LTTE is the only militant group after the Nicaraguan 'Contras' to acquire air power. Unlike the 'Contras', the Tigers have developed their air wing without any external state support. Why would the LTTE need an air wing? What is its strength? And, what are its security implications?
The primary need for the LTTE to gain air power was to counter the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF). The LTTE suffered immense damage in the past due to indiscriminate bombings by the SLAF; so, it became imperative for the LTTE to counter the SLAF. In the mid 1990s, it acquired anti-aircraft guns making the SLAF immobile until it regained a technological edge by acquiring radars and other air defence systems. Thereafter, the only option left for the LTTE was to engage SLAF in the air. Secondly, the LTTE needed an air wing to demonstrate its capability to establish a state structure to its people and to the outside world. Not surprisingly, during last Heroes' Week (November 2004), the 'Air Tigers' displayed their newly acquired aircraft at Mulliyavalai in Mullaitivu District. The LTTE apparently had declared 2000 as the "Year of Air Tigers". Like any other professional force, it now has air, sea, and land forces with intelligence, artillery, and commando wings. Thirdly, the LTTE could use its air assets in emergencies - to get supplies from outside or evacuate critically wounded cadres for treatment. Since there was a ceasefire, it did not have much difficulty in taking its Sea Tiger Chief, Soosai, for treatment to Singapore, which may not have been possible during war time. Fourthly, it could use its air wing to deter the Sri Lankan Government in general.
It is difficult to assess the exact strength of the 'Air Tigers', which is still in the formative stage. Till his assassination in September 2001 'Col' Shankar (Vythialingam Sornalingam), once an aeronautical engineer with Air Canada, was the chief of the Vaanpuligal ('Air Tigers'). He was responsible for developing the air wing from scratch since 1995. According to a report submitted early this year to the President by the SLAF, during a routine reconnaissance by a UAV on 12 January 2005, it found an airfield "estimated around 3600 feet in length with a paved surface that was sufficient to land quite an array of aircraft"-"medium lift aircraft and even aircraft such as C-130" - south east of Iranamadu irrigation tank. The LTTE's attempts to construct air strip goes back to the 1990s, but were repeatedly thwarted by the SLAF. But, the present air strip has survived because of the ceasefire. The UAV also identified the presence of two aircraft: one of them has been confirmed by the United States to be a Czech built Zlin Z-143, and the other as a "medium range, light aircraft (perhaps Swiss built Pilatus PC 7 trainer) thought to possess the capability to fly for about 350 nautical miles at an average speed of 150 mph (240 kmph) and carry an ordinance load of 1,040 kilogrammes." It is believed that a handful of LTTE cadres were trained in France and UK as pilots.
The LTTE claims that it acquired its air power well before signing the ceasefire agreement in February 2002; but the Sri Lankan government disputes this. Not getting into pedantic arguements of before or after the ceasefire agreement, the more relevant question now is how will Sri Lanka address this new threat? It is about time that the personnel in charge of the Island's security find answers to the following questions:
Is the LTTE now in a position to attack any target in the Island? If so, what are the most likely high-risk targets and how to defend them?
Is there a possibility of 'suicidal attack' similar to 9/11 on a Colombo high rise building or targets of economic and political significance?
Is the SLAF trained and armed to undertake air-to-air combat, which has never occurred in SLAF's history?
Would the Tigers attempt to transport military hardware by air? How could these sorties be countered? Could neighbouring countries help on the pattern of the existing naval cooperation against the Sea Tigers on the high seas?
Is there a possibility of landing a hijacked plane in Tiger controlled territory? The LTTE, of course, has no history of hijacking, but is it in a position to say "no" to a hijacked plane landing on its air strips by a "friendly" terrorist group?
What are the security implications for India? How will both countries address this new threat?