April 03, 2007

LTTE Air attack: Air Defence and Related Issues

Guest Column by Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd)

It is over a week since the first ever air attack by the air wing of LTTE was carried out on Monday 26th March 2007 at 0045 hrs. The most important dimension of this attack is the aspect of Air Defence or lack of it, which allowed the attack to go through. This article is an attempt to examine the air defence aspects of the attack, which are extremely important in the context of the success of the attack by the LTTE. The analysis would look at both the constituents of success as well as those of failure.

Constituents of Success. The listing and analysis of the ‘means and methods’ of by which the LTTE was able to sneak through and drop bombs at the Katyunayake Air Field would also hold the key to the subsequent analysis of what led to the failures on the part of the Sri Lankan Air force. These are covered in the succeeding paragraphs.

The Platform. From the photographs released by the Tamil net, it is clear that the aircraft used for the attack are the Czech made Zlin Z 143 variants. The capabilities and limitations of this aircraft are covered in an article carried by SAAG on 26th May 2005, available at http://saag.org/papers15/paper1401.html . The aerobatic aircraft were imported in a knocked down condition to be assembled at the place of choosing. Any one can buy such an aircraft including a second hand one today on the Internet and work out the arrangements for shipping. There are reports that this aircraft were brought in containers and moved inland to be assembled in Tiger held areas.

From the data provided by the manufacturer it is seen that the aircraft has enough radius of operation to hit any target in Sri Lanka. While the pictures shown are that of the Zlin 143, it is quite possible that there are other small aircraft in the inventory of the LTTE. Earlier reports had indicated the acquisition of lighter aircraft such as the PC7 or the PC 9 from the Pilatus Company. Releasing of only the photographs of Zlin and possibility of hiding another type, as part of the Psy Ops (Psychological operations) should not be ruled out.

Crew and Training aspects. The photographs released show highly motivated crew who are jubilant. It is not known as to when this crew were photographed along with their leader. There has been a clear effort to hide the identity of the crewmembers. It is not difficult to assume that the crew would have been trained abroad in one of the flying schools. Even with the eyes covered in the photos, it may still be possible to establish the identity of the crew as well as the place where the crew may have been trained by collaborating with the Interpol who could examine the relevant data of all the flying schools (in Europe, Canada, Australia or any South eastern country) and zero in on the suspects which would lead to more leads on the ways adopted by the LTTE.

As the daring mission was undertaken at night, it is clear that the crew had gained proficiency by going through the full flying training course at a flying training school. The currency in flying could be maintained by continuing to consolidate and fly at the chosen location in a flying school till called to undertake the mission in the Island. This would ensure that only bare essential flying is carried out in Tiger held territory close to Irainamedu. The details of the possible airstrips from which flying could be undertaken are covered in SAAG article 1414 carried on http://saag.org/papers15/paper1414.html. However, it is to be borne in mind that the aircraft can operate even from semi prepared surfaces and is not totally dependent on full-fledged facilities.

The innovative way in which the weapon carriage and release mechanisms have been integrated in to the Zlin aircraft are worthy of mention. It is clear that a lot of calculation has gone in to ensuring that the modification does not impair safe flying due to infringement of the aerodynamic characteristics. The end result is the ability of the aircraft to carry up to four small bombs that could be released. With the limitations of weight and balance aspects, the crew would have carried just enough fuel to reach the target and return thus optimising the payload.

As far the aeronautical training and technology levels displayed by the current lot of the air wing of the LTTE definitely owes its success to late Colonel Shanker alias Sornalingam who ensured that the seeds of sound aeronautical practices were imbibed by the team that he lead. The possibility of motivated Tamil youth who have acquired technical and flying skills joining the Air tigers explains the reasons for the success of the attack.

Accuracy of attack. The dropping of the bomb at the target would not have posed serious problems due to easy availability of hand held Global Positioning System (GPS) which would help in reaching the target in time. This would also provide ‘way point to way point’ navigation and ensure that no time is wasted in arriving in the target area. There would be no need for a sophisticated weapon aiming computer as the type of aircraft used are slower and could fly low to drop the bombs visually on the static targets chosen. However, flying at night is indeed challenging and the fact that the damages were not as high explains the aspect of inaccuracy creeping in. Also the limited payload that was carried by the aircraft can only prove highly dangerous if it hit incendiary/explosives or other such combustibles that could cause secondary fire and collateral damage.

Some questions have been raised on the aspects of flying by night and the accuracy of attacks at night. The skills of flying at night are something that are acquired by going through a laid down syllabus. As brought out earlier, the night endorsement for a Pilot on a particular aircraft is made by the Flying training school based on the training imparted to the trainee.

In the present day, simulator flying is quite handy in preparing the Pilots for the entire range of missions likely to be undertaken. With the help of google earth, it is even possible to replicate the entire flight over realistic reproduction of hybrid maps with elevation and important features marked. The entire flying up to the desired target area can be programmed on a personal computer and the mission flown on the computer to familiarise the air crew on the terrain and way points.

To enable visual detection and identification at night, it is possible for the co-pilot to carry night vision binoculars that would aid detection and identification of targets after reaching the target area with the help of GPS.

Evasion of Radars. A lot of debate has taken place on the efficacy of the Radar provided by India. Some in Sri Lanka were quick to blame the Indian Radar for the failure to detect the incoming raid by low flying aircraft. It may be recalled that India supplied the Indra series of Radar (produced by Bharat Electronics Limited), which is still in use both by its own Army and the Air Force.

The press in Sri Lanka have gone to the extent of suggesting that Indra was supplied to prevent the entry of Chinese who were ready to supply 3D Radar to Sri Lanka at a competitive cost. The hostile amongst them have even suggested that the only good thing that the Sri Lankans received was Budhism some 2500 years ago! The fact of the matter is that if the Sri Lankans wanted 3D radar it was also available from India. It is quite clear that the assessment was that 2D radar was sufficient to provide advance warning of the type of aircraft that was in LTTE possession at the time of threat evaluation. The 3D radars definitely have the advantage of providing height information, which the 2D radars are not designed for.

It has been reported that the Radar was switched off at the time of attack as well as for the previous two days for maintenance. It has also been suggested that there were perhaps moles who indicated that the Radar was switched off for a particular period either for maintenance or for operational reasons enabling the Air Tigers to mount the attack. Those knowledgeable in the Military will readily tell you that even a mole is not necessary to establish if the Radar is transmitting or not. Small electronic monitoring devices could indicate if there is transmission in a particular frequency band. And such devices could be carried either in the aircraft or by operatives close to the airfield. For example a radio set will also alert the observer about the transmissions due to what is termed as power seepage that provides a beep each time the transmission is received by a Radio. Apparently, the Air Traffic Control Radar at Bandarnayake International Airport (BIA) provided a last minute warning of the unidentified aircraft. Readers would recollect the debate over the efficacy /effectiveness of surveillance in our own air space when an unidentified aircraft had dropped arms at Purulia. The Indian Air Force was spurred along with the Civil Aviation department to look at integration of surveillance systems to ensure that detection capability was enhanced by both material and operational measures.

The detection by any Radar is a matter of physics and is dependent on design factors. As a rule the lower the aircraft, the shorter is the detection range due to the curvature of the earth. In addition to specially designed Radars for detection of low flying aircraft, Air Early Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) or an Air Early Warning (AEW) aircraft (minus the control architecture required for control of Fighter aircraft). By no means is it suggested that Sri Lankan Air Force should equip itself with such advanced expensive systems just to tackle a few small aircraft of the LTTE. However it needs to be borne in mind that it is to overcome this limitation that Air Forces with out the AWACS/AEW capability always resort to establishment of Mobile Observation Posts (MOPs) to enhance the reaction at the base. Tiers of MOPs would provide the direction and quantum of threat to the components of Air defence system.

The Indian Air Force is also no exception. The MOPS of the IAF have visual lookouts equipped with binoculars/Night Vision devices and communication links to provide advanced warning of approaching aircraft. In this present case, it has been reported that the crossing of the Northern border by the LTTE aircraft was indeed monitored by the SL Forces. Obviously the response of the Sri Lankan Air Force and the Ground forces despite receiving the report is indicative of a certain degree of casualness/improper analysis in preparing for the impending attack. Shoulder fired missiles or even conventional close range weapons would have been able to neutralise the threat and prevent the attack and the consequent embarrassment to the SL Government and its armed forces.

There have been reports in the media that the Indian Air Force has recommended to the Government that shoulder fired IGLA missiles and other essentials of an Air Defence system could be considered for supply to Sri Lanka. The stated position of the Indian Government in the past has been that it would provide the warning systems and not the weapons.

Element of Surprise. In a tactical engagement, the element of surprise is rated quite high by military analysts the world over. In this case a surprise attack at night by light aircraft, which hitherto had not at all been used in the past enabled the Air Tigers to accomplish their mission. There are no doubts that the International airport that lay on the opposite side of the Air force establishment could have been attacked with equal ease. However the possible adverse reaction by the international community obviously precluded the attack against BIA.

Having looked at the constituents of success, it would be now be relatively easier to identify the two prime causes of failure on part of the Sri Lankan forces. The same are listed below though not necessarily in the order of importance.

Being unprepared. It is clear that the SL Forces did not expect an aerial attack that too at night. The Air Defence measures were just not in place indicative of a level of complacency. There is definitely a need to revamp the entire system of surveillance, reporting and response mechanisms.

Intelligence. It is evident that there were gaps in the intelligence on the potential of the air wing. Some of the UAV missions undertaken in the past by the Sri Lankan Armed forces as well as visual reporting had clearly indicated the type of air activity undertaken by the Air wing of the LTTE. Failure to analyse the developments and its implications have resulted in loss of face for the SL Forces.

In conclusion, it is seen that the Air Tigers have won the first round in the new dimension of air wars. The two inquiry commissions ordered by the SL Government /Military would no doubt highlight the weaknesses and the possible causes. Some of would be remedied by both augmentation of material resources and review of the Operational procedures. The Air tigers would in the mean while would be examining the same factors that allowed them to succeed and would be refining their methodology for another attack as and when the situation is so warranted. The next attack doubtlessly would be against both commercial and military sea targets of the Sri Lankan Navy, which has enjoyed success at sea. Attacks on Sri Lankan Ports likewise cannot be ruled out.

On the part of India, the setting up of over eight mobile radars in the Seniappa Dargah Casurina jungle area appears to be an over kill. It is highly unlikely that the LTTE would carry out attacks on Indian soil with out grave provocation. One cannot rule out the use of these aircraft for clandestine activity.

(The author, a Naval Aviator is an alumnus of both the Defence Services Staff College and the College of Naval Warfare. His aviation appointments include command of an Air Squadron and two naval air stations. Presently he is with the Observer Research Foundation.)

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