Importance of thwarting ‘flying’ Tigers

The events of Wednesday night, when aircraft of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the Army camp in Mannar and then inflicted more damage on the Kelanitissa power station on the outskirts of Colombo, have shaken the nation.

Moreover, the incidents come at a time when the security forces have made significant advances against the LTTE in the northern theatre of conflict and are poised to wrest control of Kilinochchi, touted as the ‘administrative capital’ of the so-called Tiger run ‘state’.

They also highlight the fact that, while the military capabilities of the terrorists are on the wane on the ground, they are still tactically savvy, and retain the capability to inflict considerable damage through surprise attacks on selected and crucial targets.

And therein lies the significance of Wednesday’s attacks. As the Tigers get cornered to an increasingly restricted area in the jungles of the Wanni, the more they will be compelled to resort to such attacks, both, to shore up their sagging morale and also, to try and arm-twist Colombo into re-thinking their military options.

But there is another element to the incidents. Wednesday night’s events also lead to serious questions being asked of the nation’s security and the vulnerability of key institutions and installations to air-strikes, in view of the chain of events that unfolded.
Several days after the attack, it is still unclear as to how exactly the attacks were staged. There is even confusion as to whether one or two Tiger aircraft were used for the attacks. What is clear though, is that, the attacks on Mannar and Kelanitissa occurred with a time interval of no less than one hour.

What it means is that, after Mannar was attacked, Colombo would have been-or, should have been- on high alert for possible attacks on a key target. All security measures-including activating air defence systems-would have been triggered by the Mannar attack.

Nevertheless, not only did a Tiger aircraft manage to fly to Colombo-perhaps flying over the western coastline of the country-but, it also ventured inland, attacked the Kelanitissa power station and then got away, apparently unscathed, leaving the citizens of Colombo bewildered and in fear. Inevitably therefore, Wednesday’s events would lead to some searching queries.
This is not the first aerial attack-and will probably not be the last as well. The Tiger terrorists staged their first aerial attack on the Katunayake Air Force base in March 2007, targeting the MiG fighter jets stationed there.

The impact of that attack was not so much the damage inflicted, but the realisation that the Tigers were the first-and as yet, only-terrorist group to have their own air wing. Suddenly, literally overnight, the Eelam War had taken an entirely new dimension.

Since then, there has been much thought and effort devoted to thwarting future air intrusions by the terrorists. The government had to set up a sophisticated air defence system to protect Colombo and other key locations, at great cost, and this was done.

However, questions are now being raised as to whether the best state-of-the-art equipment was utilised for the task.
What Wednesday’s attacks demonstrated is that, whatever air defence strategies were in place, were probably inadequate to meet the threat now posed by the Tiger aircraft. We must leave it to the experts to figure out the deficiencies and take appropriate remedial measures but, this must be done sooner, rather than later-before another attack with greater consequences is staged.

In the aftermath of the incidents, there have been calls for the Commander of the Air Force to resign. Air Marshall Roshan Goonetilleke is widely reputed to be an officer and a gentleman, and we do not, for a moment, believe removing him from the Air Force will be a panacea -rather, it would aggravate what is already proving to be a difficult military conundrum.

We must not forget at this juncture that, one of the key elements for the success of the Armed Forces in the north is the contribution of the Sri Lanka Air Force. It is in air power that government forces have an overwhelming superiority over the Tigers and that has been a crucial cog in the wheel of recent military victories against the enemy.

But, it is also imperative that, the Commander asks some tough questions from his senior officers-to ascertain what exactly went wrong on Wednesday, and what could be done to minimise the risk of a similar incident from happening again, instead of awaiting the next catastrophe to descend upon us.

It is also important that, the Air Force-and the government- provide the public with a plausible explanation for Wednesday’s events, instead of resorting to paint a picture that nearly nothing happened and that, Sri Lanka’s skies are nothing but safe. Half-truths and make-believe statistics will only add to speculation and fuel rumours.

If there were lapses in security last week, let the Air Force acknowledge them candidly- in so far as security concerns would permit- learn from those errors and move on to become a stronger force, a force that lives up to its’ motto of protecting the skies of Sri Lanka. That is the need of the hour.