The air force was the junior service, founded in 1951 as the Royal Ceylon Air Force. Unsurprisingly, much of the ethos and style of the service were based on Britain’s Royal Air Force, which provided the early training aircraft. When the British closed their bases in Ceylon in 1956, the two main RAF bases were taken over by the Ceylonese. In its early years the air force was engaged largely in immigration patrols. During the Tiger insurgency the air force moved from transport and patrol duties to active counter-insurgency operations.
Initial combat aircraft came from the UK — de Havilland Vampire jets, although they were never deployed. They were replaced with twelve BAC Jet Provost T51 aircraft, but they were also put in storage (to be rapidly mobilized for the first JVP rebellion in 1971). The first helicopter in the inventory was the Westland Dragonfly HR 5, later augmented by US and Indian choppers.
The first active-duty demand for the air force was the JVP insurrection, especially to relieve sieges of isolated army and police outposts; an air force base at Ekala was also attacked by the Sinhalese insurgents. The left-leaning Bandaranaike administration turned to the Soviet Union for emergency aid; Moscow responded quickly with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, including MiG-17Fs. This was the time when the rival superpowers competed for the non-aligned vote, so Washington felt obliged to match the Russians by sending six Bell 47G helicopters, which were deployed after only five days of pilot training.
After the defeat of the 1971 rebellion, funds dried up for the air force, which enterprisingly turned to running a commercial business to fly foreign tourists around the island’s many beauty spots. But the outbreak of the Tiger insurgency compelled the air force to concentrate on COIN. By 1987 it had increased to 3,700 personnel (a Women’s Wing was formed in the same year). But the Russian aircraft had been mothballed and the air force lacked fighter-bomber capability. Old British bases from Second World War days were re-activated (for example, at Batticaloa and Sigiriya). Servicing so many aircraft, from so many different sources, particularly procuring spare parts, caused many headaches, especially as the Tiger attacks took their toll. Some aircraft were repaired in Singapore, and Canada helped with servicing the Bell chopper fleet. Like the sanctioned Rhodesians in the 1970s, who also refitted the SF 260s, the Sri Lankans proved adept in refitting for COIN purposes civilian or military trainer aircraft bought in Italy, Britain and US. Six SIAI Marchetti SF 260 turboprops were used for rocket attacks and strafing. (The LTTE shot down a number of them – for example, in September 1990 and in July 1992, when both pilots were killed.) Burma (Myanmar) helped with replacements, but in the twenty-first century the Chinese-built Nanchang PT-6 replaced the venerable SF 260s. Singapore also assisted in refitting the Bell choppers (212 and 412) as gunships and transports for commando operations. In addition, transport aircraft were utilized as bombers. The small fleet of Harbin Y-12 high-wing utility craft was equipped with bomb racks to carry up to 1,000kg of anti-personnel and fragmentation bombs. The refits were deemed successful until a Chinese Shaanxi Y-8 crashed during a bombing mission in 1992.
In the early 1990s the air force procured four Chengdu FR-7 Skybolts and two Shenyang J-5s from China. Beijing also supplied three FT-7s; because of their lack of endurance and payload, the F-7s were mainly used as trainers. Later, three F-7BS aircraft were added for ground-attack missions. Four FMA IA 58 Pucarás were acquired for ground attack. The Argentine COIN-specialist aircraft was designed for use from short rough forward airstrips, as its extensive deployment in the Falklands war proved, though it was shot down even by small-arms fire in that conflict. In Sri Lanka three of the Pucarás were brought down, two by Tiger surface-to-air missiles. The surviving Pucará was retired because of lack of spare parts. Six MiG-27s were the much more lethal replacement. The MiG-27 (codenamed Flogger-D/J by NATO) was a variable-geometry ground-attack fighter originally built in the USSR and later produced under licence in India by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). The Indians called it the ‘Bahadur’ (Valiant). Unlike the MiG-23, the MiG-27 saw comparatively little use outside Russia. All the Russian and Ukrainian MiG-27s were retired by the beginning of the twenty-first century; it remained in active service with the Indian, Kazakh and Sri Lankan forces. The Mig-27s saw extensive action bombing strategic targets and providing close air support in the Tiger war. In August 2000 a MiG-27 crashed near Colombo International Airport; its Ukrainian pilot did not survive. In July 2001 another MiG-27 was destroyed on the ground by the Tigers. Yet another MiG-27 crashed into the sea in June 2004. The Pucarás may have been relatively vulnerable, but perhaps the MiGs were just unlucky.
On the other hand, the Tigers – one of the very few insurgencies to possess its own air wing – were a formidable foe, on land, sea and in the air. On 24 July 2001, the day the aforementioned MiG-27 was destroyed on the ground, another twelve planes were also destroyed in a pre-dawn raid on the Katunayake air base, adjacent to the civilian International airport thirty-five kilometres from Colombo. The tally included two Kfir fighters and a Mil Mi-24 gunship, as well as military trainers and five civilian jets. The international airport was soon ringed by large anti-blast walls to protect against car bombs, and road approaches and the terminal itself were heavily guarded by immaculately dressed members of the Air Force Regiment. But the damage to national morale, let alone international tourism, had been done.
In 1993 three Mil Mi-17 aircraft augmented the helicopter transport fleet. In 1995 Mi-24 gunships – frightening flying tanks for anyone who had witnessed their lethality in Afghanistan – were acquired for close air support for the army. Six years later Mi-35s were added to the helicopter fleet. Four MiG-27s were purchased from the Ukraine to compensate for the losses.
Sir Lanka shopped where it could for its aircraft. But a constant supplier of manned (and later unmanned) modern aircraft was Israel. The air combat strength had been dramatically boosted in 1996 when Israel provided seven IAI Kfirs (six C.2cs and one TC.2). How Israel produced upgraded variants of the Dassault Mirage 5 airframe is an enthralling adventure story in its own right, involving Mossad’s sleight of hand in getting hold of the French designs, despite French sanctions, and then the Israeli-produced, and licensed, version of the American General Electric J79 engine. Israel Aircraft Industries then added its own avionics and sold the jets, with Washington’s permission, to a number of countries, mainly in South America, but also to Sri Lanka. (Israel also leased back some of the Kfir variants to the US Navy and US Marines to act as ‘adversary aircraft’ – sometimes in Israeli livery; strange that Washington should simulate US v Israeli aerial combat.) The sleek Kfirs were in service in Israel from 1975 to the mid-1990s, and so were available for less advanced, or hard-pressed, air forces such as Sri Lanka’s. A further nine Kfirs were handed over to Colombo by 2005.
The air force had been constantly engaged in ground-attack roles throughout the LTTE-controlled areas. By 2006 the Tigers had developed their own air force using several modified lightweight aircraft. Air-defence capability, long neglected, had to be rapidly beefed up. A radar network was set up and air-base protection boosted. Airborne interdiction was designed using fixed-wing and rotary-wing assets. From 2007 to 2009 the Tigers used their small air force to attack Colombo and several military bases with usually superficial results. The Tigers were always very clever and rapid improvisers. In October 2007 a ground attack on an air force base at Saliyapura was supported briefly by the Tigers’ air wing. Eight government aircraft were destroyed and several damaged. The Sri Lankan response was the use of No. 5 Jet Squadron armed with F-7Gs to act as interceptors. A year after the Saliyapura raid, the Sri Lankan air force claimed its first air-to-air kill when it said that an F-7G had shot down a Tiger Zlin Z-143 which attempted a bombing run on a government base. The Tigers had already released pictures of their new aerial acquisitions: the Czech-built single-engine, four-seater planes modified with a mount for four bombs on the undercarriage. The Air Tigers carried out a suicide raid in the last months of the war by attacking Colombo on 20 February 2009 using two of the Czech planes. Under heavy anti-aircraft gun fire one of the Zlin Z-143s crashed into the Inland Revenue Department building in the capital and the other Tiger plane was shot down near the main air base at Katunayake.
The recent IISS Military Balance stated that the country had almost 150 combat-capable aircraft and 13,500 personnel, regular and reserve, whereas Sri Lankan figures put the official size as 27,400 airmen and 1,300 officers, though a number would have been stood down since the end of the Tiger insurgency. In addition, the air force, like its original RAF mentor, had an Air Force Regiment to defend bases, using infantry and light armoured units. The SLAF Regiment contained its own special forces unit for offensives as opposed to merely protecting static positions.
The air force’s weapons
The IISS suggested a tally of twenty-three combat-capable fixed-wing aircraft; the Sri Lankans claimed at least ten more. These included fighters and fighter-ground-attack planes. Leading the frontline aircraft were the ten Israeli Kfir fighter-bombers of various marks, operating within the No. 10 Fighter Squadron. Despite their versatility, the Kfirs were unlucky for the air force. Although none was lost in combat, two were destroyed on the ground in 2001 and three were lost in accidents. At the end of the war, nine Kfirs were in service. In March 2011 two collided while practising for an air show. Because it was a multi-role combat aircraft, it was the premier asset, although the design was forty years old. For interceptor roles, the air force deployed eight frontline Chengdu F-7s, with six trainers in reserve. Also deployed were seven MiG-27M Floggers, with some conversion trainer back-up. China, Pakistan and the US supplied basic and advanced fixed-wing trainers.
Transport aircraft inventory was standard: two American Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the Ukrainian Antonov An-32 (five) and Chinese Harbin Y-12s and Xian MA60s. The air force lacked an effective large bomber and experimented with rolling barrel bombs out of the Y-12. It was primitive, cheap but often effective until one of the bombs went off in the Y-12, killing, inter alia, the only son of a senior officer. The experiment was closed down. Pakistan, however, provided more modern bombs and Israel supplied effective laser-guided weapons. The air force denied using any cluster bombs.
For maritime reconnaissance, a Cessna 421 Golden Eye and two Beechcraft 200T Super King Airs were used. Close ground surveillance was also carried out from 1996 by UAVs: Israeli Searcher Mark II and the EMIT Blue Horizon 2. The unit operating the UAVs was upgraded in 2007 to an operational squadron, but it split in 2008 to form the No. 111 and No. 112 Air Surveillance Squadrons. The provision of Israeli UAVs extended beyond the Searcher and Blue Horizon drones. The Sri Lankans tested the old Israeli Scout and then the US-Israeli jointly developed RQ-2 Pioneer. The numbers were small, but Colombo tended to be cagey about the details of its UAVs and the Israeli intelligence/procurement connection. The air force ended up with two Searchers (by 2012 just one) and four Blue Horizons.
At the end of the conflict the number of surviving Russian attack helicopters, variants of the Hind, was eleven. The support helicopters were multi-national: Russian Mi-17s, and a medley of US Bell variants for transport and VIP travel. The Sri Lankan Air Force Regiment deployed defence systems and towed artillery.
As the war reached a crescendo in early 2009 the air force planned to modernize. Much of the kit was old. Negotiations were held with Moscow to get helicopters. New transports were discussed with Beijing. The interceptor role needed strengthening, hence the possibility of MiG-29s – these would replace the even older Kfirs and MiG-27s. What made air force chiefs salivate was the thought of the US F-16s, but politics and budget restraints made that unlikely. These and other projects were discussed in the specialist aviation press. But the demands for a peace dividend could stall modernization and expansion across all three services.
Air force tactics
According to a former air force commander, before 2006 ‘morale was very low because of the stop-start nature of the campaign’. But when the National Security Council was revitalized in 2006, he said: ‘At my first meeting of the NSC I saw there was real purpose – that this thing has to be finished. Or this country is going nowhere. So the will was there.’
The army and navy often fought on equal terms with the Tigers, often suffering major reversals. But the air force had air supremacy which was occasionally challenged by the five small Czech aircraft of the Air Tigers. One was shot down by the air force, the single example of air-to-air interception. Otherwise the fast jets were used to attack ground formations.
One of the main roles of the air force was to feed to the battle management centre real-time videos from UAVs and surveillance aircraft. The first UAVs were deployed in 1996, starting with the Super Scout system. In 2000 the Searcher Mark 2 was added to what became No. 111 Squadron. In 2007 the Blue Horizon was introduced to a new 112 Squadron. They were dedicated to intelligence gathering, reconnaissance at sea and land, battlefield surveillance, artillery fire adjustment and damage assessment. They were kept flying continuously and suffered attrition through enemy fire. (The Tigers referred to them as Wandu when they were being polite; it meant ‘beetle’. The Sinhalese called them Kelama – ‘gossiper’.) Compared with ground fire, more crashes were caused by icing (the machines were not 100 per cent watertight) as well as gyro and engine failures. Certainly on the ground – when I visited No. 111 Squadron – the small machine looked very frail, as did the two half-size trainers. It was odd that a whole squadron should be dedicated to a single surviving machine (but the cost of replacing them in peacetime was exorbitant). The pilots had to make do with practising with small multi-coloured wooden aircraft they had built themselves. It was not a waste of time, as the Israeli machines have to be launched using a small toggle device similar to model aircraft controls before the ground station takes over when the plane is out of visual sight. The Americans could spend billions on Predators armed with Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan, but the Sri Lankans managed near miracles with their tiny budget and tiny aircraft. The petite Searcher might look like a hobbyist’s dream, but it proved an effective war machine.
Attack helicopters, especially the Mi-24s, played a very active role. Access to the flying logs provided a wealth of details on the range of fighting. A summary of some of the Mi-24 crashes gives a flavour of the intense combat:
19 March 1997 — Missing in action
10 November 1997 – Missile attack
26 June 1998 – Small calibre anti-aircraft gun
23 January 2000 – Missile attack
24 May 2000 – ‘Enemy fire’
19 October 2000 – ‘Enemy fire’
27 November 2009 – Tail rotor failure.
Although the details of close support of ground offensives as well as more mundane tasks such as riding shotgun on the Jetliner navy convoy or distributing leaflets are of interest, what is especially revealing is the air force’s role in ‘hot’ extractions of special forces. The records of No. 9 Attack Helicopter Squadron show:
2 July 2001: A long range reconnaissance patrol had been surrounded by Tigers deep inside the Vanni jungles. The Mi-24s flew a decoy mission nearby. LTTE cadres rushed to the site, allowing the SF to escape.
22 November 2001: Two Mi-24s provided top cover while a Bell 212 and a Mi-17 extracted from the Periyamadhu area four SF personnel, two of whom were severely wounded from an anti-personnel mine.
1/2 July 2007: The squadron was ordered to airlift a casualty from a team from the 3rd Special Forces Regiment forced to retreat under heavy fire. The extraction was twenty-five kilometres behind LTTE lines in the Northern Vanni region. Thickly wooded terrain and constant enemy fire made the airlift difficult, especially finding a suitable landing zone. Eventually the coordinates for a suitable site were given. Two Mi-24s got in close, with a Mi-17 standing off, while a Bell 212 managed to land. All SF men were safely extracted.
29 July 2008: three SF members under intense enemy fire needed airlifting from an area eight kilometres northwest of Mankulam. With the careful coordination of the No. 9 Squadron commander and the CO of the 3rd Special Forces Regiment, a Bell 212 was sent in but with the cover of only one Mi-24 (the standard second aircraft had developed an engine problem). Flying just above the jungle canopy, the Bell extracted the special forces men under heavy fire.
The air force, sometimes with liaison officers on the ground, worked closely with the army, but particularly special forces. Other infantry sources claimed that the air force was tardy in responding to urgent requests for air support – but that kind of complaint can be found in all wars, daily in Afghanistan in the bitter NATO fighting in Helmand.
Extractions under fire required immense skill by the young flight lieutenants in the cockpits of the Mi-24s. It would take on average forty-five minutes to reach the target area, once the tasking was complete and the coordinates fixed. In the extensive use of the Hinds in ground support operations the air force could augment their firepower by using the Kfirs. In the battle that prompted Eelam War IV, in July 2006, the gunships attacked positions around the Mavil Aru reservoir. Close air support required careful coordination to avoid blue-on-blue incidents; the Mi-24 intercepted a large group of LTTE cadres crossing a paddy-field and, according to the air force logs, ‘inflicted heavy damages to the enemy’. In open terrain, the 12.7mm cannon protruding from the nose, the bombs and the S24B rockets under the stub wings could create carnage. In operations around Mavil Aru, the Mi-24s flew forty-two combat missions, logging 162 hours of flying time.
In later operations in the fighting around the Tiger capital, Kilinochchi, No. 9 Squadron deployed all its available choppers, although the constant flying was wearing out the machines. The unavailability of main rotor blades prevented flying for the initial stages of the army operation; by cannibalizing other machines, six choppers were eventually made airworthy.
The aircraft flew in formations of four to attack LTTE strongholds at night, for example hitting LTTE bunkers north of the Giant’s Tank area. The air force deployed forward-looking infra red equipment (FLIR), night vision goggles and laser-guided munitions. The pilots looked enviously at the Apache’s performance abroad; even the Mi-28s would have proved more capable at night. Despite the extra equipment, night operations in a Mi-24 were hazardous. In another night raid on a LTTE radar station at Nagasigvanturai, on 18 August 2008, two choppers killed twenty female LTTE cadres, ‘creating disorder among the LTTE’. Sometimes the attacks were very close to army lines. A particular target of the Mi-24s was heavy earthmoving machinery which the LTTE used to erect their ubiquitous bunds. The No. 9 Squadron also hit Sea Tiger bases.
The main aim of the air force was to ‘hit LTTE supplies and their leadership and break their will to fight’, according to Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, the former air commander and then Chief of Defence Staff. He reached the most senior post, despite being a Christian. He said that ethnicity or religion were not an issue in the air force. The former chopper pilot had ‘a Buddhist and Tamil in my air wing when I was flying,’ he said. He also insisted that the air force fought ‘a very clean war’, using all available technology to avoid collateral damage.
Spares were often a problem, he confessed, although there were no supply problems with the Russian helicopters. (He didn’t mention the delay in securing rotor blades, described in his own squadron’s logs.) The biggest problem, he said, was manpads – shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. The first missiles struck on 28 and 29 April 1994 and brought down two aircraft. ‘They were Stingers,’ said the Air Marshal. ‘They were coming from Afghanistan, even though the US was paying US$400,000 to buy them back. But other terrorist groups were paying more to the Afghans.’ He said that initially LTTE ground fire caused real problems.
We needed bigger and bigger choppers with bigger guns and we had to go higher and higher. Then came the missiles – the manpads, the SAM-7s – we were not ready for that. We were slow in getting equipment to respond to that threat. We had to ground the helicopters and that affected the army, not least with logistics.
Anti-missile systems from Israel solved many of the threats. But overall the air force lost twenty-seven aircraft and thirty-seven pilots during the war. Six Mi-24s were downed in combat, and two lost in crashes. Finally the pilots got used to lower-level flying. But by the time the LTTE moved into conventional fighting, it became hard for the Mi-24s to provide continual ground support. The army started complaining about the diminishing air effect. The Air Marshal explained that,
Sometimes the Mi-24s were just 75 yards from the enemy. You know when the Mi-24 turns, it is very vulnerable. Some got hit. They would land with 60-70 bullet holes. We would patch them up and send them out again. The pilots were very brave. It was a tough fight.
The air force started with Bell 212s but bigger better-armed choppers with heavier bomb loads were required. The firepower of the Mi-24s’ rockets and cannon was needed. Extra firepower was provided by the Chinese F-17s and the Kfirs. The jets helped to bring back the balance in the government’s favour after the growing missile threat. No jets were lost in combat. The Air Tigers were not an effective military threat, but the five Czech Zlin Z-143 light planes had a psychological impact, the Air Marshal conceded. ‘They were very small aircraft flying slowly and very low. They were flying in the night with very small heat signatures. If I’d had a good missile I could have shot all of them down.’
He said again that it was a tough war, especially casevacs at night. But he conceded that the Sri Lankan government had air superiority, the most vital ingredient of an air war. He also said that the LTTE ‘were very committed and disciplined in what they did’.
They had Stingers and SAM-7 Strelas. They also had SAM-14s and 16s and were trying to get the SAM-18s. A low-flying helicopter would have found it difficult to survive an 18. We are grateful to the US for stopping that procurement of SAM-18s …
We flew every day – morning and night. Low. We kept up the pressure. And we had good intelligence from the UAVs and the army. It took a lot out of our pilots. They did thousands of missions. That’s a lot for a small air force.
The Air Marshal paused and smiled, ‘Of course the air force does not always get the due credit.’