An air force jet lifts off from Colombo airport's sole runway. Photo AFP
The assault on the Sri Lanka Air Force base and the adjoining international airport at Katunayake last week by the Liberation Tigers’ resulted in the destruction of several military aircraft as well as airliners of the national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines. Structural damage was also inflicted on the airbase’s facilities. At best, the LTTE attack has cost the Sri Lankan government an estimated half a billion dollars. At worst, it could set the economy back years, some Sri Lankans fear. Three brand-new Airbus jets belonging to Sri Lanka Airlines were destroyed while a further three were badly damaged. Nearly 20 military bombers and helicopters were also destroyed or damaged.
The spectacular attack, in which a small LTTE commando unit achieved a measure of destruction far out of proportion to both its numbers and firepower, drew condemnation from Britain, the United States and belatedly, the United Nations’ Secretary General. “We deplore the decision by the LTTE to attack the international airport. We urge the Tamil Tigers not to resume terrorist attacks,” the US State Department said in a statement. “The attack demonstrates the LTTE’s ability and willingness to select targets without regard for the safety of civilians, including tourists,” it said.
Going by publicly stated and privately expressed comments, the Western outrage over the LTTE’s assault apparently stems from the basis (i) a civilian airport and airliners were attacked; (ii) the Sri Lankan economy is (more) clearly being targeted.
However, a closer look at American military doctrine and practice demonstrates that the United States’ indignation over both these issues is somewhat hypocritical. Furthermore as a NATO partner and long-standing ally, Britain too accepted and has supported these aspects of US strategy. An examination of Western approaches to targets like Katunyake therefore puts the criticism in context.
Firstly, a brief description of the airbase/port is necessary. The facility at Katunayake is both a civilian airport and the SLAF’s main base on the island. Both bomb-laden military jets and airliners carrying tourists take off and land on the solitary runway. Whilst passenger jets are lined up on the apron immediately in front of the airport’s sole terminal, the warplanes and helicopters of the air force are parked within hangers and on the apron to the right of this terminal.
Katunayake is said to be the home of the SLAF’s recently acquired Russian and Israeli-manufactured fighter bombers because it has the only runway long enough to handle these supersonic aircraft when carrying a full bomb load.
Accordingly, and despite the proximity of the civilian terminal, the airbase holds stockpiles of jet fuel and high explosive bombs. The military significance of the site is reflected in the substantial resources allocated to its defences. Apart from the firepower of the aircraft themselves - including the Mi-24 gunships, the location was protected by over one thousand personnel from the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), Navy (SLN) and specially trained fighting units of the SLAF (comprising 350 men and women last week).
The US is particularly familiar with the dual nature of the Katunayake installation. A 17-member team from Sixth Special Operations Squadron of the United States Air Force (USAF) had a joint exercise with the SLAF here. It was on Search and Rescue (SAR) operations (hoist operations, SAR patterns and formation training), Maintenance Training, Survival Training, Special Tactics Training and Flight Doctor Duties in Support of Medical Evacuation.
Meanwhile, Katunayake is also Sri Lanka’s sole international airport, serving both as an entry point into the country for tourists, but also as a transit hub for travellers enroute to the Far East and Maldives. It is the home airport of the national carrier and the hub of its cargo operations.
As a result, Katunyake simultaneously serves a dual purpose: a civilian airport and active military airbase for the SLAF. So how should such targets which are used by a state’s military forces as well as ordinary civilians be categorised by a potential aggressor? In considering its approach to these matters during its military undertakings, the United States’ Department of Defense is unambiguous. “When objects are used concurrently for civilian and military purposes, they are liable to attack if there is a military advantage to be gained in their attack,” the DoD says in a report submitted to Congress in the years after the Gulf War.
A US government-funded think tank, RAND, argues in a recent report produced as part of its ‘Project Air Force’ that, “urban environments [often] contain shared military-civilian resources and house dual-use facilities… [US military] planners sometimes view the dual-use nature of infrastructure systems opportunistically, because military usage arguably legitimises these systems as targets.”
“As a result, the United States tends to favor liberal legal interpretations of ‘military objective’ when it comes to [looking at such] dual-use facilities,” says RAND. Whilst studying the course and effects of the 78-day NATO air campaign in 1999- conducted mainly by US and British aircraft - against the Yugoslavian regime of Slobodan Milosevic, RAND concluded last year that the greatest pressures on Yugoslavia for ending the war were caused by NATO’s attacks on ‘dual-use’ fixed targets in Serbia. “In the Kosovo conflict, it was the attacks and threat of attacks on ‘dual-use’ infrastructure targets that generated the decisive pressure [on Yugoslavia] for war termination.”
Indeed, the organisation further forecasts that “the dilemmas stemming from shared civilian-military resources can be expected to increase as greater parts of the world modernize and develop networked infrastructure systems.” Katunyake is a case in point here. Whilst the airport has been around for decades and has hosted some Air Force aircraft, it was only in the late nineties that it was significantly expanded to provide the SLAF with a secure operational centre for its jet bombers.
RAND therefore also recommends to Washington that: “because attacks on ‘dual-use’ infrastructure targets may be the most effective way to coerce enemy decision makers, the United States must not assume binding international obligations that could subject US persons to possible prosecution for attacking targets that responsible US legal authorities have certified to be legitimate military targets.”
Given the military benefit, were the United States’ military, under conditions of war, to have examined the options for a “dual-use” facility like Katunyake, it is certain that destroying the airbase and its aircraft would have taken priority over any difficulties the civilian populace might face.
The issue then becomes whether the airbuses of Sri Lankan Airlines parked on the runway were legitimate targets for an aggressor. The role of this national carrier is pertinent in answering this question. Although partly owned by Emirates, Sri Lankan Airlines is a vital revenue generator for the state.
Apart from providing passenger-based revenues, the airline - with inexpensive ticket prices - boosts dollar-bearing tourism to the island. In doing so, it gathers value as an investment in its own right and, given Colombo’s future privatisation plans, remains an important appreciating asset. Sri Lanka’s cash-strapped government is geared to ensure expenditure on the war is not at risk of cutbacks. Harsh taxation and duties, along with international financial assistance, ensure the billion dollar defence budget remains possible. Sri Lanka Airlines provides the way to capture and maximise the tourist income in this climate.
But would this cause national carriers like Sri Lankan Airlines to be targeted by an aggressor? If the latter were the United States, the answer is, again, quite unambiguous. “Economic targets of the enemy that indirectly but effectively support and sustain the enemy’s war-fighting capability also may be attacked,” the US Department of the Navy says in a 1995 report.
To put the statement in context, the US Navy says that while “military targets are integral components of the enemy’s warmaking capability… economic targets are civilian resources which contribute to the enemy’s warmaking capability.”
By way of clarification, the Navy lists “air bases, supply depots, force movement, troop re-supply, and command, communication & control centres” as examples of military targets and “stock exchanges, financial clearinghouses, electricity plants, petroleum and oil plants” as economic targets. As an interesting aside, “civilian workforce movement,” is also included in the latter.
The complication was clearly demonstrated in the 1999 NATO air campaign Yugoslavia. Having started the systematic bombing of the Serb military, NATO governments persuaded themselves Mr Milosevic would buckle after a few days. “When he didn’t, they escalated the bombing, choosing targets they had not originally intended to strike,” wrote Richard Norton-Taylor in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
“With increasing frustration, at times desperation, they switched from the obvious military targets - air defence systems, ammunition dumps, barracks - to roads and railways and economic targets, including Yugoslavia’s power supplies,” he says. “The definition of legitimate military targets was enlarged by NATO to include radio and television stations.”
NATO chiefs ordered the bombing of non-military targets throughout Yugoslavia despite opposition from allied governments, the supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark told the BBC in an interview. Many civilian facilities, such as a major car manufacturing plant, were bombed by NATO while claiming that this was acceptable because these facilities were used by the military for its purposes.
Under the original plan, NATO bombers were to target air defences first, then military sites such as barracks, and only then non-military and economic targets that would affect civilians. But frustrated with the bombing campaign’s failure to make any serious impact, NATO strategists surreptitiously abandoned their preordained three-phase campaign, striking a range of targets to “really hurt people in Serbia”, as General Clark put it.
“Fuel dumps became a priority. Yugoslavia’s infrastructure, mainly roads, bridges and railways, came under fire. NATO then started attacking economic and industrial targets as well as public utilities and broadcasting stations, arguing that since the military controlled the Yugoslav economy and the media, they were all legitimate targets,” says Norton-Taylor.
Indeed, on April 20, 1999, Italian Brigadier General Giuseppe Marani told reporters at a briefing at NATO headquarters in Brussels that the alliance is selecting targets that are military in nature or serve a dual-use purpose supporting both military and civilian sectors. At the same briefing, NATO’s civilian spokesman Jamie Shea said the alliance will “go after anything which is used to plan, to conceive, to direct what is a campaign of repression in Kosovo.”
Because the legal status of targets turns on the contribution they make to the enemy’s war effort (and on the expected military advantage gained from their neutralization), a legal assessment presumes a theory linking destruction of the targets to strategic goals, says RAND. “The US generally supports interpretations of ‘military objectives’ that include economic targets and infrastructure because their destruction is sometimes thought to undermine an adversary’s ability to sustain operations - as well as its will to do so.”
The US should in future expand the role of the Air Force for this purpose, according to RAND. “There will be growing demand for air power in the attack and defense of economic targets and for economic warfare generally,” the organisation says in a report on the Middle East. “In general, the significance of economic and infrastructure factors in strategic planning for the region could increase markedly.”
But what then of the potential for civilian casualties that the State Department expressed alarm about last week, despite the fact that no non-combatants were killed or wounded in the ten hour firefight between the LTTE unit and the Sri Lankan military? If Kosovo is taken as an example of where the ideals are tested in reality, the results are self-evident: large numbers of civilians died in not only accidental bombings but in attacks on bridges, factories and road.
The Guardian reported that NATO, which soon stopped apologising for mistakes which by its own estimates killed 1,500 civilians and injured 10,000, said that “collateral damage” was inevitable, and the small number of “mistakes” remarkable, given the unprecedented onslaught of more than 20,000 bombs.
How-ever, as the US and British aircraft pounded Serbia, Mary Robinson, the UN human rights commissioner, said NATO’s bombing campaign had lost its “moral purpose.” Referring to the cluster bomb attack on residential areas and market in the Serbian town of Nis, she described Nato’s range of targets as “very broad” and “almost unfocused.”
Interestingly, given NATO’s designation of many locations as ‘military targets,’ Human Rights Watch, which conducted an on-the-spot investigation of the civilian damage from the air campaign, found that more than half the civilian deaths caused by the air campaign resulted from attacks on illegitimate or questionable targets, including targets that were ‘nonmilitary in function’ - at least in HRW’s view. It is particularly important to note that all the “dual-use” targets in Kosovo that the legal analysts at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International criticized as being illegitimate and “nonmilitary” in function were deemed legitimate military targets by the legal officials at the NATO and U.S. command echelons that approved the targets to be attacked in Operation Allied Force, says RAND.
The scenario at Katunayake has yet another dimension, which the international criticism of the LTTE attack has judiciously avoided. As RAND puts it: “probable harm to civilians resulting from military attacks is in part a product of both [conflict] parties’ decisions… Exploiting the discrimination requirement placed on the attacker by deliberately commingling civilians with military targets violates the basic principles of the law of armed conflict.”
To be precise, RAND points out that, “the defending force often has substantial control (whereas the attacker has none) over where military forces and equipment are placed in relation to the civilian population.” This week, tourists and other passengers waiting in the Bandaranaike International airport could watch the surviving SLAF jets depart on sorties in the island’s north and east, loaded with bombs from the armouries in the airbase to the right of their terminal. It remains to be seen whether in the aftermath of the LTTE attack last week, and the continuing conflict, there is any change in the status quo at Sri Lanka’s primary ‘dual purpose’ installation.