The Sri Lankan government has publicly announced that it is intends to purchase eight to 12 new multirole combat aircraft for the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), according to local media reports. Last week, Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena and his Cabinet have officially granted the country’s defense ministry permission to solicit offers from foreign aircraft manufacturers for the procurement of new aircraft and associated weapons systems on a government-to-government basis.
The SLAF’s fighter fleet currently consists of one single Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Kfir multi-role combat aircraft. While the Kfir uses the same airframe as the French-made Dassault Mirage 5, it is equipped with Israeli avionics and an Israeli-built variant of the General Electric J79 turbojet engine. From 1995 to 2005, Sri Lanka acquired a total of 16 Kfir fighter jets from Israel. At least seven aircraft were lost due to accidents or ground attacks on airbases during the Sri Lankan Civil War.
“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,” Cabinet Spokesman and Parliamentary Reforms and Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka said during a weekly Cabinet press briefing last week.
The announcement of a request for proposals coincided with an official two-day visit of the chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Air Chief Marshall Sohail Aman, to Sri Lanka. Pakistan has repeatedly been pitching its Pakistan Aeronautical Complex/Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (PAC/CAC) JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft to the SLAF and purportedly made a strong push to sell eight fighter jets back in January.
As I reported previously, in early 2016 the press also wrongly reported that during a three-day state visit to Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif concluded a government-to-government deal, which would have made Sri Lanka the first international customer of the JF-17 fighter jet. However, “the matter did not even come up for discussion during the talks [with the Pakistani government],” Sri Lanka’s Minister of Defense Karunasena Hettiarachchi stated in response to the rumors at the time.
As The Diplomat reported in January, next to Pakistan’s failure to offer a credit or financing program for the purchase of the fighter jets, pressure from India might have played a role in Sri Lanka dropping the JF-17 and refusing to conclude an agreement with Islamabad. New Delhi allegedly sent a “diplomatic missive” to Colombo, which included a negative technical assessment of the JF-17. At the same time India has been trying to sell its Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to SLAF–unsuccessfully, however, so far. (See: “Outwitting Pakistan: India Offers Sri Lanka Its Newest Fighter Jet”).