Sri Lankan Air Force at war

Sri Lanka’s Air Force has been waging a war against guerilla forces for more than a decade – Alan Warnes takes a look at the current situation.

IN 1983 THE separatist guerilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) declared that the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka were to become a Tamil homeland. Not surprisingly, the government in the south was unimpressed and has been trying to suppress the Tamil Tigers ever since.

To combat the arms flow between the northern and southern regions the Sri Lankan Army has drawn up a Forward Defence Line (FDL). This line extends 75 miles (120km) eastwards from Malwathu Oya, and passes through Nochchimoddai, 5 miles (8km) north of Vavuniya, the government’s most northerly controlled town en route to Jaffna. Everything and everyone passing this line is checked thoroughly, and any restricted goods are confiscated. North of the FDL there are numerous army camps which are vulnerable to attacks from the LTTE. Indeed, one of the worst attacks in recent years was at Pooneryn in November. It was reported that 4,000 terrorists attacked the camp overnight and killed up to 750 soldiers. The war has so far claimed 19,000 lives including that of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was killed in March 1993 by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

Since war broke out, the air force has undergone a transformation. In 1983 one of its most important roles was to fly tourists around the island as part of its ‘Heli-tours’ operation. Now, its operations are restricted to military use only.

The main problem encountered by the air force is a reluctance on behalf of the Western world to supply aircraft and spares. It is estimated that half of the Sri Lankan AF fleet has been grounded through lack of spares. There are currently six flying units in the Sri Lankan Air Force.

No 1 Flying Training Wing, Anuradhapura

Basic and intermediate training by No 1 Flying Training Wing (1st FTW) is undertaken at Anuradhapura with Cessna 150s, SF.260TPs, SF.260Ws and Pucaras. Several of the SF.260TPs are detached to Jaffna where they operate in the counter-insurgency (COIN) role.

All the Cessna 150s were based here until mid 1993 when some were re-located to the Transport Wing at Ratmalana. The SF.260 fleet, which had comprised 11 SF.260TPs at the end of the last decade, was joined by three SF.260Ws in 1990. Another nine similar examples were purchased from Myanmar in 1991 using the services of a Belgian agent. Unavailability of spares, as well as a few crashes, has left only a handful of the SF.260s serviceable. The only fatal crash to date claimed the life of Fit Lt Priyadarshana Abeyweeraaunawardena on September 13, 1990, when his SF.260TP (CT- 121) was shot down by the LTTE during an operation close to the Jaffna peninsula.

The most recent additions to the wing have been four Pucaras, purchased from Argentina during 1993. It is believed the Sri Lankans were interested in the A-10A, but the US Government was not forthcoming. The Pucaras were allocated the serials CA-601 to CA-604, however ‘602 was considered to be an unlucky number (more of which later) and so it was reserialled CA-605. However, it appears that ‘601 was the unlucky one — it is currently out of service, as its undercarriage collapsed while it was landing at Jaffna on October 13, 1993. An Argentinian inspection team is awaited to assess the damage. Once training has been completed, the Pucaras will leave the 1st FTW for Vavuniya, probably becoming 7 Sqn in the process.

No 2 Transport Wing, Ratmalana

No 2 Transport Wing at Ratmalana is responsible for the transportation of soldiers and cargo to the northern region. It is not safe to journey by road to Jaffna (the air force has a detachment at nearby Palali) as the town is a Tamil Tiger stronghold, consequently, the wing’s aircraft are regularly shuttling back and forth.

At the outbreak of the war, the fleet consisted of two C-47s and a BAe 748 — obviously well short of its needs. By late 1986 it had added two more ‘748s (one direct from the manufacturer and the other from Canadian airline Austin Airways) and two Harbin Y-12s from China. The following year saw the arrival of four more Y-12s and two Shaanxi Y-8s (license built An-12s) supplemented in 1990 by the final three Y-12s. Two more ‘748s were purchased from the UK in 1991 and 1992. The first to arrive was 4R-HVA c/n 1768 ex G-BGJV, which left Manchester-Ringway on December 17, 1991 and today still wears the blue/white livery of its former owner, British Airways. It was followed on Janua7 7, 1992, by 4R-HVB c/n 1757exG-OMDS.

On July 5, 1992 one of the Y-8s, CR-872, was destroyed in a mid-air explosion while on approach to the base at Jaffna; all 20 on board were killed. The cause of the explosion has never been explained, as the wreckage came down in LTTE territory, but it is believed that several of the bombs it was carrying may have shifted. Shortly afterwards its sistership CR-871 was grounded, and apart from a brief respite during mid 1993, it is still encountering technical difficulties. To ease the problems, the Chinese have loaned another Y-8, which wears the former owner’s orange livery and the Sri Lankan Air Force serial CR-873. It was due to return to China in April, when CR-871 was supposed to be airworthy again.

The nine Harbin Y-12s all wear a dark brown infra-red colour scheme, and are known rather disrespectfully as ‘taxis’, basically because they are simply a means of getting from A to B — comfort wasn’t high on the manufacturer’s priority list. They are however beginning to suffer the effects of continually transporting wounded soldiers — blood has started to corrode the aircraft’s body structure.

One of the Y-12s is currently detached to Anuradhapura where it provides a regular shuttle service to Jaffna transporting food supplies to the soldiers stationed there. It returns to Ratmalana once a week to be checked over before departing for Anuradhapura a couple of days later.

It was decided to detach three Cessna 150s here during early 1993; the reasoning behind this isn’t clear as none of them appear to have flown for a while. Beech King Air CR-842 was purchased in 1983 to provide VIP transport. It wears a dark green and black colour scheme and until a few years ago was serialled CR-841, however, following a mishap with a BAe 748 it was decided to re-serial it — the three original figures had added up to 13! This is also why you won’t find a BAe 748 serialled CR-832.

Cessna 421C CC-660 is maintained by the wing on behalf of the Survey Department. It was purchased in 1980 to replace the Beech 18 that has now been retired to the museum.

Also located here is the Aircraft Preservation and Storage Unit (AP&SU) which cares for the Sri Lankan Air Force museum co-located here, in addition to maintaining the transport fleet.

3 Maritime Sqn, China Bay

Situated at China Bay on the east coast, 3 Maritime Sqn is responsible for patrolling the coastal waters, particularly the Palk Strait where Tamil sympathisers have been known to smuggle arms. Over the past four years, the squadron’s Herons, Doves and SA 365C Dauphins have been withdrawn from service, and the ever apparent shortage of spares means that only one of the five Cessna 337 Super Skymasters remains airworthy. Presumably other aircraft can be called upon when the need arises.

4 Helicopter Sqn, Katunayake

No 4 Helicopter Sqn at Katunayake operates a fleet of six Bell 206s, 12 Bell 212s, and four Bell 412s, for a variety of roles including COIN, ground support, and VIP transportation. The aircraft operating in the VIP role wear a red and white colour scheme, the remainder display dark brown infra-red camouflage schemes. The important COIN role and its gun-ship operations have been largely responsible for the squadron losing three Bell 206s and six Bell 212s. A subsequent order of four Bell 212s was received during 1990 to augment the dwindling fleet.

5 Jet Sqn, Katunayake

Following the retirement of the MiG-15UTI and MiG-17Fs in 1979, the air force saw no need for fast jets — even when the war broke out in the north, there was a reluctance to purchase such expensive commodities. Attitudes appeared to harden in 1991 when 5 Jet Squadron at Katunayake was equipped with two CAC FT-5s (MiG-17Us), a GAIC FT-7 (MiG- 21 US) and four CAC F-7Bs (MiG-21 F-13s), purchased from China. Shortage of spares may have grounded some, but no losses have been incurred.

6 Sqn, Vavuniya

No 6 Sqn at Vavuniya is the most recently formed squadron and is currently equipped with three Mil Mi-17s, which arrived in March 1993; another three are on order. Their role includes the transportation of equipment and soldiers to and from the FDL which is just five miles (8km) north of the base.

The future?

There does appear to be some light at the end of this 11 -year-old tunnel. The government is reported to have changed its stance towards the Tamils, and now accepts that not all Tamils are Tigers or terrorist sympathisers. The LTTE leadership has recently split, and local elections in several of the troubled areas were well supported. There have also been rumours in the local press that both the Canadians and Norwegians are prepared to act as intermediaries in the search for peace. Normality does seem to be returning to the east, but in the north — where the Tigers have their stronghold on the Jaffna Peninsula and control most of the jungle — peace there does seem to be a long way off. Consequently, despite some optimism, many Sri Lankans fear the war will continue for the foreseeable future.

Air force morale is certainly not a problem — the men are proud of their ‘fighting spirit’ and at times their camaraderie is touching. As the air force is comparatively small in size, most of the men know each other regardless of where they are based.

Problems stem from a lack of technical assistance from some of the more advanced Western countries. Perhaps Sri Lanka would qualify for such assistance if it had something that we in the Western world wanted or could gain from? Human rights may be on issue in Sri Lanka, but this same moral stance has not precluded support for other countries also considered to be in violation.

(Acknowledgements. My thanks go to A/M Oliver M Ranosinghe VSV, ndc, psc and G/C ODNL Perera, for their assistance in preparing this article. I would like also to express my appreciation to S/L Kolithk Gunatillake, F/L Ashok Boteju, F/L BRU Perera, F/L Pamunu Mahamalage, F/O Anurdudh Gurugamage, and Sgt Maheed for all their help.)

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