Sitting in the upper level of the Air Force Headquarters he has a bird`s eye view of Colombo to observe what is happening in the City. Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke has a clear view on what he had done during the past two years and also to be done in the near future considered to be the final stage of the war.
In an interview with the Daily News at the Air Force Headquarters, he very clearly rejected pro-LTTE media allegations that civilians get affected by air raids of the SLAF saying that they are extremely cautious about the civilian presence around the targets they are selecting.
He says the people can now realise the effectiveness of the air raids they had carried out during the past two years as the LTTE`s fighting capability has been severely affected by the series of air raids carried out by the Air Force.
He says he can be proud about what the SLAF had achieved during the past two years and it will continue that good work in future too. Following is the full text of the interview the Daily News had with the Air Force Commander.
Q:Two years have already passed after the commencement of offensive operations against the LTTE. What changes have taken place within the SLAF during these two years period in terms of operational aspects?
A: Two years have passed from the date I have took over the command of the SLAF also. If you can remember what I said, we will use technology to take advantage of accurate and precise bombing missions and also use technology to enhance our surveillance capability.
So in these areas we have developed fairly well. You can see in the ground the bombing is very accurate and we have our surveillance capabilities also stepped up to a greater extent. We have been doing what we planned to do.
The SLAF work as one team. We work as individuals but we like to work as one team and share the successes and if there is any problem we have shared that also as one organisation and worked as one team.
Q: The SLAF faced a challenging situation when the LTTE came out with its air capabilities. What is the current situation? Is the SLAF is in a position to face this situation effectively?
A: Of course, the LTTE aircraft was a very basic aircraft. The challenging situation we had to face was that the aircraft came during the night and at low altitude. So we needed an effective system to catch it.
Although we planned our air defense system much before these aircraft appeared, we were not in a position to react it as formulating our air-defense system was at the initial stages at that time.
Now I can say to a very great extent, we are very much effective in our air defense system we have set up. I think a lot of areas have been covered. There is a little bit of work to be done in certain areas. But I can confidently say that we have covered all the important areas.
Q: You are confident that the LTTE air capability is no longer a threat to the SLAF?
A: Yes we can say that we can deal with them effectively. Last time they came and dropped bombs in Weli Oya. That was the safest location they could reach and drop bombs and return.
Q:The SLAF carried large number of air raids to destroy the military capabilities of the LTTE. How effective are those air raids in bringing down the fighting capabilities of the LTTE?
A: We did a number of missions as part of our operations. We are doing quite a number of missions. The average is very high. We initially targeted their leadership, their infrastructure, their fighting capabilities, training facilities and their guns.
We targeted systematically to dismantle their leadership, capability to come and fight openly, Sea Tiger bases and boats, fighting capability in the sea, bomb dumps, ammo dumps, leadership and all sorts of things that contributed to their fighting strength.
We have targeted them very systematically. Although you could not see the effectiveness earlier now you should be able to see the effectiveness of these missions. Their fighting capability, their morale and the will to fight have gone down.
We are continuing to do our work to make things much easier for the ground forces to go ahead with their tough job.
Q: The areas the SLAF has to focus in the North are increasingly becoming limited with the advancing of troops into Tiger territory.
With this situation the SLAF will have to face a challenging situation as the possibilities are very high for the civilians to get affected from air raids. How are you going to face this situation ?
A: You are quite right in your assessment. We are very mindful of civilians and the settlements.
When we select targets we take great trouble to see that there are no civilians in the vicinity. When the area becomes smaller and smaller this consideration has to be foremost in our plan.
Of course, when we see the map lots of areas have been covered by jungle. So we have a lot to concentrate. Mainly we have to be worried about the targets located close to civilian settlements. That is an area we have to act cautiously.
Q:Do you think that once the enemy area becomes limited the SLAF will also have to shift from the current role to take part in ground operations?
A: I think when we come to the final area our work will be more. We will do a lot of work in the final stages. But as I mentioned earlier we have been playing a ground role now. We hold a lot of areas to relieve Army troops.
That we are doing at present too. But my assessment is that we will do much more air operations in the future in the final stages of the war where the enemy will be cornered. So we will have a quite a number of targets to take in assisting the Army and the Navy.
Q: There were a lot proposals to purchase fighter jets to increase the fighting capabilities of the SLAF. What is the current position of those proposals?
A: We have purchased some aircraft and set up an air defence system and fulfilled other requirements. The SLAF is continuously evaluating its requirements, purchasing new aircraft and replacing the old ones.
We have to purchase some new aircraft to replace ones which have been in operation for 20-30 years. So that is an ongoing process. We are evaluating new aircraft to be inducted to the SLAF. That process is going on.
We are in the process of obtaining some training aircraft. It is a continuous process to evaluate what we have and what we need to have in the future.
Q: Do you have any plans to increase the number of flights between Ratmalana and Palaly to facilitate troop movements between Colombo and Jaffna?
A: It is a daily occurrence. We do a lot of transshipment of troops and cargo between Ratmalana and Palaly. The Navy also is doing a big part in transporting troops up and down from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. We have already increased the number of flights.
It is a reactive process. When there is a requirement we increase. And if there is no such requirement we reduce the number of flights.
Q: Soon after the attack on Anuradhapura Air Force Base many commissions of inquiry were appointed to probe that. We did not see the SLAF taking any action against those who were responsible for any security lapses if there were any. What action has the SLAF taken against those who were responsible?
A: We finished our Court of Inquiry and found certain people guilty of negligence of duty. We have already taken action against one person and there are a few more against whom disciplinary action will be taken. Because that process will take a little time may be in four to five months we will finish that process.
We have identified the people and they will be dealt with. But on the other hand there are people who had performed very well. We have to reward them also. This was an attack perpetrated by 23 Black Tigers.
Our personnel managed to kill all of them. They managed to destroy some aircraft but they could not enter the main part of the airbase. So there were gallant people too. We should recognise them also.
Q: Has the SLAF recovered from the losses in the Anuradhapura air attack?
A: Actually in Anuradhapura we never lost our fighting capability. We lost a few training aircraft. Some training aircraft were damaged. Those damaged ones have been repaired and are in operation.
We had a bit of a problem regarding our surveillance aircraft. We lost a surveillance aircraft with a camera that we have recovered now. Actually we are in a stronger position than we were earlier.
Q: What is your assessment of LTTE air capabilities? Are they improving their air capability?
A: From the valuation they are not improving their air capability. But we have to always be vigilant because we are dealing with a terrorist outfit.
Q: There were allegations basically from pro-LTTE media that the SLAF is taking civilian targets in the North. Is there any truth behind these allegations?
A: They have been doing this from the initial stage. For the last two years they know that we are taking targets very accurately. They were trying to bring pressure on us to stop our bombing.
But I must tell you that our pilots are very accurate and we assess the target before we send our pilots to take those targets. We take special care about the civilians in the vicinity of the targets. We have hit those targets accurately. So I don`t accept what LTTE has been saying that civilians have been affected by our air attacks.
Q: As the Commander what are the changes you need within the SLAF to expand its role?
A: We need to change our structure. For this we have already projected to the Ministry to accommodate the Air defense Command within the SLAF. The Air Defense Command is the new command that is going to be included in the SLAF structure.
That is a new thing that is coming into the Air Force and all structural adjustments are now being done to accommodate the Air Defense Command.
As I said earlier bringing in new aircraft, new equipment continuously is aimed at facing the future challenges.
Q: There is perception that war will come to an end very soon. What is your assessment on the situation and is there any need to go ahead with new purchases to strengthen the fighting capability of the SLAF?
A: Many people have asked me to give a time frame to see an end to the war. I of course do not like to do that. You can see that we are making rapid progress on the ground now. Perhaps we can finish it quickly.
But as far as the Air Force is concerned war or no war we have to be prepared. Actually when things started we were ill prepared. We were bought equipment after the commencement of the war.
For the Air Force I think we have to be prepared all the time to be fit for anything in the future. We can`t allow terrorism take root in Sri Lanka again.
Once the war is over the country has to be developed and the Air Force should be prepared. Even with peace in the country the Air Force has a lot to do. Transportation, commercial flights and we should be ready to rescue people.
Maritime patrolling is a frequent thing we have to concentrate. We need to be in possession of good aircraft and equipment.
Q: What is the response for the recruitment drive of the SLAF?
A: It is not like those days. Response from the youth is very high. People are willingly join the Air Force. This must be the same with the other Services too.
Q: Does the SLAF have the capacity to provide proper training facilities to the new recruits?
A: We are providing them with best facilities. There may be instances where we cannot provide all the facilities to all when three to four thousand youth join the SLAF at once. But we managed to adjust those facilities.
The Government has provided enough funds for the SLAF for this, since training is an essential part. The guidance given by the President as the Commander-in-Chief has become a piller of strength for us. They have given us full freedom to take decisions.
Q: What kind of assistance are you getting from the friendly nations for SLAF operations?
A: We are doing our air operations ourselves. Many friendly nations are providing support. But there is a misconception that foreign pilots are operating here in Sri Lanka. That is not true. Only Sri Lankans are engaged in air operations in Sri Lanka.
Q: What kind of response are you getting internationally as the Air Force is fighting effectively against a terror outfit? A: We are receiving a good response internationally. They are inquisitive to know how we are conducting successful air operations. At international conferences we receive a good response.
Q: There were corruption charges against some deals to purchase aircraft to the SLAF. What is the current position of those charges?
A: Those charges came earlier. Allegations came against the MiG 27 deal sometime ago. The allegations were that those aircraft were old and not suitable to fly. Those aircraft were flown extensively by the SLAF.
Actually when Thamilselvan`s hideout was attacked it was MiG 27s and Kfirs that attacked. So for our purpose these aircraft are good. It is wrong for anyone to say that they are not good.
What they didn`t understand is that they think these aircraft are something like vehicles. We overhaul them and use them. Once aircraft undergo an overhaul they are new. Other than that there are no other allegations.
Q: The SLAF has a good possibility to take the life of Prabhakaran. How are you going to plan this?
A: We are waiting patiently. When the opportunity comes we will take that task. What has he done to the Tamil people and their children?
He has put them in a miserable position. I don`t know whether these Tamil people receive their food properly. Terrorists must be robbing their food. So actually at the hands of terrorist Prabhakaran, Tamil people have suffered a lot. Prabhakaran will have to pay one day. Prabhakaran and other so-called leaders will have to pay one day.