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Sri Lanka Air Force - Modernization

Because of a severe shortage of hard currency for military expenditures in the wake of the 1971 uprising, the Number Four (Helicopter) Squadron began operating commercial transportation services for foreign tourists under the name of Helitours. In 1987 the air force had a total strength of 3,700 personnel, including active reserves. The force had grown gradually during its early years, reaching a little over 1,000 officers and recruits in the 1960s. Rapid growth began in the mid-1980s, when the ethnic disturbances drew the service into a major, long-term security role. Between 1983 and 1987, the force grew by nearly 50 percent.

The air force had a fleet of approximately eighty aircraft, of which sixty-four were reported to be operational in early 1988. The earliest aircraft--small transport airplanes and trainers--were provided by the British and were supplemented in the late 1960s with United States Bell helicopters. During the 1971 insurgency, the left-leaning Bandaranaike government turned to the Soviet Union for more sophisticated weaponry, and received five MiG-17 F fighter bombers, a MiG-15UTI Midget trainer, and two Ka-26 helicopters. The British also assisted with five BAC Jet Provosts. By the early 1980s, the Provosts and all of the Soviet aircraft had been taken out of active service and were relegated to long-term storage, leaving the air force without any bomber capability.

After the 1983 riots, the government worked rapidly to expand the inventory, relying largely on sources in Italy, Britain, and the United States. Because of tight budget constraints, the air force was compelled to refit a number of noncombat aircraft for military uses in counterinsurgency operations against Tamil separatists. Central in the government's security efforts were six SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 turboprop trainers which were used for rocket attacks and strafing.

Additionally, the air force, with the help of Heli Orient of Singapore, equipped twelve Bell 212 and 412 helicopters to serve as gunships and as transport vehicles for commando assault operations. Government forces reportedly also used helicopters on "bombing" missions; frequently operating without conventional bombs, air force troops reportedly dropped hand grenades stuffed in wine glasses so that the lever would not be released until the glass shattered on the ground. A more effective bombing capability was provided by a small fleet of Chinese Yun-12 turboprop transport aircraft. These were equipped with bomb racks that had been fitted to carry up to 1,000 kilograms of fragmentation and antipersonnel bombs. Transport, training, and surveying functions were carried out by a variety of Cessna and DeHavilland aircraft.

As in the other services, a shortage of spare parts plagued maintenance efforts, forcing the service to send a number of aircraft to Singapore and elsewhere for repairs. After the purchase of equipment from Canada in 1986, the air force gained the capability to make structural repairs on its fleet of Bell helicopters, several of which had been damaged in operations against the Tamil insurgents. Maintenance of electronic equipment was performed at the communications station at Ekala, in the north of Colombo District.

On 14 March 2007, former Minister of Port Development, Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, and Sripathi's mentor and former Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweena, leveled fresh charges of corruption against the administration, claiming that the President's brother, Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, received kickbacks of about 600 million Rupees (approximately 6 million U.S. dollars) on a recent purchase of MiG 27 fighter jets from Ukraine. The government denied the allegations and accused Sripathi and Mangala of harboring terrorist sympathies and attempting to embolden the LTTE with their muckraking.

On 03 September 2007 defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas temporarily left Sri Lanka with his family following a barrage of threats and intimidation apparently orchestrated by the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL). On 12 August 2007, he wrote an article for the Sunday Times about the Ukrainian Government's inquiry into "irregularities" in the sale of four MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. In his article, he noted that the third-party facilitating company, Bellimissa Holdings, seemed to exist only on paper, while the government claimed the deal was handled directly between the two states. Athas published extensive details on the transaction, even reprinting the letter of credit issued by a government-owned bank for the planes.

On August 14, a Sinhala version of the article was published in a local paper. Subsequently, demonstrators gathered to protest in front of his house, a man claiming to be a retired Air Force officer threatened to kill his translator, and he has received warnings that he may be kidnapped and questioned about his sources. Athas's situation has received extensive coverage in both local and international media. One of Athas's employers, CNN, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have championed his case.

Corruption continued to be a widespread problem in Colombo. Government officials are widely understood to be involved in taking bribes while also inhibiting corruption and bribery cases against political allies. For example, when the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (Bribery Commission) was moving forward earlier this year with an investigation into the government's shady purchase of MIG-27 aircraft from Ukraine, the President removed the Director General of the Commission, "transferring" him to the President's Secretariat. As the DG was the only individual within the Bribery Commission authorized to sign indictment charges, Rajapakse effectively stopped the ability of the Commission to operate.

Sri Lanka will become the first foreign country to acquire the JF-17 Thunder / FC-1 Xiaolong "Fierce Dragon". According to reports, the order will be for around 18-24 aircraft, confirming claims made at the 51st Paris Air Show in June 2015 that the first contract for the sale of the JF-17 had been signed with "an Asian country." The Pakistan Air Force announced that they will begin delivery of the JF-17 to Sri Lanka from 2017, adding that its Pakistani and Chinese developers will continue efforts to promote the aircraft to other countries.

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Page last modified: 24-06-2015 15:49:52 ZULU