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.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Should SLA make a move on EPS?


EPS - Elephant pass, known for its impregnable defences comprising sophisticated chain linked plexi glass blended by natural defences fell to the offensive LTTE ceaseless waves III formations on the 21st of April 2000. Since then Tamil Tigers have flooded into the Jaffna peninsula.

EPS till 2000 remained as a permamnent impregnable cork to the Tamil Tigers alowing SLA maintain supremacy over the thin neck of land dominating all land communications between the LTTE's Wanni bases and Jaffna. The EPS defences extended from Vettilaikerny and Iyakachchi in the North to Paranthan in the South and was spread well over 70 square kilometres complete with man made satellite bases with well complimented natural obstacles of lagoon and sea fronts forming a tactically complementary fortification. It was home to the 54 Division. In addition over two Divisions were deployed for its defence. How formidable and tactically sound these defences were established by the LTTE's failed attack on that area in July-August, 1991, when it was under siege for nearly two months.

It still stood tall to wave after wave of tamil tiger cadres during the initial thrusts of ceaseless wave III until the MSR was cut off from Muhamale to Pallai. Although the base fell on April the initial assault on EPS began as early as November 1999. If the guerillas took on EPS in 1991 in a conventional style operation, ceaseless wave III saw EPS being cut off its MSR prior to commencement of the full frontal assault.

Because it secured the gateway to Jaffna - the cultural centre of the Eelam ethos, the victory of Elephant Pass is considered as the greatest victory ever in the history of LTTE in its struggle for the separate homeland, Tamil Eeelam. With the fall it gave the LTTE's sea arm - the sea tigers unprecedented access to the coast spanning from Kokkutuduvai to Vettileikerni that facilitated them a greater capability of offshore movement to sustain maritime operations and logistics.

With the reversal of fortunes on the back of a revamped strategy there is much demand from the gung-ho Sri Lankan lay camp for a forward march towards EPS and bring the famed base back to its former glory. With just over 2 months away for the 8th year since the fall of EPS, with the current theatre of operations in mind; how feasible is it to march, hold captured ground and rebuild the formidable fortifications? Most of all, by doing so what strategic advantage would it bring to SLA?

Kilaly - Muhamale - Nagarkovil axis since 2001 has been the 'national front' or the new EPS of the security forces. The defences constructed along this axis is pretty much similar if not stronger compared to the defences existed at EPS.

With the advent of the divisions 57, 58 and 59 based at Southern Wanni the SLA have managed to put pressure on the LTTE's southern front spanning from the Mannar rice bowl from West towards Kokkutuvai in the east.

The aim of continued marauding raids from the North and subsequent return to original lines means that it deprives the LTTE a much needed stable launching pad if the need arises to storm the Northern defences in a bid to capture Jaffna.

In August 2006 saw one of the bloodiest, fiercest multi-pronged fighting courtesy of the LTTE - code named ceaseless waves IV. It began with the LTTE concentrating on assault landings on Jaffna islets thereby using those as springboards to land at the coast of Jaffna thus flanking the Jaffna defences. At the same time another assault group was deployed to outflank the SLA defences of Muhamale and Eluthmaduval by assault landing at Kilaly.

For such a large scale operation the LTTE requires massive man power as well as large stocks of ammunition, especially indirect fire ammunition. This is something the LTTE are not enjoying at present. Thanks to marauding small scale group attacks the LTTE are pinned down all the way from Mannar to Welioya. Likewise by creating an ever hostile environment from the Northern front the SLA has managed to pin down the LTTE's Northern formations in a defensive posture. This is always welcome news for the Jaffna command. Ever since the dawn of Eelam wars, this defensive posture of LTTE is something the SLA has never enjoyed.

Unlike in the East and Southern Wanni, the Northern FDLs are fixed with each facing the other across a no man's land. This makes it a conventional FDL. If the SLA are to move ahead of their FDLs as they did on the 29th of January aiming to hold ground and subsequently march towards EPS, they need to negate the indirect fire threat positioned along the Pooneryn-Paranthan axis. One needs to bear in mind that the LTTE does not require its long range 130mm type 59 howitzers to target the area spanning from Muhamale to EPS. All it needs are its 120mm heavy arti mortars. One shell landing in close proximity to troops can account for 8-10 deaths. Hence to account for 100+ casualties all it takes is a dozen of such rounds. SLA have learnt their lesson the hard way especially on October 11th 2006. In my opinion before such a ambitious operation takes place SLAF and SLA's artillery batteries needs to neutralise these indirect fire support of the Tamil tigers more than anything else. Given the fact that the lTTE has in possession over 100 of such T-86 120mm mortar guns and their past successes of the shoot and scoot manoeuvre, relying on neutralising such fire for the forward march is tactically unsound.

The other reason as to why it is hard for such a forward march is the fact that this sector is flat open land which provides no cover to advancing troops. The land is so barren that only small ground hugging twigs and isolated palmyrah trees grow. This makes conventional warfare the only tactic available for the men of 55/53 divisions. The highly successful unorthodox 8 man guerilla team tactics are suicidal on such barren open land. They can easily fall prey to ever so vigilant LTTE spotters (thereby mortars), snipers and booby traps. The thin isthmus of land also means that the tigers can employ bottle neck tactics where superiority by numbers does not account for anything. Even if SLA manages to dislodge the tamil Tigers from their first FDL (as they did on October 11 2006) they have to prepare themselves for the impending counter attack with little or no defensive cover making the hunter become the hunted. By opening up one single front allows the LTTE's artillery/mortar units to cue its fire power on one area. The conventional tactics the SLA are forced to employ also means that this area is expected to hold a large concentration (troops/ground area ratio) of infantry men. Hence even if the Tiger mortar/artillery lacks proper accuracy it can still cause considerable amount of splash damage casualties thus stalling the forward thrust. This makes the front line armour run the risk of being isolated by the supporting columns. Moreover even if the forward thrust was successful in securing EPS, the thrust will have to continue up to at least Paranthan as part of its former impregnable defences in order to take out LTTE mortar units out of range.

This is the reason why an assault landing brought about rich dividends to both warring parties - first to Lt. gen Kobbakaduwa in 1991 and last to Balraj and his fighting formation who landed successfully at the Vettileikerni corridor (Part of the Vathirayan box) outflanking the enemy defences. Unless a similar feat could be pulled off, the EPS base will remain elusive for the SLA for years to come. Only time will tell...