Aviation News Journal
Right-sizing the Sri Lanka Air Force
Text and photography by Patrick Dirksen & Frank Mink of Tristar Aviation
Although Sri Lanka is now an island paradise, the country was torn apart by a civil war for multiple decades not too long ago.
During this period, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had a large budget, and therefore, over the years, many aircraft and helicopters were acquired. In 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) were finally defeated, and peace prevailed. Obviously, a lot of damage had been done over the years, and the economy needed rebuilding. As a side result of this, the following years saw large cutbacks made by the SLAF, resulting in the withdrawal of several aircraft types (like the MiG-23/27 ‘Flogger’) while others were placed into storage (like the Mi-24 ‘Hind’). A new balance had to be sought, and the SLAF is currently getting there.
Air Marshal Udeni Rajapaksa, commander of the SLAF since last summer, explains, "At the end of the conflict, the composition of the air force was a bit different. We had a larger number of ground troops than we had technicians and pilots. Now we are trying to get back to the role of an air force. For that, we will change the composition and we will restructure. We will not downsize the air force but we will right-size it. That is currently being done." As a part of this right-sizing, the fleet of active aircraft is slowly expanding again. On the one hand, through much-needed maintenance, getting aircraft back in the air, and on the other hand, by new acquisitions as well.
Airbase China Bay, nicknamed ‘the cradle of flight’, houses the 1 Flying Training Wing. Pilots-to-be get their first flying experience here. To be able to train more pilots, in 2018, six brand new PT-6A aircraft were bought. All have recently been painted in an attractive blue and yellow colour scheme, including the national flag on the belly, and as such, they are also used by the recently founded national demonstration team, the Blue Eagles.
Also based here is the 3 Maritime Squadron, which was resurrected in 2021. Its main task is maritime reconnaissance, for which a Beech 200 is being used. Neighbouring India also stepped in, supplying a locally built Dornier Do.228 for free in 2022. This aircraft recently returned to India for scheduled maintenance and has been replaced by another Do.228 from the Indian Navy. The aircraft is flown and maintained by SLAF crews under the supervision of Indian engineers. This lease is a temporary arrangement, while two Indian-built Do.228s are on order. One of these will be a gift from the Indian government, while the other one will be paid for by the SLAF.
In addition to the Do.228s, the squadron will soon receive a significant upgrade in the shape of a Beechcraft Be.350 King Air, donated by the Australian Air Force, and a brand new Beechcraft Be.360ER, donated by the US government. As part of the gift of their aircraft, the Australian Government will first refurbish it and also provide support for a period of 12 months. The Beech 360ER turboprop will be delivered via a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract. As part of this deal, the aircraft will be handed over to the US Army first, where the sensors will be installed before it is delivered to the SLAF. Air Marshal Rajapaksa says, "The one that will come from the US will have a Highly Integrated Surveillance and Reconnaissance System or HISAR; it will have equipment on board for long-time surveillance. Conversion will be easy for us, as we already have the Beech 200, which is quite similar, so it is easy for us to acquire the technical know-how. After delivery, the current Beech 200 will be used for training and VIP flights." The Australian Be.350 is expected early in 2024, while the Be.360ER is probably ready in 2025. Both the Do.228 and the King Airs will be used to conduct maritime and coastal surveillance operations within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), aimed at drug and human trafficking, but also to perform Search and Rescue operations (SAR), Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC), and Maritime Pollution Monitoring and Control.
Beechcraft King Air
Responsible for training helicopter pilots is the 7 Squadron at Hingurakgoda, which has both the Bell 206 JetRanger and Bell 212 Twin Huey in the inventory. With no less than three JetRangers being heavily damaged or written off during training over the last few years, the acquisition of an additional B.206 was very useful for the unit. This second-hand JetRanger III was found in the USA and was added to the fleet in 2022. The intention is to acquire up to three more, probably from the civilian market as well.
The transport fleet has also received a boost. Three out of four remaining An-32 'Cline' heavy transport aircraft of Katunayake based 2 Squadron have received a major overhaul in Kyiv in 2021/2022. Fortunately, they had just returned to Sri Lanka before hostilities broke out in Ukraine. The unit's two C-130 Hercules are stored while waiting for overhaul. Furthermore, two brand new Y-12 IV Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) light transport aircraft were delivered in December 2023, supplementing a fleet of another eight Y-12s serving with 8 Squadron at Ratmalana. This particular model incorporates extended wing tips and an increased take-off weight, enhancing its performance capabilities. The Panda, as it is called, will not only be used for military transport duties, but also to support tourism promotion. The new aircraft have a capacity for 15 passengers. Commander Rajapaksa highlighted the ability of the Y-12 IVs to land on 90% of Sri Lanka's runways, making them ideal for promoting tourism in remote and picturesque locations.
The fleet of Kfir multi-role combat aircraft has been grounded for some years, but five of them are being overhauled to get them back in the air. Currently, 5 Squadron, based at Ratmalana, is guarding the Sri Lankan skies with their F-7, performing Air Defence duties 24/7. The Kfir pilots from 10 Squadron also fly the F-7 to stay current. Work on the Kfir also includes a large upgrade. The deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) includes replacing the aircraft's basic avionics with advanced 4+ generation fighter aircraft avionics to one day integrate advanced radar, sensors, communication systems, and new helmets. Air Marshal Rajapaksa says, "Due to the economic downfall and Covid, there were some delays, but we are catching up and there are only some 6 months delay in the whole process now." Early in 2024, the first refurbished Kfir is expected to fly again. The upgrade process will also include a transfer of knowledge and skills for refurbishment to Sri Lankan Air Force personnel. The upgrades will be completed in cooperation with Sri Lanka's Air Force and in their local facilities. "Overhauling the Kfir is not done by the SLAF alone; we do it with IAI. We do it here, so our technicians can get involved in the process. They do it, together with us." It will give the existing Kfir fleet another 15-year life cycle.
The SLAF has also entered the UAV era. They already use multiple handheld drones and the Searcher mk.II UAV, but a new indigenous UAV is currently being developed. Air Marshal Rajapaksa elaborates, “We have a project that has been there for over 15 years and we want to further develop that. It is called Lihiniya, named after a local bird. It is built by the Research and Development Unit of the SLAF.” At the moment, there are two flying prototypes. “We have about a 20 km range, but we want to increase that to 150 km. If it works well, we will invite somebody to invest. We have the technical capacity right now; we need the capital investment.” He continues, “We are not looking for an armed version. The purpose is for surveying, for weather information, and handling traffic. And also to face the threats of drugs, human smuggling, and pirating. We can counter those with the use of UAVs. The UAV is a good platform, because it means less cost and less risk.” Commander Rajapaksa is very clear on the motivation for developing a UAV instead of buying an existing type: “The Sri Lanka Air Force does not believe in purchasing things anymore. We want a technological transfer. We want to develop, with the support of somebody, so that we can consolidate our strong capacity for the future. Otherwise, we purchase something and maybe after six months, they say ‘sorry sir, we can’t support your software, or your hardware, because we don’t produce that anymore, you have to purchase the next generation instead’. The other thing is, if you develop it yourself, even with the support of somebody else, it is more customized. Otherwise, if we purchase something, it is always produced for some other country.”
And looking further into the future, Commander Rajapaksa continues, “The other sector I am very keen to invest in and expand is the UN missions. We already have one UN mission in Central Africa where we have three Mi-171 helicopters and some 120 people. We are fighting there for peace. And apart from that, this is a good platform for our pilots and technicians to gain experience. For this, we don’t have enough aircraft and helicopters. So we try to get those helicopters serviceable as soon as possible. And for this, we are looking for an investor.” 62 Flight of the SLAF has been involved in the UN mission in the Central African Republic, called MINUSCA, since 2014. The involvement in the mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) ran from 2015 but ended in 2021. These missions are an important way of generating money for the SLAF, next to the commercial charter flights mainly with tourists.
Further development of the Aircraft Overhaul Wing at Katunayake is another way of investing in the future. Commander Rajapaksa explains, “There, we undertake a lot of repairs and major overhauls of PT-6, Y-12, K-8, F-7, Bell 206, Bell 212, Bell 412.” A Chinese contingent of technicians assists with the Chinese types. “We do complete overhauls with them. So, we try to develop our capabilities, through that we can reduce the foreign input.” Last year, for example, three K-8 trainers went through an aircraft life extension program, and one Y-12 has been converted into an air ambulance. Also, a Bell 212 that was written off in 2007 is currently being rebuilt. Commander Rajapaksa concludes, “We have very good facilities, so if somebody wants to work with us…”