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

The LTTE Air Power: Myths and Realities

By: Ranjith Gunaratna

When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelm [LTTE] used two light training crafts to drop a couple of bombs on the Katunayake air base in Sri Lanka, many have endeavored to look at the whole episode through the glasses of their own choice and interpret accordingly. For them, it was a moral boost for the LTTE sympathizer; challenge for the security forces; headache for the Sri Lankan politicians; terrific experience for the general public; and another event for certain parties to jump on the bandwagon to assert that it happened due to strategic failure and the ill-fated ceasefire agreement. In considering these interpretations, the whole episode of the “air attacks” should be examined very carefully to assess its pros and cons. For that it is also required to look at contending arguments about use of air power or airplanes in conflicts.

In theory, in the modern wars what should be avoided, if all possible, are the heavy casualties. When the cost of war is very high it should eventually affect every aspects of life politically, socially, economically, as well as strategically. This was proved on many times in the history of war. The classic example was the Vietnam War. Therefore, the aim of the modern wars is to “subdue the enemy’s will to resist with the least possible human and economic loss.” Considering the uncertainties associated with war, Sun Tzu, the great Chinese strategist stated "it is best to win without fighting."

In the modern wars, when the cost and risk factors increased sharply, nations compelled to develop their air capabilities. Increasingly, they have recognized air armament as logical means to defeat the enemy with minimum losses. In fact, guns, artillery, tanks, bombs, and rockets have a distinctive role in a battle. Yet the airpower has become the key strategic instrument to win any war today. Undoubtedly, the LTTE has also identified this trend and acquired air capabilities supplanting traditional expenditures on other weapons.

For example, during the Second World War German cities such as Hamburg and Dresden were flattened using aerial bombardments in order to weaken the German physically as well as psychology. In NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia and coalition operations in the 1st Gulf War airpower was used extensively to minimize the human losses and end the conflicts within a shorter period.

Unquestionably, an airplane is a “psychological weapon.” It is also a “guerrilla weapon.”

According to Italian Air Marshal Guilio Douhet, who is a classical airpower theorist, to conquer in the air means victory; to be beaten in the air means defeat.

Thinking about modern wars, Colonel John Wrden, a modern air power theorist, summarized the importance of the air superiority as follows.

"An air superiority is a necessity. Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority, no major offensive has succeeded against an opponent who controlled the air, and no defense has sustained itself against an enemy who had air superiority. Conversely, no state has lost a war while it maintained air superiority, and attainment of air superiority consistently has been a prelude to military victory."

In the light of the above, it is useful to analyze the so-called air power of the LTTE. It is important to note that simply the airpower won't give the winning edge but the air superiority is the key to victory. For example, during the Gulf Wars Iraq had a reasonable air power but it did not possess air superiority over the USA and the allies.

Therefore, in theory, with a few light training crafts the LTTE will not be able to pose a greater challenge to the air superiority of the Sri Lankan Government. It will also not possible for them to carry out extensive operations against the security forces or other targets in Sri Lanka. In a nutshell, the LTTE air power is incapable of changing the present Sri Lankan scenario very dramatically. The pay load of the LTTE crafts, their ability to maneuver in extreme weather and operational conditions are very low in comparison to the air capabilities of the Sri Lankan air force.

However, there is a certain danger attached to the use of airplanes by the LTTE, which is a terrorist organization. Its recent attacks carried the elements of “mystify, mislead, and surprise.” As a result so far the Government forces have not been able to locate these crafts in addition to their inability to engage them on two occasions.

There must be obvious reasons for that. Some attribute it to faltering radar system while others are pointing fingers towards the intelligent community. In one way or other both can be correct. Yet there is another dimension of this whole affair. During the history of air power build up in Sri Lanka a reasonable attention has not been paid to procure lighter fighting crafts or light helicopters that could be used extensively for “dog fighting” or perusing enemy aircrafts in low altitudes as well as extreme weather conditions.

Obviously, bigger and powerful crafts are needed to build up a stronger air force, which is useful in the long run. At this juncture Sri Lanka air force needs lighter crafts that could be maneuvered easily and land and take off using soft grounds other than Katunayake in order to challenge the LTTE in the air. These crafts should be capable of operating effectively in the whole spectrum of operations.

There are no greater technological challenges for Sri Lanka to overcome in terms of the air power of the LTTE. Fate of the LTTE crafts will depend on how Sri Lanka deals with the situation with appropriate measures.

However, in considering the term, the airplane is a guerrilla weapon; Sri Lanka should give serious thoughts to averting any possible attack on political, economic, or civilian targets of high importance. In this respect only one can argue that the LTTE air capability is a reasonable threat. Yet, as mentioned above, using appropriate technology, Sri Lanka can overcome this situation without much difficulty. It is also important to note that the Sri Lankan Government should not allow any room for the LTTE to bring additional aircrafts, weapons, fuel, and high tech equipment using its state of the art shipping network. In this respect, serious attention should be paid to gather timely intelligence and obtain assistance of the friends in the region to contain the LTTE maritime capabilities.

It is also important to assess what type of benefits the LTTE could get through these attacks. The attacks must have mounted to achieve four different goals.

1. Boost the morale of the Tamils, the LTTE supporters, and sympathizers.

2. As a bargaining chip at the negotiation table.

3. Damage the economy of Sri Lanka.

4. As a psychological weapon.

In order to remedy this situation, firstly, there should be effective radar systems that could detect even low flying crafts in any whether condition. Secondly, it is extremely necessary to position anti-aircraft missiles in strategic locations. Thirdly, lighter fighting crafts and attack helicopters should be acquired and made them available in different parts of the island. And lastly, as mentioned previously, the LTTE maritime capabilities should be restricted in order to prevent them from acquiring additional crafts, weapons, fuel, and high-tech equipment to wage a prolonged war.

Most importantly, the Government should accelerate its programs to finding a lasting political solution to the problem, which would eventually either let the LTTE to embark on a democratic path or force it to dig its own grave in the history of the so called Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka. In any case, the responses of the leader of the LTTE towards a political settlement are much more important than the reactions of the LTTE organization as it is an organization that breaths solely through the nostrils of its “dear leader,” Prabhakaran. It is also important to note as Clausewitz, a western military strategist emphasized "in a war everything is uncertain."

- Asian Tribune -

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