Originally Published 2005-06-03 12:25:53 Published on Jun 03, 2005
Acquisition of air assets by the most successful guerilla outfit and a declared Terrorist organization, LTTE, has alarmed observers around the world.
Implications of LTTE's Air Capability
Acquisition of air assets by the most successful guerilla outfit and a declared Terrorist organization, LTTE, has alarmed observers around the world.

What exactly are the constituents and dimensions of this Air Threat? This needs to be examined dispassionately. The facts are: -

a) That an airstrip of about 1250 meters has been built by the LTTE. This allows a light to medium size aircraft to operate with a payload that would be in the range of 1.5 to 2 tons. The fuel load adjustment would provide the payload enhancement if the range is reduced and vice versa.

b) The airfield has been provided with surveillance and self-protection means. The surveillance component is expected to consist of Radar, other Electronic means and the support facilities to enable safe operations. The hard kill options are expected to be the CRAA (Close Range Anti Air) weapons and the Surface to Air Missiles.

c) The type of aircraft in possession has been identified to be of the type of a Czech Aircraft ZLIN Z-143.The Czech company Moravan on its home page does not talk of any medium aircraft that it has built and seems to concentrate on small aircraft for flying clubs and for general utility. The company has on offer just four varieties of light aircraft. The biggest aircraft that it has on offer is the 143L/Lsi a limited edition which can carry four with the cleared payload of about 500 kgs. The company also talks of a deal with an Indian flying academy, which apparently has ordered eight Z 242L an aerobatic twin seater.

Just a search on the Internet today has so many offers of first hand and second hand aircraft that any one who has the money can buy an aircraft or a helicopter virtually on line. So if the LTTE has been able to shop for its air assets online it can also shop for the bigger aircraft in the future depending on its requirements. If the Sri Lankan Government decides to keep quiet about this deal, it would be just a matter of time before the LTTE is encouraged to scout for more potent air platforms and weapon systems.

If the assumption that the Czech Company has supplied the aircraft is correct then they are indeed in the small light aircraft category and are limited to carrying a maximum of four passengers. They could be used for flying training, cross-country; reconnaissance, communication duties and ofcourse limited offensive missions.

These factors would give LTTE a limited air capability for the time being. However, with the imaginative and manipulative skills of the LTTE, it would be a challenge for the Sri Lankan authorities and for Indian observers to speculate on the possible use of the Air Strip as well as the limited assets that they possess. It is also surprising that they were able to buy their air inventory with least problems despite being branded a terrorist organisation. It is hoped that the SL authorities would have looked at the commercial transaction, details of importer, import license and where it was obtained, contractual agreements etc., In all, there are a lot of questions that are to be answered before finding solutions. LTTE with the overseas sympathizers and the wide reach that they have would be able to easily overcome any hurdles in the way of import regulations.

Sri Lanka, which is required to take stern action, is unwilling to risk a collision course on this issue and seems to be looking at the SLMM to make a case against the LTTE for violation of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA). The SLMM Chief Mr Hagrup Haukland has ofcourse clarified that while it is legitimate for Sri Lanka to arm itself to fend of aggression; it is illegimate for the LTTE to arm itself. As quoted by the press, he made two significant statements related to the new capability acquired by the LTTE. Firstly, He said: " This ….is a serious matter, which impinges on Sri Lanka's security. India is concerned too," Secondly, on the point of control and sovereignty he added that: "The skies over Sri Lanka were under the sovereign control of the government of Sri Lanka. Any flying in Sri Lankan skies would have to have the express sanction of the Sri Lankan government. As for the use of international air space, that was also controlled by international agreements. Flying by an unrecognized group like the LTTE would therefore be against international law,"

The important aspect is, that any aircraft, that is flown in airspace of a country needs to register and is to be flown as per both the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) Regulations the relevant laws of the land. The SLMM definitely would need to put pressure on the LTTE to see that it honours these stringent laws related to acquisition possession and use of aircraft. The aircrews that fly the machines and the maintainers who service the aircraft need clearance from a competent authority. If the LTTE is flying these aircraft under civil aviation laws then all these need to be complied with. But being a law un to itself, LTTE would have scant regard for any such laws. If it considers the Air Wing as the Military wing like the Sea Tigers, then LTTE would feel that exceptions to military flying would be unilaterally applied.

The suggestions from some quarter on initiation of preemptive strikes on the Air strip and assets by the Sri Lankan Air Force is unlikely to be seriously considered by the Government given the ground realities. Such an action would be in any case classified as a violation of the CFA and would lead to initiation of hostilities, which both the sides are not quite willing to indulge in. It is here that the willingness and ability of Sri Lanka to enforce such measures on LTTE's air wing would be put to test. Looking at the past record, this would not be easy one to handle.

Where does all this lead? If Sri Lanka and the SLMM does not take serious note of this development it would not only be sending a wrong signal but also would be indirectly encouraging the LTTE to expand its sphere of air activity. Along with the demand for the recognition of its Navy, It would also demand recognition of its Air Force and exemption from the laws of the land.

On the part of India, there is more that needs to be done instead of mere expressions of shock and alarm at the development. The need of the hour is to nip the bud and to exert pressure on Sri Lanka to initiate appropriate measures to prevent this force from growing. There has to be stricter regulations governing sale of aircraft and other potential weapon systems to organisations such as the LTTE. Even the acceptance of the status quo would be counter productive and harmful to the interests of Sri Lanka and its big neighbour. While it is totally wrong to blow the threat perceptions out of proportions, it would be also unwise to not initiate effective and timely measures to stop the menace of terrorism right here in our backyard.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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