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LTTE Air Strike Redefines Conflict

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • March 30, 2007

    The LTTE's air attack on the Sri Lankan Air Force base at Katunayake, adjoining the Katunayake International Airport (KIA), marks a new dimension in the three-decade-old conflict. The bombing raid by the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF), reportedly originating from Vanni, has not only sharpened the focus on the island's security but also on that of India. Besides, the bombing, which left three people killed and about 17 injured, has thrown open the question of how weak the Tigers really are even after the debacle they have recently suffered in the Eastern Province. In the wake of the air attack, several questions have arisen. Why did the LTTE resort to an air attack? How significant is its air wing and what is its strength? Is the LTTE now in a position to attack any target in the island? If so, what are the most likely targets? What are the security implications of this latest development? And, is there a possibility of a similar attack on southern India?

    The air attack was in clear violation of Sri Lankan airspace and of the tenets of international law. The aircraft used for the attack flew about 350 nautical miles at an average speed of 150 mph, carrying an ordnance load of 1,040 kilograms. There are many motives behind this first major aerial attack. The primary need for using Air Tigers at this stage was to counter and intimidate the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF), at whose hands the LTTE has suffered immense damage over the past year in the North and East of the island. Though the international airport lies next to the Air Force base, the Tigers chose not to target it given the implications it would have in the international arena.

    Though attacks and threats from the LTTE are not new, the use of aircraft underscores the Tigers' capabilities. The LTTE has not only demonstrated its ability to take on the Sri Lankan government but also in establishing a state structure with its own army, navy and air force. Though speculation is rife about the strength of the Air Tigers, so far the LTTE has not disclosed the type and number of light-wing aircraft in its possession. However, there are reports that say that the Tigers have two to five aircraft. The United States has confirmed that one of these aircraft is a Czech-built Zlin Z-143, while another could be a Swiss-built Pilatus PC 7 trainer.

    The attack on the air base seems to have boosted the LTTE's confidence to take on and even subjugate the Sri Lankan Air Force. Ilanthiraiyan, military spokesperson of the Tigers, stated that Sri Lankan military installations would be the main targets of any such attacks in the future. Second on the list would be commercial establishments in Colombo and in southern Sri Lanka. Thirdly, the Tigers could use their air wing to deter the Sri Lankan Government in general by targeting strategic national buildings. Besides, these aircraft would come in handy during emergencies to move supplies from other bases or evacuate critically wounded cadres for treatment and safety.

    The LTTE's acquisition of aircraft seems to have upset the balance of power in Sri Lanka. It has once again brought in a sense of insecurity among the common people and has shaken the entire island. Sri Lankan authorities, who have been seriously concerned about the implications of the LTTE's success in acquiring an air capability, have at present confined their reaction to bringing the matter to the notice of the international community and India in particular. The immediate need of the Sri Lankan government is the stepping up of security measures, especially for strategically important places. There is also a need to exercise restraint in using its air force, given that it could result in further escalation of the air campaign by the Air Tigers.

    The Tigers' air attack has also forced India to devote greater attention to the unfolding events in Sri Lanka. For, it squarely raises the question of the scale of, and threat from, the LTTE presence across the Palk Strait. While analysts speculate about the possibility of the LTTE using aircraft against India, especially to target nuclear facilities in South India like Kalpakkam and Kudankulam, such a possibility appears remote. The Tigers are aware that they lost sympathy and support in Tamil Nadu after their role in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, and it is unlikely that they would further antagonize India in general and Tamil public opinion in particular. However, if India were to give direct military assistance to the Sri Lankan government or introduce troops into the island in order to stymie the LTTE's cause, the Tigers could feel compelled to use air power against Indian naval and commercial craft.

    Finally, although the violence has been constantly escalating by the day, the LTTE's aerial attack has brought about a perceptible change in the nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The LTTE has gained considerable psychological strength and has demonstrated its resolve and resilience in the face of recent setbacks. And its use of aircraft has added the aerial dimension to a conflict that has hitherto been limited to land and sea. At a stroke the attack has starkly brought to light the continuing vulnerability of the Sri Lankan government and its infrastructure as well as of the Sinhala population to continued attacks by the LTTE. The attack also underscores the vulnerability of southern India. New Delhi needs to gear up its security, surveillance and intelligence apparatuses to cater for this grave threat.