Airpower in Irregular Warfare: The Sri Lankan Experience

By: LT Malaka Chandradasa

Airpower is strategically important in conventional warfare. The ability to bypass an enemy's land and naval forces and directly target its political, economic, and industrial hubs can prove tremendously advantageous in state-on-state warfare. Yet, the application of strategic air power in the context of irregular conflicts is problematic for even the world's most sophisticated militaries.

In most cases, insurgent forces do not possess industrial or economic strongholds that can be attacked with airpower. Nor are insurgents typically distinguishable from the civilian population, which puts civilians at risk in the event of an aerial assault. Nevertheless, over more than three decades, the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) learned to utilize airpower effectively as part of the larger effort to defeat the insurgent forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Instead of indiscriminately bombing the areas held by insurgents and thereby antagonizing the population who were sympathetic to the insurgent cause, the Air Force, along with the other military forces of the government, developed a counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine to overcome the LTTE. Specifically, the Air Force provided air superiority; logistical support; close-air support; precision bombing; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; search and rescue; and access to denied areas.

All of these responsibilities fell to a service that just a few years earlier had been primarily a ceremonial force. The Sri Lankan Air Force was established as the Royal Ceylon Air Force in 1951, but did not possess a single aircraft until 1971. In contrast, the LTTE leadership quickly understood the advantage of even a limited air capability. In the mid-1980s, the LTTE began training pilots and building improvised aircraft, a move that would eventually compel the SLAF to improve its own capabilities. By 2005, the insurgent forces had a fleet of two Micro Light Aircraft, five Light Aircraft (ZLIN 143), two helicopters, and two remote controlled planes.1 The LTTE also procured shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), which it used to shoot down five SLAF flights and two commercial aircraft, killing 256 people.

These attacks by the LTTE meant that the SLAF not only had to support land and naval forces in its COIN operations, but also had to fight to maintain its dominance, or even control, of Sri Lankan airspace. The consequences of the SLAF's failure to maintain control was made abundantly clear when the LTTE successfully attacked the capital city of Colombo and Sri Lanka's only international airport, destroying lives as well as many civilian aircraft, and causing heavy damage to the country's economy. The SLAF was also severely handicapped in its ground support role because of the LTTE's acquisition and utilization of enormous numbers of surface-to-air missiles.

The Sri Lankan Air Force was initially slow to adapt. Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke observed, At first the military was developing its aerial capabilities as a reaction to the enhancements and development the LTTE was doing. The LTTE was also developing its military capability every year with new equipment and increased recruitment. At that time, I must say, we were reactive. We were not prepared. We were not proactive. It was only when the LTTE procured new weaponry, we armed ourselves in reaction. Even passenger-carrying helicopters were fitted with guns, and we were compelled to adopt many similar ad hoc arrangements to counter the threat. Well, we went on; finally, at a particular time when the terrorist acquired missiles, we got into a very difficult situation, as we were not prepared for that.2

The SLAF Adapts to Fulfill Its Missions

With the escalation of violence in 2005 and the breakdown of a cease-fire agreement between the LTTE and Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his defense secretary spearheaded a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign, which eventually defeated the LTTE and the insurgency. For this successful campaign, the Sri Lankan Air Force was utilized in a more indirect and population-centric method than had been the case earlier in the conflict.

Air Superiority

Air superiority and dominance is the primary objective of any air force. But for the Sri Lankan Air Force, achieving air superiority was difficult because its aircraft did not have the capability to intercept the type of low-flying civilian aircraft that the LTTE adapted for its attacks. After the first two attacks by the LTTE in 2007, the SLAF came under sharp criticism and quickly reorganized. It purchased six Chinese F7G interceptors capable of engaging the LTTE planes, and installed air defenses in Colombo and its suburbs. Additionally, the Sri Lankan government established links with international partners to train and assist the Air Force to counter the LTTE anti-air capability.


While logistically supporting government COIN efforts was a primary role for the SLAF from the onset of the conflict, the Air Force modernized its equipment with the purchase of two Lockheed C-130 Hercules and 11 Chinese heavy-lift aircraft. These acquisitions enabled it to support the requirements of the high-intensity military operations of the final phase (2005–2009) of combat.

Close Air Support

To enhance its air-to-ground attack capabilities, the Air Force purchased Russian-built Mil Mi-24 gunships (attack helicopters) and Israeli-built Kfirs. The SLAF also bought Russian MiG-27 ground-attack aircraft. While the Sri Lankan Air Force had always had a close air support role, the most critical aspect of this mission involved coordination with ground troops. Recognizing this, the Sri Lankan military increased training for both pilots and ground troops.

Precision Bombing

Prior to 2005, the SLAF conducted bombing raids without air surveillance or ground support. These indiscriminate, imprecise raids on areas under enemy control were often counterproductive, serving to reinforce LTTE propaganda that highlighted the government's brutality. The damage caused by these attacks radicalized the Tamil population in those areas and generated recruitment opportunities for the insurgents. The LTTE also publicized the bombings through their media outlets to generate sympathy among the Tamil diaspora, and attract more funding. Although the horrific reports on websites like TamilNet, Sri Lankan Genocide, TamilNation, and others were largely fabricated, the destruction caused by the SLAF bombing raids gave them an air of truth.3

After 2005, the SLAF introduced precision-strike munitions and incorporated targeting from ground support units, which resulted in less unintended damage during air raids and helped to undermine the LTTE's propaganda. The deeppenetration units of the Army and Navy were trained to direct precision air strikes on enemy targets.4 In November 2007, the Army's Long Range Patrol (LRP) team guided the SLAF in an operation that destroyed the bunker of Suppayya Paramu Tamilchelvam, the leader of the LTTE's political wing, and killed him, without causing damage to any surrounding house or person.5

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

The ability to gather ISR using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) was an asset that the government and its military leadership quickly adopted to great effect. The Air Force integrated its UAV capabilities with a digital infrastructure; a secure, high-speed data transfer network; and real-time data links from live feeds to create a centralized command and control center in Colombo. This allowed personnel in Air Force headquarters, the president, and the defense secretary to obtain a first-hand view of operations. Later, this capability was extended to other military services. At the division commander level of the Army, field commanders were able to gather real-time inputs from behind enemy lines. This information helped ground troops avoid inflicting civilian casualties and collateral damage, and also enabled them to secure escape routes for civilians trapped by the LTTE. One Air Force pilot described the operations this way: Beechcraft or UAV surveillance aircraft remained over the targets while interdictions were taking place. This enabled first-hand battle damage assessment as well as contributed towards further improving targeting accuracy. In addition, the greatest achievement was ensuring positive identification of civilian settlements, enabling the ground forces to avoid them during engagement. Last minute changes were made to battle plans based on live footage from aerial observation platforms.6

ISR also helped counter enemy propaganda. The government, at times, provided video from unmanned aerial vehicles and other aerial surveillance tools to the international and national media to disprove the LTTE's claims that the Sri Lankan military forces were engaged in genocide. The ability to show not only the citizens of Sri Lanka, but also the population of the world that the military's targets were legitimate enemy locations and not civilians (as had been claimed by the LTTE's media and its international supporters) proved crucial for gaining and maintaining support for the government's military campaign.

Search, Rescue, Medevac, and Infiltration/Exfiltration

Over the course of the conflict, the Air Force mastered this range of missions. Initially, there had been limited coordination between ground and air forces, and pilots were not well trained for these types of missions. These problems led to instances in which deep-penetration troops were lost, or sometimes had to carry their wounded comrades for more than 25 miles before they were picked up by friendly units.7 The ability to infiltrate deep inside enemy terrain was vital to the success of the military offensive. It also raised the morale of the troops, who knew military units in distress could be rescued even if they were miles inside enemy territory.

Projecting Government Control and Legitimacy in Denied Areas

The Sri Lankan government understood the need to quickly legitimize its authority in liberated areas that had previously supported the LTTE. Unlike previous governments, which had waited for military operations to conclude before trying to establish civilian authority in these areas, the current government was keen to extend its writ while military activities were still underway. To do so, the government took advantage of the Air Force's ability to gain access to these denied areas.

As soon as the eastern areas of the country were liberated, the Sri Lankan president and other government officials used the Air Force for passage into these regions, even holding a cabinet meeting in the disputed city of Trincomalee in 2006. Colombo hoped that bringing in government officials to reestablish civilian administrative operations, which had been neglected or abandoned in areas under enemy control, could help normalize the situation and re-legitimize the rule of the government in the eyes of the population. The government also invited national and international media along, to show the world and the nation's citizenry that the government was now in control of formerly contested areas. The SLAF also helped win the population's support in these areas through its humanitarian efforts. Medical camps to help communities affected by the war, and the ability to evacuate critically injured civilians by air for proper medical care in the capital, were welcome developments for the local people. Air Force logistical capabilities transported essential supplies to liberated areas even while land and sea routes remained dangerous or denied.

In the end, a growing appreciation for the utility of air power in combination with COIN efforts helped make it possible for the Sri Lankan government to overcome the LTTE. It is rare that a terrorist organization is defeated through military means, and as this discussion makes clear, the Sri Lankan Air Force played an integral part in the government's eventual victory.


1. Extracted from the Humanitarian Operation Fact Analysis, a document distributed in 2001 to the heads of foreign missions in Sri Lanka by the Defense Ministry. Most of these civilian aircraft were fitted with improvised bomb-carrying and release mechanisms.

2. From a 2009 interview with Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke, RWP & BAR, VSV, USP, NDC, PSC, the current joint chief of staff and former commander of the Sri Lankan Air Force. Goonetileke commanded the SLAF in the final battles against the LTTE from 2006 to the end of the insurgency in 2009. He presented these ideas in an interview shortlly after the President of Sri Lanka declared an end to military operations and victory against the LTTE in 2009.

3. "Sri Lanka Air Force Bombs Schools in Jaffna," (November/December 1993), retrieved from website: http://tamilnation. co/indictment/indict071.htm, (accessed December 6, 2011).

4. The Deep Penetration Units of the Sri Lankan military conducted operations inside enemy-held territory. These teams included Sri Lankan Army Commando Regiment Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) Unit, SF Long Range Patrol (LRP) group, and Sri Lankan Navy SBS LRP group. They were trained to direct air strikes on identified targets inside enemy territory.

5. Brigadier SP Thamilchelvan was head of the LTTE's political wing and one of the group's top leaders. On November 2, 2007, a precision attack on his hideout killed him and five other LTTE leaders. "Senior Tamil Tiger Leader Killed," BBC News, Nov. 2, 2007:

6. These views on the development of ISR and its effect on the final stages of the war were expressed by a Sri Lankan Air Force pilot, who requested to remain anonymous.

7. As a member of a Sri Lankan Navy SBS unit, the author saw, heard about, and experienced such situations. He also is aware of the mental impact on troops who know that air support is available when they are behind enemy lines.

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