The Sri Lanka Air Force put on a spectacular display on Independence Day, but appearances could be deceptive. Is the SLAF fit for purpose and value for money on an island at peace and facing no military threats from its neighbours?
Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft fly in formation during a Victory Day parade in the southern town of Matara, 18 May 2014. Image credit: AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

These questions are especially relevant as the Air Force pursues a multi-million-dollar procurement programme to upgrade its fleet with 8-12 modern Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA). But warplanes don’t come cheap, even second-hand ones come with a hefty price tag.

Cabinet spokesman Gayantha Karunathilaka stated last year that new planes are needed to replace ageing inventories, maintain maritime security, and face any unexpected threat.

He pointed out that only one of seven Israel Aircraft Industries Kfir C2/C7 fighter aircraft acquired in the 1990s is operational. Karunathilaka added that none of the SLAF’s remaining fighter aircraft fleets, comprised of a few Russian MiG­27s and around seven Chinese J­7s, were fit to fly.

“The government will consider all offers and will select a suitable [aircraft],” he said, but the process appears to have become stalled after being caught up in regional politics. The international defence journal, IHS Jane’s, reported that Sri Lanka had at one stage agreed to a USD 400 million deal with Pakistan to purchase up to 12 JF-­17 Thunder fighter aircraft.

Pakistani Air Force JF-17 Thunder aircraft. Image credit: nomadgraphy.wordpress.com

The JF-17 is a joint venture between the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) and IHS Jane’s suggested the deal flew into trouble following diplomatic and political pressure by India. Delhi considers Sri Lanka to be a security partner and opposes and is anxious to prevent Pakistan and China from jointly expanding defence links with Colombo.

Contemporary Aircraft

Last month it was announced that the requirements for the new aircraft are still being finalised after the Ministry of Defence was given permission by the cabinet to seek offers from foreign aircraft manufacturers for new aircraft and associated weapon systems on a government to government basis. It was reported that SLAF Spokesman, Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne, said the call for bids is likely before the end of the year, but he was rather imprecise about the type of plane they’re looking for. “Contemporary aircraft which would be suitable for the coming years would be purchased,” he said.

The SLAF’s procurement process has hardly been a stellar success in recent years, as shown by the failed deal with Pakistan. Much worse was the purchase of 4 MiG-27s from Ukraine in 2005. An international arrest warrant is currently outstanding for the man who brokered the deal, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga. He is wanted over allegations of the financial misappropriation of USD 14 million in connection with the MiG purchase. None of the planes are currently airworthy and Weeratunga, a nephew of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is now living in the United Arab Emirates.

It’s not only the financial aspect of the procurement of military aircraft that is fraught with difficulties. There are political and diplomatic pitfalls, too. As already mentioned, Sri Lanka doesn’t want to upset India and the same applies to China, the US, and the European Union.

Selecting the right aircraft is the most critical decision of all. From the public statements issued by Cabinet spokesman Karunathilaka and Air Force spokesman Group Captain Seneviratne over the last year, we can gather that the SALF is looking for a contemporary plane that will be relatively future proof and is capable of maintaining maritime security and facing unexpected threats. If the failed deal with Pakistan is anything to go by, the budget is around USD 400 million for 12 planes. It is unclear whether this price includes weapons, but that would seem unlikely, as Air Forces usually customise the payload to meet their specific needs.

Bang For Bucks

Apart from the aircraft themselves, there are massive costs associated with the weapons systems chosen for the new planes. Modern jets are basically flying weapons platforms. They can be equipped with smart bombs, missiles or old fashioned bombs that just fall where they are dropped, machine guns, and cannon.

Most modern air forces use a combination of smart bombs, missiles, and guns, depending on the type of mission. Each missile and smart bomb can cost upwards of USD 50,000. For example, Britain’s Royal Air Force has an aging fleet of Tornado MRCA. Just flying the plane to its target costs USD 45,000 an hour. The Tornado can fire radar-guided anti-armour Brimstone missiles, which are conservatively estimated to cost USD 125,000 each; heavier Paveway IV bombs are estimated at USD 50,000 apiece; and long-range Storm Shadow missiles are estimated at nearly a USD 1 million each.

No one would suggest that the SLAF goes down such an expensive route, but even with more basic weapons systems, you are looking at many thousands of dollars a pop. Training SLAF aircrew to use a new weapons system will easily stretch into the millions. Some of the training can be carried out with computer simulators, but live firing is essential. Operating a plane is like driving a car: theory is useless without practice.

The ground crews would also have to be trained in maintaining a new type of aircraft and weapons. You can’t get a Toyota repaired by Land Rover dealership.

Unexpected Threats

The Boeing E3 Sentry AWACS aircraft. Image credit: militaryfactory.com

Let’s turn now to the unexpected threats that Cabinet spokesman Karunathilaka referred to. Unless you are a major global power with international reach, such as the US, Russia, China, and, to a lesser extent, Britain and France, it is impossible to have a large enough and flexible enough air force to meet the entire threat spectrum.

To do so would require high-speed interceptors such as the new US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Starting price: USD 85-100 million per plane. Sri Lanka could afford four, that is, if the US would be willing to sell them to a non-NATO country.

For very expensive fighters to be effective, you’d need early warning or AWACS planes to direct them to their targets. The Boeing E-3 AWACS cost more than USD 200 million per plane and again it is unlikely that the US or anyone else would allow such high technology to be sold to Sri Lanka.

You also need ground attack aircraft to support troops in the field. These can be much less costly than fighters. A good example, that would meet Sri Lanka’s needs, is the Brazilian Embraer Super Tucano. The plane uses a single turboprop rather than a jet, which helps to keep the fuel bills down. It is intended for counter insurgency, close air support, reconnaissance, and pilot training, and is designed to operate in high temperature and humidity conditions in extremely rugged terrain. Sound familiar? Yours for USD 15 million per plane. With a nominal budget of USD 400 million, Sri Lanka could afford 26.

So where would these unexpected threats come from? The only major military powers within possible striking distance of Sri Lanka are India and China. Sri Lanka enjoys very good relations with both countries and aerial warfare with either is virtually is inconceivable, but for argument’s sake let’s put such unlikely scenarios into context.

India has more than 240 air superiority fighters, along with all the necessary AWACS and tanker aircraft. China has slightly fewer fighters but has similar capabilities to India and is rapidly modernising its People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Any opponent equipped with just 12 fighters would be wiped out very quickly.

Compare Sri Lanka with another island nation that doesn’t face any serious military threats from its neighbours: New Zealand. In 2001, the Kiwis completely abandoned the use of jet fighters. They know they can’t afford enough of them to make any difference. Despite the lack of fighters, the Royal New Zealand Air Force plays a very significant role in the country’s defence. It has a fleet of six Lockheed Orion maritime patrol aircraft as well as eight maritime patrol helicopters. Like the Sri Lankan Air Force, it also has significant air transport capability.

Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product is just over a third of New Zealand’s, and USD 400 million is a big chunk of any country’s budget. There is a very good case for Sri Lanka to invest in maritime patrol aircraft like the Orion (cost: USD 45 million per plane) and a ground attack plane like the Super Tucano. USD 400 million would buy six Orions and twelve Tucanos.

The ‘Top Gun’ pilots of the SLAF are likely to object to the demise of jet fighters. Image credit: Sri Lanka Air Force

The turboprop Orion and Super Tucano lack the glamour of jet fighters and the ‘Top Gun’ pilots of the Sri Lankan Air Force are likely to object to the demise of jet fighters. But the country has managed to get by with just one aging Israeli fighter without any noticeable harm to national security.

Weapons and all the ancillary costs associated with a new generation of jet fighters could easily double the price. If procurement disasters like the purchase of the Ukrainian MiGs are to be avoided this time, it is vital that there is transparent procurement process and open debate on the alternatives, whether the money is invested in cheaper and more suitable military aircraft or hospitals, schools, or highways.

Featured image courtesy airforce.lk