The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said more such attacks by its air wing would follow, threatening to deepen renewed conflict in the island state off the toe of India. Airline and government officials said the civilian airport, 23 miles (37 km) north of the capital, was not damaged but was closed for several hours following the attack. The military said the bombs hit a barrack, and that none of its aircraft was damaged. Sri Lanka’s stock market fell in early trade following the attack. “A light Tiger aircraft flew over the air force base and dropped explosives. There have been two explosions. At the same time our air defences activated and there is a search operation going on,” said an air force spokesman, Group Captain Ajantha de Silva.
According to Janes, this represents the first use of conventional air power by a “non-state armed group.” Global Guerrillas claims that the rebels’ half-dozen aircraft — at least one of which is a Czech-made Z-143 two-seater trainer – were built from smuggled kits. Janes official stance is that the modest rebel air force’s potential for traditional missions is limited. But Reuters quotes one Janes analyst saying otherwise:
“This air attack appears to have taken the air force by complete surprise, and this is confirmed by the delayed response, by which time the attackers have been able to return to base,” said Iqbal Athas of Jane’s Defence Weekly. The rebel bombs hit a barracks at the air base, 23 miles (37 km) north of the capital, killing three airmen and wounding 16. But the attack failed to destroy Air Force fighter jets, which were the target. “It is a significant threat for a number of reasons. What they did, although they may have failed to achieve their target, is to demonstrate that they have such a capability,” Athas said. “The larger offshore patrol vessels of the navy can become vulnerable, troop transport ships can become vulnerable and so can armed groups leading an offensive on the ground.”
The formation of an organization as sophisticated as an air force is consistent with the traditional maturing process for insurgent groups, as Noah Shachtman reported over at Danger Room:
Phase I, The Strategic Defensive: The insurgents will concentrate primarily on building political strength, Military action will be limited to harassment attacks and selected, politically motivated assassinations.
Phase II, The Strategic Stalemate: The insurgents gain strength and consolidate control of base areas. They begin to actively administer some portions of the contested area. Military activity increases as dictated by political requirements.
Phase III, The Strategic Offensive: Only after the correlation of forces has shifted decisively in their favor do the insurgents commit their regular forces in the final offensive against the government.
Whether the air raid represents Phase II or Phase III is still, ahem, up in the air. But Tamil commanders are promising more raids to come, perhaps marking a new phase in the 24-year-old civil war.