Winged terror

Print edition : May 18, 2007

At Kerawalapitiya, near Colombo, a gas storage facility burns after the Air Tigers dropped two bombs on it on April 29.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

The LTTE has, in a span of eight to nine years, built a rudimentary air arm of five aircraft with the attendant infrastructure.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), locked in a battle for survival since the start of the undeclared Eelam War-4 in 2005, fulfilled on March 25 its long-avowed ambition to wield an air arm. Cricket enthusiasts were in high spirits as their team had beaten India three days earlier in the World Cup in the West Indies and was raring to take on South Africa two days later. But the whole nation, awaiting its assertion as the No.1 in world cricket, was rudely shaken up soon after midnight. Two light aircraft flying low over the Katunayake Air Force base, near the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), dropped four bombs, three of which exploded in the Aeronautical Engineering Wing of the air base, killing three airmen and injuring 16 others.

Shockingly, the air base had an hour's warning from security detachments in Vavuniya of unidentified aircraft crossing the forward defended lines. Despite this, except for a lone gunner at the airbase opening anti-aircraft fire blindly into the dark skies, there was no other immediate response. After about 20 minutes, a K-8 trainer aircraft, which has night-flying capability, took off to chase the aircraft. The airport radar at BIA spotted the Air Tigers (in Tamil Vaan Puligal) speeding back along the coast towards Wilpattu in the north. They completed their 500-km-long mission, lasting more than an hour, unscathed because the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had no night-fighting capability.

However, luck did favour the SLAF as the LTTE bombs missed the nearby hangar of the Kfir and Mig-27 fighters, the strike arm of the security forces in the war against the LTTE. However, the air attack damaged two helicopters badly while three others suffered minor damage.

Almost immediately, the pro-LTTE website TamilNet, reporting the air strike, displayed photographs of LTTE air crew taking off in the aircraft, identified as a Czech-built Zlin model Z143L. Another photo showed the Air Tigers' fliers along with LTTE leader Prabakaran. The Air Tigers' daring bomb raid on a security hub in the heart of Colombo's high security zone (HSZ) sent shock waves among the public. Despite brave public statements, it was clear the government was also shaken. Even before either recovered, the LTTE followed up with at least two more successful raids.

In the early hours of April 24, a pair of Air Tiger aircraft dropped two bombs on an engineering unit and a military storage in the Myliddy military complex (near Palali air field) in the Palali HSZ. Troops in the forward defended lines at Nagarkovil and Vettilakeni detected the aircraft flying low along the Kilalai lagoon area before they approached target area. When security forces' anti-aircraft fire prevented them from striking Palali air base, they dropped the payloads on the military locations in Myliddy, killing six security personnel and injuring 30 soldiers. However, the LTTE's attempt to damage the Palali air field failed as military and civilian aircraft started using the airfield a little later.

The Air Tigers probably made another attempt to strike Katunayake air base, on the night of April 27, and failed, following the activation of air defence measures and the firing of anti-aircraft guns at the airport and other vulnerable points. However, the civil airport was closed as a precautionary measure and all flights were diverted to Chennai in India.

The Air Tigers struck for a third time in the early hours of April 29, when two light aircraft bombed the oil storage facility at Kolonnawa and the LPG facility at Muthurajawela near Colombo. While a breached oil pipeline at Kolonnawa caught fire, the LPG facility suffered no damage. The attacking aircraft were driven off by anti-aircraft fire at the airport and other points in the Colombo HSZ. Power supply was switched off, plunging the city into darkness. In the airport, people panicked as flights were cancelled hurriedly and passengers were asked to disembark from aircraft on the runway.

Terrorist and insurgency organisations thrive on myths and legends built around them and their larger-than-life leaders. The LTTE is no exception. With its highly organised propaganda machine in the various forms of media, the LTTE's name creates fear and awe in the minds of the common man. The Black Tigers - the LTTE's suicide warriors - have inspired many other insurgent groups to adopt their technique as a potent weapon of terror. The LTTE's naval arm - the Sea Tigers - has been known for its innovative and daring attacks on conventional naval ships and boats. Now the bards of the LTTE are sure to add the Air Tigers to their repertoire to build new myths about the LTTE's air force.

The reality is that less-than-half-a-dozen light trainer aircraft does not make an air force. Modern air forces have a much broader, deeper and wider spectrum of articulating power in the air offensively and defensively over long ranges with great fire-power. But most of the air forces in the world started off in the early part of the 20th century with a few piston-engine aircraft. Thus, Air Tigers is the seedling of an air force that may never grow to full bloom. And in the hands of a monolithic force like the LTTE, which has neither a worthwhile ideology nor people's participation, adding yet another dimension of power is fraught with danger to not only Sri Lanka but also India.

Even before it emerged as a potent insurgent group, the LTTE had nursed an ambition to develop an air arm. There were reports of its cadre undergoing flying training even when the LTTE was fighting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. It had assembled microlight aircraft, which were lost in the three-year-long bloodletting with Indian troops. In the years that followed, V. Sornalignam alias Shankar, a former aeronautical engineer and a member of the inner circle of the LTTE, worked hard to establish an air wing for the LTTE. The plan suffered a setback with the death of Shankar in a long-range patrol's deep penetration attack in Mullaitivu in 1991. Swarnam then took over the leadership mantle of the air arm.

The air wing came into being in 1995 when the Tigers built an airstrip at Iranamadu tank in the Wanni area. Many cadres were also put through training as pilots in the United Kingdom and France. However, the SLAF bombed the airstrip and put it out of action. The war years thereafter prevented the growth of the air wing beyond marking a presence at the LTTE's martyrs' day celebration on November 27, 1998, near Mullaitivu when a microlight aircraft showered flower petals.

The LTTE probably started developing the air arm seriously in 2000, after it faced the wrath of the SLAF fighters supporting the Army's thrust in the north. From 2003 onwards, the LTTE put a number of cadres through flying schools in a number of countries, including the Czech Republic, France, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and the U.K. It also probably procured at least two Zlin aircraft and its spares in this period.

Between 2003 and 2004, Intelligence reports confirmed the completion of a runway at Iranamadu. The 1.2-kilometre runway is said to be suitable even for big aircraft such as the C 130 Hercules transport aircraft carrying a 15-tonne payload. The Sri Lanka government, perhaps lulled by the bonhomie after the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) it signed with the LTTE in 2002, did not react strongly to these reports. During the first two years of the ceasefire, the LTTE brought supplies in large shipments with the knowledge of the peace monitors and the government. During the massive relief operations after the tsunami in December 2004, many containers of relief material were rushed to areas under LTTE control. It would be logical to construe that the LTTE clandestinely brought in most of the aircraft, in knocked-down condition, and spares in this period. Confirming this, the breakaway LTTE leader Karuna said four or five aircraft were smuggled in after the ceasefire came into force.

However, in January 2005 an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle of the SLAF spotted a light aircraft at Iranamadu. The SLAF also believes that the LTTE has acquired electronic air defence systems to protect its airstrip and air assets; flares sensitive to the presence of air defence missile systems were triggered off automatically on SLAF helicopters near Iranamadu on two different occasions.

The then President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the then Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, drew the attention of a number of governments, including those of the U.S. and India, to the LTTE's development of air capability. They also protested to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). Hagrup Haukland, head of the SLMM, speaking at a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Colombo on May 26, 2005, said the LTTE's reported acquisition of aircraft disturbed the balance of power on which the ceasefire rested and thus violated the ceasefire. Both India and the U.S. expressed their strong concern at the development, but to no avail.

Since early 2006, the SLAF has been carrying out air strikes regularly on the LTTE's air assets at Iranamadu and Pudukudiruppu. In a bid to justify the air action during the ceasefire, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse held a briefing for foreign envoys on November 17, 2006. He highlighted the government's concern over the emergence of the LTTE air arm and briefed the envoys about the movement of a small aircraft at Iranamadu on November 6, 2006. The radar system indicated that the aircraft covered a distance of 39 nautical miles (72 kilometres). It was believed to be on a training mission. This information also drew a strong reaction from the U.S., which expressed its concern, but the LTTE paid little heed to it.

In March 2007, Sri Lanka's defence intelligence services reported that a second 1.25-km-long airstrip southeast of Pudukudiruppu near Mullaitivu was ready for use by light aircraft. Despite the sustained pounding of Iranamadu by SLAF aircraft, the airstrip had been repaired and made operational. Both airstrips had air defence systems installed. By now there was no doubt that the LTTE had an air arm that remained unaffected by repeated SLAF action. The question was when and how it would be used in an operation.

There are operational limitations that would make it more and more difficult for the Air Tigers to continue to enjoy the freedom of the skies for their operations. The three air raids have shown progressively diminishing results as security forces have tightened up their air defence procedures and systems to respond effectively in time. However, the LTTE, which is known for its tenacity in the face of adversity, could use its air power more innovatively and dramatically for a shock effect. One such innovation could be to find a method to launch rockets with an improvised rocket pod. Another could be the use of incendiary fillers in bombs to set fire to targets.

The Army Commander Lt.-Gen. Sarath Fonseka had tried to pooh-pooh the impact of the Air Tigers' attacks on operations. After the Jaffna attack, he was quoted as saying on television: "These light planes can't do much damage. It is a joke. You can drop a bomb from any flying thing. Even tossing a grenade while riding a swing is an `air attack'." While the General is factually correct, he does not appear to have understood the impact the air strikes have had on the public mind. The public had been feeling comfortable in the glow of the Sri Lanka security forces' successes in 2006. This heightened the popular expectation of the security forces continuing their success in 2007.

In this ambience, the repeated air attacks from an enemy supposed to be on the run have sown doubts in people's minds about the competency of the security forces. Tourist arrivals are tapering off; air operators are calling off flights; and hotels are going empty. This kind of negative publicity has a snowballing effect, gathering mass and momentum every time the Air Tigers' planes appear in the sky and get away, even though they might inflict no major damage. With three attacks, after which they have got away unscathed, they have ceased to be a `joke' in the public mind.

In a hospital near Colombo, a soldier wounded in the Air Tigers' strike on March 25 night being taken for treatment. Two officers were killed.-ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

The security forces need to show some urgent results that would draw some blood from the Air Tigers. This requires a number of measures to be taken not only by the security forces but the administration as well. For instance, only the runway divides the international airport from the Katunayake air base. Any calamity in one, not just an air strike, can put the other out of action. As experienced in 2001, a terrorist attack on the air base can draw blood from the civilian airport. There is an urgent need to move one of them. The proposal to shift the air base has been gathering dust for some time in the bureaucratic corridors of the government.

There appears to be a lot of confusion in the passive air defence (PAD) measures and drills that are in place. Good PAD is complimentary to an active air defence system. This requires a great deal of coordination and rehearsals for fine-tuning the details. Of course, human intelligence on LTTE air power has been grossly inadequate. There appears to be an over-dependence on technology to acquire intelligence. Only human intelligence in tandem with techint can yield results against the LTTE, which is known for its deception. The security forces are still clueless about where the LTTE aircraft are based. Similarly, there is no definite information about where they are launching the air missions from.

Of course, there is no end to introducing better air defence systems and weapons. But more can be achieved at less cost if the man behind the weapon performs better. The tinge of casualness seen in those manning vital functions in high security zones should be wiped out. That can come with better discipline, training and accountability only. The danger of having summary powers under national emergency is that security forces cease to be accountable. This is the self-destructive threat security forces face in prolonged operations.

The LTTE's air power was not articulated overnight. It has used its worldwide network to choose the right aircraft, negotiate the price, finance the purchase of the aircraft and essential spares, procure fuel and lubricants, and organise the logistics to move them stealthily to the Wanni jungle hideouts. The LTTE had to assemble the aircraft from the knocked-down condition, carry out trials, get the maintenance done to keep them airworthy and operationally ready.

Such a gigantic scheme requires special organisational skills. For carrying out operational missions mere skill in flying is not adequate. The pilots need to be trained in flying manoeuvres, techniques to evade radar detection, besides target identification and the specific skill required for bombing. The LTTE has used its foreign links to carry out each of these activities successfully to form its minuscule air arm. This achievement reveals the LTTE's ability to meet its ends at all costs and also points to the permissive global environment in which terrorist groups operate with impunity. So, what does the emergence of an air arm in the hands of the LTTE mean to the international community in its war on terror?

* By creating its own air arm in gross violation of the Cease Fire Agreement it signed in 2002, the LTTE has made a mockery of the international effort to bring peace to Sri Lanka. It has exposed the limitations of a ceasefire agreement not supported with an enforcing authority.

* That the LTTE diabolically exploited the years of ceasefire to build its air arm has further eroded its international credibility. Of course, credibility was never the strong point of the LTTE. The birth of the air arm from of the embers of a charred CFA only confirms this. This raises the basic question: How far can the LTTE be trusted to uphold any future agreement? To prevent such a situation from arising, appropriate safeguards by a suitable international authority will probably be required as part of any future agreement.

* The LTTE's building up of air power had been in the knowledge of the international community, but it did not take any effective action despite the possibility of the LTTE using the air arm against a legally constituted government. This, perhaps, underlines the limitations of depending upon the international community for collective action. Nations of the region, in this case South Asian nations, could play a more proactive role to work out collective strategy to handle situations that impinge upon their security.

* The LTTE has, in a span of eight to nine years, built a rudimentary air arm of five aircraft with the attendant infrastructure. Though it has been listed as a foreign terrorist organisation in the United States and is banned in many countries, its propaganda machinery has been working overtime. A number of cases of forced LTTE `tax collection' from the Tamil diaspora have come to light. Yet, international action to curb the LTTE from using foreign soil to further its war efforts and terrorist acts has been tardy. The international set-up of the LTTE is vital to prop up its war effort in Sri Lanka. If the international community genuinely desires peace it has to rip the LTTE's international support network and pressure the Sri Lanka government to work out an equitable political solution.

Benign neglect, except perhaps in commerce, has been the visible manifestation of India's policy prescription towards Sri Lanka in general and the Tamil conflict in particular ever since India pulled out of Sri Lanka in 1990. This is evident from the fact that despite a number of acts of kidnapping and killing of fishermen, the seizure of large quantities of explosives and material required for making weapons, and three air strikes by a rogue air force in less than an hour's flying time, all that India has done publicly is to issue one tepid statement after another. If India has been working on other strategies nobody seems to know what they are because lack of transparency has characterised India's foreign policy for a long time.

Its singular Pakistan orientation prevented India from turning its eyes towards Sri Lanka in the past. Now it seems to be immersed in developing all-embracing India-U.S. relations. India's foreign policy with regard to Sri Lanka has to be on the merits of a unique religious, social, cultural and linguistic bond that has tied the destinies of the two countries. Unfortunately, India appears to have ceded its interest in this regard to conform to the dispensations worked out with the U.S. and its allies, who are underwriting the current Sri Lanka peace process.

Despite a number of invitations to India to get involved more closely in Sri Lanka from all quarters in the country, India has shown a marked reluctance. As a result, India's role even on issues involving its vital interests in Sri Lanka has progressively been marginalised. While India may relish the glorified company of more affluent nations, does it serve India's national interest in Sri Lanka?

The Indian government's action on day-to-day issues involving Sri Lanka and the LTTE appear to be guided by the sole thought of keeping the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu and an important member of the ruling coalition at the Centre, in good humour. While this could be a compulsion of coalition politics, it sends the wrong signals to those actively involved in governance at the ground level.

The LTTE is a military machine and does not bother with the nuances of backroom politics. So it does not depend upon political rhetoric. It bankrolls the gaps to buy influence and power. If this sounds alarmist, it is good to remember what the Jain Commission report said about the significance of the very same subject in 1989:

"[T]he perpetuation of the general political trend of indulging the Tamil militants on Indian soil and tolerance of their wide-ranging criminal and anti-national activities... LTTE activities of arms smuggling, abduction of Indian citizens and officials and intimidation of the law enforcement machinery were tolerated."

In the existing political environment in India, the LTTE might not find it easy to repeat its 1989 performance. It is under tremendous operational pressure with the Sri Lanka Security Forces at its gates and the sea-lanes of supply proving increasingly unsafe. Thus it has to look to Tamil Nadu for sourcing supplies. If this need overtakes other considerations, the LTTE may well turn back to the basics of 1989.If Sri Lanka carries out military operations unmindful of the suffering caused to the Tamil population, it will help the LTTE regain its influence in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu, unfortunately, does not appear to be ready for such an onslaught on its security. Hot war in Sri Lanka had been raging since December 2005. In spite of that, the security machinery in the State is being cranked up only now. It is difficult to believe that the Centre and the State had ignored the possibility of the LTTE using Tamil Nadu as a source of supply to progress in the war. Similarly, the creation of a coastal security network has been treated, until recently, as a routine matter.

The ever-increasing LTTE-related activity in Tamil Nadu indicates that the organisation has been cashing in on the lethargy of the system. The Tamil Nadu police and the Coast Guard have continued to seize huge quantities of explosives, metal bars, boosters for explosives, components for improvised explosive devices, and iron balls used in Claymore mines and explosives destined for the LTTE. More than 50 suspects have been rounded up. However, the casualness with which the issue continues to be treated should warm the cockles of the LTTE's heart.

Coming to the specifics of the situation created by the activation of the Air Tigers, India has a national security responsibility to ensure that an air arm outside the pale of international law does not appear on the horizon in the vicinity of India's airspace. India's lackadaisical attitude towards the Sea Tigers' operations in the Palk Straits has led to the loss of lives and kidnapping of Indian citizens. Now, when the LTTE aircraft bombed the oil installations near Colombo, they were bombing part of the assets of a company owned by the Government of India. It is high time India sent a clear message to the LTTE that it has to curb its air and sea activity in India's vicinity.

Of course, India has a moral responsibility to help the Tamils find a just solution to their age-old grievances. This would involve India getting into the murky world of peace-making in Sri Lanka. But India cannot abrogate to the Scandinavians its responsibility to ensure that peace and security reigns in its neighbourhood. At the same time, India has to improve its confidence level with President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government to assure him that his just efforts to ensure the unity of the country would find India's support provided every citizen's democratic rights are assured.

Translated into the current situation, it means assisting the Sri Lankan security forces to make them operationally competent while the Sri Lanka government introduces a viable political solution addressing Tamil grievances and providing an equitable solution to all communities.

As regards the support systems for the Air Tigers that might operate from India, keeping a strict vigil on aviation training, smuggling of fuel and lubricants, sale of aircraft spares, manufacture of essential parts for rockets, improvised explosives and so on, would make it extremely difficult to smuggle them to the LTTE. This would involve coordination of Central and State Intelligence agencies, aviation engineering and flying establishments, and the police and coastal security systems. The sooner we do this the better because the LTTE has added a new dimension to terror.

Col. R Hariharan, an intelligence specialist on South Asia, is a retired Military Intelligence officer. He served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, 1987-90.

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