They are like David and Goliath. The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) has a fair sized fleet of Kfir, MIG 27 and Y-8 bombers, MI-17 and MI-24 choppers, and AN-32 transport aircraft. In contrast, the LTTE's air arm, christened Tamileelam Air Force (TUF), is a puny, single digit fleet of propeller-driven and locally assembled Zlin Z-142s of Czech design.
And yet, the fledgling Flying Tigers have been able to infiltrate hundreds of kilometres of government-held territory, attack key military and strategic targets, and get back to base unscathed. This has happened three times in a row so far, clearly suggesting that Sri Lanka's air defence system is totally unsuited to the task before it.
This should cause concern in New Delhi and Washington also, since India and the US had taken the initiative in alerting the Sri Lankans about the potential threat from the skies. India had even provided, free of cost, a radar system for the defence of Colombo, the nerve centre of the Sri Lankan military, and the site of the island's only international harbour.
Defence experts say that the SLAF lacks night operational capability and air to air fighting capability. The SLAF had never planned for a day when its planes would face opposition from enemy aircraft, although there had been a warning about such a threat by an US Pacific Command team in 2002, and by Iqbal Athas, the defence correspondent of Sunday Times since 2005.
The SLAF has fast jet aircraft like Kfirs and MIG-27s which are basically used as bombers to take on static targets on the ground. Air-to-air combat was never envisaged, and suitable equipment was not acquired.
"MIGs and Kfirs are too fast and fly too high to take on the slow moving LTTE aircraft. What the SLAF needs is to envisage a World War II type of situation in which aircraft would go behind the enemy and shoot him down," said a foreign diplomat.
Prasun Sengupta, contributing editor of the Malaysian security affairs magazine Tempur says that Kfirs and MIG-27 can take to the air in less than 2 minutes, but only if they are on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). But for the kind of threat faced by Sri Lanka QRA may be too expensive. At any rate, using aircraft of the kind SLAF has, in the context of the current threat, does not make sense.
The SLAF's Chinese-built K-8 bombers are ideal for the kind of air operations required, but there are so few of them. "It might be sensible to buy aircraft like Zlin-Z-142 The fly is best swatted by a simple fly swatter and not a sledge hammer!" an expert said.
The lack of night operational capability is glaring. Only the K-8s have it. But SLAF pilots don't have Night Vision Goggles (NVG). "On Sunday, K-8s took to the air to intercept the LTTE's aircraft, but the intruders could not be found because it was too dark!" the expert pointed out.
The LTTE is aware of this and has staged all its air attacks at night. Apparently, its aircraft and pilots have night operational capability.
Sengupta suggests the use of low-level air defence radars and shoulder-held missiles like the Russian IGLA-8. But the Indians say that the 2D radars given by them are adequate. "No ground radar can be totally accurate. In addition, aircraft must have their own radars to pin point the enemy," said an Indian defence expert. SLAF aircraft don't have this capability.
US Pacific Command had said in 2002, that the SLAF should stop purchasing expensive new aircraft. On the other hand, it should upgrade the existing fleet suitably and spend a lot on spare parts to keep it fighting fit. A large fleet is useless if much of it is grounded for want of spares.