Last Wednesday after noon Presidential aides at "Temple Trees", now the official residence of the President, made hurried calls to Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva, former senior security officials and a legal expert.
They were told that their planned meeting with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, fixed for 3 p.m. that afternoon would be delayed by an hour due to another urgent engagement she had.
That over, President Kumaratunga, appeared relaxed and in smiles when she received them. Whilst four of the members watched, the Chairman, Secretary de Silva, handed over to her a spiral bound report with a blue coloured cover.
The foursome were Mr. C.R. de Silva, Additional Solicitor General, General Denis Perera (a retired Army Commander), Air Vice Marshal Pathman Mendis (a retired Air Force Commander) and Mr. Cyril Herath (a retired Inspector General of Police).
This high level Committee was appointed by President Kumaratunga to probe why a large number of Sri Lanka Air Force aircraft have crashed - 19 in just two years of the so-called Eelam War Three. That is from April, 1995 to May, 1997, as the chart on this page clearly indicates.
They were also called upon to probe how many died, who is responsible, the suitability of these aircraft for the missions they were deployed, how they were procured, alleged acts of corruption, malpractice and irregularities among others.
That Wednesday, the Committee handed over its report to President Kumaratunga.
For the past three months, from a room in the Ministry of Defence, the Committee interviewed several persons in the defence establishment including top officers in the Sri Lanka Air Force. Defence Secretary de Silva visited eastern European capitals to interview suppliers/agents who made available aircraft and ascertain matters relating to prices and contractual arrangements.
I understand that in their report the Committee has highlighted glaring instances of irregularities, malpractice and unanimously called for punitive action against those involved. They have concluded that there was adequate evidence to institute legal action and set out the legal guidelines. In fact, Additional Solicitor General de Silva, has been named to the Committee to help formulate within a legal framework the findings and recommendations.
An insight into how revealing the findings of the Committee are can be gauged by the remarks of Mr C.R. de Silva, a respected prosecutor at the Attorney General's Department.
"My God !! Another b....y rip off !!", he was heard to remark when some of those interviewed by the Committee came out with details which were evidently shocking. Obviously he could not resist being angry at the unbelievable things he was hearing.
Another shocked Committee member was heard remarking to a confidante "the big money that changed hands is enormous fortune, enough to build a few Buckingham Palaces ..."
The fact that the handing over of the Committee's report came during a week in which the SLAF has been making headlines over a CID investigation did very little for the image of a coveted organisation, once a symbol of envy among the services for its unimpeachable integrity and unparalleled professionalism.
Early this week, Defence Secretary de Silva, wrote to Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, directing him to send on compulsory leave Air Vice Marshal Elmo Perera, Director Logistics. A senior staff officer in the SLAF higher command, Air Vice Marshal Perera, has spent considerable time in Ukraine from where the SLAF procured an assortment of aircraft in the past two years.
His name had transpired during CID investigations into alleged attempts by a businessman, who with the help of two friends, had embarked on plans to import a fleet of eight MI 24 Hind helicopter gun ships to Sri Lanka. Evidence uncovered so far had pointed to plans by the businessman to lease these gun ships to Sri Lanka Air Force.
It was extremely unlikely that the Ministry of Defence would have granted approval for private parties to import war like material and rent/lease them to the security forces for a fee. But that had not reportedly deterred the businessman. He allegedly possessed documents from the Sri Lanka Air Force including a letter of intent and an unsigned document setting out SLAF's own specifications for MI 24 Hinds they required. An SLAF official had admitted to preparing the document containing specifications.
This is the first time that an Air Vice Marshal (the rank held by Air Force Commanders in the past, until the expansion of the Air Force led to the elevation of the rank to Air Marshal) has been sent on compulsory leave in the post independent history of the Sri Lanka Air Force. More SLAF officers are due to be questioned.
It was only early this year, the Ministry of Defence froze Air Force procurements of additional aircraft. The matter was to be reviewed after the conclusion of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (or Victory Assured) since the opening of an overland supply corridor between the security forces strongholds of Vavuniya and Kilinochchi could significantly affect the SLAF role in the separatist war. Expectations of an early conclusion to the operation did not materialise. Hence new acquisitions have remained on hold.
Needless to say the freeze was prompted by the colossal loss of aircraft in the past two years. The total cost of the 19 aircraft lost is an approximate Rs 2763,178,303.80 (or over Rs 2.7 billion) as the chart on this page shows.
The sum involved could have helped the Government provide free season tickets for travel and free text books for two more years to needy school children whose parents can never afford the luxury of sending them abroad for collegiate or university education. That speaks for the children of thousands of those brave men from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police who have sacrificed their lives and those who have suffered injuries.
It cost the Government Rs 950 million this year for this purpose. It could have also helped the Government to continue a fertiliser subsidy to help local farmers for almost two years at the rate of Rs 1500 million per year.
But moneys for the war efforts take priority. This is what has begun to cause serious concern in the minds of a responsible section of the PA leadership. How much of the money really goes into the war effort and how much to enrich corrupt officers and arms dealers, they ask.
Of the 19 SLAF aircraft that have crashed, only five have been due to enemy action. The Committee has gone into all these incidents and the condition of the aircraft involved.
In respect of the IA 58 Pucara aircraft that crashed in the skies off Hingurakgoda on March 16, 1997, the Ministry of Defence sought the assistance of two different groups of foreign experts, one from United Kingdom and the other from France. Whilst their studies were under way, maintenance files relating to this aircraft were reported missing. Both teams had concluded that bad maintenance was the cause that had led to the crash. The teams also held the view that safety procedures for aircraft hardly existed.
An incident at dawn Thursday at the Air Force Base at Ratmalana raised questions about the validity of safety procedures for personnel too. A tractor was drawing an AN 32 from its hangar to be readied for the string of daily flights to Palaly. An Air Woman, Piyaseeli Kotalawala (23) with a choc in hand (to be placed against the wheels when the aircraft is static) and a colleague walked alongside. She tripped and fell. The wheel of the AN 32 went over her chest. Her cries were drowned in the noise of the towing tractor. She was dead on the spot.
The appointment of a Committee of Inquiry by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, came in the backdrop of a string of disclosures in these columns. Several attempts have been made by SLAF top brass to ascertain how information reaches this column. In the SITUATION REPORT of June 15, I said:
"This column has repeatedly highlighted the losses suffered by the SLAF, the debacles it has faced and the alleged irregularities involved in procurements.
"Top SLAF officials have compiled a file of newspaper accounts containing these exposures. The bulk of them are made up of clippings of SITUATION REPORT and efforts are now being made to track down SLAF personnel suspected of leaking information..."
How some of these efforts have ended will no doubt make interesting reading. However, reportage on that will have to wait a few more weeks.
Now to the subject of surface to air missiles and the SLAF. Senior Air Force officials are still trying to confirm whether it was a Stinger missile that was fired at the Kfir-C2 over Puliyankulam on August 19.
However, defence authorities have received confirmation from foreign channels that the LTTE has acquired both Stinger and Sam 7 missiles. As a result, pilots operating in the battle areas have been warned to be conscious of this fact.
The warning is in particular to those involved in "Operation Jaya Sikurui", which enters its 110th day today.
Troops involved in the operation are meeting with fierce resistance in their attempts to re-capture the Puliyankulam junction. Last Tuesday, they broke out of their new defences near the former Railway Station. Eight soldiers were killed and 124 were wounded. With only a kilometre to go, the advance has been temporarily halted.
With "Operation Jaya Sikurui" running well behind schedule, the maritime and air corridor to the Jaffna peninsula, to maintain both civilian and military logistics, will continue to be imperative.
Now that it is known that the LTTE have an inventory of surface to air missile capability, the air bridge to the peninsula will come under threat. That the SLAF has come under public scrutiny in regard to irregularities of procurements, which have in turn affected the efficiency of the SLAF to maintain its operational responsibilities, the assurance of the air link to Jaffna is suspect.
It is not only a question of equipment and equipment capability that is here at question but an equally important, if not perhaps a more important aspect, is the impact of that unsavoury situation on the morale and efficiency of the Air Force personnel itself.
In the final analysis, it is after all the manpower that contributes to the efficiency of the force and effective use of equipment. Thus, if the effectiveness of the manpower and equipment come under question, then surely the assurance of the operational contribution of that arm of the service itself comes under question.
Hence the Government has to take immediate remedial measures to correct the situation before the onset of the monsoon when both land operations and maritime supply operations become difficult.
After almost 15 years of the separatist war, the internal cracks both within the enemy and the Forces, appear to be visible under the strain of operations. Unless the house is put to order, the setbacks caused by these weaknesses is bound to affect on the continuation of Government strategies.
The Government faced with its own set of political problems, electoral and internal, is now faced with a further set of difficulties on the war front which is the most important factor influencing the politics and political climate of the country.
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