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The long, arduous journey traversed by Air Force :

SLAF will continue to be wings of protection

For nearly thirty years the LTTE caused significant hardship for the Sri Lankans, economy and the environment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the US listed the LTTE as 'the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world' and this is specifically mentioned in its January 2008 special report. After four attempts of peace talks since 1987 and the peace effort deploying the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 1990, another possibility for negotiations came in around 2001 and in December that year a ceasefire was declared. The Ceasefire Agreement was signed in 2002. Yet hostilities erupted and by around late 2005 signs of escalated fighting emerged.

SLAF officers inspecting a downed Tiger aircraft

It was in such a backdrop that the LTTE, to suit their whims and fancies closed the sluice gates of the anicut of the Mavil Aru on July 21, 2006 depriving water to more than 15,000 Sri Lankans living deep inside the Eastern Province belonging to all ethnicities. The Government stated that the availability of water was a fundamental right and there is nothing to negotiate. It was the responsibility of the Government to relieve the affected communities from this problem. Orders were given to the Sri Lanka Army and Air Force to begin operations to liberate the areas. The Air Force commenced operations on July 26. The Army offensive also began to reopen the sluice gates. By August 15 the military gained control of the area. The Government could not trust a party which breached the Ceasefire Agreement. With the momentum gained the humanitarian operation to open the Mavil Aru sluice gates, the Military marched forward to eliminate terrorists from their strongholds in the Eastern Province. With the capture of Thoppigala on July 11, 2007 the military liberated the entire Eastern theatre. The Air Force played a major role in the war against terrorism. Of the entire war against the LTTE that extended for nearly three decades, the Air Force lost 42 pilots and 33 air assets. Comparatively, it could be a larger loss than most of the Air Forces of the world experienced in fighting against a terror outfit.

The road to success for the Air Force was not an easy one - growing up from the Force that was initially engaged in immigration patrol and emergency relief assistance to a fully -fledged skilled professional air wing of the Sri Lanka military is gained at at a cost. The toughest test for the Air Force came in 1983 when the terror activities spearheaded by the LTTE escalated. It was a turning point for the Air Force to upgrade in to a more modernised, skillful air wing with state of the art equipment and up to date military strategies. All this while, the Air Force stuck to its role of air support in providing reconnaissance and transport services to the Army, Police and the Navy. By late 80s, the SLAF suggested to the Government that it should seek newer aircraft to supplement its transport activities. Thus, in the years 1984/85, the SLAF inducted its first complement of Bell 412 helicopters, along with a host of other fixed and rotary-winged aircraft.

The blip of terrorism bore down heavily on the Army, Navy and the Air Force and had a correspondingly heavy workload in support of the ground and sea war effort, with air transport and reconnaissance and frequent air attacks.


Bell 212 helicoter transporting troops

At the time the Government of Sri Lanka found it increasingly difficult to obtain the military hardware and ancillary services and equipment required to fight a war. There weren't many countries willing to supply Air Force requirements.

With the escalating threat of terrorism from the mid-eighties onwards and the induction of new aircraft and weaponry, the Logistics directorate of the SLAF began to establish Supply and Air Movements Squadrons in key bases such as Anuradhapura, China Bay and Ratmalana. The role of SLAF's Logistics Unit needed to expand from merely purchasing and storing items. It had to have the capacity to forecast requirements and have the right equipment, in the right quantity, at the right time, at the right place .

The Aeronautical Engineering wing too had to cope with new demands, occasioned by conflict conditions. There was an increased demand for repairs on a more varied and numerous fleet, a stock of spares had to be held in forward locations, to facilitate running repairs and a quick turnaround of aircraft to facilitate operations.

The forward supply demands increased, requiring immediate supplies of equipment at locations far away from the main stock holding centres.

As the humanitarian operation progressed the SLAF became specialised in intelligence gathering, providing Close Air Support and targeted air attacks, Air Defence, transporting troops, landing and evacuating Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols from the heart of the enemy territory.

The close air support provided by the MI-24 Helicopter gunships, the accurate target acquisition by the fighter jets and the casualty evacuation operations carried out in the midst of the battle by the SLAF helicopters were undoubtedly remarkable. The role played by the UAVs and the Beach craft provided real time situational awareness to the battlefield commanders.

The services of the air transport squadrons which carried out resupplying operations in support of the troops in Jaffna Peninsula during difficult situations became a lifeline. Destroying terrorist air capability with the use of the Air Defence System was a notable achievement as the system has been established within a very short period of time. The SLAF Regimental units provided security for areas North and East holding the rescued grounds safe and secure.

During the period of Eelam War IV, the Sri Lanka Air Force was one of the most active of the world's air forces. The round-the-clock job entailed maritime strikes, CASEVAC, (casualty evacuation) ground attacks, air defence and surveillance.

These could have been the most challenging period in which the Air Force displayed the best of their abilities. Irrespective of time, the great warriors of the SLAF were ready to face any enemy, challenge or threat to save their Motherland and were never ready to compromise the country's sovereignty. During their existence over six decades, the SLAF has been in the forefront in protecting the Lankan skies and will continue to be the wings of protection.

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