News Features


Former SLAF chiefs hold views

On the LTTE attack on the Katunayake Air Force Base that made history for the first time

With the recent aerial attack on the Katunayake Air Force Base the LTTE came true with their long stated threat of using air power against the Sri Lankan forces. This however is not the first time that the country’s air force faced a formidable challenge. In 1995 when Ealam War III started the Sri Lanka Air Force was virtually grounded after the LTTE used Surface-to-Air-Missiles (SAM) to bring down several aircraft. Then in 2001 the air force took a severe blow when the Tigers launched a successful attack on the Katunayake Air Force Base. With many challenges ahead for the air force which will be keenly observed by friend and foe a like, The Nation spoke to former commanders of the air force to obtain their views on the recent LTTE attack on the country’s most important air base on what needs to be done to prevent the occurrence of such an embarrassing incident again.

By Gihan Indraguptha
Former Air Force Chief Paddy Mendis expressed his displeasure over the coverage of the incident by the Sri Lankan media. “I have seen these newspapers stating that the LTTE gave a clear message to the Sri Lankan Government about its capabilities. I do not think anything of that sort was done. The LTTE came all the way to attack the fighter jets and they failed. I do not think the LTTE would have risked so much just to send messages,” Mendis speaking to The Nation, says. Mendis also drew attention to as to where the LTTE pilots were trained. Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis speculates that some of these pilots have had flying experience in the south. “Why did the Tamilnet have the faces of the pilots covered in their pictures? Usually the LTTE is very proud to showcase their heroes, but in this case they did not want the identities of the cadres exposed.” Mendis adds that he believes that some of these people must have had flying experience in Sri Lanka. “Flying at night for such a distance is not something which you acquire overnight. They will have to undergo extensive training,” Mendis said. He also believes that it is unfair to blame the air force for this incident since it is imposable to take on an enemy without the right equipment.

Air Vice Marshal Mendis became the youngest commander of the air force at the age of 38 in 1971, which he commanded till 1975. He believes that it is the faulty RADARs which were to blame for the incident. Asked as to why the air force did not pursue the enemy aircraft after the attack, Mendis says that it is impossible to do so without the right RADAR to guide the aircraft towards the general area of the enemy craft. “It is only after our planes are guided from the ground towards the enemy aircraft within few kilometres that the pilots can take over. Without that capability it is impossible to track them.”

The former air chief says that it is worrying how some unpatriotic elements have undermined the air campaign against the LTTE. “When Sampur was attacked in April the LTTE was announcing to the people 30 minutes before the attack to run for safety. That means someone had given them the details of the impending attack. Likewise during the recent attack also the RADAR’s were switched off on that particular day for maintenance. For the LTTE to attack on the very day that the vital RADARs were not functioning then some one would have been responsible.”
Air Vice Marshal Harry Gunathileka believes that the air force was severely hampered by the lack of right equipment to detect the incoming enemy craft. The fifth commander of the air force from 1976 to 1981, Gunathileka says that he believes that the LTTE craft came from the sea side contrary to common perception that they flew across the Vilpattu National Park. “As a flyer I can say that it takes a tremendous amount of skill to fly over tree tops for several hours, in the dark at that too. It is far easier to approach Katunayake from the sea side. So my guess is that these LTTE craft approached Katunayake from the sea side and they were flying very low just above the sea. This would make it impossible for the RADAR to detect it with the type of equipment that we have”.

Asked whether he thinks there was any incompetence on the part of the air force, Gunathileka said that no one would have expected this and the officers manning the RADARs may not have been in the heightened state of alert that they should have been. “Aircraft are just dots in a RADAR screen. Unless you are glued to the screen one can miss a suspicious craft. I do not think anyone anticipated a LTTE aircraft to fly at that time of the night. So there might be a case of catching our people unrepeated,” Gunathileka said. Asked as to what he would have done if such an incident happened during his time as commander, Gunathileka said that he would naturally increase the levels of preparedness to face such an eventually reoccurring. The former air force chief praised the initiative to set up a hotline for the public to warn of any planes which arouse suspicion. He also added a word of caution warning that the LTTE might resort to another aerial attack after a considerable duration of time when the security forces lower their guard. “What the IRA said in the 80s apply to us as well. “They said Thatcher needs to be lucky all the time but we need to be lucky only once. Yes the LTTE was very lucky to get away with this attack this time and now we have to be on the alert. They need only to be lucky once to succeed but we have to be prepared all the time” said Gunathileka whose son currently heads the air force.

Air Vice Marshal Dick Perera who commanded the air force from 1981 to 1985 says that he hopes that there will be a thorough investigation into what happened on the 26th without any cover-ups. “We must really get to the bottom of this without hiding any facts and also without trying to play any politics. The findings should not necessarily be told to the country but the air force should find out whether there were any failures and who was responsible,” Perera says. Adding further he says that now the air force needs to make a threat perception which includes the assessment of the number of aircraft that the LTTE has possess, their type and capabilities. “After such an assessment the government should also provide whatever assistance required to counter these threats since there is no time to waste. I genuinely do not believe that the LTTE has the capability cause massive damage using these aircraft but there are trying to launch a psychological war using the fear generated through the attack.”

Asked as to what he would have done if he was currently in command, Air Vice Marshal Perera said that the immediate need is to prevent these aircraft from taking off again. “The air fields need to be destroyed. Even though these aircraft are very rugged and can even take off from a paved road there would be the need for some sort of an air field when they are taking off with a full load of weapons and fuel. Therefore we must immediately take the runways out and then seek and destroy the aircraft as well”. However the former air chief is of the view that the LTTE aircraft may have reached its maximum range when they came all the way to Katunayake. “I do not think they have the capability of reaching Colombo and retuning with their current limitations of fuel” he said.
Air Vice Marshal Dick Perera was critical of the many countries which had pledged to support Sri Lankan in her attempts to eradicate terrorism. “What have these countries done to support us? They must at least now give the necessary aid to fight this threat,” Perera says. Adding further he says that his desire to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict which is acceptable to the Tamil speaking people of the country.

Air Chief Marshal Walter Fernando, commander of the air force from 1985 to 1990 says that he is in no position to express his views on this particular matter since he does not have all the details regarding the incident. “All the information that I have is what I gathered from the newspapers and therefore I do not want to make a comment on the attack,” Fernando said, when contacted by The Nation.

Air Chief Marshal T. G. S. Gunarwardena speaking to The Nation, says that he is not in a position to comment on the incident till all the facts are known about the attack. Gunawardena who commandeered the air force from 1990 to 1994 said, “We still do not know what kind of an aircraft it was. So we cannot speak about air matters like that”.
Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe who commandeered the air force from 1994 to 1998 says that he is ashamed of what happened at the Katunayake Air Force Base while adding that the air force should take total responsibility for the incident and not pass the blame to other parties. “It was the duty of the air force to protect these locations” said Ranasinghe. “We have known for so many years that the LTTE has acquired air capability. Yet no body seems to be bothered about it. Even today we do not know where these aircraft are located” Ranasinghe said also adding that there is no point in repeatedly bombing runways which can be repaired in a short period of time. “Some of these simple planes do not even need a runway. They can take off and land on an empty road. We just make some holes by bombing runways. What we should do is locate where these aircraft are and destroy them rather than continuously bombing runways”

The former air chief said that it is an utter embarrassment that the LTTE aircraft got away and returned to the Wanni. “There should have been a mechanism to ensure that these planes were brought down. When the first sightings were reported the director of operations should have notified all the air bases and when they report back that none of their aircraft are air-borne then they should go into a high state of preparedness to intercept the enemy craft”. When asked about the reported shortcomings of the air force to take on combat missions in the night, Ranasinghe dispelled such claims saying that the MI 24 hind helicopter is well capable of taking down an enemy craft even at night. “What is embarrassing is that these aircraft returned to base without being challenged, there is no doubt a break down of the command”.

Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe also says that faulty equipment at the Katunayake Air Base gave the enemy the advantage when carrying out the attack. “The RADARs that we have, are outdated. We must acquire better anti-aircraft guns and RADARs. The anti-aircraft guns at Katunayake did not have a target locking system. So the gunners had a difficult task to locate the small planes. When I was commander 12 years ago we got down three RADAR guided anti-aircraft guns. These guns had the capability to lock the target and fire at them, so even in the dark such a gun would be effective. One would have expected that these new technologies would be introduced with the passage of time. Unfortunately we have not modernised with time,” Ranasinghe says.
When asked what he would have done if he was currently in command of the air force. Ranasinghe said that the first thing he would have done was to hand over his resignation. However the former commander says that he does not think that the incumbent commander can be held solely responsible for the attack since he took over relatively recently. “I would not say that he should resign because it was his predecessor who brought down the RADARs during his time”.

The former commander is of the view that enough attention has not been drawn towards maritime surveillance in order to prevent the Tigers from brining in these aircraft. “These aircraft were brought through the sea. It is impossible for the navy alone to protect the sea since the area is eight times greater than the land mass of Sri Lanka. That is why we have been saying for a long time that there should be a dedicated maritime surveillance unit in the air force. At the time I was the commander and we proposed three aircraft be acquired for this purpose. But that was thrown away because some newspaper wrote something against it. Currently our maritime surveillance capability is very poor and that allows the LTTE to smuggle in these aircraft,” Ranasinghe says adding that by taking the battle to the sea along with the navy so that the LTTE can be defeated in a conventional theatre of war.

Former Air Force Commander Jayalath Weerakkody did not wish to share his views with The Nation but acknowledged that the LTTE’s air capabilities were known even during his tenure as the air chief. “We had intelligence reports that there was some air activity by the LTTE,” Weerakkody who commandeered the air force from 1998 to 2002, says.
The current Chief of Defence Staff and former Air Force commander Donald Perera says that he is not in a position to comment on the Katunayake incident since he is still serving as an officer. “I would need MOD clearance to speak on this matter and unfortunately I cannot speak in the capacity of a former air force commander since I am still the CDS,” he said.


Bingiriya resident alerts authorities

By Biyanka Nanayakkara
A resident of Bingiriya says that he informed the relevant authorities of suspicious air craft even though the air force was unable to intercept the LTTE air craft on their way to the Katunayake air force base or on the return journey to the Wanni. Leenus Fernando a resident of Bingiriya says that he informed the emergency hotline number 119 after hearing two suspicious air craft flying low just above the tree tops. He like many others was watching a world cup cricket match on the early hours of the 26th when he heard the sound of an air craft. Fernando who had worked abroad knew from the sound of the craft that it was a single engine plane. However when he went out of the house to see the air craft he realized that the plane was flying without lights which was very unusual for such a small air craft. Around 12.35 in the morning he heard another air craft flying around 150 feet from the ground. Having realised that the two aircraft were flying towards Colombo, Fernando immediately dialled 119 to inform the operator what he had seen. Roughly around 25 minutes later Fernando heard the sound of a single plane going in the opposite direction. Once again it was flying without lights. When he was outside his house he witnessed what he believed to be an air force plane with its lights on flying in the same direction as the first plane a few minutes later. It was only in the morning that Fernando realised that the Katunayake air force base was attacked. He immediately called 119 to inquire whether his message was passed to the relevant authorities and according to Fernando the operator had said that air force headquarters was informed. Fernando had reported the incident 12.30 in the morning and the first bombs were dropped at the base around 12.40 which means that the relevant parties had five minutes to react. Whether the warning could have been better made used off will only be known once the investigation in to the matter is complete.