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
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
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.