A Pilatus PC-7 aircraft manufactured in Switzerland

Tiger air force: More proof
Sri Lanka's 57th independence anniversary last Friday was commemorated on a solemn note, the result of the colossal death and destruction caused by the tsunami catastrophe. Yet the occasion created history in military terms.

For the past 56 years, during independence commemoration ceremonies, it was the Commander of the Army who stood to the right of the Commander-in-Chief when he or she took the salute at the armed forces parade. During Friday's short 30-minute march past, however, the Commander of the Navy Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri was on the right of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Being the first Navy officer to become the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the senior most position in the security establishment, the honour of standing on the right of the President and Commander-in-Chief fell on him. That indeed was a historic first to Vice Admiral Sandagiri, now the longest serving Commander in the Navy's 54-year history.

Just three days ahead of creating such history, most Sri Lankans are unaware; Vice Admiral Sandagiri placed the City of Colombo and the immediate suburbs under a red alert - the maximum state of preparedness to meet a contingency by the security forces and the Police. One would have thought security preparations for the low key Independence Day celebrations meant ensuring the venue, Independence Square and the city roads leading to it were well protected.

But the move last Monday came after inputs from operatives of lesser known state intelligence agencies. They reported that plans were afoot by Tiger guerrillas to attack vital installations. One such installation identified was the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's oil storage complex in Kolonnawa. They also claimed that guerrillas were conducting reconnaissance on a number of other vital installations in the city.

On October 20, 1995 guerrillas attacked this complex. Eleven fuel storage tanks caught fire. In a gun battle that ensued between security forces personnel and guerrillas, three policemen, six soldiers, seven airmen, a civilian and seven guerrillas were killed.

In the wake of these intelligence warnings, the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH), the unified apparatus of the tri services and the police, which Vice Admiral Sandagiri commands, sent out instructions to the Overall Command, Colombo (OCC) about this red alert. The OCC headed by Brigadier P. Chandrawansa is responsible for security of the city and immediate suburbs.

An official of the Joint Operations Headquarters defended Vice Admiral Sandagiri's action. He said the red alert was a preventive measure based on intelligence warnings since "we wanted to make sure nothing went wrong." He added that stand down orders followed no sooner it was felt there was no more need for it. Perhaps the course of action the CDS took was a logical one.

But there is another side to this episode. That is the question of whether reports of possible attacks were based on any credible information. As for reports of reconnaissance of vital installations in the city, it is no secret the guerrillas have been carrying them out throughout the period of the ceasefire. Some of them who engaged in the exercise were arrested whilst others went scot free. That is an ongoing process by the Tiger querrillas to identify targets should fighting resume.

One need hardly be privy to classified or intelligence information to discern that guerrillas planned any attacks in the city during Independence Day ceremonies, or for that matter, on any other day without any cause or excuse for provocation. The fact that they will not do so now is common sense.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a signatory to the Ceasefire Agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka. Since February 22, 2002 when it was signed, neither the guerrillas nor the security forces have mounted unprovoked attacks that would have triggered off Eelam War Four. This is not to say there have been no incidents but both sides have had their own reasons for them. However, they did not reach a flashpoint to provoke a war.

The fact that such basic fundamental matters are lost on operatives of lesser-known sections of the country's intelligence community is sad enough. Much worse is the fact that the political leadership of the UPFA and the bloated, self acclaimed wizards of military strategy and tactics at the Ministry of Defence are profoundly oblivious to these realities. The latter have been major shareholders in some of the country's worst military debacles that led to large human and material losses. They were also proven failures in political tasks assigned to them. Both have been taken for a ride on every occasion.

More recently, it began with reports of parting of the ways between LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his confidant Thillayampalam Sivanesan, better known as Soosai. He is the "Overall Commander" of Sea Tigers, the ocean-going arm of the LTTE. It was claimed he fled from Wanni to Singapore after a quarrel with Mr. Prabhakaran. One official account also claimed he had gone to Norway.

In reality, he flew to Singapore with the help of the Norwegian Government, for medical treatment for a shoulder injury he sustained in 1989 in Nithiyakulam in the Wanni. That was during an ambush by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Shifting shrapnel embedded near his shoulder had caused pain around his neck. (Situation Report - October 24 2004).

In Singapore, he was forced to remain in a hotel instead of a hospital due to heavy pressure from intelligence authorities there. Men from the Special Branch in Singapore were assigned to watch Soosai throughout his stay. They made sure he went for consultations with medical specialists, obtained treatment and hurried back to Sri Lanka. (Situation Report - November 21, 2004).

In view of official claims by the Government that he did not go for medical treatment to Singapore, Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka Hans Brattskar met Jayantha Dhanapala, Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat, to formally clarify the position. The Sunday Times learnt Mr. Brattskar told Dr. Dhanapala that the Government of Norway had made available to him a comprehensive report that proved beyond doubt that Soosai was in Singapore for treatment. It had contained medical evidence and other documentation. A Peace Secretariat source said yesterday "the report was not called for by the Secretary General and nor was it handed over."

After a five-day stay in Singapore and under pressure from intelligence authorities there, Soosai arrived in Colombo on October 24, last year. He stayed the night at the Airport Garden Hotel. It can now be revealed that former Defence Secretary Cyril Herath tasked then Chief of Staff of the Army, Major General Chula Seneviratne, to meet Soosai at this hotel that night. The meeting took place. Maj. Gen. Seneviratne has since retired. He is now the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), a new position where he heads the country's intelligence community.

And now, soon after the tsunami disaster, Mr. Prabhakaran placed Soosai in charge of relief and rehabilitation efforts along the Mullaitivu coast, the worst hit after the Ampara district. Ever heard of someone who reportedly "betrayed" Mr. Prabhakaran by going his own way being taken into confidence again and vested with greater responsibility? Has this ever happened in the LTTE? The answer is a firm "no".

Another example is the reported death of Mr. Prabhakaran, again a story floated around by the very same operatives of a lesser-known state intelligence arm. Some in the higher echelons of the UPFA Government believed his body was washed ashore after the tsunami disaster. Though Mr. Prabhakaran appeared on January 23 to shake hands with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen and party, before the glare of local and foreign media, there are still a few who disbelieve it. To them, it was another person who resembled Mr. Prabhakaran who had met the Norwegian peace facilitators.

One cannot blame those outside the Government for being gullible about the reported death of Mr. Prabhakaran. But, for those in the Government, it is unforgivable. The resources available with the State would have given them strong indications if such an event had taken place. For example, intercepts of guerrilla radio communications would have shown increased traffic and unusual activity. Similarly, diplomatic channels in Colombo, UN agencies operating in the Wanni and even the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) would have picked up indications. All this was lost on the gullible who wished to believe what they were told.

For them and the smaller sections of the state intelligence community and their operatives, one disconcerting fact remains starkly clear. After a near two decades of war, they do not know their enemy, the LTTE. It is with that ignorant bliss that they regularly underestimate the Tiger guerrillas and chalk out security responses. That such a comedy of errors continues with little or no direction and even control from those who matter, one need hardly say, does not serve the national interest. More so if one takes into consideration the deeply disturbing events in the recent weeks.

The Sunday Times (Situation Report - December 12 2004) revealed exclusively the existence of a newly constructed LTTE airstrip in Kilinochchi. This report was accompanied by a satellite image of the runway. Thereafter, The Sunday Times (Situation Report - January 16) also exclusively revealed how an Israeli built Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) spotted two aircraft on the ground in the new airstrip. Later, when printed photos obtained from the UAV video, shown to President Kumaratunga during a meeting of the National Security Council prompted her to remark that she had been hit by a second tsunami. (Situation Report - January 23, 2005).

Last Monday, Defence Secretary retired Major General Asoka Jayawardena raised issue over the presence of aircraft with Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Wagn Winkel. The head of the SLMM retired Norwegian Major General Trond Furuhovde, the SLMM said last week, has undergone surgery at the Apollo Hospital in Colombo for cancer. I wish Maj. Gen. (retd.) Furuhovde a speedy recovery.

Taking part in the dialogue with SLMM officials last Monday were Vice Admiral Sandagiri, Chief of Defence Staff, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda, Air Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera and Major General (retd.) Jayantha Ranaweera, Military Liaison Officer in the Ministry of Defence.

Yesterday, Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr Brattskar and Mr Winkel flew to Kilinochchi for a meeting with LTTE leaders. They are expected to apprise the guerrilla leaders of the concerns expressed by the Government.

But just two days after the Government raised issue with the SLMM, there was more disturbing news. An Israeli built Searcher UAV on a mission over the Wanni on Thursday night videoed an aircraft touching down in the newly built airstrip. This was not only confirmation that the LTTE possessed aircraft. It also dispelled doubts entertained by some sections of the Air Force that the aircraft spotted on the ground by the UAV were nothing but dummies. Here was proof that the LTTE had without doubt acquired air capability. That gives them the advantage of a “first strike capability” if hostilities break out.

Adding to these concerns were initial reports that the aircraft was either a Swiss built Pilatus PC-7 or PC-9 aircraft. "We strongly believe it could be a Pilatus PC-7. All indications and the information we have received point to that," a highly placed source told The Sunday Times. The source spoke on grounds of anonymity.

The Pilatus PC-7 is a Turbo Trainer aircraft. Since 1978 when production began, close to 500 aircraft have been sold. The majority are still in service today. The aircraft's capability to cover all aspects of basic training including aerobatics, instrument, tactical and night flying, has convinced air forces of a number of countries to select the PC-7 to train professional military pilots. They include the air force in Angola, Austria, Bolivia, Bophuthatswana, Botswana, Brunei, Chad, Chile, France, Guatemala, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico, Myanmar, the Netherlands, South Africa, Suriname, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

The Sunday Times today publishes photographs obtained by the UAV showing the LTTE aircraft on the ground on their newly built airstrip in Iranamadu, Kilinochchi. Also published on this page is a photograph of the Pilatus PC-7 aircraft that is manufactured in Switzerland.

Though a trainer aircraft, the Pilatus PC-7 has hard points under the wing to carry gun pods, rocket pods or bombs. They could be fired from inside the cockpit. In fact, this was one of the aircraft considered for procurement by the Air Force years ago. Instead they opted for Brazilian built Siai Marchetti which had an under sling load of 150 kilogrammes. They also procured the Chinese built F-7 interceptor jets usually meant for air to air roles. However, the F-7s were modified for the Air Force to carry out air to ground combat roles with an under sling load of 1,000 kilogrammes.

The Pilatus PC-7, powered by a Canadian built Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine can carry a maximum ordinance load of 1040 kilogrammes - larger than the load of Siai Marchettis or the F-7s. Its maximum take off weight is 2,700 kilogrammes and maximum landing weight is 2,565 kilogrammes.

Meant for a crew of two, the Pilatus PC-7 has a range of 1,200 kilometres without drop tanks. The ferry range with drop tanks is 2,630 kilometres. Its maximum endurance is four hours and forty minutes. Though the LTTE's newly built runway is 1,250 metres, the takeoff run of Pilatus PC-7 at maximum is 780 metres. The landing run is 505 metres at maximum.

The use of a massive load of explosives by this aircraft attempting to attack a target could be fatal. Any bomb, on an average, carries at least the third of its components in the form of explosives. With a capability to carry an ordinance load of 1,040 kilogrammes, the consequences of such an attack could be unimaginable. This is in marked contrast to some 50 kilogrammes of explosives used in the the LTTE attack on the Central Bank building on January 31, 1996.

Eighty six civilians and a policeman were killed in this incident. All buildings on either side of Janadipathi Mawatha near the Central Bank, including Ceylinco House, American Express, ABN Bank, Sri Lankan Airlines were among those damaged.

It has now come to light that the LTTE had engaged in hectic preparations before establishing its air wing and thereafter acquiring an air capability. Early last year, posters calling for recruits to the new air wing had been placed at strategic points in the Wanni.

Even before that, some pilots and crew had been trained in flying schools abroad. The trainees had posed off as amateur flyers. At least two pilots and five crew members were among those who had been killed when the Sri Lanka Navy sank an LTTE trawler in the North Eastern high seas on March 10, 2003. The trawler was suspected to be inducting weapons through the North-East coast. (Situation Report - March 16, 2003).

This development, all during a ceasefire that turns three years in the next 16 days, is no doubt worrying. One can only hope the mandarins in Sri Lanka's defence establishment spent more time on evolving effective counter measures. That is by taking at least some time off from vigorously pursuing their efforts to hunt down sources for The Sunday Times stories or chasing Black Label Scotch whisky. Otherwise they would once again badly let down a nation looking forward to their protection for their well being. History is replete with many examples. One only hopes it does not repeat itself betraying an entire nation once more.

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