Colombo, Human Security, Peace and Conflict

LTTE Air Strike: Turning Point or Confirmation of Protracted Conflict?

Mr Prabhakaran has managed yet again to shock and even awe with the air strike on the Katunayake air base, even though the talk about a Tiger air capability has been around for some time.  According to a former Indian intelligence chief, the LTTE has had this capability for some nine years.   The question is as to whether this air strike alters the balance of power, militarily, politically and psychologically.

That the LTTE pulled off the attack begs a host of questions regarding the detection of the aircraft and as to why they were not pursued and destroyed before the attack or after it.  There is to be yet another commission to look into this and its findings may well go the way of all commission findings, gathering dust or disappearing into the ether.  The attack also begs the question about the reported success of the ceaseless aerial pounding of the Vanni on the grounds of destroying LTTE military capability and its air strip in particular.  It would seem that despite these bombing raids in which we are told no civilians were hit, no air strip was hit either.  Or is it the case that LTTE air strips are like algae -they just keep proliferating ?   Finally there is the comment of the Indian intelligence official quoted in a local broadsheet that the LTTE has had an air capability for the last nine years.  Mr Raman, former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is further quoted a saying that this has been the case “without the Sri Lankan intelligence having the least idea about its location and capability”.   Did Indian intelligence know the answers to these questions and if they did, why did they not share them with their Sri Lankan allies and counterparts ?

No doubt, the air strike boosts the morale of the LTTE, its supporters and sypathizers.  For some time now, the news from the battlefield has not been jolly – the LTTE has been on the defensive, tactical or strategic retreats notwithstanding, the east has been a debacle whichever way you cut it.  Therefore there was a need to remind all and sundry that the LTTE had not lost its ability to at least surprise, and by doing so upset the status quo as far as the balance of power is concerned.  Moreover, there was a need to do something about the government’s air superiority which gives the government a decided edge in military terms and is also seen as a key source of death and destruction by the civilian population.   In addition, the air strike is bound to have an impact on tourism and the economy in general – how much of an impact is yet to be seen.  However, a number of questions arise.

Was the air strike a success ?   The LTTE has served notice re an air capability.  It has demonstrated it and thereby revealed some, if not the entire nature of that capability.  Consequently, the surprise factor is exhausted and presumably the air force will be ready for them the next time, whenever that may be.  This is not something that can be replicated.  No encores for this one and clearly a case of bad planning and poor execution if the dress rehearsal turns out to be the command performance.   In terms of actual destruction the damage was minimal – the ability of the air force to pound the Vanni, and  at will, is still in tact.  The air strike could be more chutzpah than El Alamein as far as consequences go.  And what is to follow ?  What will ?  In all likelihood more bombing of LTTE controlled territory by the air force, more death, destruction and misery for civilians.  Were this to be a flash in the pan by the LTTE and not a harbinger of things to come, the government will be further emboldened in its belief that the LTTE has lost the plot and is irreversibly in decline.  Put another way, the LTTE has set itself a hard act to follow and if it does not and convincingly, it will reveal the relative paucity of its options and initiative in the current balance of forces.

Politically, an attack of this nature provides an opening for the opposition to question the government of the day on its stewardship of national security, particularly when the government of the day takes great pride in this and has taken a host of measures including the passage of additional and draconian emergency regulations in the name of national security.  The Leader of the Opposition writing to the Prime Minister calling for a special parliamentary debate on national security, confirms this.  No doubt the debate will be characterized by accusations and counter accusations of what happened once the CFA was signed and what happened thereafter.  Neither side can absolve themselves of responsibility – if Mr Raman is correct the LTTE has had this capability for nine years, i.e since 1998 or thereabouts.  This precedes the official declaration of the War for Peace.

It is welcome news that the main opposition party is stirring and active.  Stirred and stirring though is not enough.  There needs to be a concerted campaign based on a critique of what is transpiring under the Rajapaksa dispensation and a constructive alternative.  Or else it will be more of the same.

From this perspective, the most damaging consequence of the LTTE air strike is as mentioned, the worsening of the plight of the civilian population and the further postponement in the context of protracted conflict of any proposals for a political settlement.  The air strike will reinforce the precedence and primacy accorded to national security considerations narrowly defined and cast the “political” in terms of the government’s ability to counter and destroy this recently revealed military capability of the LTTE.  The usual arguments will be used to dismiss talk about political proposals on the grounds that to do so, would smack of appeasement and capitulation in the face of the fledgling LTTE air force.

The war is set to continue.  The old military objectives continue to be the new ones too – on the one hand there is a capability to be destroyed and on the other, to be used to destroy.   Somewhere over this horrible rainbow of war may lie another mutually hurting stalemate, even though the protagonists think in terms of victory and defeat.  And beyond that hopefully a lasting peace, and not of the grave.

  • N

    In terms of the runways being bombed, from what I’ve read around this kind of light plane doesn’t really need a huge runway to take off from and could even do so from roads as long as they are wide enough for the plane’s wingspan. I reckon those runways were probably just decoys, think the SLAF was achieving something when they weren’t.

    The institutional failings in the security establishment never fail to amaze me. What happened in 2001? The Tigers were seen in the base but the warning systems were just not there to implement an effective counterattack. What happened last week, the planes were heard/seen 40 minutes before the attack, no counterattack, response was initiated based on the intelligence. This lack of forward thinking is depressing and the shortcomings really need to be addressed.

    Does anybody else find it odd that this wasn’t a suicide mission? One would think taking out the Kfirs would be a top priority and dropping a few bombs from a fixed wing aircraft seems an unlikely way of trying to do it. Now that they’ve exposed their hand, it would be that much more difficult for the LTTE to conduct a suicide mission with the planes…assuming our buggers get their act together.

  • sam

    I wonder what the international community’s response has been. For example, how does the Co-Chairs really perceive the LTTE’s stunt?

    The LTTE could have easily dropped their bombs on the civilian airport. It would have been an easier target. But they chose not to.

    As B. Raman writes in a SAAG entry: “It was a precision attack, which carefully avoided causing any casualty or damage in the international airport, which could have roused international ire. There were no civilian casualties—-targeted or collateral. As a result, it would not be possible to characterise the attack as an act of terrorism. It was pure and simple a conventional air strike. ”

    One of the images the LTTE published post attack shows two cadres sitting in the cockpit , smiling at the camera, signaling the ‘V’. The image, which appeared on many international news sites and was published in some international newspapers, portray the cadres as young revolutionaries, returning after a successful attack against the oppressor. They do not come across as terrorists – and I would suggest generates more “awe” than “shock”.

    The attack could be seen as a public relations excercise: to demonstrate to the international community that their targets are military and not civilian. As Raman suggests – their attack is not terrorism, and following that line, the LTTE is not a terrorist organisation – or doesn’t fit neatly in to the Western defitiion of a terrorist organisation.

    In terms of the mission not being a suicide mission – I doubt the Tigers would have too many spare aeroplanes. And they would know the signal that ramming the World Trade Centre towers for example, would send.

  • David Blacker

    I’m forced to look at Raman’s comments with some skepticism. I’ll repeat here what I said over on

    “Looks like Raman jumped the gun. The airstrikes by the SLAF over the last two days have been the most intense of the CFA, so instead of the decrease in operations he predicts, there’s been an increase.

    He also assumes many things: His commment that just because the LTTE has threatened more airraids, that means they have the capability to do so. If they were going to launch more, I doubt they’d warn the GoS by telegraphing their moves. More likely it’s an attempt to slow any further ground ops in the north by hoping the GoSL will pause until they have sufficient AD capability.

    His suggestion that there’s a possibility that the LTTE can match the SLAF air capability smacks of the ridiculous. I doubt you can go up against MiGs, Kfirs, and Hinds with a few prop aircraft.

    He also seems unaware of history. He claims that only the Khalistanis and the Rote Armee Faction failed in their objectives. As an Indian, he should remember the failed Tibetan freedom fighters. One of the best examples of military success against a guerrilla army is the British victory in the Malayan uprising, but Raman seems to have missed it. The latter is significant for the fact that the Brits physically removed the Malayan population from contact with the guerrillas before carrying out ops against them.”

    Avoiding bombing the airport was purely out of self interest. I doubt the IC would’ve looked favourably on such an obviously terrorist attack.

    On the suicide option, I agree that the LTTE wouldn’t want to waste an aircraft unless it was a decapitation mission against the head of state. Also, the claim that the pilots were from the dispora might mean that these pilots are more interested in actually fighting than merely dying.

    It is quite possible that the aircaft took off from straight sections of the A9. Several of these were especially widened and reinforced after the CFA was signed. These can also easily be disguised and made to look like they’re unusable.