The fledgling air arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) comprising two to five single engine, propeller driven Zlin-143s, is up against Sri Lanka's formidable air force comprising MIG-27 and Kfir fighter bombers, K-8 jet trainers, MI-24 helicopter gun ships, Bell-212s choppers, and Antonov troop and material carriers. And yet, the Lankan Goliath has been unable to tame the Tamil David, who has hit and run with impunity four times since March 26 this year.
It was on the night of March 26, that the LTTE first sprung a surprise on the Sri Lankans, and indeed the world, when two locally converted Zlin-143 bombers flew over hundreds of kilometers of government-held territory from Iranamadu in the Wanni, dropped two bombs on an engineering facility at the Sri Lankan Air Force's main base at Katunayake, 30 km north of Colombo, and flew back without being detected and challenged.
This set off a blame game, in which many Sri Lankans pointed an accusing finger at India. The radars supplied by India were not working at that time and it was also said that while Sri Lanka wanted 3D radars, India had given only 2D radars which did not indicate the height of intruding aircraft. But India pointed out that the radars were shut for routine maintenance and insisted that for Sri Lanka's purpose, 2D was enough.
However, the Sri Lankans soon acknowledged that their aircraft had no night flying capability, their pilots had no night vision goggles, and that the MIGs were too fast for the low flying Zlin 143s.
In South Asia Analysis Group's Paper No 2193 dated April 3, 2007, Commodore RS Vasan IN, said that the LTTE knew about the night vision incapability of the SLAF and had trained its pilots to fly at night. Given the fact that the Zlin 143 could land and take off even on a rough jungle patch, training could have taken place anywhere and not necessarily in a well made, well recognizable and detectable airfield.
Com.Vasan pointed out that the Tiger aircraft had been re-designed by the LTTE's engineers in such a way that it could carry four bombs without infringing its aerodynamic qualities so critically needed for safe flying. They would have had to compromise on the fuel load, and therefore, the aircraft would have had to fly in and fly out using the shortest possible time and route.
"The LTTE definitely owes this to Colonel Shanker alias Sornalingam who ensured that that the seeds of sound aeronautical practices were imbibed by the team that he headed," Com.Vasan, who is himself an aviator, said.
As regards the accuracy of the bombing, he said that the LTTE had hand-held Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The GPS also aided accurate navigation, preventing loss of precious time.
On the question of the alleged inadequacy of the Indian 2D radars, Com Vasan said that while 3D radars were better, Sri Lanka could go in for Mobile Observation Posts (MOP) rather than expensive fixtures which advanced countries had. IGLA or Russian-made hand held missiles, would also be of help, once the attacker became visible. However, it should be noted that the intruding Tiger aircraft had been spotted by the Vavuniya police, and Katunayake was told about it, but no action was taken!
Emboldened by the success of the first raid, the LTTE attacked Palaly in the far north on April 24, but it could not strike the intended target, the airfield. It dropped its bombs on an adjacent army camp and fled, but not before killing six soldiers. This time too, the SLAF failed to go in hot pursuit. Then, on the night of April 28 and 29, while Sri Lankans were glued to their TV sets watching Sri Lanka play at the World Cup Cricket finals in Barbados, two Zlin 143s again attacked Colombo, this time, the oil storage tanks at Muthurajawela and Kolonnawa.
This time too, the SLAF and the air defense systems were caught napping. Though only minimum damage was inflicted, the intruders managed to escape while tones of anti-aircraft shells were wasted in aimless firing over a 40 km stretch from Katunayake to Ratmalana. The defense mechanism showed the utter weakness of the Anti-Aircraft gun handling capability of the ground forces. The media also reported that LTTE aircraft had tried to bomb the hangars used by the MIGs at Katunayake, but failed. Again the attackers had gone Scot free.
Forced to hike defense spending
The LTTE's air strikes had made the government go in for MIG 29s in a big way, as the strategic thinking was that the air assets of the LTTE had to be destroyed on the ground itself. But the multi-million dollar deal is mired in controversy. The military budget has gone up from SLRs.139 billion (US$ 1.23 billion ) in 2007 to an estimated SLRs.166 billion (US$ 1.47 billion) in 2008.
It is also feared that the government has gone in for US$ 500 million five year sovereign bond issue at a whopping 8.25% interest to finance the rising defense expenditure. Therefore, the Flying Tigers may well be contributing to the parlous state of Sri Lanka's finances.