*War on terror revisited : Part 159July 28, 2013, 8:21 pm
Vavuniya airbase Dec 18, 1986: The then Flying Officer Gagan Bulathsinghala stands next to a badly damaged Bell 412. Bulathsinghala, now Director Operations, with the rank of Air Vice Marshal, survived an unprecedented rocket propelled grenade attack on the Bell 412 over Poovarasankulam. It was on a flight from Talladi to Vavuniya. The previous article dealt with the incident.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The then Flight Lieutenant Harsha Abeywickrema was flying a Cessna 337 Skymaster when he spotted a fast moving LTTE craft powered by several outboard motors (OBMs). The Skymaster which was based at Palaly airbase, the nerve centre of air operations in the northern theatre, was on a routine mission. Abeywickrema’s colleagues, Shirantha Goonetileke (killed in a missile attack on April 29, 1995 over the Jaffna peninsula) and Ranjan Pakyanathan, too, (killed in a crash) were based in Palaly. They took turns in patrolling the northern seas at the early stage of the conflict. All three were junior instructors. Unfortunately, the Skymaster was wholly inadequate to meet the challenging task. However, the SLAF strove to maintain regular air patrols to curb LTTE movements across the Palk Straits. At that time, Tamil Nadu remained the key supply base not only for the LTTE but a half a dozen other armed groups as well.
The air patrols were carried out with the help of the SLN vessels deployed off the northern coast to detect and intercept LTTE boat movements. SLAF chief, Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrema recollected seeing the enemy craft as he flew over the northern seas. "Once I met the SLN’s Daya Sandagiri (retired as Commander of the navy with the rank of Admiral) when he arrived in Palaly airbse on his way to Ratmalana. I took that chance meeting to inquire about the usual routes used by those operating boats across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. He explained clandestine operations undertaken by terrorists. In accordance with advice given by the senior navy officer, I was on an air patrol when I came across the enemy craft carrying several persons."
The Skymaster carried several personnel armed with automatic weapons, as it lacked the forward firing guns or any other weapons operated by the pilot or the co-pilot. On that fateful day, Navin Silva (retired and currently with the national carrier) functioned as Abeywickrema’s co-pilot.
The young Abeywickrema flew on as if he hadn’t seen the boat which was perhaps operating about 20 nautical miles away from land. Abeywickrema had observed about 15 persons on the boat before alerting the Palaly air base. The then Commanding Officer of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron, Squadron Leader Ananda Jayasinghe was based in Palaly.
Alerted by the Skymaster, Squadron Leader Jayasinghe dispatched one Bell 212 piloted by Roger Weerasinghe (killed in a missile attack on April 28, 1995) to destroy the boat. Unfortunately, the Bell 212 failed in its task, promoting No 4 Squadron Leader to deploy another Bell piloted by Roshan Goonetileke (outgoing Chief of Defence Staff), as well as a Jet ranger piloted by Tennyson Gunawardena (retired and currently with the national carrier). In spite of the Bell 212s, the Jet Ranger as well as the Skymaster firing at the enemy boat, it managed to maintain its course towards the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. Much to the disappointment of those chasing the boat, two rockets fired by Gunawardena too, missed the target. The Jet Ranger gunship was one of the two acquired from Singapore during 1984 along with six rockets. The then SLAF Commander, Air Vice Marshal DC Perera who had been on the mission to acquire Jet Rangers was confident that the introduction of rockets would make a major difference. But, the confrontation off the Jaffna peninsula exposed the weaknesses of the SLAF strategy.
ACM Goonetileke recalled a young Daya Ratnayake––currently Army Chief of Staff, Major General Ratnayake is scheduled to succeed Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya on August 1, 2013––firing from the Bell 212 captained by him. Goonetileke joined the battle following a routine logistical movement to the army base at Point Pedro. Romesh Mendis (retired) was Goonetileke’s co-pilot. Goonetileke recollected seeing smoke from the Kankesanthurai cement factory as he turned back towards the Jaffna peninsula.
Harsha Abeywickrema had fired his T-56 assault rifle at the boat while flying low. Those on the boat fired back, causing damage to the Skymaster’s radio set. Still, the helicopters and the Skymaster pursued the boat, rapidly moving towards Indian waters, prompting Squadron Leader Jayasinghe to order them to turn back. AM Abeywickrema said that he felt really disappointed that they couldn’t intercept the boat in spite of timely detection. The SLAF Commander said: "Later we were told that one person on the boat had been killed and some five wounded due to SLAF action. But it would have been much better if we could have stopped the boat."
Mi 17s undertake night missions
The government’s failure to adopt an effective strategy to intercept clandestine boat movements across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary remained a major weakness during the first and second eelam wars. Although the government greatly enhanced its naval capacity at a later stage with the deployment of Fast Attack Craft (FAC), the enemy sustained operations across the Indo-Lanka seas.
In a recent interview with the writer, ACM Goonetileke explained the gradual expansion of helicopter operations with the No 4 Squadron elevated to a Wing. The Helicopter Wing comprised four Squadrons. ACM Goonetileke recalled the extremely difficult conditions under which the squadrons had to operate with the introduction of missiles in April 1995. Commenting on Mi 17 operations, he said that the squadron had been compelled to operate at odd times under the cover of darkness to move supplies to isolated bases. According to him, landing at Pooneryn base on the Vanni mainland was a nightmare. ACM Goonetileke said: "Silavaturai on the northwestern coast was another base which had to be supplied by air. The Mi-17 squadron played a pivotal role in supplying the bases. In fact, none of those isolated bases could have survived without the Mi 17 squadron."
The SLAF acquired AN 32s in the wake of missile attacks on two consecutive days during the month of April 1995, to strengthen the transport capability. In April, LTTE attacks destroyed two British built Avros killing almost 100 officers and men over the Jaffna peninsula. With the rapid expansion of army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni mainland, the SLAF needed additional fixed wing transport aircraft and bigger helicopters than Bell 212s, which kept the bases supplied since the army lost control of the overland road network during the 1984/1985 period. The SLAF acquired Mi 17s against the backdrop of a rapid increase in the workload. Those going on leave as well as officers and men returning to bases had no option but to wait for a night chopper ride to bases which were under siege. ACM Goonetileke acknowledged that it was a pathetic situation. The SLAF lost several Mi 17s due to missile attacks and anti-aircraft fire. The loss of aircraft had a demoralising impact on the military, which was struggling on all fronts.
Mi 24 shot down over Jaffna lagoon
Two years after the acquisition of Mi 17 transport helicopters, the SLAF took delivery of Mi 24s also from Russia, which made a significant change in the overall performance of the service. The SLAF out of desperation went to the extent of leasing some machines before those acquired were delivered. But, the LTTE countered the SLAF by firing heat seeking missiles. The LTTE also enhanced its anti-aircraft fire.
ACM Goonetileke recalled the loss of a Mi 24 helicopter during Eelam War III east of the strategic Elephant Pass base at a crucial phase of the conflict. Silvapulle, who was in command of the ‘flying tank’ died in the attack. The former SLAF commander is of the view that a heat seeking missile brought down the gunship. The ill-fated chopper and another of its type were on a mission to destroy several LTTE boats operating in the Jaffna lagoon, which the army believed posed a threat to the Elephant Pass base. Silvapulle had swung into action, having instructed the other chopper, to stay behind. The LTTE swiftly brought down the chopper killing those onboard.
However, the possibility of Silvapulle’s machine being hit by anti-aircraft fire couldn’t be ruled out. A veteran helicopter pilot said that the pair of Mi 24 deployed on that particular day was on a specific mission having being called by the army. According to him, the pair of choppers was launched from Palaly in support of the besieged Elephant Pass base. Both helicopters weren’t equipped with automatic anti-missile systems, though they had an in-built manual mechanism. Without an effective digital anti-missile system, Mi 24 squadron struggled to accomplish difficult missions. In spite of reaching an understanding with the Israeli government for the supply of anti-missile systems for helicopter and transport squadrons, the completion of the project took time. The Mi 24 squadron was perhaps the last to be equipped with the Israeli system during 2002-2003. The Israelis had to create a sophisticated system to meet the SLAF requirement, taking into account various threat factors. ACM Goonetileke said: "What they delivered to us was good though expensive. Perhaps, it was the first time Russian flying tanks were equipped with an Israeli anti-missile system. When Eelam war IV broke out in August 2006, Mi 24 squadron confidently went into battle. The fact that the Mi 24s were equipped to operate in a missile environment made a significant impact on its overall performance, hence giving a lot of confidence to the army."
ACM Goonetileke asserted that it was a perfect system.
During Eelam War IV, No 9 Mi 24 squadron played a crucial role under the command of Wing Commander Sampath Thuyacontha. The squadron carried out almost 400 missions, mostly in the Vanni mainland during the Aug 2006-May 2009 period. Although the anti-aircraft fire hit attack helicopters on about 35 occasions during the fourth phase of the conflict and in some instances made emergency landings in areas where fighting was raging, the squadron sustained offensive action. Under Thuyacontha, the squadron comprised about 35 officers and 375 men. The squadron inflicted heavy damage on the enemy with pinpoint attacks from the north-western coast to the north-eastern coast throughout the campaign. In an interview with the writer in early June 2009, Thuyacontha appreciated the excellent support given by the engineering section, particularly during emergencies.
The squadron mounted four missions to evacuate LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) teams deployed behind enemy lines deep inside both east and west of the A9. On four occasions, the army called for swift evacuation of LRRP teams and the No 09 squadron met the challenging task. Thuyacontha himself had been involved in about 60 missions during eelam war IV, including one mission to evacuate an LRRP north of Thunukai. "We flew away under LTTE fire," Thuyacontha said, adding that they were thrilled to be of assistance to the elite troops. He also recalled Mi 24 landing in the LTTE-held area (Vanni east) to evacuate LRRP personnel returning from a secret mission which claimed the life of Major. Lalith Jayasinghe.
The then Mi 24 chief said that during the army-led operations in the East, the squadron had come under a missile attack over Vakarai.
Wing Commanders, Senaka Dharmawardena and Kapila Wanigasooriya showed their class in Mi 24 operations, sometime flying alone due to the non-availability of serviceable machines. ACM Goonetileke recollected their courageous action at the height of the battle.
Squadron Leader Chandana Liyanage, chief engineer of the No 09 squadron told The Island that they managed to save a badly hit Mi 24 after it landed in the Iranamadu area in the midst of a ground battle. "Had our technicians failed to fly it again within hours, we would have been forced to destroy it", he said, adding that his section had performed exceptionally well under trying conditions. Liyanage’s section comprised six officers and 250 men.
The Squadron Leader said that they had flown the damaged chopper to the Vavuniya air base.
Out of 14 fighting machines, six had been fully committed to Eelam War IV.
The No 9 squadron established on November 23, 1995 with three choppers acquired on a wet lease basis from Ukraine, subsequently grew to 14 machines over the years.
According to Liyanage, the squadron, during Eelam War, IV fired 19,762 80 mm rockets. Among the weapons available to the squadron were the 23 mm twin barrel system and 12.7 mm Gatlin and 30 mm cannon, he said, adding that they also had 250 kg bombs. "We couldn’t have used them all together", he said. "The armaments were selected depending on the target to be taken", he said. A combination of the available weapons gave tremendous firepower. Two pairs of Mi 24s could have caused massive devastation, he said.
Wing Commander Thuycontha said that the squadron had also caused considerable damage to the Sea Tigers. He said that engaging LTTE targets close to our own troops had been an extremely difficult task. He said that there had been many heavy battles involving the squadron, but the battle for Puthukudirippu area during the early part of 2009 was undoubtedly the fiercest. "We flew many sorties day and night targeting the enemy," he said. "It was like 31st night––full of fireworks", he said, referring to the battle for Puthukudirippu, one of the major LTTE bastions.
He said that the 80 mm rockets with a three km range had had a devastating impact on the LTTE. An Mi 24 crew is manned by a Captain, co-pilot and two door gunners.
The electronic specialists of the squadron, too, under the guidance of Director Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Air Commodore Rohan Pathirage kept the avionics systems in shape, in the midst of logistical maintenance challenges.