The LTTE Attack on Anuradhapura Air Base

The LTTE attack on the SL Air Force Base in Anuradhapura on 22 October 2007 does not seem to have attracted the critical commentary, particularly from those who consider themselves as 'patriots', which this event deserves as it is likely to have far-reaching effects. The official comments from GOSL seems to downplay this incident representing it as a last gasp from a dying LTTE. While it is wrong to exaggerate the significance of this attack it would be equally wrong to minimize it. It poses many lessons to the GOSL and the SL armed forces, and unless they are learnt there could be many such costly mistakes in the future.

One problem in assessing this incident is the lack of authentic information on what happened, and in particular the dammage that was inflicted on the air assets of the SL air force. The report by B. Raman (see below) seems to be unusually well informed on what happened. Unless this report is contradicted most people will assume that it is substantially true. The significant differences between Raman's report and the view commonly reported in the SL press are as follows:

  1. The LTTE incursion into the camp occurred before the LTTE planes dropped the bombs, not as sometimes reported the bombing created confusion which was used to infiltrate the base. What it shows is that there were fundamental weaknesses in the defence of the base and the LTTE knew of these.
  2. The LTTE were in charge of the base for six hours before they were finally killed in the counter attack. This shows a tardiness in the reaction time given that only 21 terrorists invaded the base. We have not been told what the strength of the base was.
  3. Severe damage was inflicted on SL air assets. These included: 1 Beechcraft surveillance plane, 2 Mi17 helicopters, 2 Mi24 helicopters, 3 unmanned aerial vehicles, 1 K-8 jet and 8 PD6 propeller trainer aircraft. The dollar cost of this damage would have been substantial when compared to the recent loan that GOSL acquired at a high interest rate.
  4. The SL plane that was lost was not due to a technical accident but was shot down by the LTTE using the very anti-aircraft guns in the base when they had control of the base.
  5. The LTTE planes returned to their base, although it was earlier stated that one of them was shot down. There is no report that the wreckage of this plane was found if it had indeed been shot down.
Any one of the above would have been a serious failure on the part of those in charge of this base, but taken together they show a gross inefficiency after all that had gone before. It may have been that the SL forces had been lulled into a state of complacency by the recent celebration of the defeat of the LTTE at the tamasha held at indepence square after the capture of Toppigala. The present writer has said that this celebration had been premature (see Blog ID 7.51.

While this attack will do nothing to change the substantial superiority that GOSL armed forced enjoy over the LTTE it will tend to strengthen the international perception that the LTTE is superior to GOSL in the use of its rather limited assets in manpower and material. GOSL clearly has the advantage when it comes to recruitment to the armed forces, financial resources, and military equipment. But the tragedy of GOSL is that it has never been able to utilize this obvious superiority. This is true whatever side of politics had been in power. Hence the internatonal perception that the LTTE has been able to maintain the initiative and in fact has not been decisively defeated at least since the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi on the side of the LTTE. In a conflict like this perceptions are very important.

Raman claims that the LTTE has shown "bravery and precision" in this attack. One decisive advantage that the LTTE has is their squad of suicide cadres (the "black tigers"). This attack was carried out by them. In effect they took a one-way ticket into the battle zone. Why Prabhakaran can attract this kind of loyalty from the black tigers is something of a mystery. In the case of Islamic suicide bombers they are fooled to believe that they will be immediately rewarded by 72 virgins and the other sensual pleasures of Islamic paradise. It is knows that the LTTE cadres (including the black tigers) are mostly Christian and Hindu. As Christians the may be lulled into the belief that on their death they will resurrect in Jesus' so-called Kingdom. We know that the Christian Kingdom like the Islamic Paradise is a myth, but for those deluded by these religions they are a reality. Hindus on the other hand believe in the doctrine of karma and certainly the karmic consequences of their acts would hardly be beneficial. So for the most part the Black Tigers are likely to be Christian. It is hardly correct to describe those who go to their certain death with this kind of religious promise to be "brave". It is more delusion than bravery that impels them.

There is some truth in the claim that LTTE operations have a degree of precision not matched by GOSL. However their recent attempts to smuggle bombs to Colombo have not been successful. So it may be that their capability in this area has undergone some change. However their success is more due to treachery on the part of their Hela opponents than "precision" on their part. It is well known that they have been able to buy assistance and information from the Helas often through bribery. They have been able to exploit the "danapalist" characteristic of the neo-Sinhalas (or Helas). But the LTTE has shown greater ingenuity such as in their so-called "air force". GOSL relies on expensive jet fighters, often bought from burrowed money, and it is questionable if they give a return appropriate to their cost to the country. There has also been rumours of official corruption in the acquisition of thes expensive assets.

If we dismiss Raman's talk of bravery and precision, and with it the myth of LTTE invincibility, we are left with the hypothesis that what we see is not so much LTTE superiority but GOSL incompetence. But whatever the right reason may be it is the relative difference that matters. The most obvious fact is that GOSL has failed to eliminate the LTTE for over 20 years, which is probably unmatched in insurgencies in other parts of the world.

Another matter that must be considered is that the LTTE attack may have bolstered their dwindling support amongst the Tamil Diaspora and the non-LTTE Tamils in Sri Lanka itself. If such a thing has happened the consequences will become apparent in the near future. An immediate effect is the effect on the world media and the international community. The World Press gave much coverage to the LTTE attack. It would also have lent support to those countries who have been saying that there is no military solution and GOSL must negotiate with the Tamils. It must be remembered that this is also the official policy of the MahindaR Government. They have been repeatedly saying that their policy is to weaken the LTTE and bring them to the negotiating table. This ignores that has happened in previous negotiations with the LTTE. Thus the LTTE attack may have made matters more difficult for GOSL.

Symptomatic of the changing international perception is the recent statement by Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic Persidential nomination, and the likely winner of the 2008 US Presidential election, that terrorist movements like the LTTE and the Basque separatists are of a different kind to Islamic terrorism and should not be included in the global War on Terror. In fact this is also the policy of the Bush administration as it calls for negotiations with the Tamils which it is not prepared to do with the Islamic terrorists. These are signs that GOSL cannot afford to ignore. They have only one option: to eliminate the LTTE as soon as possible as the current window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

Victor Gunasekara


LTTE's Anuradhapura Raid: Bravery & Precision

By B. Raman

(Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi,
Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com)

  1. Reliable details of the combined air and land attack launched by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the Anuradhapura air base of the Sri Lankan Air Force early in the morning of October 22, 2007, indicate that it was neither an act of desperation as projected by the embarrassed Sri Lankan military spokesmen nor an act of needless dramatics as suggested by others. It was an act of unbelievable determination, bravery and precision successfully carried out by a 21-member suicide commando group of the Black Tigers-significantly led by a Tamil from the Eastern Province- with the back-up support of two planes of the so-called Tamil Eelam Air Force.
  2. Reliable Western sources say that no other terrorist organisation in the world would have been capable of organising such a raid, which had been preceded by painstaking intelligence collection, planning and rehearsal. The commandoes, divided into groups, infiltrated into the air base from two directions and, within 20 minutes, took the security guards by surprise, overwhelmed them, seized their weapons and communication equipment, neutralised a radar and an anti-aircraft gun position and then intimated their headquarters that they were in effective control of the air base. Only then the two aircraft of the LTTE's air wing flew to Anuradhapura and dropped two bombs on the base and flew back safely to their hide-out.
  3. The commandoes remained in effective occupation of the base from 3 AM to at least 9 AM. During this period, they blew up three helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft-one of them a trainer- and three unmanned drones. After losing communication with the air base, the Sri Lankan Air Force base at Vavuniya sent one of its helicopters to Anuradhapura to find out what had happened. As it was approaching the air base, it was shot down by the LTTE commandoes manning the anti-aircraft gun in the air base.
  4. The commandoes also blew up an ammunition storage depot in the air base and damaged its runway. It is learnt that the Black Tiger commandoes remained in communication with their headquarters till 9 AM. Thereafter, all communications ceased, indicating thereby that all of them had either been killed by the Sri Lankan Security Forces or had committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces, who had counter-attacked the base. Thirteen SLAF personnel were killed, nine inside the base and four in the helicopter crash.
  5. The LTTE has been silent on the fate of the commandoes. However, it has released their personal particulars. Two Lieutenant-Colonels, six Majors, 12 Captains and one Lieutenant rank Black Tiger members took part in the operation. A Lieutenant-Colonel who led an attack team was from Trincomalee, two of the members, a Major and a Captain, were from Batticaloa, one from Mullaiththeevu, one from Mannaar, three from Ki'linochchi and eleven members from Jaffna .Three Captains were women.
  6. Initial reports of the raid had indicated that the raid started with an air attack by the LTTE's aircraft and that it was only thereafter that the commandoes had infiltrated into the air base by taking advantage of the confusion. Subsequent reports, however, indicate that the Black Tigers initially infiltrated the base and took control of it and that it was then that the air raid was launched more to test the capability for co-ordination between the air wing and the Black Tigers than to cause damage to the base. Since the Black Tigers were already in effective control of the base, they did not need any air support.
  7. Embarrassed by the spectacular display of the LTTE's prowess, the Sri Lankan authorities have been trying to play down the successes of the LTTE operation. They claim that only two helicopters and one fixed wing aircraft were damaged and another helicopter was destroyed when it crash-landed due to technical reasons. The Colombo correspondent of the "Daily Telegraph" of London has reported that the Black Tigers destroyed an expensive Beechcraft surveillance plane worth £14 million, two Mi17 helicopters, two Mi24 helicopters, three unmanned aerial vehicles, a K-8 jet and eight PD6 propeller trainer aircraft.
  8. The Anuradhapura air base was essentially used by the SLAF as a training base. The training command of the SLAF was located there. In addition, it was also providing intelligence support to the SLAF and the Navy through the sophisticated Beechcraft plane fitted with equipment for aerial photography and the collection of electronic and technical intelligence and the unmanned drones. Instructors from Pakistan, China and Israel were periodically attached to the base.
  9. The helicopters destroyed by the Black Tigers were being used as helicopter gun ships or for VIP transport. While the damage sustained by the SLAF is considerable in money terms and reduces its capability for intelligence collection for air and naval operations, its impact on the SLAF's capability for air strikes over the LTTE controlled areas would be limited.
  10. The successful operation would seem to have been launched by the LTTE in retaliation for the recent operations of the Sri Lankan Navy against the transport ships of the LTTE and the air strikes of the SLAF over LTTE positions in the Northern Province. It once again underlines the LTTE's reputation as an organisation with a tremendous tenacity of purpose, grit and sophistication in thinking and planning. Its recent set-backs have not weakened its morale. They have only redoubled its determination to keep fighting for its political objective unmindful of the losses in the Eastern Province. [Courtesy: SAAG]