Lessons from LTTE strikes

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. It must invest in better air defence coverage of Colombo international airfield and other key installations by acquiring long- and short-range radars for early warning. 
  

In apparent retaliation against a Sri Lankan Air Force attack on a suspected LTTE hideout just outside Kilinochchi, the TAF (Tamileelam Air Force) bombed a military fuel storage complex at Kolonnawa near Colombo at 1.50 am on April 29. Earlier, LTTE spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan had claimed that they had launched a successful air attack on the Palaly military base at 1.20 am on April 24. On March 27 two aircrafts of LTTE’s air wing had carried out a spectacular nocturnal air raid on the Katunayake air base near Colombo. The pilots had flown almost 400 km over hostile terrain at night to execute a difficult mission against a high security air base. Though the damage was low, the impact was considerable. 

The LTTE has been known to be building an air wing since 1998. 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 recent extended ceasefire, the LTTE is reported to have developed a second airstrip at Pudukuduiruppu, about 26 km northwest of Mullaitivu. 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 propeller-driven, piston engine aircraft of the HPT-32 trainer aircraft class on which pilots do their basic training. Most flying clubs possess such aircraft. These aircraft have been innovatively modified by the TAF to carry two free-fall light bombs by modifying the undercarriage and designing a rudimentary electronic bomb release circuit. 

It is well known 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. 


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. It must invest in better air defence coverage of Colombo international airfield and other key installations by acquiring long- and short-range radars for early warning. These radars must be capable of detecting small aircraft flying at low, tree-top altitudes as the aircraft used by TAF have a very small radar signature and are difficult to detect. The Sri Lankan armed forces must also acquire SAMs anti-aircraft guns. Reprisal bombings of the LTTE air bases will be counter-productive. 

The Sri Lankans must plan joint air and ground commando operations 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. 

While the LTTE has demonstrated the capability to launch air strikes against targets on ground, 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 both early warning and self-defence protection. The many gaps in the radar coverage over Southern India must be eliminated over a five-year period. 

The LTTE pilots must have trained diligently for these complex operations — reportedly at flying clubs in South Africa – and these activities should have been picked up and reported. The gaps in intelligence acquisition and assessment must be bridged. 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. 

It also marks an escalation in the level of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict by an order of magnitude. By successfully launching three air strikes against military targets in just over a month, the LTTE has demonstrated that TAF, its rudimentary air wing, has finally acquired teeth. The LTTE has proved that it 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. 

Unless intelligence inputs are shared sincerely among friendly countries and a close watch is kept on the clandestine arms bazaar, terrorist organisations will continue to seize the initiative and will remain one jump ahead of counter-terrorist efforts.