Low-Tech Air Force Grounds High-Tech Air Force

Good story:

SRI Lanka’s powerful air force has been grounded by single-engined, propeller-driven aircraft adapted by Tamil Tiger guerillas to carry bombs under their wings.
The “Flying Tigers”—the tiny air wing of the brutal LTTE insurgents fighting for a separate Tamil state—are proving more than a match for Sri Lanka’s well-equipped air force.

After a second night raid on the capital, Colombo, it is clear to South Asian military analysts that the world’s only guerilla movement with an air-strike capacity has been able to attack virtually unchallenged by the conventional air force.

Flying hundreds of kilometres from secret jungle airstrips, the Flying Tigers, in what are believed to be adapted Zlin Z-142 aircraft of Czech design, have been untroubled other than by ground fire as they have successively raided the country’s biggest military base, next to the international airport, and oil and gas installations on the fringes of the city.

After each attack, they have returned to their bases, outwitting the Sri Lankan air force, which has a fleet of more than 100 aircraft.

Even sophisticated radar and air defence systems have done little more than warn of impending attacks and allow time for anti-aircraft batteries to open fire into the night sky, aiming at targets they cannot see.

The air force’s Israeli Kfirs, Russian Mig-27s and Y-8 bombers have remained grounded, along with its force of MI-17 and MI-24 helicopter gunships.

Posted on May 9, 2007 at 6:09 AM40 Comments


greg May 9, 2007 6:52 AM

I though modern radar would have been effective. Perhaps thay don’t have access to good radar tech?

But then again. The radar signature from a microlite or ultalite is not much larger than a bird. Goes to show that there is still very much a asymetric cost problem with offense vers defense.

bob May 9, 2007 6:57 AM

Oh great, an excuse for DHS to crack down even more on light planes in the US.

Tim May 9, 2007 7:38 AM

I found an article with a bit more information:


It sounds as if:

a) The Air Force planes are all jets with only air-to-ground attack capability, with makes them very unsuitable for attacking small, slow planes

b) All the attacks are at night and they had a bit of trouble with their night-flying apparatus.

c) The only time they got a helicopter gunship in the air to intercept, the helicopter developed an engine fault and crashed.

It will be interesting if the Tigers can keep this up, assuming the Air Force can keep their helicopters in the air.

-Roland May 9, 2007 7:47 AM

Nothing is new under the sun.

Carl Gustaf von Rosen (1909-1977), Swedish count and flying hero from conflicts Italy – Ethiopia and Soviet – Finland, made an heroic difference in the conflict between former secessionist republic Biafra and Nigeria (nothing is new there either).

von Rosen tried to enlist in the RAF during WW2 but was rejected, due to an inopportune in-law (his maternal aunt was married to Hermann Göring*), and fought instead for Finland. He was much involved with Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie and set up the Ethiopian air force.

In Biafra, not only did he manage to get food and other humanitarian aid distributed by small prop planes (Mfi9), but he also secretly organised some of these civilian planes to be armed with attack rockets and thus kept the opposing, much better equipped and intimidating air force more or less effectively grounded and unable to continue its terror attacks against civilian refugees.

He was killed in a guerilla attack in Somalia where he had been busy “food-bombing” remote places in Ethiopia during one of the recurring famines there.

  • Göring found an ancient swastika Symbol of Good carved in a stair-case railing at the von Rosen estate Helgesta, which he introduced in Nazi Germany; but first turned it backwards…

P.S. Did I mention, nothing is new under the sun?

Carl Gustaf von Rosen – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shachar Shemesh May 9, 2007 7:48 AM

As a side note – since when are Kfirs “advanced technology”? In the Israeli air force, the last Kfir take off (with the possible exception of moving them around) was over ten years ago.

Either way, this entire story doesn’t make much sense to me.

The Soviet defense MO (they do have Migs) says you should use ground ammo against airborne threats. If the aircrafts are flying low, anti-aircraft guns will, indeed, not be effective, but a simple M-16 can take them down. On the other hand, if they are flying high, then the anti-aircraft shouldn’t have any problem against them. Single engine crafts will have a very hard time switching between low and high altitude flights, especially when heavily loaded with bombs, and needing to fly a long distance (fuel weight).

The Israeli defense MO (they do have Kfirs) claims you should fight incoming airborne threats using aircrafts.

While I agree that a jet will have a difficult time in intercepting a light aircraft, a helicopter shouldn’t have any trouble at all. Especially since radar does pick them up. It is unlikely that they managed to load the aircraft with much air to air weapons, so it’s not as if the intercepting helicopters will be at much risk.

In short, and as I said before, this makes little sense to me.


Chris S May 9, 2007 7:57 AM

Operating at low speed (100 km/h) and near ground level, the radar return from an aircraft such as the Zlin would resemble a truck.

Separating out the interesting signals in such as case is our classic intelligence problem again. It’s not so much a detection problem as a classification problem. By the time you get a “behavioural signature” — say, crossing an important fence — you have limited time to respond. Your alternative is to keep your responses on hot standby, ready to react on just seconds of notice, 7/24. However, that is both expensive, and hard on your systems and people. Meanwhile, the opposition only has to prod you just often enough to force you to keep your readiness permanently at high alert.

Sound familiar?

This is an economic combat model as much as a military one. The strategy is more important than the quality of weapons deployed using it.

Ed May 9, 2007 9:00 AM

I don’t think this means the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) has been foolish in buying equipment in the past. After all, what’s the air-to-air threat they’d need to defend against? The only other power in the area is India, and Sri Lanka wouldn’t stand a chance against the Indian AF. So, they equipped with air-to-ground aircraft. Prop driven aircraft might have been a better decision, but jets do tend to be faster — which matters when you’re facing an insurgency spread over a large area (because the jets can reach a given point more rapidly).

So, the fact that the LTTE has been ingenious (and they have) doesn’t make the SLAF foolish. That depends on what they do next…

jay May 9, 2007 9:19 AM

The reason because no air to air attack was done is the fighter jet SL have are only capable of ground attacks and they don’t have functionality carry out air to air combat. It lacks night vision capabilities as well. therefore the SLAF is now purchasing Mig 29’s which are capable of air-air attacks.

Anonymouser May 9, 2007 9:49 AM

Interesting if it’s true, jay. This is asymmetric warfare at its best. A couple attacks with Zlin’s succeeded in making the SLAF drop big moolah on air-superiority fighters… do you see the problem here? What’s next? Using modified Katyushas to force ’em into buying Patriot systems?

Paul May 9, 2007 10:16 AM

It was this sort of unlikely imbalance of technology that supposedly allowed the German battlecruiser Bismarck to be crippled by totally obsolete biplanes (Fairey Swordfish, each carrying a torpedo, one of which had a lucky hit on the rudder).

The story goes that Bismarck’s AA guns had difficulty hitting the low-flying, slow-moving biplanes at least in part because the fire control systems were designed to counter up-to-date aircraft traveling much faster. None out of a total of 24 aircraft were shot down despite heavy AA fire directed at them.

jay May 9, 2007 10:20 AM

Mr.Anonymous. As far as the media says its true! Further SLAF is going to purchase advanced radar systems from india because currently they only have 2D systems. It is still a mystery of how the tiger planes got to the north without any return attack from the GoSL forces, even with the ground attack or a helo attack. All three times! The tigers picked the best time to attack as it was the cricket world cup season and everyone was watching the tv.

They have flown the WW2 planes around 200-300 meters above ground which is really low. The current radar might have not picked it up.

I see what you mean by the terrorists forcing the GoSL to purchase the anti-air capabilities. The reason why GoSL didn’t have the ground to air or air to air defense was they didn’t expect any threats until now! As a government you have to justify why you need it. So that might have answered your question. Although there were many rumors that ltte have air capabilities last year, but there was no proof to prove it.

It won’t be a nice scene to see Surface to Air missiles been fired in Colombo air space. The anti-air guns around colombo had caused a lot of problem. Some bullets have fallen into houses injuring people! Best way i guess is intelligence and get to the planes before they come to you.

Herman May 9, 2007 10:29 AM

Nothing new under the sun indeed!

Statistics from the Biafran Air Force:

Statistics from the first 29 attacks (5 abandonded for different reasons) May-Aug:

432 rockets fired, more than 50% hitting targets. No own aircraft or pilots lost.

       Destroyed / damaged

MiG-17 3 / 2
Il-28 bomber 1 / 0
Canberra 1 / 1
Intruder 1 / 0
Helicopters 2 / 1
Trucks 7 / 0
Radar 1 / 0
ATC tower 1 / 1
Terminal bldgs 0 / 2
Power plant 1 / 0
Amm. storage 1 / 0
Headquarters 0 / 3
AAA 2 / 0
Oil pump station 1 / 0
Enemy losses: 300 men at airports, 200 men at the front

Pictures of their “fighter aircraft”:

THAT’s what I call asymmetric warfare!

Anonymous May 9, 2007 10:38 AM

“I though modern radar would have been effective. Perhaps thay don’t have access to good radar tech?

“But then again. The radar signature from a microlite or ultalite is not much larger than a bird….”

The Zlin Z 142 is not an ultralight aircraft. It is a two seater trainer.

Anonymous May 9, 2007 10:46 AM

100 aircraft is probably not enough to maintain a good CAP (consider that very few of these are likely to actually be dedicated to air to air missions, if any), they are probably NOT trained for night operations and intercepts, and their aircraft are not suited for this anyway.
Training is /big/ in the air to air business. It is a use it or lose it skill, and I doubt that air force has much of the skill to begin with, let alone in night-ops.

This isn’t a simple matter of modern radar this or that (Indeed, a modern fighter like an F-15 or F-16 could find these guys if it was looking in the right place at the right time), especially when ‘modern radar’ is something that Sri-Lanka lacks.

They need to have fighters up and waiting for these bombers (economically problematic) and a good GCI controller and pilots who can work with the GCI.

jim May 9, 2007 10:53 AM

Oh great, an excuse for DHS to crack down even more on light planes in the US.

A small airplane evaded radar detection, so what? Lucky for Sri Lanka the Tamils don’t posses a WMD/E. How do you spell vulnerable?

Dan May 9, 2007 10:54 AM

Those who are still confused about how low tech prop fighters could pull off successful attacks against a jet powered, radar defended airforce should consider the following.

A topographical map of Sri Lanka

Given the terrain, it appears to me that a low flying plane wouldn’t be spotted by radar until they were virtually on top of their target. And, in reverse, would be quickly lost by radar as they left.

Mental Floss Reader May 9, 2007 11:10 AM

This is timely since I just finished reading a set of articles in the current issue of Mental Floss about Sir Lanka and the LTTE.

Andrew May 9, 2007 11:33 AM

Competence is thin on the ground in the developing countries. Especially when Western forces are deployed.

The way to deal with light aircraft attacks is to destroy their airfield(s). Inability to do this implies a lack of operational intelligence and/or “no go” zones where government forces cannot operate.

The attack helicopter totally outclasses the fixed-wing aircraft on every point but one most critical — range. Many developing countries are reluctant to risk their precious few rotary wing aircraft for no good reason.

The easy counter would be to get light aircraft of one’s own, with superior radios and night vision equipment, plus ground command and control and perhaps a heavier prop-wing controller aircraft or two. They would also be useful for CAS and supply drops.

sooth_sayer May 9, 2007 11:47 AM

I had read a while ago when the first of these “bombers” appeared, Indian supplied Radars were not working .. either due to design flaw or upgrade issues. Sri-Lankans were mad .. but had little choice.

It’s hard for them to buy newest technology due to embargoes related to this insurgencey. They are left to buy 2nd/3rd tier equipment from India/Pakistan or some ex. iron curtain countries.

In fact Sri Lanka is fighting an “evenly matched” air force .. it’s not surprising that Tamils did this .. they are no fools to go against a vastly superior force.

guvn'r May 9, 2007 12:00 PM

@Ed, air-to-air capability is not the only reason for air superiority fighters, main motivation is actually preventing air to ground success by opponents.

@Anonymous, no need for CAP, scrambling hot alert a/c and flying them competently once airborne will suffice.

Latter part is the problem, 300m is not really low (@Jay), even for a Z-142. As a private pilot I prefer flying higher especially at night, but I’m not flying covert combat missions. It could be rather dicey for Kfir or MIG-27 aircrews especially absent terrain avoidance radar at night, or if they’re not trained to a high level of readiness.

Speaking of training, it seems the Tiger aircrews are fairly good, night nav and landing can be tricky even with good navaids and well equipped and lighted airports, unlikely to be what they have.

If the SLAF did get up, they’d likely be shooting down at the Z-142s, making collateral damage a concern.

It sounds like they are doing significant military damage as well as scoring major pysch warfare points. At least they’re hitting strategic targets not terrorizing the population.

Good example of asymmetric warfare. Only big improvement would be RPVs. How long before some radio controlled model gets fitted with a warhead by some rogue group?

re the original story, some might contend that the Tigers are the second guerilla movement demonstrating air strike capability, following Al-Qaeda on 9/11

Somebody Anon May 9, 2007 12:03 PM

This reminds me of a story written by Arthur C. Clarke about two planets (two civilisations) fighting a long war. It details how one planet’s quest for technologically superior weapons affects the outcome … Can anyone remember the name of this short story ??

Ed May 9, 2007 12:27 PM


Yes, you’re right (although I don’t think my original post said air-to-air was only effective against other air superiority). However, I think my main point is still intact. The SRAF have no air-to-air because there’s never been an air threat (which can include air-to-ground) to deal with before, and the only neighbor (India) could establish air superiority over the SRAF without much effort.

Given the threat, though, it seems that the best solution wouldn’t be an air-to-air capability for the SRAF — they’re probably not organizationally prepared for everything it entails. Wouldn’t a ground based solution do the trick (a few short range SAMs like the SA-8 (old, cheap Soviet system))? It wouldn’t protect everything, but how many installations does the SRAF have that need defense?

An other onymous May 9, 2007 1:21 PM

Two thoughts.

1) Didn’t a kid fly a Cessina into Red Square in the 80’s undetected. (Add that to the nothing new pile).

2) I’m not a pilot, but even if the jets don’t have good air to air, what would be the effect if they did a close high speed fly past?

Chris May 9, 2007 1:25 PM

@somebody anon

The story by Arthur C. Clarke you are looking for is probably “Superiority”, first published August 1951 in “The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy” and available in “Expedition to Earth” and “The collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke”

Dom De Vitto May 9, 2007 1:47 PM


new yorkers can now expect missiles shooting birds out of the sky as they approach Manhattan – just to be safe.

This kind of warfare, by nature is poorly funded, low-tech, and highly covert. This was the kind of attack we feared in the 50s from the ‘reds under the bed’, and is difficult to retro-fit defenses against.

Got to be said, putting the Airport, military airfield and oil refinery on the same bomb run isn’t too smart.

Hitting the refinery would also blind radar and IR missiles – which wouldn’t normally have a problem hitting a ultralight unless the engine was shut off well in advance.

Somebody Anon May 9, 2007 2:47 PM


“Superiority” .. Thats the one … Thanks a ton …


Filias Cupio May 9, 2007 5:04 PM

It sounds like airborn radar would be more useful against this threat than air superiority fighters. I wonder what the cost/endurance/effectiveness/flexibility tradeoffs are like between airplane, dirigible and tethered balloon?

(I know stuff-all about military topics, so I may well be completely wrong.)

Robert Merkel May 10, 2007 12:49 AM

Filias, airborne radars to date are carried on airliners and cost enormous amounts of money – it seems that the current unit cost of the Boeing 737 AEW&C is around $250 million.

A radar unit on a dirigible or even a tethered balloon is intuitively appealing but no such device is currently on the market, and developing one independently would be well beyond Sri Lanka’s very modest industrial capability.

bob May 10, 2007 9:25 AM

These arent ultralights – they are aluminum; similar to the piper cherokees that Pussy Galore gassed Fort Knox with in Goldfinger.

The best defense $$ against these would be a ring of light machine guns around a target. An M-60 would probably be enough to either disable the aircraft, disable the pilot or disable/detonate the bomb.

Also these are piston-driven aircraft engines. Very fuel-efficient at low altitude. Jets consume 3-4x as much fuel at low altitude as higher up and would not have much loiter time to hunt them.

The best aircraft to hunt these things with would be a Sea Harrier (air to air capable), you could park it near the target on alert (not too near – dont want to BE the target) and have it chase down the ‘bomber’ as it left the area.

@An other onymous: Practically nothing. The lighter it is, and the faster an aircraft moves – the less significant the turbulence it leaves behind. A heavily loaded cargo plane moving at just above stall speed would probably flip a Zlin over; possibly exceeding the wing spar structural strength because of the bombs; but catching a small, low-flying maneuverable plane with a lumbering airfreighter doesnt sound like a simple task – and thats assuming they had one for the mission in the first place.

X the Unknown May 10, 2007 10:51 AM

@Andrew: “The way to deal with light aircraft attacks is to destroy their airfield(s).”

As pointed out in Herman’s interesting article (http://www.brushfirewars.org/aircraft/mfi_9b_biafran/mfi_9b_biafran_1.htm),
light aircraft are a lot more flexible in their airstrip requirements than jet fighters. Any mostly-level field with the random rocks and bushes removed will serve. This not only makes them inherently difficult to find, it allows regularly moving the airbase as part of normal operations.

@guvn’r: “Only big improvement would be RPVs. How long before some radio controlled model gets fitted with a warhead by some rogue group?”

I’m not certain that would actually be an “improvement” from the guerrillas’ viewpoint. A large-enough remote vehicle would probably cost a significant percentage of the price of a good used light aircraft, and wouldn’t be reusable – assuming a “suicide” warhead approach. A non-suicide “Remote Pilot” setup would probably be too expensive, if the avionics and communications were good-enough to foil simple counter-measures (radio-jamming, etc.).

One of the key elements of many assymetric warfare approaches is the relative cheapness of human volunteers. It is very difficult to beat the cost-performance ratio of the all-purpose flexible computing power of a human being.

markm May 10, 2007 3:41 PM

It sounds like the best countermeasure would be to resurrect a few WWII propeller-driven night fighters, but that would be too difficult nowadays…

It’s not that there isn’t radar that could spot them, but that apparently the Sri Lankans didn’t get the right kind. The US swaps out our good (and highly classified) avionics for obsolete stuff whenever we sell an airplane to the third world, and AFAIK every other country capable of producing first or second-rate avionics does the same. IIRC, the F111-D, built in 1968, had a Doppler-discrimination mode in it’s main attack radar that could pick out a jeep moving at under 15mph ground clutter by the change in frequency of the reflected signal due to motion. That’s when it was working, which wasn’t often (I worked a lot of overtime repairing those radars in the 80’s), but newer systems should be better.

Anonymous May 10, 2007 3:53 PM

Duct-tape a small-craft marine radar to a weather balloon. Instant tethered airborne radar. And run the signal/power down the tether.

Roger May 13, 2007 7:54 AM

This is an interesting article, but to put some perspective on it:

  • Sri Lanka is a developing country which has a fairly capable air force for its size and wealth but certainly does NOT have a large “High-Tech” air force. They may have 100 planes, but only a dozen or so are combat jet aircraft, and most of those are optimised for ground attack, and more than 30 years old (which makes them older than the Zlin trainers used by LTTE!) If the entire combat jet force was dedicated to 24 hr CAP, they could just about cover one city. Most of their air force is a mix of helicopters and civilian and military transports, with the single largest supplier being China. Many of these aircraft are early 1960s vintage.

  • Like nearly all countries outside those once expecting to fight World War 3 (Russia, Europe, USA), Sri Lanka probably does not have all or even most of its airspace monitored by military air defence radar. (Civilian air traffic control radar has very limited ability to detect small aircraft if they switch off their transponders.) Sri Lankan radar apparently did detect the intruders, but raised the alert too late for an effective response.

  • In fact, there are reports that some military units detected the planes up to an hour before the attack, but ignored them because they didn’t realise the LTTE had any aircraft (this despite the confirmed existence of at least one LTTE helicopter.)

  • The Zlin Z-142 (and later Z-143, which the LTTE is also believed to have) is not exactly a state of the art combat plane but it also isn’t all that “Low-Tech”. It is a military trainer originally designed to train Eastern Bloc air forces and still in use by at least 3 national air forces. Among other things it was used to teach night flying. Something the Sri Lankan’s might like to consider is that it is also considered to be a very effective glider tow-plane.

  • There’s nothing particularly novel about using modified trainers as ground attack aircraft. Nearly everyone has done it including the USAF (which has also operated piston engined ground attack aircraft as recently as 1972, and received complaints when they retired them as they were allegedly more effective than the jets that replaced them.) In fact, since modern air forces seem strangely reluctant to spend much development money on dedicated ground attack aircraft designs, worldwide it looks like most ground attack aircraft are of this form (it may not actually be most, but certainly a very large share.)

  • BTW, the phrase “Flying hundreds of kilometres from secret jungle airstrips” is a certain amount of dramatic licence and hyperbole. For one thing start, little of the part of Sri Lanka controlled by the LTTE is jungle covered. Most of it is in fact densely populated agricultural land, but the uncultiavted areas are mainly dry scrubland and even cactus forest. The ability to avoid having your airfields destroyed probably consists in not having any, but launching your planes from any suitably flat field. Interestingly, the LTTE tried to build an airstrip there about two years ago, but it was detected and destroyed. Also, the distance from Colombo to the remotest part of Sri Lanka is under three hundred kilometres, so it might be “hundreds of kilometres” but only just, which isn’t a particularly long flight for any powered aircraft. More to the point, the phrase implicitly makes the assumption that the aircraft are attacking from somewhere in Sri Lanka. In fact it is just as plausible that they flew from India. The Indian government officially supports the Sri Lankan government and regards LTTE as a terrorist organisation (especially after LTTE assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) but the true relationship is more complex than that, and India has actually intervened on the behalf of the Tamils in the past. In particular in the Tamil dominated region of India adjacent to Sri Lanka the LTTE enjoy widespread support. An ordinary civilian air strip in Tamil Nadu, India, would be the more logical place from which to launch an air attack of this nature.

  • Finally, apart from propaganda value (which was enormous), these attacks were not really all that effective. The total effect so far has been nine deaths, a 1 hr blackout, and zero aircraft destroyed. This contrasts sharply with a genuine “Low Tech” attack on one of the same airfields in July 2001 when a commando raid destroyed 3 military jets, a helicopter gunship and nine other aircraft.

Tom Welsh May 14, 2007 7:34 AM

This topic reminds me of the famous Fairey Swordfish “Stringbags” flown by the British Fleet Air Arm in the earlier part of WW2. On some occasions – notably the torpedo attack on Bismarck – it was said the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns were unable to track aircraft moving so slowly! Something similar happened in the Korean War, when the North Koreans put up slow propeller-driven planes that gave the USAF’s Saber jets terrible trouble.

The classic description of this syndrome is still Robert Heinlein’s (in “Starship Troopers”):

“If you load a mud foot down with a lot of gadgets that he has to watch, somebody a lot more simply equipped–say with a stone ax—will sneak up and bash his head in while he is trying to read a vernier”

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