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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 104

Air Tiger Attack on the Air Force Base and its Significance

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia

It is interesting to note that some commentators seem to believe that this attack was not an attack in the real sense because the damage was minimal. Others say the attack has had a symbolic effect rather than a material one. Whatever the way one interprets this daring and surprise attack in the mid night hours on the air force base which parks Sri Lanka's air force planes and helicopters, there are some interesting observations one can make about this incident's significance.

Firstly, it is important to note that this attack was not a suicide mission. While we cannot be sure if the pilots are trained to carry suicide missions as well, the fact that the planes returned safely to their bases shows that on this occasion it was not a suicide mission. If we go by the pictures released by the LTTE (it is possible that the pictures do OR do not relate to the actual planes used in the attack), it can be seen that the planes were manned by a group of professionally trained personnel.

If this theory is correct, they are able to mount an attack on a target in the South and return safely to their base at a time of LTTE's choosing. Compared to a single event where a pilot mans a plane with a suicide mission for mutual destruction, this attack led by a professionally trained group of airmen who have embraced LTTE ideology and commitment assumes much significance in the annals of LTTE-GoSL confrontations by creating a new tempo in the military balance.

Military planners and political leaders will now have to stipulate how to respond to further attacks by air. Such responses require better planning and equipment. In a situation like this, the fear mentality can pervade the Sri Lankan society and instead of rational responses, and those who argue for emotional responses can rule the day. Even the professionally trained air men in the Sri Lankan air force will now have to think twice or even thrice about their locations, movements and actions due to the 'unknown factor' in terms of Air Tiger capabilities and attacks. Even if the LTTE used ultra light planes for this mission, this remains the fact.

It is legitimate to raise some questions about the pictures of aircraft, bombs dropped and LTTE air personnel. Why did they paint the planes with the LTTE label so obviously?

Why didn't they paint Sri Lanka Air Force label instead in order to deceive their enemy?

The latter would have allowed them to evade any counter action by the Sri Lankan air force or other forces if it was required. The fact that the planes were painted with Air Tiger label shows that either the LTTE was confident about the safety of its first attack flights from Vanni to Colombo and back, or the pilots would have been trained in suicide missions as well.

Another possibility is that the planes shown in the pictures do not relate to the actual planes used in the attack -thus it was possible to paint the Air Tiger label on unused planes without jeopardizing the safety of the pilots. Whether the LTTE used the same planes as shown in the pictures in the attack is a crucial factor to determine the actual air capability of the LTTE.

If the pictures correspond to the actual planes used, the LTTE has done a mistake as the Sri Lankan military personnel are now able to judge the nature and make of the planes by looking at the pictures. The pictures show the control panel, wings, bottom of wings, the manner by which the bombs were hooked to the plane, tyres, cockpit, etc. clearly. Why did they reveal such sensitive details if the pictures relate to the actual planes used? Even if they were not the actual planes used in the operation, the LTTE has gained a psychological edge over the Sri Lankan air force by this action.

Another aspect that needs careful consideration is why the Sri Lankan air force and for that matter air port authorities were not able to detect the attack planes in advance? Even an average citizen of the country would have anticipated such an attack when the Sri Lankan armed forces have been engaged in combat operations in LTTE held areas in the North and East during the last few months. Didn't the air force hierarchy anticipate this? Did they have mechanisms in place to safeguard air assets that the government has bought with immense expenditure? If there were failures on the part of air force command and control, will those responsible for this lapse go home? Is there a fundamental problem with the hierarchical command and control organization that is not suitable to abnormal times such as the current one? These aspects need to be examined. Such investigation is essential as failures of similar sort in the past were due to the negligence of those in authority in respective institutions and installations.

Another importance of the Air Tiger attack is that the LTTE this time did not choose the civilian part of the airport for its attack. Instead it selected the high security, high value air force base. LTTE's justification is that it wanted to limit the capability of the air force that is engaged in attacks on Tamil areas. Nonetheless, it is useful to observe this distinction. Had they attacked the civilian airport and there were civilian casualties, there would have been all round condemnation locally and internationally. This would have created further negative sentiments among international players about the LTTE as a terrorist outfit. By choosing a military installation for its first air attack, the LTTE has successfully neutralized such reaction from the world. Instead, it has sent a message to the world that they only target legitimate military targets in a legitimate struggle for Tamil rights.

Another interesting dimension is -again if we are to believe the pictures released by the LTTE - that the bombs used seem to be locally produced ones. The mechanism of release also seems to be a local invention. Converting standard small aircrafts to be used in combat operations also seems to be a local invention. Whereas the Sri Lankan government is spending billions of rupees to purchase and service high speed attack aircraft, the LTTE seem to have developed its air capabilities by combining local know-how and materials. If this is the case, such capabilities are sustainable. They do not depend on foreign aid or assistance as such. LTTE can stand on their own foot for a foreseeable duration with such capability.

The question is what happened to the thousands of engineers trained by Sri Lanka's universities and their brains? How many aeronautical engineers were trained and/or employed by the Sri Lankan air force? Are they able to engage in such indigenous productions? Was there a brain drain of such individuals? OR as in all other spheres are Sri Lankans (other than LTTE members and supporters) totally dependent on foreign know-how and materials in this crucially important field also?

Whatever the case may be the attack has highlighted serious weaknesses in the preparedness of Sri Lankan armed forces, in particular the air force. While it has been used to engaging in operations with a mindset of air superiority, it seems that the Sri Lankan air force has not taken the necessary steps to defend itself against attacks by the LTTE. OR if they had such defensive plans, they did not materialize on the day of the attack for a serious failure in the plan or its implementation. No doubt the Committee appointed by the government will go into details.

What this attack has done is to make each and every military installation, including sea assets, army camps, command and control centres, and evens the places where the political leaders live a target for air attacks. The authorities will now have to take sensible defensive steps to safeguard these installations and sites. What this means is any body's guess. It is not possible for each and every installation, camp, and building to be covered by air defence systems, as they are costly. Thus the military planners and political leadership have to carefully consider the repercussions of this attack -not only in immediate sense of location safety - but also in terms of a long lasting political solution to the conflict. Military actions draw counter actions. Unless one side can totally destroy the other side militarily within a short span of time - whether it is 3 months or 3 years - the long-term solution to the conflict rests with a political solution that involves substantial reforms in the Sri Lankan polity. Without this Sri Lanka is destined to go through further period of violence and upheaval before a degree of normalcy is returned.

The LTTE may have the capacity to make and drop even more lethal bombs in future attacks with even more devastation. If its first test-run had the hallmarks of reasonable success, there is no doubt that the LTTE will utilize this know-how and moral boost to mount even more lethal actual runs on other targets. Thus rather than trying to say that the attack was not a 'real attack' etc. the political leadership in the country needs to contemplate about the broader issue of a political settlement to the conflict without living in the dreamland of defeating the LTTE militarily in the short term. Military approach has high costs. Such costs can be very heavy in comparison to land gains achieved here and there.

The current approach of pursuing war and development together will not work in the long term. The best formula is political solution and development. The conflict cannot be reduced to a military confrontation or power devolution only. A holistic approach that acknowledges the weaknesses in the national but divided body politic is absolutely necessary to durable conflict resolution.

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

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