A single Israeli-built Kfir fighter was purchased in 1995. That lone aircraft represents all that remains of Sri Lanka’s operational jet fighter fleet. After a 26-year war against Tamil Tiger insurgents and a failed $400 million bid last summer to purchase eight JF-17s from Pakistan (the failure stemming in part from Indian diplomatic intervention against the deal), Sri Lanka’s Air Force finds itself in a desperate situation as it seeks to protect the national airspace and claims to the offshore exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In light of the situation, the government of President Maithripala Sirisena has green-lighted a Defense Ministry project to acquire 8-12 fighters. The Defense Ministry will reach out to aircraft manufacturers and government agents regarding a possible commercial buy or a government-to-government deal.
The procurement comes at a crucial time for the Sri Lankan Air Force. With the 200,000-strong Sri Lanka Army generally receiving the bulk of military spending on an annual basis, the core of the Air Force’s fighter fleet has been degraded to the point of complete obsolescence.
The Air Force fighter inventory includes seven Israel Aerospace Industries Kfir C2 and C7 variants, but only the aforementioned one is flyable. In addition, there are seven Chinese-built Chengdu F-7 Airguards (the Airguard is a derivative of the Russian MiG-21) that were purchased in 1991 and are referred to in Sri Lankan service as “Skybolts.” All of these are now out of service and were to have been replaced under the aborted JF-17 procurement plan. Finally, there are the seven MiG-27s transferred to Sri Lanka from Ukrainian Air Force surplus in 2000 that are inoperable.
How many of these mothballed and obsolete aircraft could be upgraded and returned to operational service remains in question. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the funding put into such work would be worth the cost when factored against the need to revisit a new fighter buy down the line. The most likely avenue appears to be a procurement of fighters sourced from Russia or China, both of which have been staunch allies of Sri Lanka.
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