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Air capabilities of global terror groups and non-formal States
Tuesday, 22 March 2005 - 2:34 AM SL Time
By Shanaka Jayasekara
Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001, the Taliban regime headed by Mullah Mohamed Omar, had a fleet of 20 aircraft, which included Mig-21, Su-22, and Mi-24 & Mi-35 helicopters, stationed at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. During the period February to September 2000, the Taliban aircraft conducted several air-raids against the Northern Alliance positions causing significant civilian casualties.
The Northern Alliance headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, was reported to have been in possession of two Mi-35 and six Mi-17 helicopters.
It is likely that these military assets have since been captured or neutralised by forces of Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO (ISAF-4), currently operational in Afghanistan.
Lebanon - Hezbollah
The Syrian backed Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement has claimed to have developed a UAV to target installations in northern Israel. In November 2004, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, stated that the UAV known as `Mirsad-1` had made an initial flight over Israeli air space. In his public announcement, he claimed that the drone can carry explosive of about 50 Kg in weight. Defence analysts believe the Mirsad-1 is a modified version of the `Ababil` type UAV produced by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries (HESA). It is reported that Hezbollah has also acquired an initial installment of the superior SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles which can be a potential danger not only to Israeli military aircraft but also to commercial aircraft. In response the Israeli state run Rafael defence research company has developed the Britening counter-missile system which uses an infrared beam to disrupt the approaching missile.
Sri Lanka - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
The embryonic phase of the LTTE Air Wing, was developed by Vythilingam Sornalingam, aka `Shankar`, a former employee of Air Canada believed to have a background in aeronautical engineering. The initial procurements for the Air Wing were made in 1997-98, with the purchase of two ultra-lights from AirBorne Windsports in Australia. It is believed that Thilai Jeyakumar, considered the head of LTTE operations in Australia was responsible for these acquisitions.
The British based, International Institute of Strategic Studies, in its 2000-2001 publication of `Military Balance`, states that the LTTE has in its possession a Robinson R-44 Astro light helicopter and two light aircraft (page 175). If this information can be corroborated the LTTE acquired its air capability prior to the ceasefire agreement in February 2002.
Careful examination of commercially available satellite imagery indicates clearing and laying of asphalt on an airstrip to the east of the Iranamadu reservoir in the LTTE dominated areas during the period 2003-2004. In January 2003, the Asian Development Bank embarked on a road development project (Loan No.1312:SRI(SF) & 1649:SRI(SF) ) to resurface and asphalt the A9 highway which runs through LTTE-dominated areas using the services of eight subcontractors. It is possible that construction material from the project may have been pilfered to asphalt the airstrip. The airstrip is believed to be 1250 meters long. A defence correspondent in Sri Lanka has reported that a Searcher UAV of the Sri Lanka Air Force, conducting a reconnaissance flight over LTTE dominated areas detected a light aircraft on the Iranamadu airstrip on 12 & 13 January 2005. On a subsequent night mission on 03 February, the infrared cameras of the UAV detected thermal images of a second light aircraft landing on the airstrip. The images which were shared with US intelligence, have confirmed one aircraft to be a Czech built Zlin Z-143. Aviation data sources indicate that the Z-143 is powered by one 175kW (235hp) Textron Lycoming O540J3A5 flat six driving a three blade variable pitch Mühlbauer propeller, and is believed to have a flight range of approximately 1335km (720nm) at 65% power. It is reported that a Sri Lanka Air Force Bell 412 helicopter transporting a LTTE delegation accompanied by Nordic ceasefire monitors on 10 February, found its Missile Approach Warning System activated releasing heat generating flares close to the Iranamadu airstrip. It is possible that an air defence system has been installed around the airstrip. It is believed the LTTE has fired around twenty SA-7s man-portable surface-to-air missiles (Manpads) in the past.
Operational Possibilities · Prestige factor: augmenting the LTTE profile.
Political recognition: in March 2002 a LTTE delegation arriving from Europe, travelled directly to Iranamadu reservoir from the Maldives using a sea plane chartered by the Norwegian facilitators. This was to avoid passing through the Colombo International Airport. It is possible that the Iranamadu airstrip may be used to facilitate future international travel of LTTE delegations.
· UAV operations: the LTTE has objected to UAV reconnaissance by SLAF as ceasefire violations. It is possible that the LTTE now plans to operate its own UAV reconnaissance on Sri Lankan forward positions and artillery locations close to the FDL. In March 1999, a UAV of the SLAF crashed near Kunchikulam and it is suspected that the LTTE were able to collect this equipment. On 19 February 2005, Sri Lanka Customs detected a remote control aircraft being smuggled-in through the international airport. It is believed that an LTTE operative in Germany, known as Rajitharan had co-ordinated the operation.
· Logistics runs: it is highly unlikely that the aircraft can serve the movement of supplies given that the LTTE logistics base in Phuket is 2040 km from Sri Lanka. However, the airstrip could serve for inbound logistics deliveries of third party aircraft.
· Suicide missions on the south: the only mountain range in the vicinity of Iranamadu is at Madukanda (105 meters) which is within government dominated areas. The installation of a radar facility at this vantage point would detect any possible incursions to the south. The Sri Lanka Air Force strike capability includes, seven Kfir C-2 Interceptors and four Mig-27Ms, an unlikely match for a light aircraft. However, it still remains that the city of Colombo, and vital economic installations such as hydro-power dams, harbours and oil refineries, are all within the flight range of the Zlin Z-143.
· Hijack sanctuary: given the length of the airstrip it is unlikely that a wide-bodied aircraft can be accommodated. However, domestic Indian airlines such as Jet Airways and Air Sahara, using smaller Boeing 737-300s and ATRs, could be potential targets. This is likely to become a concern for the airline insurance market in the region.
· Dirty war potential: it is possible that the aircraft can be fitted with crop-dusting equipment for a chemical or biological attack.
Moldova - Trans-Dniester (Transnitria)
The breakaway region of Trans-Dniester in eastern Moldova has maintained an unrecognised government since the Russian intervention in 1990. The Russian 14th Army, now known as the Operative Group of Russian Forces has a permanent presence in Trans-Dniester, and backs the secessionist government known as the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic.
The Pridnestrovian Armed Forces, established in 1992 with Russian assistance include combat formations known as motor-infantry, artillery, air forces, air defence forces, special forces and reserves. These units have acquired 29 aircraft, which include six Mi-8 & two Mi-6 helicopters, and has control of an aerodrome in Tiraspol. The presidential website reported on 23 June 2004, that Igor Smirnov, self proclaimed President of this breakaway region travelled on armed forces Mi-8 helicopter to the district of Dubossary.
It is highly unlikely that the air capabilities/facilities of the secessionist government will be made available as hijack sanctuary given the strong presence of Russian troops in Trans-Dniester. However, with the pro-Russian government in Ukraine being ousted by the orange-revolution in 2004, the air capabilities of neighboring Trans-Dniester can become a potential issue in regional security.
Georgia - Abkhazia & South Ossetia
Since the Russian intervention in 1994, the region of Abkhazia has been administered by a Russian-backed secessionist government headed by self proclaimed Prime Minister Designee Alexander Ankvab. The Abkhazi military forces have a formidable naval strength of 23 vessels including six Grif-class boats that operate in the Black Sea. There are no reports of acquired air capability, however, the Abkhazi forces control an airport at Sukhumi Dranda.
A Russian backed secessionist government headed by self proclaimed President, Eduard Kokoiti, administers the breakaway region of South Ossetia. There are no reports of air capabilities, however the Ossetian forces control an airport at Tskhinvali.
Azerbaijan/Armenia - Nagorno Karabakh
The Armenian backed government (self-declared) in Nagorno Karabakh, has control of the old Stepanakert airport in Xankandi. It is reported that a private company operates flights between Yerevan (Armenia) and Xankandi using Mi-8 helicopters.
It is highly unlikely that the unrecognised regimes in the Caucuses would make available air facilities as hijack sanctuaries given the formidable presence and influence of the Russian forces in each of the territories. However, there are indications of a growth in the small arms trade and criminality within these regions making these air facilities potential transit havens.
Cyprus - Turkish Cypriot North
Since in the invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces in 1974 and the partitioning of the island, the north has been administered by the Turkish Cypriot government, a regime only recognised by Turkey. There are no reports of the Turkish Cypriot government acquiring air capability. However, there is an air squadron of the Turkish air force deployed on the island. The Turkish Cypriot government has control of the Ercan airport. There are schedule flights from Ercan to Ankara and Istanbul. The airlines operating into northern Cyprus are Kibris Turkish Airlines and Istanbul Airlines. It is unlikely that the Turkish Cypriot government would permit any irregular activities at its air facilities, given the strong presence of Turkish forces in the country and Turkish ambitions of EU accession.
Bosnia Herzegovina - Republika Srpska
The military assets of the former Bosnian-Serb AirForce, consisting of 17 aircraft and 25 helicopters, which include seven J-22 Orao & six J-21 Jastreb attack aircraft, remain within designated `containment zones` at Mahovljani airbase and Zaluzani airbase under the strict supervision of the NATO-Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in accordance with the Dayton peace accord. Currently, a process towards integration of the separate armed forces within a common structure is being worked out. However, the Srpska Air Force has been permitted to conduct training exercises within designated flying corridors supervised by SFOR.
(The writer is a Postgraduate Intern, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews Scotland).