Lessons from LTTE’s Air Strike

By successfully executing a spectacular nocturnal air raid on the Katunayake air base near Colombo on March 27, 2007, the LTTE has demonstrated that its rudimentary air wing has finally acquired teeth. This military-style air strike against a military target marks a new escalation in the level of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict by an order of magnitude, as it cannot be classified as an act of terrorism. In fact, the air strike was carefully planned to avoid civilian casualties. 

The LTTE has been known to be building an air wing since about 1998. Col R. Hariharan, a former Indian military intelligence officer who had served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka has written that this effort had suffered a setback when Sornalingam, alias Colonel Shankar, the brain behind it, was killed in a Sri Lankan Army raid. The first airstrip was built at Iranamadu almost a decade ago and had been subjected to frequent air attacks by the Sri Lanka Air Force. During the ceasefire period, the LTTE developed a second airstrip at Pudukuduiruppu, about 26 km northwest of Mullaitivu. 

The LTTE has been training suicide bombers to fly small aircraft into high value targets much before the al Qaeda terrorists flew large airliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. In a ground attack on Katunayake air base on July 24, 2001, the Sri Lankan Air Force and some commercial airlines had lost over a dozen aircraft. It is possible that this air raid may also have been planned in conjunction with a ground strike operation that had to be aborted. 

The known fleet strength of the LTTE air wing is two light aircraft and two small helicopters, besides a few micro-lights. The light aircraft are of the HPT-32 trainer aircraft class. The HPT-32 is a propeller-driven, piston engine aircraft on which pilots do their basic training before graduating to Kiran jet aircraft to hone their flying skills. Most flying clubs possess such aircraft. These aircraft can be innovatively modified to at best carry two free-fall light bombs and that is the explosive ordnance that was delivered by modifying the undercarriage and designing a rudimentary electronic bomb release circuit. The pilots flew almost 400 km over hostile terrain to execute a difficult mission against a high security air base. Though the damage was low, the impact was considerable. While the government claims that only two helicopters were damaged in the air strike, it is suspected that some fighter aircraft may also have been hit. The real extent of the damage will become clear only when the Sir Lankan Air Force resumes bombing operations against the Tigers. 

It is well know that some years ago the LTTE had managed to procure surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) from various sources, including the Pakistan-based terrorist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and had fired these against military aircraft. Of late, the LTTE has again been scouting the global grey market for anti-aircraft missiles. In February 2007, former Marine Corps General Erick Wotulo of Indonesia, reported to have been nabbed by the FBI in a sting operation in Guam, was convicted for involvement in procuring arms, including anti-aircraft missiles, for the LTTE. As the strike rate of security agencies is rather low due to the clandestine nature of arms sales and their transportation, it is possible that several consignments may have actually reached the LTTE without having been discovered.

The LTTE air raid brings out several lessons for both Sri Lanka and India. The Sri Lankan government can ill-afford to ignore this new threat from the LTTE. It must invest in better air defence coverage of Colombo international airfield and key installations by acquiring long- and short-range radars for early warning and SAMs to shoot down hostile aircraft approaching the airfield. Reprisal bombings of the LTTE air bases will be counter-productive. The Sri Lankans must plan a joint air and ground commando operation to destroy the LTTE aircraft wherever these are hidden near the airstrips. It will be an extremely difficult operation to conduct successfully but one that can succeed if intelligence acquisition is accurate and a bold plan is made.

As far as India is concerned, there is no immediate threat and, therefore, there is no need for knee-jerk reactions. Threat is equal to capability into intention and while the LTTE has demonstrated the capability to strike targets on ground from the air, however rudimentary it might be at present, it has not conducted major acts of terrorism in India since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. However, intentions can change and India must take the measures necessary to gradually beef up its air defence capability in Tamil Nadu. All important airfields and other vulnerable installations must be provided protection. There are bound to be many gaps in the radar coverage as Southern India has never been threatened from the air by India’s major military adversaries. These gaps must be eliminated over a five-year period. 

Quite obviously, there were gaps in intelligence acquisition and assessment as well as LTTE pilots would have had to train diligently for this complex operation and these activities should have been picked up and reported. The newly established National Technical Reconnaissance Organisation (NTRO) must enhance its surveillance of the areas east of the Ramnad coast. The LTTE must be warned that any violation of India’s airspace will not be acceptable and will result in instantaneous punitive retaliation. 

Obviously, the LTTE still has the ability to strike telling blows against the much larger and better-equipped Sri Lankan armed forces. It may be down, but it is far from out. Finally, on another plane, the acquisition of air-to-ground strike capability by a non-state actor poses a new challenge to the international community. As other non-state actors and terrorist outfits pick up the aerial gauntlet in the years ahead, it will be a challenge that will be difficult to meet.

(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.)