LTTE’s growing air power A threat to regional security

THOUGH the Tamil Tigers have been steadily losing ground to the Sri Lankan armed forces this year, the ‘Tiger Air Force’, the air arm of LTTE, has been gaining strength. On October 22, the LTTE launched a pre-dawn coordinated ground and air strike on the Anuradhapura air base that killed 14 soldiers. Three military helicopters were destroyed on the ground. 
Earlier, on March 27, 2007 , by successfully executing a spectacular nocturnal air raid on the Katunayake air base near Colombo, the LTTE had demonstrated that its rudimentary air wing had finally acquired teeth. Palaly had also been similarly hit. These successful air strikes against military targets mark a new escalation in the level of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict by an order of magnitude. 
The LTTE has been known to be building an air wing since about 1998. This effort had suffered a setback when Sornalingam, alias Colonel Shankar, the brain behind the air wing, was killed in a Sri Lankan Army raid. The first Tiger airstrip was built at Iranamadu almost a decade ago and has 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 commando-style LTTE raid on Katunayake air base on July 24, 2001 , the Sri Lankan Air Force and some commercial airlines had lost over a dozen aircraft. 
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 and are suspected to be Czech-made Zlin-143s. These are propeller-driven, piston engine aircraft on which rookie pilots normally do their basic training. Most flying clubs possess such aircraft. 
These aircraft can be innovatively modified to carry two free-fall light bombs as the explosive ordnance by modifying the undercarriage and designing a rudimentary electronic bomb release circuit. In the raid on Colombo, 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. 
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 was reported to have been nabbed by the FBI in a sting operation in Guam. He was convicted for involvement in procuring arms, including anti-aircraft missiles, for the LTTE. As the success 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 raids bring 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, other air bases 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. Threats equal 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. LTTE pilots must have trained diligently for this complex operation and these activities should have been picked up and reported. The newly established National Technical Reconnaissance Organisation (NTRO) and the Aviation Wing of R&AW must enhance their 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. 
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, the acquisition of potent 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 writer is Additional Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi