28 March 2007
The Liberation Tigers’ bombing raid on the main Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) airbase at Katunayake last Monday has signalled what one security analyst has termed a new phase in the island’s protracted conflict.
Other commentators, on the other hand, have questioned the efficacy of the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF). They point to the limited firepower of a handful of light aircraft in comparison to SLAF’s fleet of powerful jet fighter-bombers. Some have argued this has been further reduced by the loss of the element of surprise.
But this analysis not only misconstrues the specific capabilities the TAF adds to the LTTE’s military options, but also misses underlying lessons about the LTTE’s strategic growth that the fielding of an air force, no matter how small, outlines.
To begin with, the TAF was never intended to take the SLAF head on in air-to-air combat.
Instead the TAF is intended to augment the LTTE’s ground and sea fighting capabilities by providing three new capabilities:
(i) attack targets that are otherwise inaccessible either due to their distance from the frontlines or the presence of substantial defences and impediments on the ground,
(ii) enhance the rapid gathering and verification of battlefield and strategic intelligence, and
(iii) transfer key assets, including personnel and specialist equipment, rapidly across the island.
Secondly, by compelling the Sri Lankan military and government to contend with and respond to the LTTE’s possession of these options, the TAF raises the cost of waging war against the LTTE and also constraints some of the options hitherto available to Colombo.
In the latter regard, the TAF undoubtedly seeks to deter, through the possibility of comparable retaliation in kind, some of the tactics used by Sri Lankan military in the northeast.
The TAF’s first (acknowledged) combat operation last Monday was, as international security analysts have pointed out, a feat of considerable skill and competence, not only for the aircrew involved, but for the commanders who planned and controlled the raid from their operation centre in Vanni.
Two LTTE aircraft took off from a jungle airstrip, accurately hit the SLAF’s most heavily defended installation and returned to base. The entire operation was conducted at night.
The issue is not whether Sri Lanka’s parked aircraft escaped or not on Monday – and amidst the government imposed blackout, the matter remains inconclusive – but the demonstration that the LTTE can launch strikes against specific targets on the ground anywhere in the island with considerably greater ease than before.
A cursory survey of the major military and economic targets, particularly outside the northeast, which have been attacked in the past two decades by the LTTE using its ground or sea assets reveals the edge an airborne option now gives it.
Key installations, potentially anywhere in the island, including military bases and other sites that contribute to Sri Lanka’s war economy can no longer rely solely on adequate defence of their perimeters on the ground.
The military’s supply routes moving personnel and equipment to and from the northern battlefronts are much more vulnerable as bridges, culverts, roads and railway tracks far from the frontlines are now within range of an LTTE strike.
So are manufacturing sites, storage depots and marshalling yards.
This is not to say all these targets are automatically vulnerable, but they certainly are less secure than before: simply being located too far away from the frontlines or behind layers of ground protection is no longer sufficient.
And the LTTE’s loss of the element of surprise does not diminish the need for Sri Lanka to implement countermeasures.
There is consequently greater pressure on the Sri Lankan military to provide adequate protection both to its own installations and others that are vital to the war economy.
The military’s anti-aircraft capability needs to be simultaneously expanded at a considerable number of sites across the island.
But it also needs to adequately disperse its assets, rather than relying on the inaccessibility of key stockpiles and assembly points. This further raises the strain of defence against air attack.
Meanwhile, as one defence analyst has already pointed out, even the Navy’s larger warships, hitherto operating in the safety provided by distance from the shore and a screen of gunboats, also have a new threat to contend with.
Harbours heavily reinforced against LTTE sea borne attacks are no longer sufficient protection either.
Secondly, the LTTE’s ability to put observers in the air and move them rapidly across the battlefield means that the gathering and verification of intelligence, both tactical and strategic, is considerably enhanced.
The Sri Lankan military therefore now now has to contend with greater needs for concealment and dispersal, while the element of surprise on which offensive operations often crucially rely is potentially harder to retain than before.
Thirdly, the use of aircraft allows the LTTE to move key assets, including personnel and specialist equipment, across the island with greater ease, simply bypassing complex security measures and other impediments on the ground.
Even after Monday’s airstrike, some eyewitnesses claimed, for example, that parachutists were seen descending in the skies over Colombo.
Although the LTTE has released pictures of one plane, the number and type of aircraft in its possession are a matter of speculation.
For some time there have been claims of small helicopters as well as fixed wing planes being operated by the LTTE. If true, these make a considerable difference to the Tigers’ ability to move personnel and equipment into and out of government-controlled areas.
Notably, the actual number of aircraft in the LTTE’s possession are not relevant to these kinds of operations. Indeed, unless the LTTE wanted to mount several simultaneous operations, a couple of planes would suffice.
But the most striking aspect of the TAF is that it emerged at all.
Some analysts have posited the emergence of the Tiger air force as a natural and logical extension of the LTTE’s fighting capability. The LTTE is famously the only non-state military to field a substantial naval arm, the ‘Sea Tigers.’
But there is nothing inevitable about the emergence of the ‘Air Tigers.’ In fact there is every reason for such an endeavour to be nigh impossible now.
Although the LTTE claimed an air force as long ago as 1998 and the foundations for it being laid by Colonel Shankar, assassinated by Sri Lankan commandos in 2001, it is only in recent years that the TAF has been properly constituted.
But this period coincides with the most concentrated and extensive effort by the Sri Lankan government and its international allies to squeeze the LTTE’s ocean going supply lines and shut down its financial and other operations around the world.
Indeed, the post 9/11 era, with its attendant global anti-terrorism drives, has arguable been the most difficult period in which the LTTE has had to develop any of its military capabilities.
That it was able to acquire the sophisticated equipment, the supplies and, especially, the extensive know-how to run an air force, not matter how small, is no mean feat.
A cursory survey of the kinds of skills and equipment needed to stage even a two-plane air force reveals the magnitude of the task.
Apart from the planes themselves, an air force needs radar, communication systems, and a range of avionics. It also needs the equipment to repair and upgrade all this, as well as the planes themselves.
The skillsets required to operate even a propeller driven air force go well beyond simply pilots - the aircrew themselves need to be trained in air-to-ground combat, including low-level and night flying.
And on the ground technicians are needed for each aspect of the aircraft and support equipment and armourers for the different types of ordnance being used.
Air to ground operations are complex activities requiring extensive training and practice.
Supporting even a single airstrike requires radar operators, communication personnel and operational planning and control staff.
Behind the handful of pilots pictured with the LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan in photographs released this week are hundreds of other skilled personnel.
In launching a single airstrike against the SLAF base in Katunayake, the LTTE has demonstrated that it has acquired many of these skills and the capacity to reproduce and extend these.
The sheer scale of this institutional exercise is demonstrated by the extent of the external support that Sri Lanka relies on for its own air operations.
Colombo relies heavily on the facilities and know-how of friendly air forces, especially those of India and Pakistan, to train its pilots and other personnel.
Despite being 18,000 strong, the SLAF still relies heavily on foreign personnel, again especially from Pakistan and India, in day-to-day operations.
Pakistani Air Force officers are, according to Indian security analysts, coordinating SLAF air-to-ground operations against the LTTE whilst Indian personnel are reportedly manning some of Sri Lanka’s radars.
Contractors from Ukraine and Israel are reportedly helping SLAF operate and maintain some of its aircraft.
Thus while SLAF can readily call on Sri Lanka’s extensive military relationships for expertise and support, especially since the turn of the century, there have been considerable international constraints on the acquisition of military capacity by non-state actors of any political persuasion.
Except, of course, those enjoying state patronage.
The LTTE is a notable exception in this regard, not having the backing of a single state but the undisguised hostility of several powerful ones.
And astute observers have noted this is the crucial message that the LTTE has sent Colombo with its heavily publicised airstrike Monday: not only is it now able to conduct such raids; it has been able to acquire this ability despite the pointed efforts of the Sri Lanka government and its allies to prevent it.
Sri Lanka’s war has entered a new phase.