Sri Lanka: Fulcrums & Lions to Battle Tigers?
Sri Lanka’s fight against the Tamil Tigers has not generally been viewed as having an air to air combat dimension. Raids by propeller-driven aircraft in March and April changed that calculus, however; a military base next to the country’s only international airport was hit in March, and an April strike against oil facilities near the capital of Colombo led to a blackout and mistaken targeting of a passenger jet. The LTTE planes were believed to be Czech-made Zlin Z-143s. Though little damage was done, the attacks and their consequences to date implicitly threaten to shut down the island’s 3rd largest industry – its $410 million per year tourism trade.
Shades of Carl Gustaf von Rosen and his remarkable Biafran Air Force operations. A war widely seen as a government against a guerrilla & terrorist group with global reach is about to acquire a decidedly conventional dimension. Sri Lanka may not be the last country to face this issue, either; see SAAG’s “The Real Implications Of Possession Of Air Capability By LTTE,” and Lanka Newspapers’ “Air capabilities of global terror groups and non-formal States.” Which is why Sri Lanka’s chosen approach will be instructive, no matter how it turns out.
Sri Lanka’s current air force fleet is a mixture of Russian, Israeli, American, and Chinese designs. Instead of focusing on an upgraded air surveillance system, plus relatively inexpensive armed turboprops or trainer jets that can do double-duty as counter-insurgency aircraft, Sri Lanka is reaching for a more limited and high-end pair of solutions.
The Nation newspaper reports that Sri Lanka’s air force is about to take delivery of 5 MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia to counter the threat. The most modern MiG-29 designs have multi-role capabilities, but despite the aircraft’s positives, many of the variants currently flying have limited range/endurance and equally limited usefulness beyond air defense roles.
Sri Lanka is also reportedly looking to add new radars and missiles to its Kfir (Hebrew: “lion cub”; USAF F-21) fighters; it reportedly has 7x Kfir C-2 and 2x upgraded Kfir C-7s left. Giving these multi-role aircraft improved anti-air capabilities would probably mean adding Elta’s EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar, and radar-guided medium-range missiles like Israel’s Derby; as it happens, IAI has created the Kfir C-10 with these very improvements in mind.
Contracts & Updates
July 6/09: As the war winds to a close with a government victory, Sri Lanka has put off its MiG-29 buy in favor of other priorities. The MiGs reportedly remain the favored choice to replace existing Kfir and Chinese J-7 fighters when they go out of service. The Island.
March 13/08: Jane’s Defence Intelligence quotes Jayantha Wickramasinghe, the head of Sri Lanka’s state-owned procurement agency, as saying that Sri Lanka is in advanced talks with Russia and that the acquisition of 4 MiG-29SM fighters and 1 MiG-29UB 2-seat fighters is “well under way.”
- DID (May 18/07) – Flying LTTE Tigers Help Spur India’s Aerostat Radar Buy from Israel. The LTTE assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
- Lanka Business Online (May 16/07) – Sri Lanka’s ‘Flying Tiger’ guerrilla air force will face losses within months: analyst. Good survey and history of similar efforts, including not only the Baifrans, but also North Korea’s “Bedcheck Charlie” raids during the Korean war. The need for better surveillance systems rather than “toys” is stressed in the article.
- Defence India report.