Over the last decade the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) went through a period of major expansion and modernization. In the first three years of this millennium the SLAF expanded its fleet with the acquisition of seven Mi-35Ps, three An-32s, two Hercules C Mk.1s, six MiG-27Ms, a MiG-23UB, six K-8s, ten PT-6s and eight Kfir C.2s and C.7s. This was an increase in hardware of approximately 30% and further acquisitions followed. A ceasefire agreement signed between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2002, gave the SLAF the breathing space it needed to review its organisation, to train new pilots and to implement all the recent acquisitions. First cracks of the fragile peace agreement started to show with a suicide bomb attack in Colombo in July 2004. From then on the situation deteriorated and, although denied by the LTTE, it was strongly believed that they were behind the increasing number of attacks on the military, government officials and civilians. When a daring suicide attack almost killed the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army last April, the Sri Lankan government decided not to tolerate the ever increasing violations of the peace agreement any longer. On 25 April, after four years of relative peace, Kfir's belonging to No. 10 Fighter Squadron attacked LTTE positions near Muthur not far from Trincomalee. This was the beginning of yet another period of violence with heavy involvement of the air force. The SLAF has used the period of relative peace well and now appears stronger then ever. Since the start of the fighting the LTTE was hit over and over again without inflicting serious damage to the Sri Lankan forces. Especially the Sea Tigers are under almost constant attack to stop them from using shipping to smuggle weapons into the country. Voices within the Sri Lankan government are clear and it seems that there is no other way for peace then the LTTE accepting the offer from to Sri Lankan government to return to the negotiation table. Rogier Westerhuis visited Sri Lanka recently to complete a photo-essay illustrating the expansion and recent developments of the force that: "Safeguards the skies of Sri Lanka."
During the second half of the nineties it was decided that the SLAF training facilities were in a desperate need of modernization and expansion. As a result six NAMC K.8 Karakorum's and ten Nanchang PT-6s (westernised designation for the CJ-6) were ordered in China. The first PT-6s were delivered in crates in January 2001 and the type became operational with No.1 Flying Training Wing at Anuradhapura by April 2001. The instructors of No. 1 FTW are very positive about the PT-6 with its HOUSAI-6A 285HP air-cooled radial piston engine. The aircraft are full aerobatic and demand reasonable flying skills from the cadet. The engineering staff like the aircraft as they proved easy to maintain.
In the beginning of 2001 six NAMC K-8 Karakorum's were delivered boosting the training capabilities of the SLAF. With the arrival of these aircraft No. 14 Advanced Flying Training Squadron was created. Infrastructure, including two small hangars and support buildings, were constructed next to the facilities of No's 5 and 10 Squadron. This keeps all jet aircraft activities concentrated on Katunayake. The day before the official establishment of No. 14 Squadron, Tamil rebels attacked Katunayake Air Base and Bandaranaike International Airport and among the aircraft they managed to destroy during their attack were three of the six Karakorum's. One of the main priorities of the SLAF was to greatly improve their training capabilities and the loss of three K-8s was a heavy blow. Therefore shortly after the attack the SLAF ordered three new aircraft to replace the ones that were lost. These three attritions were officially handed over on 25 July 2005.
In March 2000 the first, of two, ex-RAF Hercules C.Mk.1s was delivered to No.2 Heavy Transport Squadron based at Ratmalana in the southern part of Colombo. The Hercules boosted the transport capacity greatly and was a much needed addition to the small number of Antonov An-32 Colts and the single Shaanxi Y.8, the Chinese version of the An-12. The later was written-off in a fatal crash in August 2002. At least one Hercules was overhauled recently by the Jordanian Aerospace Company that is based at Marka in Amman, Jordan. After overhaul this aircraft lost its dark-grey appearance and was painted in an attractive light-grey scheme. It also received an enhanced self-protection package. At the moment the runway of Palali Air Base in the troubled Jaffna Peninsular is under renovation limiting the use of transport aircraft. To allow the delivery of essential supplies for the government troops in the area it was decided to use helicopters instead. This task is now the responsibility of the Mi-17s from No. 6 Helicopter Squadron. With a limited number of these helicopters serviceable at any given time, the SLAF needed additional helicopters to meet the extra demand. Negotiations between the governments of India and Sri Lanka, lead to the Indian Air Force providing two Mi-17s on a temporary bases. The two helicopters had their IAF markings replaced by SLAF markings with only the IAF serials still visible on the nose and tail.
The fleet of Mi-17s has recently been expanded with the arrival of two newly built Mi-17-V5s. These two helicopters were delivered by ship and accepted by the SLAF on 4 July 2006. The Mi-17-V5 is built by the Kazan Helicopter Plant JSC located in Kazan. The V5 features a new "dolphin-style" nose and a flat rear fuselage ramp for easier access. It is fitted with two more powerful TV3-117VM engines with an enhanced auxiliary power unit and it has an extra port door on the starboard side.
The SLAF front line
An LTTE attack on a Sri Lanka Army unit in 1983 is seen as the start of the conflict for which a solution now seems further away then ever before. Despite the turbulent years that followed 1983, it would take almost a decade before the air force of Sri Lanka received some fire-power. In 1991 it received two Shenyang FT-5s, a Guizhou FT-7 and four Chengdu F-7BS's from China. The aircraft were assigned to No. 5 Jet Squadron. This unit was created on 1 February 1991 and stationed at Katunayake Air Base, north of Colombo.
Until the arrival of the IAI Kfir in 1996 the F-7s formed the backbone of the Sri Lanka Air Force. After the arrival of the Kfir the F(T)-7s were primary used for the conversion of pilots. Due to the limited number of available aircraft and the high demand for them, the aircraft reached the end of their service lives quickly. By the end of the nineties the aircraft where kept on the ground awaiting overhaul. Negotiations between the governments of Sri Lanka and Pakistan started and lead to an agreement to overhaul the aircraft (three F-7BSs, the FT-7 and two FT-5s) in Pakistan by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). The first aircraft were shipped to Pakistan in March 2003 and the first ones arrived back in Sri Lanka in September 2004. All the aircraft were official handed over by the Chief-of-Staff of the Pakistan Air Force; Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat on 10 March 2005. The service life after the overhaul will be 500 hours or 5 years for the FT-5s and 800 hours or eight years for F(T)-7s. After being grounded for almost five years, the F-7s are now again used alongside the Kfirs in the ground-attack role. They also have the secondary task of air-defense. Since aerial surveillance confirmed that the LTTE managed to smuggle a light-aircraft into the country, an attack from the air could no longer be ignored. The introduction of improved air-defense systems became a priority and lead to the acquisition of air-defense radars. It is believed that one of the first targets for the SLAF since the fighting flared up in April 2006, was an airstrip and possibly the aircraft that were used by the LTTE.
Since the introduction of the type in 1996 the Kfir forms the backbone of the SLAF. When a suicide attack, believed to be staged by the LTTE, almost killed the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army last April, the Sri Lankan government decided not to tolerate the ever increasing violations of the peace agreement any longer. On 25 April 2006 Kfir's belonging to No. 10 Fighter Squadron attacked LTTE positions near Muthur not far from Trincomalee. This were the first attacks after four years of relative peace.
The SLAF has three different variants of the Kfir. Originally only the Kfir C.2 and for training the Kfir TC.2, but in January 2001 No. 10 Fighter Squadron received four more advanced Kfir C.7s. Two of the C.7s were destroyed only shortly after their arrival during the brutal LTTE attack on Katunayake Air Base on 24 July 2001. In December 2002 the SLAF expressed an interest in a second Kfir TC.2 to expand its pilot conversion capacity. After government approval was given and funds was made available, the SLAF ordered a second TC.2. The second TC.2 was delivered in July 2004. The ground-attack capability of the SLAF was heavily improved with the acquisition of four MiG-27M's and a MiG23UB in 2000. Although heavily used shortly after their delivery, the MiG-27M's of No.5 Jet Squadron have not seen any action since escalation of the conflict. The SLAF was The aircraft have reached the end of their service lives and were recently shipped to the Ukraine for overhaul. The SLAF is pleased with the performance of the MiG-27 and decided in July 2006 to acquire four additional aircraft. These aircraft were delivered in January and officially accepted in the first week of February. They were first shown to the public when they took part in a fly-past over Colombo to celebrate Independence Day on Sunday 4 February.
No. 9 Attack Helicopter Squadron based at Minneriya-Hingarukgoda was created on 24 November 1995 to operate three leased Mil Mi-24 Hinds. Today the SLAF operates around a dozen Mi-24V Hind-E and Mi-35P Hind-Fs. The latter being the export and somewhat downgraded version of the Mi-24P. To expand the helicopter's day- and night attack capabilities the SLAF ordered six Compact Multi-Purpose Advanced Stabilized Systems (CoMPASS). CoMPASS provides observation, surveillance and tracking from air, ground and naval platforms. CoMPASS incorporates a wide variety of visible and IR sensors along with laser rangefinders/designators in a stabilized package. Elbit/ELOP equipped six helicopters with this system during 2001. For self-protection the helicopters are also fitted with the Elta EL/M-2160 Missile Approach Warning System. The Hind helicopters proved to be very useful and were used heavily again as a result of the increase in fighting since late April last year.
At the beginning of this year at least two Mi-24's found their way to Europe as they were shipped to LOM Praha in Kbely in the Czech Republic. As LOM Praha offered the SLAF the best available package for the necessary overhaul, it was decided to ship the aircraft there.
The SLAF Adapts
The improvements implemented over the last few years have made the SLAF stronger then ever and during the ongoing operations they are hitting the LTTE hard. An LTTE attempt to buy Stinger anti-aircraft missiles on the black-market US was uncovered by US Intelligence Services. Not having suitable anti-aircraft armament the only way for the LTTE to hit the air force is by a repeat of the attack on Katunayake Air Base which, on 21 July 2001, destroyed three K-8's, two Kfir C.7's two Mi-17's and one MiG-27M, or by targeting its pilots! The avoid the last, the pilots are now under heavy security and seldom leave the safety of the base.