The target was Colombo, but the threat is also to India
The LTTE just carried out a ‘pre-emptive’ strike against the Sri Lankan air force’s base north of Colombo. They might not have inflicted significant damage in purely tactical terms, but the Tigers have just crossed a line. Their aircraft penetrated air defence, dropped explosives and escaped unscathed. The attack should count as a major advance in the LTTE’s capabilities and strategy.
But this should hardly come as a surprise. The LTTE is a terribly innovative terrorist organisation—it invented the cyanide pill, suicide bombing and is perhaps one of the few such outfits to operate a naval unit—and reports of it acquiring air capabilities emerged about 18 months ago. It is likely that the Indian government knew about this much earlier.
Between 2003 and 2004 when LTTE was engaged in the Norwegian-brokered peace negotiations with the Sri Lankan government, it was also busy developing its air capability. Currently that includes a 1250m airstrip at Iranamadu in the Wanni area, a helicopter and a couple of light aircraft, possibly Czech-made Zlin Z-143s. These aircraft can fly up to 1000km and can carry four persons.
Not quite the traditional air force, but in the hands of an uncoventional military force such as the Tigers, this can be put to some very deadly use. Another advantage of flying small aircraft is that they are less visible on radar and air-defence systems that are designed to spot bigger, conventional aircraft. [The Acorn, 3rd June 2005]
The Acorn had argued that the LTTE’s development of aerial capacity is a serious threat to India’s own security. For that reason, it had argued that India and Sri Lanka must constitute a NORAD like joint air-defense command in the southern part of the subcontinent. Such a measure has become all the more important now.
Several of India’s key defence installations—not to mention population centres—are already within range of the LTTE’s incipient air force. Unless India upgrades its surveillance and air defence capabilities in the south, the Tigers might not even need any more sophisticated planes than the small light aircraft that they can acquire. Bear in mind that since its pilots don’t always plan to go back home, the LTTE’s range is double that of a conventional air force flying the same planes. Besides, it is still not too late to destroy their planes and deny them air capabilities.
India is seriously concerned by the audacious air attack mounted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka on Monday, official sources said even as the External Affairs Ministry remained silent. [The Hindu]
How they got their planes. The heavily camouflaged aircraft were thought to have been brought into the country in kit form, in containers, during the humanitarian relief effort after the 2004 tsunami.
Government sources said that there was evidence that the Tigers had exploited the lack of security at the time to import a number of light aircraft, helicopters and arms. Some of the weapons were reported to have been transported in coffins. [The Times]