The Point of Diminishing Returns: Countering the LTTE Air Wing

“Now we must consider the cost of Sri Lanka’s response to the LTTE planes. In addition to counter air raids on LTTE airbases, the Sri Lankan Air Defense Network has seen a building boom since the TAF was first used in battle. The existing network has been expanded with additional radar stations and increased numbers of anti-aircraft batteries, among other things. Yet the Air Tigers remain the only branch of the LTTE to have a 100% survival rate. That doesn’t mean there is no means of countering the LTTE bombers.”

About Writer: Eric Bailey is a defence analyst of Sri Lanka Guardian, based in Austin, United States Of America. He can be reached trough his blog the History and War.

(September 03, Austin, Sri Lanka Guardian) The recent LTTE air raid on Trincomalee has returned the Tiger Air Force (TAF) problem to the center of public attention. The military and political leaders of Sri Lanka face a serious problem in dealing with this military threat. Or do they? The TAF, while innovative and difficult to counter, is more of a political tool than an effective weapon of war. Next to the boost in morale it has given to the LTTE, the TAF's greatest accomplishment has been the government's response to them. The Sri Lankan military has suffered a greater drain in resources in the creation of an ineffective Air Defense Network than the TAF has ever or will ever destroy through military action. The repeated failure of this air defense network to shoot down even one rebel bomber further boosts the morale of the rebels and embarrasses the government and military. The reality is that the TAF isn't worth countering. They are technologically primitive and have a very limited military potential. The Sri Lankan military is expending a disproportional level of resources in countering them and have failed to yield even minimal returns on their investment. These resources should be redirected to other more worthwhile endeavors that might actually have strategic benefit to the nation.

To determine a priority level for the TAF the current state of their assets must first be assessed. This is to be followed by a study of their combat record. Finally, Sri Lanka’s Air Defense Network’s performance and costs must be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the end equation will show a great waste of resources on an objective that is not worthwhile.

Let us first consider what exactly is threatening Sri Lanka. The LTTE fields at least two Zlin Z-143 propeller planes. Rumors of LTTE helicopters that have faded in and out of the public’s eye can be dismissed as almost certainly untrue or at least no longer true. In all likelihood, the TAF has always been made up of only those two bombers.

There are two airstrips under LTTE control. Iranamadu is the oldest, but is not the first rebel made airstrip. It was actually built not far from a runway that was bombed by Sri Lanka in the 1990’s and is no longer serviceable. The Pudukiduiruppu airstrip is newer, having been constructed in 2007. These bases are regular targets for bombing raids that seem to have no effect on the TAF. There is no reason to believe that they have ever destroyed any LTTE aircraft and clearly have not been able to prevent aircraft from using the runways to take off and land.

The LTTE planes are modified civilian aircraft that have been given the ability to drop no more than four small, unguided, bombs. Zlin Z-143s are designed more for recreational use, training aviators, and towing banners. Despite being designed in 1992, they are inferior in almost every way to prop planes designed for combat half a century earlier. Compared to a P-51 Mustang, a famous World War Two fighter, the Zlin is less than half as fast, has less than half the service ceiling, slightly more than a fourth of the range, and when it comes to maneuvering, the Mustang can fly circles around a Zlin. Simply put, this plane is not designed for combat and the fact that not a single plane has ever been lost makes many people question the role of Providence in their survival.

Air Tigers Bomb

The TAF has only shown one type of weapon so far. The Zlins are loaded with small, unguided bombs that are approximately 25 kilograms in size. These bombs have a high rate of misfire. Nearly every air strike has had one or more duds. Given the small number of bombs that can be dropped at any one time, this greatly limits the TAF’s ability to inflict damage. They also do not seem to have any means of targeting ground positions. Acting as dive-bombers and low flying helps to limit this problem, but accuracy remains one of the biggest problems for the Tiger pilots. When the bombs do work, they seem to be standard high explosives. They do not have any unique armor piercing or bunker busting capabilities. An example of an armor-piercing bomb’s capabilities is that it might be able to release a jet of molten metal (usually copper) to cut through metal, while a bunker buster is long and thin like a javelin, allowing it to pass through earth and concrete. Given their crude design and small size, only a direct hit will cause any serious damage to a target. The odds of anything of long-term strategic importance being lost to an LTTE air raid are very small.

The TAF’s combat record confirms their inability to inflict serious damage in an assault, even if both aircraft are used. Their fist raid targeted the Katunayake air base in Colombo. This base is the home of Sri Lanka’s MiG-27s and Kfir fighters. The LTTE had hoped to destroy some of these planes on the ground as they were regularly used to bomb rebel positions in the North of the country. However, they failed to destroy any plane of any type and only killed three people. Despite an ambitious target, the LTTE did not get a favorable return on their investment that day.

Five additional raids have hit a bunker in Jaffna, an oil storage facility near Colombo, the Anuradhapura Air Base during the Black Tiger raid, (all damage done that day is attributed to the Black Tigers, not the TAF) the Weli Oya FDL, and the Trincomalee Naval Base.

Considering all of these raids and the effects of the TAF on the Sri Lankan military, this is the single worst investment in the history of the LTTE. In 17 months, the TAF has attacked only six targets, killed fewer than two-dozen people and has destroyed nothing of strategic importance. However, in a bid to counter this minor threat, the military has expended more resources, money, and manpower (on an Air Defense Network that can’t do its job) than the LTTE has destroyed through bombing runs.

Now we must consider the cost of Sri Lanka’s response to the LTTE planes. In addition to counter air raids on LTTE airbases, the Sri Lankan Air Defense Network has seen a building boom since the TAF was first used in battle. The existing network has been expanded with additional radar stations and increased numbers of anti-aircraft batteries, among other things. Yet the Air Tigers remain the only branch of the LTTE to have a 100% survival rate. That doesn’t mean there is no means of countering the LTTE bombers. There are plenty of additional measures that can be taken to shoot down the TAF planes, for a price.

One that is already in the works is the purchase of five MiG-29 interceptor fighters and a sixth trainer jet; however, they have an outrageous price tag. At an average price of fifteen million US dollars apiece, this aircraft is far more expensive than any other aircraft Sri Lanka has even tried to get a hold of. MiG-27s for example can be purchased for two or three million US dollars each.

On the ground, there are options too, but each causes an increased demand for men and material that are then denied to the rest of the military. One approach is to deploy hundreds, maybe thousands, of spotters in positions that will give advanced warning to potential targets. This helps to supplement the radar posts that cannot always track such small targets at low altitude. Another option is to further bulk up the number of gun batteries around key targets, while encouraging gunners to saturate the sky when an attack is underway.

Mustang Raptor

Caption: An F-22 Raptor and a P-51 Mustang fly in formation. Both of these planes can shoot down a Zlin, but one costs 136.3 million US dollars more than the other. Which option would be cost efficient?

The bottom line is that Sri Lanka has already spent huge sums of money, expended large amounts of resources, and have deployed thousands of people in an Air Defense Network that is yet to enjoy a single success. Now additional measures are being considered that will further bleed personnel and funds from the rest of the military. Unfortunately, the MiG-29 deal is almost certain to become a reality, despite the fact that cheaper prop plane interceptors would have a greater chance of engaging and destroying the rebel planes in the air. Brazil sells one such option, while another novel approach might be to purchase and refit a few World War Two era fighters to take on the task and amaze the world in the process.

In regards to the situation on the ground, there are still choices to be made and it is here that there is the greatest hope of limiting the TAF’s effect on the war. The LTTE’s experimental bomber squadron has proven itself unworthy of what investments have been already made to counter them. The best use of Sri Lanka’s military resources is to scale back the Air Defense Network, not expand it. The mass of radar arrays across the country have proven to be unable to detect an enemy threat while gun batteries have failed to destroy a target. All the while, every soldier deployed to counter the TAF instead of against any other rebel force is a feather in the Air Tiger’s cap. Therefore, the objective of this network should be changed from interception and destruction to early warning and casualty prevention.

Instead of dedicating a large number of additional personnel to spotting duty, the current number of Air Defense Network staff should be maintained, or reduced, and redeployed to cover this task. A soldier who spots a bomber and gives his comrades enough warning to enter the safety of hardened bunkers will have done much more for his country than if he had wasted a few hundred rounds of machine gun fire in a failed effort to shoot down a rebel plane. Either way the LTTE bombs are going to fall, but the odds of minimizing casualties increase with a more effective early warning system. The rest of the military also benefits by receiving the men and supplies that otherwise would have been spent to further expand an Air Defense Network hell-bent on shooting down a small, ineffective, and rarely used rebel air force. Finally, failing to tie up additional Sri Lankan forces in air defense roles diminishes the TAF, which was the original goal of the military in this whole affair.
- Sri Lanka Guardian