March 8, 2011: Two Sri Lankan Kfir jet fighters recently collided while practicing formation flying for the upcoming celebration of the Air Force's 60's anniversary. An autopsy of the 28 year old pilot, who failed to eject, found that the young man had suffered a heart attack. That was very unusual, but so is the Sri Lankan Air Force.
Sri Lanka, having spent lavishly to recently win a two decade long civil war, is now looking to modernize its air force. New combat aircraft are being sought, with the main prospects being Russian MiG-29s and Chinese JF-17s, although second hand American F-16s are also a contender. The Sri Lankan Air Force was created in 1951, and for several decades, did little more than provide transport and recon services for the army. Then came the civil war with the Tamil minority in the 1980s. The fighting grew more extensive by the 1990s, and the air force went looking for fighter-bombers and gunships.
A decade ago, Sri Lanka received the first of eleven MiG-27 fighter-bombers. The MiGs were not only cheaper than the more capable (on paper) Israeli Kfirs they had also purchased, but the MiGs were cheaper to maintain and, because of their swing-wing design (similar to the U.S. F-14) able to hit targets more accurately at low altitudes. The MiGs were also better at avoiding, or absorbing, enemy ground fire. That's what the MiG-27 was built for. Moreover, at the 300 kilometer ranges the aircraft had to operate (flying from bases in the south to enemy targets in the far north), the Migs could carry more bombs (usually eight half ton bombs) than the Kfirs.
The 20 ton MiG-27 is a ground attack version of the MiG-23 (which was the Russian successor to the MiG-21, and influenced by the American F-4 and F-111). The MiG-27 carries a 30mm cannon (with 300 shells), and up to four tons of bombs or missiles. Sri Lanka also had a dozen Israel Kfir fighter bombers (an Israeli design based on the French Mirage 5). Israel stopped using the Kfir in the 1990s and was selling them off cheap, which was why Sri Lanka got some. The Kfir is a 14 ton aircraft with two 30mm cannon (with 120 shells each), and can carry up to five tons of other weapons (at short range). Sri Lanka used the Mig-27s and Kfirs to attack LTTE rebel base camps and artillery positions. The MiG-27s proved to be decisive weapons, given their ability to get down low, survive enemy fire, and accurately deliver bombs.
Sri Lanka got MiG-27s largely because they were so cheap (about $2 million each, versus $3 million for a Kfir). Ukraine had lots of old, Cold War era, MiG-27 fighter bombers. These were well worn aircraft, with only about a thousand flight hours left on them. But the Ukrainians were willing to sell them cheap, and, as a bonus, offer inexpensive refurbishment services, that would add 2-3,000 flight hours to the aircraft's life. The first batch of seven MiG-27s (one was a trainer version) were bought between 2000-2003, for an average $1.72 million each. The aircraft performed well, even though two crashed and one was destroyed on the ground. In 2007, another four, of more recent vintage, were purchased, for $2.5 million each.
Ukraine had inherited thousands of warplanes (including hundreds of MiG-27s) in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved. The dissolution deal had military equipment belonging to whatever new country the stuff was in, when the Soviet Union broken into 15 new countries (including Russia, and Ukraine). For decades, Ukraine had been the major staging area for a possible invasion of Western Europe. Thus lots of warplanes were parked there. Ukraine had no need for most of these, and there was not a big market for second hand Russian warplanes in the 1990s. But some of the better stuff was kept in decent shape, so Sri Lanka was able to get some proven combat aircraft at a fraction of what any alternatives (new or used) would cost.
But the MiG-27s and Kfirs are really worn out now, due to heavy use during the last few years of the civil war, and the air force wants to retire them as soon as possible and replace them with MiG-29s and helicopter gunships.
The popularity of the MiG-29 is partly the result of Sri Lanka almost buying some of these aircraft several years ago. Back then, the government was negotiating the purchase of five MiG-29 jet fighters, for about $15 million each. Some legislators believed this purchase involved bribes, although the price is a bit below what MiG-29s were going for at the time. The MiG-29 was sought because its radar could pick up small aircraft flying close to the ground. This was the kind of air force the LTTE rebels were using, and the MiG-29 was the kind of aircraft that could deal with this threat. The war ended (in early 2009) before a MiG-29 purchase could be made. There is interest in the JF-17 because it is a co-production of Pakistan and China, two countries that were useful in selling weapons to the government during the civil war. The JF-17 is being offered for about $15 million. While used F-16s can be had for less, the United States was less helpful to the government during the civil war, not wanting to get involved in a messy (as civil wars tend to be) conflict.
Sri Lanka really doesn't need modern jet fighter-bombers, as they are a tiny island with 20 million people, off the southern tip of India (population one billion). But there is fear that the civil war might resume, and fear in general, the kind of fear that attracts jet fighter salesmen. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has been buying Russian helicopters, which are always useful.