs used by jets couldn’t achieve the desired results. The US recommended acquisition of cluster bombs as well as guided weapons for both No 09 and then No 10 squadron. The US stressed that guided weapons systems for No 09 squadron was high priority as Mi 24s were tasked to take targets close to ground forces. The US also recommended expansion of arsenal available to the jet squadrons.

In spite of the US advice, the then UNP led United National Front (UNF) government did nothing to enhance the firepower or capabilities of the military. The UNF engaged in six rounds of peace talks under the auspices of the Norwegians until the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003. The UNP endangered vital national security interests. The UNP leadership conveniently forgot the armed forces’ requests for various armaments, including additional jets.

The government blindly reiterated its commitment to the Norway-led peace talks. The LTTE assassinated the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on the night of Aug 12, 2005, at his Bullers Lane residence in Colombo. The Kumaratunga government assured Western powers that it would remain in the peace process. The Norwegians continued their efforts. The LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, on the afternoon of April 25, 2006, within the Army Headquarters premises. After a lapse of several years, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in consultation with his brother Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, authorized the SLAF to launch Kfirs and Chinese F7s against selected LTTE targets situated in Sampur.

The Rajapaksa administration felt the need to enhance jet squadrons in the wake of large scale fresh hostilities in 2006.

Ukrainian boost for SLAF

The SLAF never managed to secure major armaments from Western governments due to embargoes placed against the country. Italian built Sia Marchetti SF 260s and Sia Marchetti SF 260 W were acquired in 1985 and 1990, respectively. Such aircraft couldn’t meet the SLAF’s requirements in the wake of the LTTE resuming hostilities in June 1990. Argentine built Pucara acquired in 1993 were discarded immediately after the LTTE deployed shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles in April 1995 in the Jaffna peninsula. Having acquired F7 and FT7s in 1991, Kfirs in 1996 and MiG 27 in 2000, the SLAF, at the onset of Eelam War IV, felt the requirement for MiG 27s at that time in service with India and Kazakh forces.

Today, hardly anyone can remember the extreme difficulties experienced by the SLAF in securing spare components for Kfirs’ US-built engine as Israeli sales were subjected to US State Department approval. One-time Air Force Commander Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama following his retirement, in an exclusive interview, explained the difficulties in securing vital spares at the height of the war. Abeywickrama, a former jet pilot, functioned as Director Operations/Air Operations during the Eelam War IV and deeply appreciated the role played by No 10, No 12 and No 05 jet squadrons.

The SLAF acquired MiG 27 as it needed fast ground attack aircraft capable of operating in ‘missile environment.’ The SLAF needed MiGs carrying a heavy payload to perform low level bombing role.

Having examined both MiG 29s and MiG 27s, the SLAF took delivery of four MiG 27s, in June 2000. The Army was struggling on the Northern front in the wake of the humiliating Elephant Pass debacle, in late April 2000. The MiGs carried out their first sortie in early August 2000. During the assault involving three MiGs, the LTTE anti-aircraft fire caused damages to one though it managed to return to Katunayake base. In Oct, the same year, the SLAF took delivery of two more MiG 27s and one dual-seat MiG 23 UB trainer. Ukrainians carried out attacks on the LTTE until the SLAF could gradually takeover the operation. Some Sri Lankans received training in Ukraine.

Ukrainians engaged LTTE targets alongside their Sri Lankan counterparts. They served the SLAF until the UNP signed the controversial Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002. The writer visited the scene of the MiG crash, on Aug 18, 2001 about a mile away from his home at Kurana, Negombo, where the ill-fated aircraft crashed onto a luxury house situated close to the lagoon. The house located less than 100 meters off the Colombo-Negombo road between the 18th milepost (Airport junction) and 20 milepost (Katunayake SLAF base junction) was destroyed. Later, the SLAF admitted Ukrainian Captain L Valeric died while flying very low across the Bandaranaike International Airport runaway and was levelling off and turning towards the Negombo lagoon. He was celebrating the Ukrainian Aviation Day.

An LTTE commando-type raid on the Katunayake airbase, in July 2001, destroyed one MiG 27. Two other aircraft crashed in Dec 2001 and January 2004. The remaining three aircraft were grounded in mid-2004 due to mechanical faults. The political leadership lacked interest in resuming MiG operations. In fact, Sri Lanka neglected urgent military requirements until it was too late. The LTTE resumed Eelam War IV in the second week of August 2006 with simultaneous attacks on northern and eastern fronts.

A failed bid to secure MiGs from India

The SLAF swiftly sought to secure MiGs as it had trained pilots, ground crew and the fighting machine was capable of carrying 3,000 munitions at a time as well as the cost factor. The SLAF needed to enhance jet capability immediately. The LTTE posed a formidable military challenge on the northern front. Sri Lanka requested India for a couple of MiGs. The request was made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa when he visited New Delhi. When India turned down Sri Lanka’s plea, the government, struggling on the war front, had no option but to seek Ukrainian help. Ukraine came to Sri Lanka’s rescue. As the manufacture of MiGs ceased by 1991, there was no alternative but to secure some of the available aircraft as soon as possible and an agreement to overhaul three grounded MiG 27s and MiG 23 UB trainer was reached. Sri Lanka took delivery of MiG 27s in late 2006 and in Dec 2007 the No 12 squadron was formed.

India provided much required pilot training for those assigned for MiGs. Sri Lanka should be grateful for Indian assistance. What would have happened if the SLAF could not enhance its jet capability at the crucial time of military action in the North-East region? None of those who had been preaching Sri Lanka post-war national reconciliation bothered to ask Sri Lanka whether it required urgent military assistance to meet the terrorist threat.

During the Eelam War IV, the SLAF deployed seven MiG 27s, each capable of carrying 3,000 kegs payload. It was the most formidable ground attack aircraft in the SLAF inventory. The Rajapaksa government provided a range of ammunition to enable the jets to achieve targets.

A high profile targeted killing

Soon after the conclusion of the war, the then Air Force Commander, the then Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke authorized the writer to do a series of articles on various SLAF formations. Thanks to Goonetileke, The Island was able to record some of their achievements. His authorization gave The Island access to many senior officers well versed with operations. One of the best was the reportage of a pair of Kfir and MiG carrying out target killing of LTTE Political Wing Leader S.P. Thamilselvam in early Nov 2007.

The then Commanding Officer of No 12 squadron Group Captain Sajeewa Hendawitharane and Commanding Officer of No 10 squadron Wing Commander Shehan Fernando of the No 10 squadron discussed the attack on Thailselvam. Hendawitharane, who led the attack on Thamilselvam, in Kilinochchi, said that the rising sun gave him the much needed ‘cover’ to zero-in on the hideout. "I flew a MiG 27 with Shehan at the controls of a Kfir. We took off at 5.55 a.m. and carried out the bombing 25 minutes later, taking advantage of the sun rise, which gave perfect cover for our mission," he said. Hendawitharane said that they flew on a westerly direction from Iranamadu, east of A 9 and targeted the hideout with a heavy load of bombs.

Then Director of Operations, Air Commodore Harsha Abeywickrema had been confident of Thamilselvam’s presence there on that day, he said, adding that Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetillike had been a tower of strength.

Hendawitharane said that he dived and manually directed four 500 kg bombs at Thamilselvam’s bunker from a height of 1850 feet before the Kfir CO targeted the hideout with four 250 kg bombs. According to him, it was one of three locations identified by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). After a careful study of the terrain with the help of satellite imagery and pictures obtained from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), a pair of jets flying in what Hendawitharane called Panther formation had pulverized the LTTE hideout.

Hendawitharane said that during eelam war IV, his squadron carried out 854 sorties. He estimated the weight of ammunition used by his squadron against the LTTE during this period at 1071 tonnes.

He said that though they used general purpose ammunition against targets, particularly buildings, special ammunition (deep penetration bombs), had been directed at runways. To target runways, the MiGs had dived and bombed from a height of about 100 metres flying at a speed of 1000 kmph, he said, adding that each bomb released at that height had been fitted with a parachute to ensure flying shrapnel wouldn’t hit the bomber.

Wing Commander Fernando said the strike on Thamilselvam was one among many successful operations undertaken by the squadron. He said that he delivered his bomb load at Thamilselvam’s hideout seconds after Hendawitharane did.

The once proud No 12 squadron is no more