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Sri Lanka’s Fighter Selection – An Opportunity for India

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 10, 2017

    In August 2016, the Sri Lankan government made the announcement that it was seeking to procure between eight and 12 combat aircraft to replace its ageing air force assets. While there has been much speculation about Sri Lanka’s choice – with the Sino-Pak JF-17 reportedly being strongly pushed by Pakistan – it is suggested that this selection process can offer India a unique opportunity both to strengthen military ties with Sri Lanka as well as to make a breakthrough into the aviation export market.

    The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) is facing the prospect of being without a single combat aircraft, despite operating a force with three dedicated combat aircraft squadrons – No.5 with F-7G, the No. 10 with the Kfir C.2/7, and No. 12 with the MiG-27M. The Sri Lankan government revealed that, by August 2016, only a single Kfir (out of seven survivors) was operational, while none of the F.7Gs and MiG-27Ms were operational.1 Cabinet Spokesman and Parliamentary Reforms and Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka expressed the situation in stark terms:

    “At the moment, only one Kfir aircraft – the remaining six aircrafts cannot be used. We have seven MIG aircrafts and eight other aircrafts but none of them can be used. The Government will consider all offers and select a suitable one…”2

    While the government’s official position is that the fleet requirements have not yet been finalized, it is apparent that the SLAF is seeking multi-role combat aircraft to replace its current fleet.3 Aircraft manufacturers will be courting the SLAF. With the JF-17 being pushed strongly, one may soon witness the Russians and Swedes entering the fray with a variant of either the MiG-29 or the Su-27 and the Gripen, respectively. For its part, India may be in a position to use its unique diplomatic and geographic proximity to offer two products – the Tejas and the Advanced Hawk – as possible contenders to meet the SLAF requirement.

    It should be noted that India’s foray into military aviation exports has been plagued by missteps, shortfalls in support and poor communications. The sale of Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador was widely hailed, and rightly so, as a major breakthrough for Indian arms export. However, after a number of crashes (several of which were caused by pilot error), the helicopters were withdrawn from use, citing, among other things, poor spares support from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).4 The sale of Chetaks to Suriname was plagued by poor contract management and “financial and administrative obstacles”, which led to the helicopters being ready long before pilots were ready to be trained, leading to a delay in delivery of the helicopters.5 Subsequent supplies of aircraft have been gifts or heavily discounted sales of Chetak and Dhruv helicopters and Dornier Do-228 surveillance aircraft to the Maldives, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Nepal and Bhutan.

    Yet, unlike sales to Ecuador and Suriname, India is geographically proximate to Sri Lanka and, if an Indian choice is made, use can be made of Indian Air Force support facilities. Furthermore, India has had a somewhat low-key but nonetheless important role in equipping the SLAF. In the past, India had provided 24 L-70 guns, 24 battle-field surveillance radars, 11 upgraded Super Fledermaus radars, four Indra- I & II radars and 10 mine-protected vehicles to assist in the defence of SLAF air bases. These proved useful against air attack by the former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’s air wing consisting of armed microlight aircraft as well as from LTTE infiltrators.6 India is already a major supplier to the Sri Lankan Navy with two 105m Offshore Patrol Vessels under construction at Goa.7

    Should the SLAF desire a supersonic multi-role aircraft, India’s Tejas Mk.1, despite its still being in the developmental phase, could be a viable option. The aircraft has already demonstrated significant capabilities in the air-to-air and air-to-ground roles and the limited number of aircraft being sought by the SLAF lends itself to relatively easy accommodation with HAL’s production schedule and capacity. Moreover, as the Indian Air Force will be undertaking training and conversion activities with the type, Sri Lanka could benefit from this process.

    On the other hand, if the SLAF is seeking a cost-effective multi-role aircraft with a relatively low operating cost – and is willing to forego the “prestige” of supersonic aircraft - then the BAE-HAL Advanced Hawk has the potential to meet this requirement. The Advanced Hawk has significant combat capabilities with provision for Brimstone air-to-ground missiles and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles.8 As a subsonic aircraft with a dual training role, the operating costs of the Advanced Hawk would inevitably be lower than any supersonic combat aircraft while still offering substantial combat capability. This combination of capability and cost-effectiveness is an important consideration given the SLAF’s problems with its existing combat assets and the acquisition and operating costs of modern supersonic aircraft.9 In addition, the large fleet of BAE Hawks operated by the Indian Air Force and the strong overhaul and maintenance facilities available in India could make the Advanced Hawk attractive to the SLAF.

    If India is desirous of securing this order, it must not treat it as a purely transactional arrangement. The export of Indian combat aircraft would be a major step forward for Indian arms exports and, as such, India should be flexible in respect of prices. India should also not hesitate to offer attractive financing packages and lines of credit at low interest rates to encourage Sri Lanka to “buy Indian” – the lack of such packages reportedly playing a role in the SLAF declining a Pakistani offer of the JF-17.10

    From all angles – political, economic, diplomatic and military – India is in a position to meet the SLAF’s potential combat aircraft requirements. It is a rare confluence of circumstances that has the potential to operate in India’s favour if the Indian political, bureaucratic and military-industrial leadership has the will and desire to see a sale of Indian combat aircraft to Sri Lanka become a reality.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.