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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2611

LTTE air raid on Katunayake air base - An Analysis

By Col R Hariharan (retd)

The first ever raid by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) air force carried out on Katunayake military air base, 23 Km from Colombo in the early hours of Monday, 26 March 2007 was not unexpected. However, that does not minimize its importance.

According to the Sri Lanka air force spokesman, a light aircraft made a sneak raid around 12.45 am and lobbed two 'explosives' on a hangar killing three airmen and injuring 15 others. However, the LTTE had claimed two of its aircraft took part in the raid and dropped four bombs on the target.

The air base security opened fire, but evidently the LTTE aircraft managed to return safely to their base. The civilian airport close by did not suffer any damage indicating the attack was a light one of short duration.

Six photographs of the LTTE air force are carried in the pro-LTTE website Tamil Net (also in the Asian Tribune ) after the raid. In two photographs taken in daylight, seven LTTE airmen in blue uniform were shown with their leader Prabhakaran. Three photographs showed views of four bombs under slung on the aircraft. If this was the aircraft used for the raid, the photographs were taken prior to the mission because the four bombs were still held in tact. The finish of the undercarriage for holding the bombs showed it was probably fabricated. Similarly, the tailfin and the body of the bomb showed they were probably improvised locally. A sixth photograph showed two pilots sitting in the open cockpit of a four-seat aircraft. In the ND TV report on the air raid, the LTTE had claimed that it was a technical demonstrator of its air force capability. It also claimed that LTTE engineers had designed the electrical bomb release circuitry of the aircraft.

Since 1998, the LTTE was known to be trying to build an air arm. However, the effort suffered a set back when Sornalingam alias Col Shankar, the brain behind the air arm was killed in a LRPP raid. LTTE built up its air arm during the ceasefire period from 2002.

Though the intelligence services had reported the build up of this capability in LTTE, the Sri Lanka Government perhaps chose to ignore the reports n order not to jeopardize its peace parleys with LTTE. Intelligence agencies had estimated present strength of the LTTE air wing as two light aircraft and two small helicopters. This was partly confirmed by the UAV reconnaissance flights over LTTE's airstrip at Iranamadu. After the LTTE walked out of the peace talks and continued with its unending violations of the ceasefire, Sri Lanka raised a lot of objections to the LTTE's development of the air arm in violation of ceasefire. India had also expressed its growing concern on this development. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission then took up the matter with the LTTE. Though LTTE acknowledged the existence of an air wing, it did not give any other information.

During the ceasefire period, LTTE also developed a second airstrip at Pudukuduiruppu (about 26 km northwest of Mullaitivu). When the Security Forces started hitting back at LTTE in December 2005, LTTE air asset was one of the earliest targets. The Sri Lanka Air Force had bombed both the airstrips and their infrastructure on more than one occasion during 2005-2006 in a bid to put both the airstrips out of action. However, the air raid carried out today has shown that the air strikes have not affected LTTE's ability to fly the aircraft for operation.

Air arm is a vital force multiplier in conventional warfare. Though the air strikes may not result always in high battlefield casualties, they are tremendous morale boosters for the land forces. Air strikes cripple the morale and fighting quality of the opponent. LTTE's high vulnerability to air strikes has been exposed during the Eelam War IV. LTTE had managed to procure surface to air missiles earlier from different sources (including Pakistan based terrorist group Harkat ul Mujahideen) and used them effectively between 1998 and 2001. Presumably, its stock of these missiles ran out by 2001. Thus now LTTE suffers from the lack of an effective anti aircraft weapons or defence system. For quite sometime now, LTTE had been scouting the global grey markets of weapon trade to buy anti aircraft missiles.

Only last month, a retired Indonesian Marine Corps General Erick Wotulo, trapped in Guam by the FBI in a sting operation, was convicted for his involvement in procuring arms for the LTTE.

LTTE's shopping list revealed in this operation anti-aircraft missiles. Moreover, the Sri Lanka Navy had been quite successful in bottling up LTTE from using its maritime resources to ship arms and weaponry to Wanni. Even as recently as last week the Navy intercepted and sank two ships off Arugam Bay. The two ships cargo destined for LTTE included spares for aircraft (according to one report parts of three light aircraft), a number anti-aircraft missiles, and artillery ammunition shipped from Southeast Asia.
Though the LTTE air raid did not cause too much damage to either the military airbase or the aircraft stationed there, it gives some useful pointers about its capability:

* Scope of operation: It is difficult to believe that LTTE risked their precious aircraft just to lob two bombs that caused little damage to Sri Lanka air force aircraft. There is a strong possibility that LTTE planned to carryout the air raid in coordination with a ground strike on the air base, which did not materialise. If that were so, LTTE's ground support in the vicinity of the airbase could have been in one or more forms: a mole in the airbase, a ground attack force of LTTE commandos, a diversionary effort elsewhere to prevent retaliatory action etc.

* Objective of operation:If the raid was not a coordinated operation as discussed above, it could be only to assert that LTTE still remained a force to reckon with, despite the beating it has recently taken with the heavy loss of men and material. In the present operations so far, the Sea Tigers have not been able to outsmart the Sri Lanka Navy imposing further limitations on the LTTE capability. The Security Forces have flushed out LTTE from most of its strongholds in the east. They are now poised to launch offensive operations along the Mannar-Vavuniya area and along the frontlines in Jaffna. All these compulsions are perhaps forcing LTTE leadership to produce dramatic results to restore its rapidly dwindling credibility, particularly among the Tamils both at home and abroad. And probably a surprise air operation was chosen for achieving this objective.

* Results of the air raid: The LTTE air operation, despite the limited results it produced, has demonstrated a new dimension of LTTE capability under adverse circumstances. Thus it is sure to boost the sagging morale of LTTE cadres and its supporters. On the other hand, Sri Lankan planners would do well to understand that LTTE still retained the technical capability to maintain, arm and fly the aircraft. Perhaps, they would like to consider this aspect in planning future ground and air operations.

* Secondary effects of the raid: The raid could prove a further set back to the dwindling international tourist traffic.The tourism industry has already been crippled by adverse travel advisories from the West, particularly after LTTE Sea Tiger boats raided the Dakshina naval base near Galle in October 2006.

* Limitations of air base security: The raid has exposed the limitations of security of the air base from stealth raids. Airspace can never be sealed completely, particularly from light flying aircraft with its minute radar signature. Such aircraft flying low at tree top level below the air defence radar's horizon can manage to enter the airspace. Some years back, a light aircraft managed to penetrate the airspace above the White House despite its strong air defence systems some years back. So to defend an air base against terrorist threat conventional measures would not be adequate. An integrated strategy involving counter intelligence measures to eliminate moles, intelligence acquisition efforts directed to gain early warning on impending operations, a modern air defence system and physical security measures with a well-rehearsed operational readiness drill will have to be devised.

LTTE's military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan while confirming the raid had said "It is not only pre-emptive, it is a measure to protect Tamil civilians from the genocidal aerial bombardments by Sri Lankan armed forces." This would indicate that LTTE objective of the raid was to cripple the air force, and cause maximum damage to its aircraft. If this were so the mission had failed to achieve its objective. However, he has spoken of more attacks of the same nature to follow. With limited aircraft, it might not be so easy to carry out more such operations in the vicinity of Colombo.

Trincomalee airport, divisional and force headquarters at various places in the proximity of LTTE areas could become the scene of such actions in the future. Perforce LTTE air operation will be mounted in the nights for fear of Sri Lanakan air force fighters and anti aircraft defence shooting them down in daytime.

The Sri Lankan airlines lost most of its fleet of civilian aircraft while the air force also lost quite a few aircraft in an LTTE raid on Katunayake on July 24, 2001. That was a watershed event in Sri Lanka's war against LTTE. Viewed in that backgdrop, it is essential that Security Forces to reassure the public and civilian airlines operators of measures taken to ensure their security.

Can LTTE's minuscule air force of a few light aircraft pose a threat to any country? Hagrup Haukland, the head of the SLMM had clarified this aspect in February 2005. He said the skies over Sri Lanka were under the sovereign control of the Government of Sri Lanka. Any flying in Sri Lankan skies would have to have the express sanction of the Sri Lankan Government. (Or in other words, LTTE's air operation impinges upon the sovereignty of Sri Lankan skies.) International treaties and agreements govern the use of international airspace. Thus flying of aircraft at will by a non-state actor like LTTE, with its dubious record of killings and suicide bombings, is against international law. As Haukland said, "the acquisition of aircraft by an organisation like the LTTE means a lot. It is a serious matter, which impinges on Sri Lanka's security. India is concerned too."

As far as India is concerned the LTTE air raid has brought the potential threat from LTTE nearer. Whether LTTE has the intent to use its newly acquired capability against India or not, it does not matter. Despite LTTE's spokesman Daya Masters loud claim that the LTTE air arm was not directed against any country other than Sri Lanka, India should show no complacency in handling the matter.

LTTE's low credibility and record of double-dealings should make the Government sit up and tighten up its air security measures in the south. Already, LTTE efforts to smuggle supplies its war effort from Tamil Nadu is continuing relentlessly despite apprehension of a few boats in the Palk Strait. That should not happen in the air. As a nation we should not let our airspace be violated by groups acting outside the pale of international law, if we respect our sovereignty.

Col R Hariharan, an intelligence analyst of the South Asia Analysis Group, is a retired Military Intelligence officer who served as the head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.

- Asian Tribune -

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