By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
They took off from unknown locations within tiger controlled territory in the northern mainland of the Wanni; they flew hundreds of kilometres over hostile territory in the darkness of night ; they flew at low altitude to avoid being spotted on radar; and swooped down suddenly from the skies above their target area; they ejected their bombs on specific targets scoring 70% strike success; they flew back, missions accomplished , as pandemonium reigned below; they returned home and landed to be swallowed up into invisibility; they wait patiently for the next chance to soar again , strike and return home safely.
These were the small aircraft belonging to the fledgling air wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that has defied all odds by conducting three “known” sorties in five weeks. The air wing dubbed Tamil Eelam Air Force (TAF) by the LTTE has dropped bombs on specific targets in Katunayake , Palaly, Myliddy , Kolonnawa and Kerawalapitiya. The extent of damage inflicted by the TAF may be disputed but the awesome shock of it all has rocked the nation.The effect is greater than the cause!
The LTTE’s nascent air wing has actually flown four sorties so far to bomb targets. The first one was on August 11th last year when two planes flew over Palaly and dropped a few bombs. It was a flop as they were all completely off – target. The mission was part of an ambitious bid by the LTTE to paralyse Trincomalee and invade Jaffna peninsula simultaneously. That plan backfired and was aborted. The air attack also failed.
The LTTE was coy about it and did not claim it openly. The LTTE controlled media organs were made to carry a news story that Northern residents had seen two planes flying low. It was reported that rockets were fired at Palaly from the air. LTTE defence spokesman “Marshall” Ilanthiraiyan when asked about it answered indirectly saying the tigers would protect the Tamil people with all available resources on land, sea and air.
The Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) was derisively dismissive. The GOSL said that no planes were sighted and that Palaly was targeted by LTTE artillery from Poonagary. It was as if the LTTE wanted cheap publicity about non – existent aircraft. Since the LTTE did not openly claim an air attack and did not contest the GOSL version most people believed the latter. The LTTE media had tried to pull a fast one it was felt. In retrospect the failed August air attack seems to have been an LTTE trial run.
The second air attack came this year on March 25th. Two planes flew over Katunayake and dropped three bombs each on the Air Force base. Five of them exploded. The Engineering and maintenance facility hangars were specifically targeted. Three air force personnel died and seventeen were injured. Some of the airmen were injured in the firing by colleagues who were blazing away at an enemy they thought was on surface.
The GOSL stated officially that three bombs were dropped and only two exploded. It was claimed that the damage was minimal. The elaborate air defence system was activated and the tiger planes had fled it was claimed. Inspired leaks appeared in Govt friendly media that the radars supplied by India were defective.
Interestingly enough no media persons were shown the damage or lack of damage at Katunayake. Even the SLMM was not allowed. Notwithstanding denials by Colombo informed reports in the Indian media stated that some K-firs and Mi 17 and Mi 24 helicopters were damaged. It was stated that 40 % of aircraft stationed at Katunayake were rendered dysfunctional.
These assertions were hotly denied. In order to prove such observations wrong and also as retaliatory action the tiger controlled areas were bombed ferociously for more than a week. Despite the intensity and frequency of aerial bombardment few K-firs were involved. The MIG ‘s and F – 9’s were the ones sighted by people on ground.
Sections of the media then reported that the LTTE had “night vision” but not the Sri Lankan air forc(SLAF). So the SLAF began night time bombing. Paralights were fired and in the glow bombs were dropped. Though the SLAF has been bombing the Wanni almost daily it was noted that very few K-firs were involved.
After almost a month of aerial bombardment it appeared to sections of the defence establishment that the LTTE had learnt its lesson. The tiger however crouches only to pounce. On April 24 th the TAF flew into action. This time two planes headed north dropping four bombs in the Palaly – Vasavilaan – Kadduvan areas and two in Myliddy.
Residents of Valigamam north and south living in areas around the Palaly – Kankesanthurai – Myliddy high security zone said they had heard a series of explosions. Columns of fire and smoke were visible in the night to people living in Atchuvely, Pathaimeni and Vallalaai areas.
The LTTE claimed that their planes had bombed ammunition dumps, fuel depots, food storage complexes and aircraft maintenance facilities. This was strongly denied by the Govt which said that the planes had fled when an air defence system was activated. Six soldiers were killed and around 30 were injured admitted the Govt.But this was due to a fleeing plane dropping a bomb on a bunker it was said.
Interestingly enough Colombo residents along Galle road observed an unusually high rate of ambulances plying from Ratmalana to the military and national hospitals. The GOSL which is yet to take journalists to Katunayake only seventen miles away from Colombo opted to take selected scribes two hundred and forty miles away to Jaffna by air. Three ministers were also in the contingent.
This team returned and soon the ministers and a few lap dogs were bellowing the GOSL line about the air attack. The watchdogs however remained non – committal. Jeyaraj (no relation) Fernandopulle was hilarious in a BBC interview. He said that the GOSL had conducted more than a hundred air raids while the LTTE had only done two. He also challenged the LTTE to drop bombs at daylight if they dared.
Marshall Ilanthiraiyan who had openly claimed LTTE responsibility for Katunayake attack did so in the case of Palaly – Myliddy too. He also remarked facetiously to media that the LTTE would not launch any air attack “tomorrow” because of the World cup cricket match. Sri Lanka was playing New Zealand in the semi – final on that day. Apparenly even the tigers root for our cricketers it was projected.
This was seized upon by sections of the media and soon people were waxing eloquent about how even Pirapakaran was watching the match and how Cricket was unifying the warring nation. Nothing happened during the semi – final and Sri Lanka entered the final after winning handsomely. Everything was hunky – dory and President Rajapakse went to West Indies to presumably bask in reflected cricketing glory.
But world cup cricket or not, some people had different plans. Even as Colombo and rest of the Country sat glued to their TV sets on April 28th – 29th night SLAF planes flew over the Wanni and dropped eight bombs in Viswamadhu. The bombardment ended at 1.00 am . On the same day at 1. 50 am two TAF planes dropped bombs over the Kolonnawa oil storage complex. They also bombed the LP gas facility in Kerawalapitiya at 2. 05 am.
The quantitative destruction caused by TAF was minimal but the qualitative damage was enormous. Sri Lankans were engrossed in front of their TV’s as Sanath Jayasuria and Kumar Sangakkara were batting when power went off as Colombo’s elaborate air defence system was activated.Power was restored at 3. am but a false alarm about tiger planes coming over the sea saw lights out again at 3. 15 am. This black- out lasted till 4. 00 am.The Country was wide awake and became fully aware of an “air raid” by the LTTE .
There was also panic bordering on hysteria among security personnel. Para lights were sent up and artillery fired in the air. Tracer fire lined up the sky brightly like a Guy Fawkes display. Foreign journalists who witnessed the scene have written humorously about how soldiers were firing away with their guns at non -existent planes in the sky. Several security personnel and civilians were injured in the fall – out.
Despite the boasting it became vividly clear that the security forces were totally unprepared and had no effective game plan. Many persons displayed cowardice. At Katunayake air port some security personnel locked themselves up in a pathetic display. The firing in the air for a long time after the tiger planes had flown away was nothing more than a loud joke.
The Govt as usual came out with its tale of activating defence systems and chasing the planes away. It was also said that most of the six bombs dropped had missed their targets. The ensuing fires were brought under control soon. The LTTE claimed the operation to be a great success.
The LTTE’s Ilanthiraiyan who had gone on record that they would not engage in an air attack on world cup nights had an “excuse”. He said the GOSL had bombed Viswamadhu . So the LTTE had retaliated he said. This claim by Ilanthiraiyan is not valid. The Viswamadhu bombing by SLAF was over at 1.00 am The TAF dropped bombs at Kolonnawa at 1. 50 am The tiger planes could not have scrambled that quickly and reached Colombo within 45 minutes.
This means that both the SLAF and LTTE had planned to bomb each other during the time people were watching World cup final. Even if Colombo had not bombed Viswamadhu on that night the LTTE would most probably have engaged in bombing. But the Vishwamadhu bombing provided Ilanthiraiyan with a convenient excuse as retaliatory bombing. The LTTE was only following the GOSL in this as the Govt often justifies its bombing as retaliatory or pre-emptory in nature.
The Govt resumed bombing the Wanni with fervour. Later in the week the LTTE claimed that it had shot down a Mig 27 in the skies over Iranaimadhu. There were reports in the media of seeing a smoking plane reeling in the air. The LTTE said the plane after being hit had flown out over the sea and fallen. The GOSL denied this flatly. But in what seemed a strange co-incidence the bombing of Wanni has ceased for the past four days.
The April 29th air attack by the TAF succeeded greatly in making people in the South particularly those in Colombo and suburbs realise its full implications . Though the damage was minimal the manner in which the security forces responded magnified the threat to massive proportions. It also demonstrated how ill – equipped and ill – prepared they were to tackle such a situation. The Govt’s proud boasts of activated defence systems compelling the enemy to flee rang hollow.
The Govt inspired media reports about installing radars and anti – aircraft guns in all vulnerable positions is a grandiose plan. In practical terms it is of little utility. It is a moot point as to how many places or points can be “protected” in this way. What Colombo fails to comprehend or simply tries to gloss over is the fact that the LTTE has an air capability of taking on any target in the Island. The TAF planes can fly north, south, east or west. They can drop bombs on virtually anything and need not confine themselves strictly to distinct military targets alone.
Against that backdrop the strategy to be adopted by the GOSL cannot be defensive alone. While some such preparations are necessary military analysts feel the LTTE air threat cannot be overcome that way. The logical option is to be on the offensive. Instead of being on the defensive the GOSL should go on the offensive and destroy the TAF aircraft thry say . For this the GOSL must conduct a massive ground – based drive into LTTE territory and destroy the planes is the idea suggested. Accurate bombing of planes on ground is also possible.
Theoretically the LTTE air threat can be eliminated only by going on the offensive and destroying the planes but in practical terms it is an almost impossible task. Chief among reasons for this situation is the fact that the GOSL lacks proper intelligence or information about the TAF. Whatever Colombo knows about the TAF seems to be woefully inadequate or totally erroneous.
One fact being trumpeted is that the LTTE has an air strip in Iranaimadhu. This is based on an Unmanned Aerial vehicle (UAV)spotting small planes on a makeshift air strip in Iranaimadhu. Thereafter Iranaimadhu was frequently bombed. It has been said on more than one occasion that Iranaimadhu air strip has been bombed out of sight and that LTTE air capability has been destroyed.
An interesting question that arises in this context is why the UAV’s or anyone else for that matter have failed to see any LTTE aircraft in any other place at any time. The planes have been there for nearly a decade but there is no such instance except Iranaimadhu. Was the LTTE that has been able to successfully conceal its air craft from sight slip up only in the solitary case of Iranaimadhu? Very unlikely!
The chances are that the UAV spotted planes in Iranaimadhu only because the LTTE wanted it that way. Mechanical UAV intelligence is no substitute for human intelligence. During “Operation Jayasikurui” the LTTE once set up in Mannakulam a cardboard cum hardboard structure of a camp as decoy. It was photographed aerially and the special forces launched a secret operation to surround and destroy it. It was a trap and the tigers lying in ambush made mincemeat out of the beleaguered soldiers.
Likewise there is every possibility that the LTTE cleverly set the stage for Iranaimadhu to be regarded as the LTTE air strip. The GOSL claims it has “de – commissioned” Iranaimadhu several times through intense bombardment. But still LTTE planes are taking off and landing in the Wanni without hitch. If so either Iranaimadhu must be functional or the tigers have another location or locations for aircraft take – offs and landings. In it’s the latter, Colombo has been suckered over Iranaimadhu.
Another point to be noted is about the TAF and aircraft in its possession. Had the LTTE simply bombed and kept silent there would have been no clear picture or definite proof of what actually happened or who was responsible. The LTTE however claimed credit after the March operation. Moreover in a media – friendly gesture the LTTE provided pix of the plane allegedly used and “masked” TAF personnel posing for camera with tiger supremo Velupillai Pirapakaran.
Much of the speculation and analysis about the LTTE air wing is due mainly to those tiger revelations. Various media have promptly used those pix as authentic.Again the question that arises is how does anyone know whether the pictures are true or real? Were the planes in those pix actually the ones that flew on TAF missions? Are the masked guys in the pix actually Tamil Eelam Air Force members? Would the LTTE actually fly in a “painted” plane like that? Would the LTTE expose its prized air wing cadres to the world wearing thinly veiled masks? Are plane pix of one air craft or of many intended to confuse?
Much is now being written by self – styled experts about the LTTE’s air wing. Many of these facts by learned analysts contradict each other. One says the planes were obtained from South Africa. Another says they were acquired via Australia. There is also a lot of speculation about the number and types of aircraft in LTTE possession. There is speculation about where and how the planes take off and land and which fly route they use. Despite this glut of information the stark truth is that no one really knows anything tangible.
How many aircraft does the LTTE have? what kinds are they? Where were they purchased? How were they brought into the Island? Were they assembled or simply flown in? What innovative features have been added on to the planes? Who is flying them? Who does the maintenance? Where did the pilots and technicians study and train ? Are there “kamikaze” type black air tigers? How does the LTTE conceal their air craft? Where are they kept? How do they take off and land and above all from where ?
Where did the pilots practice nocturnal , low – altitude flying? What is the LTTE’s game plan with TAF? Why did they not use aircraft earlier when hard pressed? Is the LTTE able to sustain its air capability? Can the LTTE procure aviation fuel? Can the TAF survive anti- aerial artillery and air attacks for long?
These are but some of the questions regarding the so called Tamil Eelam Air Force. Harsh reality is that in spite of a lot of information being provided by experts and analysts there is no real knowledge about anything concrete. Everything seems speculative and in some instances available information may be inaccurate. Analysis on the basis of inaccuracies can only be imperfect.
So far the LTTE has been using two small air craft for air attacks. This may lead to the impression that the tigers have only two such planes. This could be wrong. The TAF may be using different planes and possibly different personnel in each operation. There could also be a number of planes in different sizes in LTTE possession. They could be used en masse at some future stage. Suicide planes crashing on to targets also cannot be ruled out
In such a situation the GOSL does not have sufficient information to evolve a battle plan to invade the Wanni and take out TAF asircraft. Even if it does the spirited defence by the LTTE at Muhamaalai, Palamottai, Mullikulam etc suggest that penetrating the Wanni wont be a cake walk.
The other option is to bomb the planes on ground. Again for that precise information about aircraft whereabouts is needed. If they are in underground hangars powerful “bunker – buster” type bombs have to be dropped with exact precision. In the absence of such intelligence only random, haphazard bombing is possible without any idea of where intended targets are.. Much of the bombing that went on is of this type and heaps increased burdens on the helpless people.
There is also an ironic complexity in the situation. The GOSL downplays the LTTE air threat to the Sinhala people. It pooh poohs the whole thing and claims to be on top of the situation. While downsizing the threat to its domestic constituency the GOSL exaggerates it internationally. Attempts are made to depict the LTTE’s air capability as posing a serious threat to the world thereby requiring concerted action to eradicate it.
The LTTE on the other hand plays ardently to the Tamil “gallery”. The expatriate Tamil cash cows are a specific target. So too is Tamil Nadu. The tigers after suffering many reversals on ground are playing the rise of LTTE air power as their trump card in a desperate political poker game. While projecting a larger than life image of its air wing and arousing Tamil expectations the LTTE is playing it low key with the foreign countries. This downplaying is necessary to avoid unnecessary provocation of any type.
This is because the LTTE knows that arousing concern or opposition to its air wing internationally can be dangerous. In the final analysis only lack of international support stands between the LTTE and its cherished goal of Tamil Eelam. Even if support for that is not forthcoming at this juncture the tigers would at least like to prevent the global community from coming down hard on them. For this the LTTE would like to remove irritants. In the case of its air wing the LTTE cannot and will not remove that “irritant” but would like it to be as less “irritating” as possible.
The dice however is loaded against the LTTE on this. The international community (IC)will not like a “non – state actor” like the tigers to posses effective air capability. The tragedy of Sep 11th 2001 where terrorists crashed airplanes on to the twin towers has changed the western world. Any organization with terrorist credentials having air capability will not be tolerated . The LTTE having such capability is a worrisome factor.
Yet there has been no formal condemnation of the LTTE in this respect. This is due to the fact that the LTTE has succeeded so far in avoiding civilian targets and casualties. More importantly there is no valid basis to condemn one party when the other party has been brazenly violating the ceasefire and engaging in bombing sprees since April 25th 2006.
Also the GOSL bombings have resulted in a humanitarian tragedy comprising massive displacement. death and destruction. The TAF bombings are a mosquito bite in comparison. The IC is annoyed with the Rajapakse regime for its poor record in human rights and constitutional reform. It may adopt a tactical silence for now till the regime changes or changes its ways
This does not mean that the IC will veer around to the tiger camp or let the LTTE off the hook. The IC is extremely concerned about LTTE intransigence also. Its air capability is a fearsome factor particularly to India notwithstanding the LTTE’s assertions to the contrary. The more the LTTE increases its air capability the more the IC will become anxious. Already signs of an international crackdown on the LTTE are visible in France, USA and Australia. These developments are not entirely unrelated to the LTTE developing its air capability.
Therefore the euphoria amidst sections of the pro – tiger Diaspora may be pre – mature or misplaced. Talk of a shift in the power balance is both incorrect and foolish. There never can and never will be balance of power between an accredited state like Sri Lanka and an organization like the LTTE. Theories about LTTE being on par with the GOSL were figments of calculated imagination aiming to lull the tigers into a complacency and false sense of superiority. This bubble burst in the east recently. Now fresh “air” bubbles are being blown.
Until very recently the overwhelming Tamil mood was that of despondency as GOSL aircraft bombed and artillery shelled civilian areas indiscriminately. The Sinhala hawks were up beat with the expectation that the LTTE was about to be vanquished. The doves were silenced. Some sprouted hawkish feathers. With the LTTE air attacks the moods are reversing.
The Tamil diaspora is euphoric. The Sinhala diaspora is fuming. The Govt is trying to prove that TAF attacks were failures because of purported minimal damage. What Colombo misses is that the LTTE attacks cannot be measured in those terms. It goes far beyond the damage done. The attacks are symbolic and have a political dimension.
The tigers have shown that they cannot be simply written off as a military entity. They may be down but are not out. The nascent TAF shows the tigers can rise phoenix like from the ashes. What is more the tiger message to Colombo, the Tamils and the world at large is that they will continue fighting for their goal whatever the consequences. They are the defiant ones.
What cannot be denied is that the LTTE has proved once again that it is wily, resilient, innovative and capable of power projection with inadequate resources. The air tigers or TAF have demonstrated that they can accomplish missions successfully against overwhelming odds. Given the current situation of confusion and panic in the South and the security forces inability to confront a new challenge the LTTE image has transformed into gigantic “Vishwaroobha” proportions.
Unlike the SLAF the LTTE’s TAF has not targeted Sinhala civilians. No Sinhala civilian has suffered directly. Yet there is mass panic bordering on hysteria. This palpable sense of confusion and fear is contributing to loss of morale among people and security forces. This is due to GOSL propaganda building up an “invincibility” myth of armed forces due to superior air power, fire power and man power over the LTTE. This myth has been pricked at least in terms of air power.
Consequently LTTE sections of the Tamil diaspora is going ballistic. The vociferous minority hogging the megaphone is shouting about Sinhala civilians having to suffer like Tamil civilians. Two wrongs cannot make a right. No one who has seen the suffering wrought on innocent civilians by aerial attacks will want that to be inflicted on other civilians. The need of the hour is to avoid targeting civilians.
There is also an upbeat mood in the Tamil diaspora that the war is won. People wish each other about the “birth of Tamil Eelam” over air. It is as if the entire situation has transformed in the LTTE’s favour and Tamil Eelam is within sight. Memories are dangerously short. Such moods have been witnessed in 1995 when the LTTE acquired surface to air missiles and shot down planes too. Ultimately it was the LTTE that got ousted from Jaffna.
The current state of affairs cannot remain static for long. Time and again during this conflict the South has displayed panic , confusion and even cowardice when confronted with new threats and dangers. There is virtual paralysis. But after a while there is a rallying point. Thereafter the South renews itself and steels its resolve to confront and overcome challenges. Without this collective characteristic the Sinhala people would not have evolved as an independent nation. This is the lesson that history both ancient and modern teaches us.
In that context observers feel that it is but a matter of time before the South gets its act together and faces up to the LTTE air threat intelligently and courageously. If Colombo adheres to IC requests and re – formulates its military approach to that of a politico – military approach , mindful of human rights considerations and appropriate conflict resolution, norms then International support could be forthcoming in a big way.
If and when this happens the current situation could change drastically in favour of Colombo. Until then however the present situation is one where the high – flying tigers through their air capability have elevated the current conflict to new heights. (pun intended).
Yet the Tamil people must understand that TAF fireworks displays cannot by themselves restore their lost rights. The displacement of more than 160, 000 civilians in the east and the regimes project of fragmenting and Sinhalaising the East is far more dangerous. Can the TAF stop that?
What the Sinhala and Tamil people must understand is that there is no military solution.There can only be a political settlement. The Island cannot be a mono – state of the Sinhala Buddhists; there cannot be two states of Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam either. What is required is a re- structuring of the Country on federal or quasi – federal lines. No other solution seems feasible.