The other dimension of SLAF aerial observation | Daily News

The other dimension of SLAF aerial observation

The sky has gradually become a domain that has an impact on public security and national security. The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) has many airborne and ground-based observation and surveillance gathering platforms. Since 1996 a paradigm shift was made to tremendously enhance the real time airborne observation and reconnaissance capacity of the SLAF with the prudent induction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

During the conflict in the North, these Air Force UAVs provided real-time data flying over LTTE controlled areas, giving the government military forces important information. This vital data enabled the planning and effective counterstrikes against the enemy positions.

An SLAF officer explained that the UAVs’ day and night capability enabled real-time feedback for reconnaissance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment (BDA). The UAV has the ability to fly over high-risk, heavily defended areas. It has less risk than deploying a Forward Air Controller (FAC). Generally, UAV teams include a mission commander, internal pilot, observer and external pilot.

Prior to 1996, the Army was unable to obtain visual intelligence beyond their Forward Defence Lines (FDL). The Army called up the Air Force to provide this vital information to their ground commanders. Subsequently, the Super Scout UAV system was set up at the SLAF station in Vavuniya in February 1996, and the unit was known as No 11 Flight. Training and operational flying was done at the SLAF Base at Hingurkagoda.

In 2001 the Air Force inducted the Searcher MK11 UAV into service. It was these Air Force UAV operators who captured the first visual of the LTTE runway at Iranamadu and later photographed the LTTE airplane in January 2005. All of this ground intelligence assisted the Air Force in the formulation of their air strike strategies. In June 2008, the UAV Flight was restructured as the No 111 UAV Squadron and operated from the SLAF Base at Vavuniya. The requirement for aerial reconnaissance increased in multiple battlefronts, and the SLAF procured the Blue Horizon UAVs in 2007, and this unit was named as the No 112 Squadron. They were stationed at SLAF Base at Anuradhapura.

Apart from these tasks the UAVs provided accurate weather observations to fighter jet pilots and MI-24 helicopters prior to their flights. Additionally, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP) relied on the terrain visual information relayed from airborne UAVs before advancing into thick jungles. Air Force UAV visual data further enabled the target guidance of Army artillery guns and MBRL fire with precision accuracy when attacking enemy positions.

A remarkable incident took place in April 2007, on a routine UAV flight. The Searcher MK11 developed engine trouble at 15,000 feet while flying over Iranamadu. The mission commander, then Wing Commander D. Wasage and his crew were able to guide the UAV towards a government-controlled area, landing it on the Pulmuddai beachfront. This flight covered a distance of 42 kilometres. Once safely landed, MI-24 gunships and MI-17 helicopters rapidly flew over to the beach to secure the UAV, supported by a Bell 212 helicopter carrying RSF troops (Air Force Regiment Special Forces).

A significant feature in air strikes took place when the Sri Lanka Air Force was bestowed with laser designators and laser-guided bombs. The Searcher MK11 UAVs engaged in many laser guided combat missions. The drones ‘painted’ the target with a laser beam, and shortly jet fighters would deliver their weapons payload with precision to decimate the targets, with minimum collateral damage. During the Humanitarian Operation in 2009 the UAVs relayed visuals to help locate stranded civilians.

SLAF drones 

Climbing into a new echelon of technology the SLAF augmented its stealth aerial information gathering capability with the induction of drones. These short-range vertical takeoff drones were used by the Directorate of Air Operations to fulfill their operational requirements. The early drone deployment covered ten Air Force establishments. According to an official, significant advances have been made during the last five years, including live video sharing from airborne drones.

In the recent past the officers and airmen attached to the drone wing have been able to share their skills and training with many government entities, to support them in their operational requirements. One of the important duties of the Air Force drone operators is the aerial sweep over the Parliament of Sri Lanka, securing its security perimeter in a discreet manner, whilst assisting the other police and military personnel tasked with the protection of the Parliamentary complex.

Another key development is the use of drones to support the Traffic Division of the Police to control and effectively manage vehicular movements. The real-time images assist senior police officers to map out and make improvements when so required to ease traffic congestions. The Sri Lanka Air Force has assisted the Special Task Force (STF) to engage in rapid raids, by giving them accurate locations of illegal cannabis cultivations, which are often concealed in densely wooded areas, and not visible from ground level. This has assisted the STF and local police stations in their anti-narcotics operations. In curtailing such illegal operations, the SLAF has done a great service to the community, especially to the vulnerable youth who could fall prey to these locally harvested drugs.

Deforestation and illegal sand mining have created great environmental issues over the past few years. The natural green cover of the forest is important for the entire nation. Against this backdrop, SLAF drones have been flown over many areas of suspicion, whereby real-time feedback has been given to the local police on the ground to make arrests and enforce the law. Similar tasks were carried out by the Air Force to monitor illegal sand quarries and update the police for swift action. The SLAF drone wing further supports the Department of Wildlife by flying drones to observe certain forest areas, and at times locating wildlife such as elephants. Aerial feedback was given when controlling fires that had erupted in some forest locations.

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) has also been bestowed with aerial input by the SLAF for project monitoring. The involvement of these drones in the Surakimu Ganga project, in accordance with the guidance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is another key task for which the Sri Lanka Air Force flew its drones.

Apart from these missions the Air Force has been a key stakeholder in monitoring the prevention and spread of dengue. Their drones were tasked with recording and gathering data in this regard working alongside the Western Provincial Council.

Since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, SLAF drones have been successfully used to monitor the quarantine control curfews and periods of travel restrictions. Working with police stations, Air Force drone operators were able to give instant feedback to the police on the ground, regarding persons violating the curfew and health guidelines. This led to the arrest of those willfully violating the law. In the past few days, SLAF drones were airborne to observe the raging fire on the merchant vessel X-Press Pearl. The drones flew about observing the trail of the leaking chemicals into the sea, and further monitoring the burnt debris that floated towards the Negombo shoreline and other areas. The UAVs and drones of the Sri Lanka Air Force have played a silent role flying in the service of the nation.