In recent months, Sri Lanka’s ‘undeclared’ conflict has undergone a dimensional transformation, literally and metaphorically. Starting with the 25 March attack on the Katunayake Air Force base, in the next 35 days the LTTE deployed its fledgling air wing, the Tamil Eelam Air Force (TAF), on three ‘successful’ missions. Although the amount of damage inflicted by the TAF is debateable, the awesome shock of this turn of events has clearly rocked the island.
The first LTTE air attack was actually on 11 August 2006, when two planes dropped bombs over the Palaly air base in the Jaffna peninsula. That mission was considered a flop, however, as all of the bombs were off-target. The mission was part of an ambitious bid by the LTTE to simultaneously paralyse Trincomalee and invade the peninsula. As with the air attack, that plan backfired and was aborted.
The second air attack came on 25 March this year, when two planes flew over Katunayake, which also hosts Sri Lanka’s only international airport. Three bombs were dropped on the base, specifically targeting the engineering and maintenance hangars. Five of these bombs exploded, killing three Air Force personnel and injuring 17 others.
On the evening of 24 April, the TAF again flew into action. This time, two planes headed north, dropping four bombs on Palaly, Vasavilan and Kadduvan, and two more on Myliddy. The LTTE later claimed that these planes had bombed ammunition dumps, fuel depots, food-storage complexes and aircraft-maintenance facilities. This was strongly denied by the Colombo government, which alleged that the rebel planes had fled when an air-defence system was activated. While the government admitted that six soldiers were killed and around 30 more injured in the attacks, officials claimed this was due to a fleeing plane dropping a bomb on a bunker.
Even as the country sat glued to its television sets on the night of 28-29 April to watch its national team in the World Cup Cricket finals, military planes flew over Vanni in central Sri Lanka, and dropped eight bombs in Viswamadhu. The bombardment ended at one in the morning. Fifty minutes later, two TAF planes dropped bombs on the Kolonnawa oil-storage complex, and thereafter bombed the liquid-petroleum-gas facility in Kerawalapitiya, both in the west.
While the destruction caused by this attack was minimal, its effect on Sri Lankans in general was widespread. As cricket fans sat engrossed in the game, the power was suddenly switched off, in order to activate Colombo’s air-defence system. Power was restored at 3:00 am, but a false alarm about Tamil Tiger planes coming over the sea led to another blackout 15 minutes later. As such, the whole country was jolted awake, fully aware of the danger from above. Parachute-lights were sent up, and panic-stricken troops fired indiscriminately into the air. Several security personnel and civilians were injured in the fallout.
The Tiger air attacks have had a significant impact on the Sri Lankan economy. Starting the second week of May, the government suspended night-time air traffic at Sri Lanka’s sole international airport, affecting the government’s ambition to make Colombo a hub of Southasian air traffic. Tourism, already in the doldrums, was further affected, and a gas shortage also resulted. With the prospect of increased defence spending in the near future, inflation and general costs of living are both bound to further increase.
As crucially, the TAF bombings also caused a change of attitude throughout the country. Until very recently, the overwhelming Tamil mood has been one of despondency, as government aircraft bombed and shelled the northeastern areas. Meanwhile, the voices of the Sinhala doves have gone silent, while the hawks in Colombo have been upbeat, with the expectation that the LTTE was about to be vanquished. With the TAF air attacks, these moods were reversed.
Even as Colombo attempts to paint the TAF attacks as ‘failures’ because of the purported minimal damage they caused, the government continues to miss the fact that the impact of the air assaults goes well beyond the physical damage done. Indeed, the attacks have been potent with political symbolisms. They have shown that, regardless of recent successes by the Sri Lankan military, the LTTE as a military entity cannot be written off. More importantly, the LTTE leadership has sent a message to Colombo, to Sri Lankan Tamils and to the world at large that it will continue fighting.
According to military analysts, the Sri Lankan Air Force’s fleet is indeed significant, comprising a host of modern aircraft, fighter jets and attack helicopters. Reports in pro-LTTE Tamil media, on the other hand, have placed the LTTE air strength at somewhere between 18 and 26 aircraft, most of them small and light. While these partisan reports may not be reliable, intelligence and defence analysts have also drawn attention to some of the aircraft allegedly possessed by the LTTE, all of which are reported to be relatively lightweight models. The plane used in the recent air strikes is widely believed to be a Cessna Skymaster, which flies at an average speed of 150 mph, and can carry a payload of around 1040 kg. There is much speculation about the type of aircraft being used in the recent air strikes, however, and concrete information is unavailable.
While the idea of the Vaan Puligal (‘Air Tigers’ in Tamil) has been a long-cherished dream of Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, the man who actually laid the groundwork for the air wing was Vaithilingam Sornalingam (aka Colonel Shankar), a close confidante of the supremo. Some media reports wrongly state that Shankar studied aeronautical engineering in Montreal and worked for Air Canada. In fact, the man had never been to Canada, and studied aeronautical engineering at Guindy, in Madras, but did not complete his studies. He later trained as a pilot in London.
Shankar’s initial efforts resulted in the LTTE obtaining two ultra-light planes from an Australian company in 1998. On 27 November of that year, these aircraft were put on display at the annual Heroes Day (also called Martyrs Day) observances, at Puthukudiyiruppu in Mullaithivu District, during which the airplanes were also used to shower flower petals on cemeteries. Little was heard of the air wing for years thereafter, though occasional news reports referred to unidentified aircraft being sighted over northeastern skies. In September 2001, Shankar was killed in a landmine explosion. Five months later, in February 2002, the Ceasefire Agreement came into force. According to knowledgeable Tamil sources, Prabhakaran galvanised the air wing into action after Shankar’s death as a form of tribute to his comrade.
The ceasefire has provided a significant opportunity for the LTTE to tap the Tamil diaspora in developing the air wing, which received contributions in the form of funds, equipment and even planes. Several trained pilots and aircraft engineers made their services available, and some foreign experts were also hired. After keeping the programme under wraps for several years, following the Katunayake assault the Tigers released pictures of airplanes and masked cadres, said to be TAF personnel. The decision to finally do so appears to have been taken because the Tigers had been suffering significant defeats at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces, and they needed a diversionary tactic. Furthermore, the rebels had to boost morale among their cadres and supporters, particularly in the diaspora.
The aerial attacks, particularly the ones of 29 April, have succeeded in making people in the south, especially those in Colombo and the suburbs, aware of the reality of the undeclared war. Although the TAF has so far not targeted Sinhala civilians, and no civilian has suffered directly, there is a palpable sense of confusion and fear that is contributing to a loss of morale among the people and the security forces. In addition, the ham-handed response by Colombo’s ill-prepared security forces to the attacks has magnified the threat to massive proportions. Government-inspired media reports talk of grandiose plans to install radar and anti-aircraft guns, but in practical terms these measures are of little utility. It is a moot point as to how many places could be ‘protected’ in this way. What Colombo fails to comprehend is that the LTTE now has the capability of zeroing in on any target – military or otherwise – on land or at sea.
Against such a backdrop, the government’s strategy cannot be defensive alone. The logical option is to go on the offensive, focusing on destroying the TAF aircraft after first locating the aerodrome. As such, Colombo needs to conduct a ground-based drive into LTTE territory in search for the planes. In practical terms, however, this is a near-impossible task, chiefly because the Colombo government lacks reliable intelligence about the Vaan Puligal. For the same reason, it cannot use the other option of bombing the planes on the ground from the air. If the planes are, for instance, in underground hangars, as is being surmised, powerful ‘bunker-buster’ bombs would need to be dropped with exact precision.
There is an ironic complexity in the current situation. Colombo downplays the LTTE air threat to the Sinhala people, claiming to be on top of the situation. At the same time, the government exaggerates the threat internationally, particularly in presentations aimed at India. Despite their success in turning the tables by going aerial, however, the dice are loaded against the LTTE. How long the Tigers can sustain the air wing successfully is a moot point. The international community has not reacted positively to the Tigers possessing such effective air capability. With the events of 11 September 2001 having changed the international perception towards airplanes in general, a rebel group with its own air force will likely not be tolerated.
~David B S Jeyaraj is a Toronto-based journalist writing regularly on Sri Lanka.