When two piston engine aircraft of the LTTE dropped a few bombs on Sri Lanka's Katunayake air base in the early hours of Tuesday, 26 March 2007, shock and awe waves seem to have permeated the South Asian region. The Indian media reacted by expressing concern for Indian security. The Sri Lankan leadership, too warned of the danger to the region from the rise of the LTTE's air power. Some evaluation of the phenomenon is therefore necessary.
The attack took place a little before dawn broke on the air base. Before the advent of technology, this was a time-honoured tactic in which the striking aircraft identified and attacked targets on ground during less light. The bombing runs were short and no loiter was possible due to the risk of being shot down. Best results were obtained with good intelligence. A final approach from the west would save the intruders from visible detection and would make it easier to escape. In the eastward home leg, they would clearly be visible for counter action. In this context, the attack has been copy book. But no action was taken by the Sri Lankan Air Force at any stage.
The Sri Lankan Air Force's air defence systems did not rise to the occasion. There was certainly no attempt at aerial interception as the SLAF may not have this capability. The reports also do not indicate whether any anti-aircraft guns or surface-to-air missiles were used, although, the ingress of the aircraft was seemingly detected before they arrived overhead. Slow flying aircraft cannot escape easily under these conditions.
The LTTE has carved out a sizable territory in the northern parts of the country where it runs the administration, collects taxes and even issues entry visas to people entering their domain. There are reports that the LTTE has developed a maritime business enterprise by which it generates revenues. The fleet is used for illicit guns and drugs operations. Therefore, it would not be short of resources for the small fleet of aircraft which have been acquired over the years.
Although the operation of an amphibious aircraft and building of a 3500-yard long strip was reported more than a year ago, smaller airstrips of 500 yards can be built without much effort. These smaller aircraft can be operated and dispersed quite easily. For limited operations, the problem of fuel supplies is not insurmountable. There is an assessment that the insurgent group is evolving into a conventional force after having captured large amounts of artillery guns from the Sri Lankan Army during battles.
Should the LTTE plan to use their newly acquired fleet of aircraft for operations within India then they may initially succeed. One foresees drugs and contraband deliveries along the eastern coastline if air and sea surveillance is not quickly augmented. This activity is already going on via the sea route and Indian insurgent groups receive small arms supplies via the LTTE channel. On the other hand, an armed aerial attack on Indian soil would invite legitimate reprisals. The belief that the LTTE's activity goes unnoticed is unfounded. The civilian radars at Colombo and Chennai could have spotted the Katunayke strike if this was part of their routine activity.
The larger issue that needs to be addressed is the lawlessness seen in LTTE activity. No amount of sanctions imposed by the global community has inhibited their actions. The fact that the aircraft parts and systems have been obtained without any legal impediment, is a serious setback to the war on terror.
The regimes in Colombo have not helped the political process due to their ambivalence towards the cry for autonomy by the Tamils. The Sri Lankan government can only garner support from other countries in the region including India if its peace initiatives with the Tamils are focused and conciliatory. Contrary to some opinion in India, the Indian state will not move against the LTTE unless it is in the country's larger interest. It is possible for India, however, to assist the Sri Lankan government by passive support and intelligence sharing. But before that, support must be adequately shaped in the South Asian community of nations.