Losing the island, again

I've always been a little suspicious about the ostensible big-brother attitude that New Delhi always just stops short of espousing in the subcontinent. Sometimes, we're "prisoners of democracy", but most of the time, it's just straight-backed political weakheadedness. Yesterday, the Air Tigers of the LTTE pulled off a ridiculously audacious bombing of an airport near Colombo mission in a tin-can monoprop. This could actually have been funny if people hadn't been killed in the attack, nor a country shaken violently into reality mode. But that's a different matter altogether. Obviously, the only question is how a tiny little plane strayed so far out from Venni without being picked out by air defence batteries just south of the LTTE airstrip. Was it plain denial that the SLAF's only interceptors, the Kfirs were not scrambled to chase the damn thing back? But this has a lot to do with India. For starters (and probably less importantly), the pair of BEL INDRA radars that protect the airport were a gift from New Delhi last year. Both radars, reportedly, were down for repairs and maintenance at the time.

In the last few years, India has watched helplessly as Sri Lanka has stretched its hands out to Pakistan and China. In March last year, in a move that shocked our military planners, Sri Lanka sent a comprehensive arms wishlist fo Pakistan. The real sting was that a similar list has been sat upon by our South Block mandarins for years, with no action. That's the point -- our country has never had a concerted policy on Sri Lanka. Internal sensitivities, mostly those of the DMK, have systematically handed what should be an ally, on a platter to our more troublesome neighbours. The wishlist sent in March to Islamabad from Colombo included two UAVs, 100 cluster and fuel air bombs for SLAF Kfirs, 20 laser/precision guided bomb kits, 30 deep penetration bombs, 500 80mm rockets with fuel air explosive warheads, 10 Bakhtar Shiken anti-tank guided missile launchers, 300 tandem warhead missiles, 1,000 radio sets, 5,000 mortar bombs and 250 night vision goggles. In addition, it wanted Pakistan to send maintenance and repair teams to overhaul the T-55 tanks and C-130 transporters. Pakistan, as you could well imagine, has seized the opportunity already and processes are underway for the transfers to take place.

The last big transfer made by India to Sri Lanka was the INS Sarayu, an offshore patrol vessel gifted to the Lankan Navy in 2000 and since rechristened the SLNS Sayura. I had a chance to get onto this remarkably souped up ship in January 2006 at Port Blair during the multinational Milan 2006 exercise. An SLN Commodore on board told me at the time that Sri Lanka had aske for at least one more vessel for deep water patrolling in the Bay of Bengal -- possible a missile corvette. This, however, has not been addressed. This, of course, was just days after an LTTE Sea Tigers suicide dinghy killed 13 sailors aboard a Lankan Navy vessel. New Delhi was reminded that Sri Lanka needed more equipment. The wishlist to India included all of the items on the list sent to Pakistan, and in addition, overhaul and spares for MiG-27s and An-32s, AK-630 deck-based guns and ammunition, bomb guidance kits and infantry combat vehicles.

Shortly after the President's Fleet Review in Vizag in February last year, a US Navy officer got onto INS Viraat and the battle group sailed South-West to rendezvous with the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, and the two battle groups carried out a complex exercise 60-miles off the South Coast of Sri Lanka. Lankan authorities were, apparently, not in the loop about the level of the exercise (the Indian Navy later said it was supposed to have been a simple pas-ex, but escalated into a full-fledged dissimilar air combat and over the horizon firing war game!). This ticked off the Lankans plenty, because the very next month, they had shot off their wishlist to Islamabad. Obviously the two may not be connected, but it's clear that the incident made something snap. India had to quickly get to grips with things, and rapidly transferred a long delayed pair of INDRA radars for air defence at the airport outside Colombo.

But things have moved ahead even more now. Last heard, Pakistan has offered to transfer a squadron Chendu F-7s or Mirage-Vs which will be excess assets once the JF-17s and new F-16s start delivery. More than anything else, the wishlist has instilled a huge feel-good factor in Pakistan's military and government. The sense of being asked for help has to be heady and it doesn't come often. Is it too late to do something?

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