Military Matters

Eelam War’s first ‘dogfight’ clouds Wanni operation

On September 9, F-7s of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) which, to date, have been playing a minimal role in the fight against the LTTE, made quite an entry into the fray, by what the SLAF claims to be the first “kill” over Sri Lankan skies, since the end of World War II. Thus, last week marked the very first ‘dogfight’ or close quarters, mid-air battle, of the two-decade old Eelam War…

The time for excuses and belittling the LTTE’s nascent air wing has long passed. What started as an irritant high flying air force, has now evolved into a serious threat, which has constantly defied claims of the security establishment, that the threat from the Air Tigers is negligible and under control.

This week too, the “Air Tigers” made the headlines for the second week in a row, when they launched an attack on the Vavuniya Air Force base and the Security Forces (SF) headquarters located in close proximity. Even though the physical damage, as usual, was very minimal, the psychological and propaganda victory for the Tigers have been enormous, especially, with the Tamil Diaspora, which have been eagerly awaiting some good news from the battlefield. The LTTE air wing, which would have definitely been emboldened after their August attack on Trincomalee Eastern Naval headquarters, took to the air again, this time in support of a major ground assault led by a team of Black Tigers.

The LTTE used three of its deadliest assets in this combined attack, the dreaded Black Tigers, the most dedicated and well trained assault unit, their long range artillery and their latest addition, the Air Tigers unit. It is ironic that, even though it was the accuracy of the long range artillery guns of the Tigers which caused maximum damage to the SF, which was no doubt supported by ground operatives, who would have directed the artillery barrage to its targets, the LTTE aircraft grabbed the headlines again for their involvement in the operation.

The only solace for the SF was the claim that an SLAF F7-G jet had managed to shoot down one of the fleeing Tiger craft. This claim was later disputed by the Tigers, which claimed that all its aircraft, which took part in the Vavuniya operation, returned to base. The F7s, which are the Chinese built versions of the Soviet Mig-21s, were inducted to the SLAF in the 1990s, with initial reports of the LTTE acquiring air capability. However, these interceptors, designed for air to air combat, became redundant, because the need of the hour for the SLAF was ground attack planes in support of Army operations. Further, the missile systems required for air combat were not included in the F-7s, making them nothing more than trainer aircraft for the fighter pilots who were destined to fly the more advanced Kfir and Mig-27s.

However, all this changed with the LTTE’s adventurous display of air power in 2007. The SLAF F7s, now jointly produced by the Chinese and the Pakistanis, were overhauled in Pakistan, being fitted with radar to detect other aircraft and also air to air missiles. Night flying capability was also enhanced with a new batch of F7-G jets brought down from Pakistan last year.

On September 9, the F7s, which have so far been playing a minimalist role in the fight against the Tigers, made quite an entry into the fray, by what the SLAF claims to be the first “kill” over Sri Lankan skies, since the end of World War II.

According to SLAF sources, less than 10 minutes after the first of two Tiger aircraft were detected heading towards Vavuniya, three F-7s were airborne from Katunayake, a commendable task, considering the lag time required to achieve that feat, unless the aircraft are kept on full time preparedness for a scramble.

The Tiger aircraft were over the skies of the Vavuniya Air Force base and SF Headquarters for around six minutes, before turning back towards their base, believed to be relocated in the Mullaitivu jungle, since the fighting in the Wanni had threatened their original bases in Iranamadu. The 25 kilogram bombs they had dropped caused minimum damage with most of the death and destruction caused that morning being the result of 130mm artillery fired by the Tigers. These weapons, though less glamorous than the aircraft, have remarkable accuracy, even from a distance of around 27 km away. The artillery batteries of the LTTE, which include the 130mm and 120mm guns, pose an enormous threat to the advancing troops in the Wanni, even though more attention is now turned towards the spectacular air attacks.

The SLAF claims that one of its F-7 jets gave chase to the Tiger aircraft, while others were trying to locate their intended landing sites. The F-7 had taken out the Tiger plane over the Mulleiyaweli jungle south of Mullaitivu with a single missile, according to these same sources.

Similarly, when the Air Tigers bombed the Naval Dockyard in Trincomalee, on August 28, F-7s were scrambled from Katunayake to give chase to the aircraft. On that occasion, the Tiger aircraft got away, even though one of the F-7 pilots is reported to have spotted a rebel aircraft over the Mullaitivu jungles, flying just above the treetops.

The Air Tiger attack on Vavuniya and Trincomalee make two things clear. First, the radius of operation of the Tiger air fleet will most probably be limited to the immediate theatre of battle. With the advances in radar and the upgrading of the interceptor capability of the SLAF, it is unlikely that the Tigers will attempt to penetrate the air defences to attack positions in the south like Colombo, unless on a suicide mission. Therefore, the threat from the Tiger air wing will mainly be on the frontline troops operating in the Wanni and Jaffna areas, with military installations in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Mannar coming under threat; not to mention the valuable Naval assets in the form of large ships and troop carriers sailing from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. Therefore, in such a scenario, the flight time of the Tiger aircraft will be minimal as seen in their attack on Vavuniya.

The second point to be made from the recent attacks is that, a mere interceptor defence is not enough to face the threat of the Tiger aircraft. This time around, it was apparent that the SLAF had its F-7s ready to scramble at a moment’s notice. Even if the claims of the SLAF to have shot down a Tiger plane, are to be accepted, it was done only after the planes had bombed their targets. If the Tiger aircraft managed to hit their intended target of the Indra 2 Radar based in Vavuniya, the story would have been a different one. Furthermore, in a future scenario, the Tigers may effectively use their air power against advancing troops in the Wanni, making their flight time minimal and a counter strike from the SLAF’s interceptors launched from Katunayake almost impossible, due to the critical time factor.

The need of the hour, therefore, is to strengthen the air defence capabilities of the troops operating from the forward areas of battle, rather than relying on the interceptors based hundreds of kilometres from the theatre of operation. The anti-aircraft guns mounted around the key installations in the North, Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Colombo and Katunayake have proved to be nothing but a fireworks display against the low flying Tiger aircraft, in the past.

It was after the Air Tigers attacked the Katunayake airbase on March 26, 2007, that it was revealed that a radar-guided anti-aircraft gun would have been more effective than the visually manoeuvred ones that were in place. Time and again, this hypothesis has been proven correct with the ground based anti aircraft batteries proving repeatedly futile, as the Tigers made successful sorties over key military installations. Another low cost, but effective proposition was, to induct Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) in the threatened areas. This would also minimise the reaction time to a Tiger aircraft threat and give ground troops facing the challenge of a low flying aircraft, an effective mode of counter attack.

It is now reported that the much talked of Mig-29 interceptors will be inducted into the SLAF before the end of the year. While this would definitely add to the SLAF’s Air-to-Air capability, at an enormous cost (it is estimated that one of these Mig 29s will cost around US$ 12-15 million and the SLAF is planning on acquiring five of these) whether they will be useful in a future scenario, where the LTTE will use its aircraft in support of its ground troops in the theatre of battle, remains to be seen.

It is no mean feat for a rebel movement to acquire, operate and maintain a fleet of aircraft, however primitive it may be. The LTTE has proven that, against all the odds, it is capable of pulling off a surprise attack, catching the Defence establishment unawares once again. If a remedy to this Tiger air menace is not found soon, it has the potential to nullify many of the SLAF successes in the recent phase of fighting in Eelam War IV.