Sunday, 17 February 2008

The story of Thambimuththus (SAMs)


The SA-14 GREMLIN unearthed from the environs of THOPPIGALA. The system consists of the 9P59 gripstock, 9P51 thermal battery/gas reservoir, and 9M36-1 missile.

Thambimuththu - Sam Thambimuththu was a Sri Lankan MP from the Batticaloa district. Like may other moderate Tamil Leaders he too fell victim to a Tamil Tiger assassin while on his way to the Canadian embassy at Gregory Place on the 19th June 1990. This is no biography of the late TULF parliamentarian, but his first name SAM, which in military acronym means Surface to Air Missile. The Tamil Tigers since acquiring a batch of SA-7 from the Pakistani Inter Services Agency (ISI) code worded their armament as Thambimuththu. The name of one popular Tamil Moderate was desecrated as such with one of the most deadliest weapons the Red Army in Afghanistan and our own SLAF experience during the early 1990s.

The desire of the Tamil Tigers for SAM capability existed as early as 1986. During "Operation Tiger" led by Tamilnadu DIG intelligence K. Mohandas, the Tamil nadu police captured SAMs, AK-47, rocket launchers and pistols. According to Tamil Nadu sources as many as ten LTTE cadres undertook training of SA-7 in an undisclosed location in Uttar Pradesh. This group was said to be led by a Pulendran, who later committed suicide at the Palaly base in 1987. When the IPKF landed in Sri Lanka as per the Indo-Lanka agreement there are two accounts of SAMs being used against IPKF gunships. Neither was successful. This is in addition to a captured SA-7 from the ceiling of a school teacher by the IPKF.

Since the 1980s the LTTE SAM threat rose to its height commencing Eelam war III, when within the span of two days it downed two HS748 Avro transports in April 1995. During Eelam war III the Tamil Tigers managed to down 9 SLAF aircraft, 5 of which were MI24 gunships. To bring down these aircrafts the Tigers used a mixture of SA-7, SA-14 and FIM 92A Stinger variants. In addition to these successful hits, the Tamil Tigers have also fired at least 5 more stingers and a SA-14 at Kfir (2x), AN-32 (1x) and MIG27 floggers (3x) without success between 1998-2001. To date according to available information the LTTE have used SA-7, HN-5, SA-14 and FIM92A for its operations against the SLAF.

The SA-7 MANPADs were acquired through the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) in 1994. The Tamil Tigers using its network of vessels aided the ISI run Pakistani terror organisation Harkat-ul-Mujahideen to ship at least two shiploads of arms to the Philipino terror group Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In return the ISI provided the LTTE the much needed SA-7 in addition to AA guns and ammunition as the shipping fee. In 1998 the LTTE acquired a second batch of SA-7 and its Chinese equivalents HN-5 from blackmarket sales in Cambodia. The source of the SA-14s was a Belgian blackmarket arms dealer operating from Bulgaria who diverted a transfer from North Korea to Vietnam and records indicate the transfer taking place in 1998. The FIM92A Stingers were obtained from a Kurdish Guerilla (Kurdistan Workers' party PKK) source in Germany in 1997. These were originally meant for Iraqi forces led by the then President Saddam Hussein courtesy of CIA.

So what made an organisation who used to have access to MANPAD systems with such ease during the mid to late 1990s, to lose free access to the much needed SLAF deterrent?

It comes in the form of the two golden options in MANPAD defense

1. The defensive option - Protecting the target

2. The proactive option - Controlling MANPAD prolliferation

  • The defensive option - Protecting the target

Eelam war III saw SLAF lose 5 Gunships, all of which were equipped with the Sirena 3M warning system. This is a system that functioned independently to the IR jammer and the ASO-2V flare dispensers, thus the pilot had to activate the IR jammer and the flare dispenser upon receiving warning by the Sirena 3M antennae. Even though this system with a lot of deficiencies were installed in MI24s, the MI17 fleet were installed the IAI/flightguard systems as early as 1997. The worth of this automated system was proven in a SAM encounter on the 10th of November 1997. A formation of SLAF helicopters was fired by a salvo of five SA-14 SAMs. The three Mi-17s in the 'pack' were fitted with flight guard, and escaped unscathed saving 90 troops and 12 crew. But the escorting Mi-24 (CH619) with Sq Ldr. Thilina Kaluarachchi and F/O Dhanesh Gunasekara onboard had the Sirena 3M system. The pilot was late in activating the Hotbrick jammer and releasing the flares. Even though F/O Dhanesh made it out unscathed from the wreckage (crashed onto water), he stayed behind to save his 'guru' Kaluarachchi who was sinking fast with the wreck. Unfortunately he didn't make it and sacrificed his own life in that endure.

Now however, all MI24/35/17s of SLAF are equipped with the flight guard system. And the results are quite notable. All LTTE missiles fired at SLAF aircraft fitted with the Flight Guard system have failed to inflict damage.

In addition to electronic countermeasures SLAF has also made modifications to overall flying tactics to negate the Tamil Tiger AA capability. Thus far using MANPADs the LTTE have managed to bring down only SLAF transports and MI24s. The LTTE is yet to bring down any SLAF Mig-27 or Kfir fighters. MANPADs nowdays are highly ineffective against low level fast jets. Even without proper counter measures in place the hit probability is around 40%. Even if we consider the Afghan conflict which brought MANPADs to notoriety, the Mujahideen only managed to bring down only MI24 gunships and Su25 Frogfoots. The same MIG27 active with the SLAF was at full swing during the Afghan conflict and the Mujahideen failed to bring a single MIG27 down with its MANPADs.

  • The proactive option - Controlling MANPAD prolliferation

Mombasa - November 2002 was an important milestone in the history of MANPADs. An Israeli Airlines Boeing 757 was fired by Al-Qaeda operatives using 2 SA-7 missiles during take off narrowly missing it. The weapons used in the November 2002 Mombasa attack were Soviet-era SA-7s produced at the VA Degtyarev Plant in Kovrov, Russia, in 1978. While the launchers were produced in Russia, the missiles used were produced in Bulgaria in 1993 and sold as part of a larger consignment to Yemen in 1994. From Yemen, the missiles made its way either directly to Somalia, by a Mogadishu arms dealer in early 2002, or as part of three consignments from the Eritrean government to a Somali faction led by Hussein Aideed in 1998. This single event led to the stringent measures that are present today to control MANPAD proliferation among non-state violent actors.

Tracking the proliferation of MANPADs is a difficult endeavour. The black market is the primary source for these weapons. Unlike state-to-state transfers, usually documented and visible, the illicit black market MANPAD trade defies accurate tracking. The lightness and compact size of MANPADS make them highly portable on the battlefield, but this quality also makes them extremely easy to transfer illegally and discreetly within and between states. The SA-7, for instance, weighs around 14kg (missile tube and launcher)—far less than most heavy machine guns—and is only 1.49m in length. A weapon of this size fits easily into the boot of a car, into a golf bag, or within bundles of produce small enough to be carried on the back of a person or animal. Perhaps because of this, most illicit transfers have become known only after a weapon has been used against an aircraft with eye witness accounts, distress calls or recovery of a used launcher or fragments from expended missiles. An example from the Sri lankan conflict being the shooting down of CR834 HS748 Avro on the 29th of April 1995. On board was the younger brother of current Air chief Air Marshall Roshan Goonathilaka - Air commodore Shirantha Goonathilaka. The last minute frantic calls by the crew "missile, missile" shed the first light that the Tamil Tigers had indeed laid their hands on MANPADs. This also solved the mystery on the loss of a similar HS 748 the previous day.

The USA while pursuing its very own MANPADs which were supplied to non-state actors (i.e. Mujahideen, PKK, Angola's UNITA) in return for a bounty as much as 80000-150000 USD, it still has failed to make the numbers match. Following this, as a response to the loss of a number of Stingers, the US established bilateral regulations forcing recipients of US MANPADS to accept rigorous controls over any MANPADS that were purchased from the US. Recipients were required to provide proof they had received the missiles and to submit to periodic inspections to verify their status. In addition, the Stinger Project Group (SPG) was set up to administer joint procurement of MANPADS for selected NATO countries. The Project established strict conditions whereby group members were permitted to export Stingers only to SPG countries. Both of these US-led measures centred on reducing the potential for MANPADS technology to fall into the hands of potential enemies of the United States for example Iran where it is believed some Stingers were ended up.

In Russia, the threat from MANPADS took a different form, but has been no less influential on policy-making. Kremlin's concerns stems from the repeated use of SA-18s and similar second generation weapons to down Russian aircraft in Chechnya. In November 2002, Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov urged the CIS and Baltic states to halt the flow of IGLA (SA-14/16/18) missiles to the region. Initially there was strong disagreement on the proposal for mutual notification of transfers of former Soviet missiles, apparently due to commercial concerns. However, pressure from Moscow prevailed. In addition to its own concerns the Kremlin also faced pressure from both Israel and the US. Israel long feared MANPADS could end up in the hands of Hezbollah, and this prompted Moscow to terminate a deal which would have supplied Syria with SA-18s.

These measures were put forward to a much wider audience in the form of the 33-state Wassenaar Arrangement, G-8 summit and Bangkok's APEC summit where the participants agreeing that they would, in future, require end-user certification for all MANPADS exports and prohibit re-transfers to third parties without prior consent.

All these developments have been key in keeping a tight lid over the movement of Soviet (SA-14/16/18), American FIM-92B/C/D, and other more advanced second and third generation MANPADs. However, the same cannot be said of older first generation SA-7's and early second generation FIM-92A and HN-5 missiles. These systems can still be acquired, albeit with more difficulty than before. The Soviet SA-7 is in service in the greatest number of countries some of which are known for their lack of export transparency. These missiles also feature prominently in re-export. For example, from 1982 to 1994 China is thought to have exported between 2,858 and 5,500 pieces of its own SA-7 equivalent, the Hong Ying HN-5, to states including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Myanmar, and North Korea. These states are hardly transparent and puts a spanner in arrangements controlling MANPAD proliferation among non-state actors.

Jane’s Intelligence Review outlines 13 non-state groups confirmed to be in possession of MANPADS, with a further 14 groups reported to possess. But not all of them use MANPADs. Two crucial factors dictate whether these weapons are likely to be used:

  • The knowledge needed to operate them

As much as the issue of the number of stockpiled weapons is important so is the proliferation of MANPAD knowledge. The November 2002 Mombasa attack reportedly failed because the weapons were fired too close to their intended target. MANPAD launch sequences require extensive training in the form of training devices and simulated firings, which is often not readily available outside of state armed forces. These practices are not known to be available to non-state groups. If more trained operators become available, errors, such as may have happened in Mombasa, will be less likely to occur.

The basic firing sequence of a MANPAD is as follows. The shooter will activate the thermal battery when the target is sighted to power the missile seeker. The battery nominally operates for 60 seconds or less. The shooter will then attempt to acquire the target by allowing the IR seeker to lock onto the target. The gripstock produces a tone and a green light in the sight comes on once the seeker has detected the target’s signature. The trigger is then depressed halfway to uncage the seeker, and the missile gyro is spun up in 4 to 6 seconds. The aiming sight has markers to aid the shooter in estimating the lead angle for the shot. Then only the triger can be fully depressed for a successful launch. If this process is rushed it will not lock onto the target. The ejector charge expels the round from the tube at 28 metres/sec, while imparting initial axial spin, upon which the boost/sustain motor ignites and accelerates the weapon to full speed inside two seconds. The contact fuse is armed 45 metres into the flight. Missile control is effected by a pair of canard surfaces and fins, using a rolling airframe control law.

If the missile used is an older design, with a cooled or uncooled seeker, and properly operated, the shooter will opt for an aft hemisphere shot against a climbing target. The missile will track the exhaust plumes and as it nears the target, select the brightest infrared source, either the nearest engine or the engine at the highest throttle setting. Depending on missile type and engagement geometry, the weapon may fly up an engine tailpipe, impact an engine nacelle, cowling or pylon, or even the aircraft’s wing. A newer missile with a two colour seeker fired in the forward hemisphere may track the aircraft’s centroid rather than engines, and impact the fuselage or centre section. How much damage is done by a missile impact will vary significantly with target aircraft type, engagement geometry and missile type. The process is similar for operator-guided missiles, although there is no seeker to cool. In both cases, the operator must be aware of the capabilities i.e the angles, minimum and maximum ranges at which it can be used.

  • The continued functioning of the weapons themselves

There is some debate over the shelf-life of MANPADS, with a number of specialists claiming that weapons such as the Afghan War-era Stingers are unlikely to function today due to material determinants, such as deterioration of the propellants, batteries, and coolant units. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that MANPADS may be more durable than has been speculated for one simple reason - MANPADS are designed for use in harsh environments and rough handling by troops on the battlefield. Their propellants and coolants are reported to be serviceable after nearly 30 years of storage. They are issued in hermetically sealed cases—often featuring in-built environmental monitors, such as hygrometers—that are designed to protect them from the elements up until the last minutes before firing.

Most MANPADS feature a thermal battery, which differs from other types of batteries that they are activated only on command. Once the battery is activated it has a life of just several minutes, and must be discarded and replaced immediately after use. Hence for the operator to engage successive targets or successive attempts he must have a ready supply of batteries. This offers the advantage of multiple firings and increases the likelihood of successful firing if one or more are damaged. This may be a significant problem for actors that have acquired a weapon through illicit channels. This was the quagmire the Tamil Tigers faced after receiving its first batch of SA-7 missiles.

On the other hand as a saving grace for non-state actors thermal batteries have a far greater shelf-life and durability than other batteries, raising concerns that systems in the hands of non-state actors may remain operational for long periods of time. According to Eagle Picher, the maker of batteries for the Stinger missile system, claims an established storage life of thermal batteries on the order of 20 years or more. Most external environments can be expected to have little or no effect on the inactivated battery. The battery is excellent for applications involving extended storage under uncertain conditions. The precise storage life of a battery is impossible to determine and depends on environmental conditions.

While bearing in mind that MANPAD batteries have a finite shelf life, these can be replaced with commercially purchased batteries available on the open market and anyone with a sound technical proficiency should be able to construct hybrid batteries to replace used ones. The Tamil Tigers are never short of such cadre. However, this is easy said than done. One crucial feature of thermal batteries is that they are custom manufactured for acute voltage, start time, and configuration requirements. In short, batteries are tailored to the requirements of the weapon. This is even made harder in modern MANPADS, such as the Stinger, Mistral, SA-14, and SA-16 where the battery and coolant unit (BCU) are combined as one unit, dictating the manufacture of a complex module.

In conclusion the shelf life of a MANPADs is, in large part, dependent on the conditions in which the weapon is stored. Not only the batteries that are in risk of deterioration, but missile propellants, seeker coolant too runs the risk of deterioration with time. Usually such missiles are hermetically sealed by the manufacturer and takes into consideration the rough handling by soldiers in the field. However, the SAMs the security forces have captured thus far suggests that these endure poor storage conditions, which sheds light that these MANPADs are indeed second or third hand acquisitions.

With the international arms market under close scrutiny than ever before, the Tamil Tigers have been looking at alternatives to replace its dwindling MANPAD stock and to even lay their hands on more advanced 3rd generation MANPADs such as the SA-18. However since these developments and the Tamil Tigers' involvement in the movement of advanced MANPADs to Islamic Terrorist organisations via LTTE vessels, CIA and the world's other intelligence agencies have kept close tabs on the LTTE. One such measure was to keep track of and all the ships registered to the LTTE under various international carriers and front organizations.


PF-89 found buried in subsequent search operations after the fall of THOPPIGALA. Photo Source - MCNS


PF-89 left behind by LTTE during its failed 2006 Jaffna Offensive. Photo Source - SFHQ-J


M136 AT4 light anti-tank weapon destined for the LTTE, on display during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Oct. 11, 2007. Photo Source - Justice Department

One such alternative the Tamil Tigers have opted are IR guided anti-tank weapons and RPGs. Two notable examples are the Chinese PF-89 and the American M136 AT4. These serve as dual purpose weapons to engage ground targets as well as airborne targets. This is a crude alternative with the backdrop of the current worldwide crackdown on MANPAD proliferation and the Tiger's inability in procuring sufficient quantities of 2nd or 3rd generation MANPADs. Similar tactics are seen courtesy of the Iraqi insurgents against the USAF with varying degrees of success. The method is to engage one aircraft/helo with at least a salvo of 5. But still current flight guard systems are suffice to negate this threat.

In many cases of surface-to-air attacks on aircraft, misreporting is quite common. Airbursts occurring near low-flying aircraft have frequently been reported as attacks by MANPADS when in fact they are usually RPGs or ATGMs. Attacks on aircraft at very low altitudes, those occurring under 1,000 feet, are almost exclusively RPGs/ATGMs. Guerrilla and terrorist forces have successfully adapted the RPG to the anti-aircraft role. This skill was demonstrated perhaps in the best published case when two US special ops MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by Somali insurgents in October 1993.


Side Effect said...

Excellent analysis. Well done keep it up!

nemesis said...


good story. to add, the PF-89 were offered to the SLA & SLN and is now in service with both. Ironic how they turned up with the tigers around the same time.

keep up the good work.

Sivarassaiah said...

nemesis, newton would say, every reaction has a similar but opposite reaction. you buy PF89s, we buy something to match it. in this case its the same one! haha

all us tamils needed was some few thousand dllars worth of tin cans as you sinhalese would say. but how much has it cost your government? millions!!

RomeoAlphaFoxtrot said...

Good Article Long Ranger, keep it up - looking fwd to more :)

Long-Ranger said...


I am assuming you mean the F-7G aircraft as the millions?

All I am going to say with regards to the F-7G is:

If the Tamil Tigers were only interested in making the Zling 143s to land at the Iranamadu airstrip it does not need to be a tarmac with centreline and threshold markings. Meaning it was prepared for much larger aircraft with much larger endurance in mind. I believe your little organisation is resourceful. It would not spend such resources and time on a white elephant.

Take Care.

Long-Ranger said...


It is indeed a surprise.

The captured weapon was a HEAT type and what's more it is thought to be the Chinese equivalent to the AT4.

Sivarassaiah said...

long ranger,

like you say here and there all the worlds cia and the lot being after the ltte, still it must be killing yu to know our military strength remains the same.

G. Munstead said...

I just came across your blog; excellent article. A comprehensive analysis.
I look forward to reading your other articles.
Ms ElliPissassu