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 Post subject: Countering Tigers In Air
 Post Posted: Sat Apr 28, 2007 1:23 am 
Countering Tigers In Air

By B. RAMAN / @ outlookindia
Apr 26, 2007

Don't allow LTTE to add to its fleet, replenish its stocks of fuel and spare parts for existing fleet and target the existing fleet by locating the hide-out. Other countries, including India, need to help.

There are four likely components of the air capability of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)--air defence capability, interception capability, bombing capability and capability for air terrorism on ground targets.

In the past, the LTTE had exhibited fairly effective air defence capability in the form of anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. This has been considerably weakened since 2001 due to its inability to procure and smuggle in ammunition for its anti-aircraft guns and replacements for its missiles. It has kept reserved whatever ammunition and missiles it still has for the protection of Prabakaran, its leader, and its headquarters in the Northern Province. It has not brought them into use against the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) since the SLAF went into action against the LTTE-held positions and its naval wing after April, 2006. This has so far given the SLAF a complete command of the skies for nearly a year now. There has not been a single confirmed instance of the SLAF losing an aircraft due to effective ground action by the LTTE.

The LTTE has not so far exhibited any mid-air interception capability. The kind of small aircraft it has are not suitable for interception roles. Moreover, interception requires greater professional skills, which can normally be acquired only in a professional training institution of a state air force. They cannot be acquired in a flying club even if it has retired air force officers as instructors.

The Tamileelam Air Force (TAF) has a good bombing capability as seen from the well-planned and well-executed air strikes carried out by it at night on the Katunayake air base near Colombo on March 26, 2007, and on the Palaly military base in the Jaffna peninsula on April 25, 2007. It has shown technical skills in converting small aircraft, which are not meant for such bombing missions, into specialised planes capable of undertaking bombing missions. It has also managed to get its pilots trained in bombing missions. It is not possible to acquire such conversion and bombing skills in a normal flying club. Either they must have acquired them in a flying club having retired air force pilots as instructors or it has been assisted by retired air force officers of some country. It could be retired Tamil pilots of the SLAF, if there are any, or retired air force pilots of some foreign country or the other.

The LTTE should be presumed to have a capability for air terrorism, though it has not so far exhibited it. Air-mounted terrorism does not require any special skills. All it requires is individual motivation, a flying object which could be even a glider and the ability to glide or fly which could be acquired in any flying club. The use of an aircraft for air-mounted terrorism would result in the definitive loss of the aircraft. The TAF is estimated to have not more than five small planes. It is doubtful whether it would undertake an act of air-mounted suicide terrorism and lose a plane except in a desperate situation.

The small TAF does not pose a strategic threat to Sri Lanka. A well-planned and well-executed ground strike against a strategic target causes more damage than a strike from the air. One had seen the damage caused to the SLAF by the LTTE's ground strike in 2001 against the Katunayake airport. The TAF is unlikely to turn the tide of the conflict in Sri Lanka in favour of the LTTE. Its value is as an image symbol in the eyes of the Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad and as an additional psywar tool. Every unintercepted air strike of the TAF will weaken the credibility of the SLAF in the eyes of its people.

Moreover, the TAF will add to the defence expenditure of the Government.

The most worrisome aspect is that the LTTE has been able to acquire even this limited capability without being countered by the intelligence and security agencies of Sri Lanka, India and many other countries. Indian media reports after the TAF's first air strike of March 26, 2007, had quoted Indian intelligence sources as claiming that they knew that the LTTE had procured five small aircraft and had passed on the intelligence to the Sri Lankan authorities. Their contention was that there was, therefore, no intelligence failure. The pertinent question is not whether the TAF has one or a dozen planes, but how it was able to clandestinely procure them and smuggle them in right under the nose of so many intelligence and physical security agencies without their being able to prevent it. It is a serious intelligence and physical security failure. If the LTTE can do it today, many other terrorist organisations can do it tomorrow.

There are so many questions for which there are no satisfactory answers. Where did the LTTE procure the planes? How did it pay for them? How did it manage to smuggle them into the areas controlled by it? How and where did it get its pilots trained not only in normal flying, but also in bombing missions? Did former pilots of the air force of any country play a role in this? Who are they? Wherefrom has it been smuggling the aviation fuel? How has it been able to have it transported without being detected? Without answers to these questions, it would be difficult to assess the magnitude of the intelligence and security lapse.

The SLAF has been operating against the LTTE since April, 2006. Its operations have been more reactive and punitive than proactive. While it has been able to mount some successful reactive operations against the Sea Tigers after their ships had ventured out into the seas, it has not mounted a single proactive strike against the LTTE's ships in their hide-outs while they are not out operating. Successful proactive strikes require precise intelligence of their hide-outs, which the SLAF apparently does not have. Despite this, it must be noted that the SLAF--even through its successful reactive operations-- has been able to restrict the operations of the Sea Tigers.

The SLAF's strikes against suspected ground positions of the LTTE have been reactive and punitive--more punitive than reactive. They were blind and indiscriminate causing large civilian casualties and adding to the anger of the Tamils against the Government. There have been very few confirmed targeted strikes against the operational nerve-centres of the LTTE. The LTTE has carried out a number of decapitation suicide strikes against Government and Tamil leaders in Colombo. The Government has, therefore, the right to retaliate in kind through targeted strikes against important political and military leaders of the LTTE. The SLAF has been fighting shy of doing this either due to want of precise intelligence or due to fears of reactions in the Tamil community were Prabakaran and others to die in these strikes.

The SLAF is still confused as to how to deal with the TAF. It has bombed some suspected air strips of the TAF, but this has not prevented the TAF from operating. This is because for these small planes no regular air strip is required. They could take off from and land in any open space such as a playground or a road with a metalled surface. Absence of precise intelligence regarding the hide-outs of these planes comes in the way of proactive bombings to destroy them on the ground. A good radar cover would help prevent future air strikes in the Colombo area, but may not in the Palaly area due to the very short distance involved.

The SLAF needs a good mid-air interception capability to seek and destroy the TAF planes after they are air-borne even if they manage to evade ground fire. The kind of Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli planes the SLAF has presently are good for bombing missions, but not for mid-air interception roles. Moreover, they require regular airfields for take-off and landing. They can't scramble fast. The SLAF requires some small, easily manoeuverable aircraft, which can take off and land almost anywhere, with specially-trained pilots.

The LTTE, despite all its bravado, cannot use its planes frequently. Loss of aircraft due to ground fire or accidents would impair its air capability. The law of probability of loss of aircraft would operate more effectively against the TAF than against the SLAF. Availability of fuel would be another constraining factor. A three-fold strategy is called for: First, ensure that the LTTE would not be able to add to its fleet. Second, ensure that it would not be able to replenish its stocks of fuel and spare parts for its existing fleet. Third, collect precise intelligence about the location of the hide-outs of the planes and target them.

Sri Lanka alone would not be able to do this. Other countries, including India, should help it by effective action against clandestine procurement and smuggling by the LTTE. India could take the following steps. First, help Sri Lanka in improving its radar cover. Second, intensified and independent sea patrolling by ships of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. All suspect ships should be stopped, boarded and searched. Third, issue advisories to all Indian flying clubs that no Sri Lankan national should be admitted without the clearance of the Government of India. Fourth, verify the background and antecedents of those already under training. Fifth, take action to prevent any smuggling of aviation fuel by pro-LTTE elements from India. Sixth, use unmanned aerial vehicles to spot suspected hide-outs of the TAF. Seventh, periodically use an ELINT aircraft of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) to look for possible ELINT signals emanating from the TAF. The TAF pilots would almost definitely observe radio silence during their operations and hence the possibility of ELINT signals is remote. But still, one must look for them. Eighth, share all actionable intelligence promptly with the Sri Lankan authorities.


B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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