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SL drops plan to buy Chinese fighter aircraft due to Indian pressure

NEW DELHI, January 10: Stiff opposition from India has forced Sri Lanka to drop plans to buy JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft from Pakistan at least for now, an Indian newspaper claimed today.

In a front page report, The Sunday Express said that New Delhi shot off a diplomatic missive a few weeks ago to Colombo on why it should not buy the JF-17 Thunder. The missive included a negative technical assessment of the aircraft. It also pointed out that Sri Lanka’s defence requirements do not need fighters.

While questions were raised in Sri Lanka too about the reported $400-million deal, India’s forceful opposition, conveyed through a non-paper, was one of the likely reasons that made Sri Lanka drop the plan for now.

The Pakistani media were reporting that the deal for JF-17s would be signed during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s three-day visit to Colombo, which ended last Wednesday.

Despite its own financial crunch, Pakistan was also said to be ready to extend a line of credit to Sri Lanka for the aircraft.

On Tuesday, Sharif and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Defence Minister, signed agreements under eight heads in Colombo, but the sale of aircraft was not one of them.

The Indian government delivered the non-paper (diplomatic parlance for a white sheet of paper without a letterhead or signature) to Colombo at the highest level about three weeks ago after reports that Pakistan is seriously engaging the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) on the Chinese fighter aircraft to replace the SLAF’s ageing fleet of Israeli Kfirs and MiG-27s.

Pakistan has been pushing for the sale of 10 to 12 JF-17s, each priced about $35 million. Talk of the deal gained ground after a visit to Pakistan by SLAF Chief Gagan Bulathsinhala last November. He was invited to send a team to assess the aircraft at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in Kamra.

Kamra is where the PAC and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) co-produce the aircraft. But defence experts believe that the aircraft are more or less only assembled at Kamra from readymade Chinese kits. Taking up the Pakistani invitation, a team of Sri Lankan Air Force officials visited Kamra to test the aircraft and run simulation tests.

New Delhi has opposed SLAF plans to buy the J-17s on the ground that Sri Lanka does not need fighter aircraft. It is six years now since the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended. Since then, Sri Lanka’s defence spending has increased. For 2016, it is an estimated $3 billion.

The newspaper quoted unidentified Sri Lankan sources as saying that India also put forth a technical argument that the Russian engines of the JF-17 were not the best, and that even China does not use these aircraft.

Earlier, some Sri Lankan reports had said India had offered its own Tejas to the SLAF instead.

India is also concerned that, if the deal goes through, it will enable the PAC, and perhaps even the CAC, to set up a facility in Sri Lanka for maintenance and training, and increase and widen contacts between Pakistan and Chinese security forces and Sri Lanka.

In 2014, the then Sri Lankan government had cleared a proposal for China to set up a maintenance-cum-servicing facility for its aircraft that are part of the Sri Lankan fleet in Trincomalee. The SLAF has in its fleet the Chinese-made Chengdu F-7 fighter aircraft, and the Y-12 and MA60 transporters.

India had raised concerns then about the plan and the Sri Lankan government had said it would be manned only by SLAF personnel. With the change in government in Colombo one year ago, that plan too was promptly shelved.