By Asiri Fernando
The Ministry of Defence in May signed a $ 49 million deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to upgrade five Kfir fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) No. 10 Squadron, it has been revealed.
The proposal to overhaul and upgrade the fighter bombers to multi-role capability was approved by Cabinet in December 2020.
A group of Israeli specialists from IAI arrived last month and began the upgrade process, which will take two years to complete, the SLAF told Daily FT.
“The deal includes replacing the aircraft’s basic avionics with the advanced 4+ generation fighter aircraft avionics, in order to one day integrate advanced radar, sensors, communication systems, and new helmets. The upgrade process will also include transfer of knowledge and skills for refurbishment to Sri Lankan Air Force personnel. The upgrades will be completed in cooperation with Sri Lanka’s Air Force, and in their local facilities,” IAI said in a media release yesterday.
The Israeli defence industry giant has been a long-standing supplier of military hardware and sub-systems for the Sri Lankan armed forces.
“I am proud that IAI’s Kfir has been chosen by customers around the world, including in the United States and as the Colombian Air Force’s primary fighter jet. I am grateful to Sri Lanka’s Air Force for choosing to renew their Kfir selection and continue using the Kfir as their multi-role combat aircraft. I believe this deal is an early step in preparing for future upgrades to the advanced model KNG (Kfir New Generation),” said IAI Aviation Group Executive Vice President and General Manager Yossi Melamed.
“Once the agreement is signed, the IAI team will overhaul and upgrade one aircraft. The second, third and fourth aircraft will be overhauled jointly with the SLAF, so that we can learn from them. The final aircraft will be overhauled and upgraded by a SLAF team under IAI supervision,” Commander of the Air Force Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana explained earlier this year.
Pathirana told Daily FT that the agreement includes a spare parts package that will give the jets a 15-year life cycle. In January, he justified the overhaul and upgrade of the fighter jets, pointing out that the deal to revive the existing jet fleet was the most cost-effective option to retain air power during peacetime.
“A new fighter aircraft would cost in the range of $ 40 million a unit. We have already spent a lot of money on the Kfir fleet, we have good experience with it. If we let them go now, the SLAF won’t have fighter capability and the investment made to the fleet up to now would also be lost,” Pathirana stated, pointing out that the force had learned from its previous experience of not maintaining adequate air power.
The SLAF inducted the Israeli built Kfir C2 fighter jets and TC2 trainers in the 1996 standing up No. 10 Squadron, which evolved into the main strike-bomber formation during the latter stages of the Eelam Wars. With only a few Kfir airframes remaining serviceable after 2009, plans to overhaul the fighter jets had been delayed over several years due to budget constraints.
Earlier this year, the Government said they plan to acquire several Mi-171 helicopters via a Russian line of credit on military hardware to support SLAF peacekeeping missions in Africa.
The move to upgrade fighter jets and purchase helicopters during an economic crisis and a pandemic drew strong criticism from the Opposition. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa questioned the Government about the move in Parliament earlier this year, accusing them of misplaced priorities.
Last month, the SLAF ferried back home three AN-32B transport aircraft, overhauled by the original equipment manufacturer (OME) in Ukraine, at a cost of $ 7.5 million. Much of the SLAFs fleet remains grounded and technologically outdated, in need of maintenance and/or overhaul to return them to operational use. Some are being overhauled by the SLAF, at their own facility at the Katunayake Air Force base. The SLAF say the local maintenance and overhaul of some aircraft bring savings for taxpayer funds and prevents them from being sent overseas.