Sri Lankas Air War

Alan Warnes returned to Sri Lanka during March to see how the SLAF is faring.

THE BLOODY CONFLICT in Sri Lanka continues (see Sri Lanka’s Unique Air Force, July 96, p47-55). It does not make the national papers regularly because the government restricts the passage of journalists, but it still rages on. Battles between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) — whose leader Vellupilli Prabhakaran is also wanted in India for the alleged LTTE slaying of Premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 — and government troops are seemingly a daily occurrence. Only last August, the Army camp at Mallaittivu (see AFM, September 96, p3) was overrun by the Tamil Tigers with the loss of some 1,200 Army personnel, many of whom have never been traced; this was the largest single defeat suffered by the military in Sri Lanka.

A more recent target for the Tigers was the SLAF base at China Bay, which on March 5 came under attack by hundreds of Tiger cadres resulting in the loss of a Harbin Y-12 (see page 60), the second in just over two months. Two suicide bombers are believed to have entered the facility during the night and, but for the vigilance of an alert guard, would have caused more damage than eventually occurred. Even so, large numbers on both sides were killed during the ensuing battle.

While pushing the LTTE out of the strategically important Jaffna peninsula last year under Operation Riverisa III was heralded by the Sri Lankan Government as a great moral victory, it has caused problems.

It meant that pockets of guerrillas moved south towards the Forward Defence Line (FDD and some are now within striking range of the base at Vavuniya, home of the 6 Helicopter Sqn Mi-17s which has seen them relocated further south to the relative safety of Anuradhapura. The main role of the SLAF helicopters is to support Army operations — 11 Mi-17 Hips transport troops and are often called upon to rescue them, while the five Mi-24 Hind gunships are called in by Army personnel to attack and fire upon the enemy at given co-ordinates. The latter are escorted to the operating area by machine-gun equipped Bell 212s and any firepower that the Hind may lack is backed up by the Kfir, of which there are always two standing alert at Katunayake.

The advent of Kfir operations has dealt a severe blow to 5 Jet Sqn and its F-7 operations, not least because most of the pilots have converted to the Kfir. This is causing untold problems to the F-7 fleet because its aircraft now lack the necessary flying hours to keep up with servicing needs and they are currently grounded at their Katunayake base.

Meanwhile, the transport fleet, having suffered the loss of two Harbin Y-12s and an An-32 this year, is again looking at further replacements. Following the crash of An-32 CR-865 (see page 59) on February 21, the SLAF grounded the type until results from the black box had been processed in Ukraine. The ban was lifted on March 4 some 11 days later. More An-32 deliveries are likely, which could spell the end for the 748 fleet, with the SLAF realising that it would be in its own interests to operate just one type whenever necessary in the heavy transport role.

However, the sole remaining Shaanxi Y-8, which has been in China for rework for nearly a year, will stay with the SLAF and was expected to return to Sri Lanka during late March. It should be sporting a new grey colour scheme, replacing the orange livery it has worn ever since it joined the fleet in 1994, from its days operating with ACA Air Changan Airlines in China.

Additions

Having been on upgrade in Israel with IAI, the Beech 200 Super King Air, which previously operated as a VIP aircraft with 2 Heavy Transport Sqn, has been fitted with maritime patrol equipment and will be the first aircraft to equip 3 Maritime Squadron at Anuradhapura.

The SLAF had been looking at a number of aircraft to fulfil the maritime patrol role and at one point it looked like it had plumped for the Cessna F 406 Caravan II; however, much to the disappointment of Reims in France, it opted at the last minute for four more Beech 200 Super King Airs. All four are expected to arrive by early April from Fort Lauderdale, which will see them passing through Spain and Crete en-route.

It is from Anuradhapura that the 11th UAV Fit is now operating two IAI Super Scout UAVs for reconnaissance purposes, having become operational at Minneriya-Hingarukgoda during 1996. A third UAV on strength was lost on January 16, 1997 — allegedly shot down by Tamil Tigers — which may have pre-empted the move.

In September 1996 three Mi-24V Hinds (serialled CH613-CH615) which had been stored at Katunayake for several months were pressed into operation alongside the trio already in service. Around the same time, four An-32s (CR863-866) also entered service with 2 Heavy Transport Sqn, having been delivered in two batches of two.

The losses

There is no doubt that the SLAF is still suffering from the tragedies that started unfolding nearly two years ago, when the first Avro 748 was shot down. But sadly, the symptoms are now taking on epidemic proportions. Anyone with a keen interest in modern military aviation can not have failed to notice that a week barely goes by without the loss of another aircraft. The SLAF was operating a fleet of approximately 60 aircraft devoted to the war effort at the beginning of 1997 — the loss of eight aircraft this year has wiped out over 10% of its fleet and claimed 16 souls.

To understand why this is happening you have to first cast your mind back to April 1995, when Eelam War 3′ commenced, a term coined by the local media after the second ceasefire ended. Within two weeks of it failing, on April 28/29, two Avro 748s fell prey on consecutive days to Tamil Tiger SAMs, all 97 personnel on board the aircraft perished. And it got worse… by the end of 1995 two newly-acquired An-32s had also been lost along with a Shaanxi Y-8 adding another 134 personnel to the list of victims killed in this conflict. It left 2 Heavy Transport Squadron with a daunting burden, it had lost 19 aircrew — half of its strength — and to make matters worse, many of the passengers aboard the aircraft had been SLAF personnel. The SLAF was grieving, everyone had lost friends, colleagues and even members of their families.

At the same time, the government released funds to provide the SLAF with more firepower — six IAI Kfirs, 12 Mi-17 Hips and six Mi-24 Hinds were introduced to the fleet, along with an additional three An-32s for transport duties. There is no doubt these were desperately needed and the SLAF set about promoting its existing officers to these more sophisticated aircraft and pilots were cross-trained on other types. Of greater concern, however, was the inadequate training of new students at overseas facilities such as Bangladesh.

In some cases the gaps in ability were evident when they returned from training and so extra tuition was arranged. But it does still appear that some pilots who are not operationally ready are being rushed from basic training into service.

Eventually they may pay with their lives, as well as those of the crew and passengers — the young Flying Officer who was at the controls of the Hind when it went down on March 19 (see page 60/61) with the loss of all eight on board, sadly appears to confirm these fears.

This was the SLAF’s first Hind casualty and followed close on the loss of its first Kfir, which led to all SLAF aircraft being grounded for four days. Unfortunately, because of the lack of ground radar, many of the lost aircraft and their black boxes are never recovered, thus depriving the SLAF of vital answers to many questions.

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