The SLAF has conducted a staggering 1,345 missions since the LTTE triggered the Eelam War IV in June 2006. Of them, 1,256 targets had been taken by jets and the rest by helicopter gunships.
The missions included operations conducted by the Katunayake-based jet squadrons, including the No. 5 established in last year in response to the threat posed by LTTE aircraft and helicopter gunships.
Although the SLAF failed to fully neutralize the ‘air threat’ it caused heavy damage on the enemy thereby sharply reducing its fighting capability.
Air force spokesperson Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara placed the number of sorties carried out by jets and helicopter gunships at 2,582 as some of the missions had involved more than one aircraft.
Responding to The Sunday Island queries, he said that the SLAF took 1,483 targets. The number of targets was higher than the missions conducted as aircraft deployed on some missions had taken more than one target, he said.
Three jet squadrons namely Kfirs (No 10), MIGs (No 12) and F7s (No 5) had mounted 1,116 missions during this period against 229 operations undertaken by the helicopter gunships.
Army Chief Lt. General Sarath Fonseka has publicly commended the role played by the SLAF in the overall offensive to destroy the LTTE.
An SLAF pilot with the No 9 attack helicopter squadron told The Sunday Island that excellent rapport between the army and their squadron immensely contributed to their success.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said that since major battles erupted in August 2006 they had been extremely busy. The Hingurakgoda based squadron had played a critical role in providing close air support to troops engaged in offensive action in the northern and eastern theatres.
"We were there from Kanjikudichchiaru to Muhamalai and Kilinochchi," he said adding that their current focus was on Mullaitivu, the last LTTE stronghold on the north-eastern coast.
He talked admiringly about the tips given by the Russian experts in handling the helicopter gunships.
The choppers armed with 81 mm rockets and 23 mm and 30 mm guns had caused havoc on the LTTE. The flying tanks first acquired in 1995 had never before been used as extensively and successfully as in the ongoing offensive.
The same could be said about Kfirs and MiGs acquired in 1999 and 2000 respectively, said another official. He expressed the belief that had they efficiently deployed jets they could have achieved a lot but unfortunately it wasn’t the case.
Jet pilots are of the opinion a better command and control structure, specific directions on the targets to be taken, excellent intelligence and, most importantly, flexibility in decision making had facilitated their offensive.
According to them, some of the important missions carried out during this period targeted enemy artillery pieces (Aug.15 and 19, 2006) deployed at Pooneryn, hideouts frequented by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran (Nov. 26 and 28, 2007, Sep. 17 and Dec. 27, 2008) in the Vanni, Voice of Tigers station (Nov. 27, 2007), S.P. Thamilchelvan (Nov. 2, 2007), an LTTE vessel carrying arms 160 nautical miles off the eastern coast (Sep. 17, 2006), a flotilla of Sea Tiger craft off Kankesanturai harbour (Nov. 9, 2007) and several LTTE boats and three artillery pieces in the Chundikulam area.
At the time jets zeroed-in-on the ship, they were flying low on fuel for their return journey to home base at Katunayake, 260 nautical miles away, the official said.
Under Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilike’s leadership, the SLAF has achieved a tremendous operational capability with expertise in surveillance and intelligence gathering. Recently Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa toured air bases where he met officers and men.
The SLAF spokesman said that technicians at all levels and other branches had worked round the clock to support the air campaign. Without their support the jets wouldn’t have been air borne, he said, adding that their ground deployment numbering about 10,000 personnel in the Vanni and the east, too, was a major factor in the overall strategy.
by Shamindra Ferdinando ~ The Island ~