Overall focus into unchartered territory | Sunday Observer
Book Review:

Overall focus into unchartered territory

7 March, 2021

Name: Glory of Iron Wings
Reviewed by George I. H. Cooke

March 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force, and the milestone is being commemorated with numerous activities and events aimed at creating greater understanding of the SLAF, its contribution thus far and importantly, its potential.

While milestones are a natural occurrence with the passage of time, they are crucial as they offer platforms for invigorated review of that which has been, understanding of the present, and provide opportunities to explore what will be for the future. This anniversary comes at a critical juncture in global affairs as countries look to secure their air connectivity and capabilities in the midst of a pandemic.

Among the national commemorations for the 70th anniversary is the launch of Glory of Iron Wings, scripted by officers of the SLAF examining the trajectory of the Force and encompassing all that it has achieved.

The book lays out the journey from 1951 onwards but initially provides reflection on our first Easter Sunday attack in 1942. The Japanese, to tilt the World War in its favour, attacked the island sending shock waves across society as a hitherto international conflict hit hard within the country. Identified as the ‘most dangerous moment in the Second World War’ by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, those attacks on Ceylon served to highlight the relevance of the island not just in the Indian Ocean but in global affairs, owing to the impact it would have had if the attacks were not repulsed effectively.

Such concern remained paramount for the first Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Ceylon, D. S. Senanayake and fashioned his thinking and policy formulation. The need for establishing an Air Force in those initial years saw its founding in 1951.

The book discusses the initial period where the gradual process of development occurred within the Force over two decades until 1971, when it was called upon to assist in the operational aspect of thwarting the insurrection of that year.

This has been identified as the first paradigm shift of the Force which transformed again from the mid 1980s into the 1990s marking the second such shift. The next decade and a half, till 2001 is classified as the third paradigm shift wherein an internationally brokered ceasefire came into operation but the situation remained relatively fragile.

The fourth paradigm weaves in synergy in air power where it was harvested to ensure a triumphant counter terrorism mechanism, while the fifth paradigm shift occurs in the contemporary period as national security is strengthened and cross domain operations have become the key component.

The anniversary publication, thereafter, strategises for the future with analysis on air diplomacy, and means through which air power can be used for the preservation of peace and security. Seen as the sixth paradigm shift, this chapter explores the potential of the SLAF in the greater defence of the country and its air space.

The last chapter examines prospects of progressing from air power to aerospace power. This encompasses the true essence of a 21st century Air Force ready to meet the challenges ahead through collective and well constructed policies.

The publication becomes essential reading for two specific reasons. First, it provides a detailed overview of the Air Force and its seven decade flight. Second, it gives Sri Lankans a deep sense of satisfaction that an integral component of the nation’s defence mechanism is writing the narrative from a defence perspective, and taking the overall focus into unchartered territory.

Herein is the rationale for this publication. Long after the air shows are completed and the commemorative events conclude, the publication will remain a beacon of the SLAF at its 70th anniversary and serve as an example of how Sri Lankans have to write the Sri Lankan story.

The publication is another signal that the time for strategising is here and now. While it is continuously claimed that Sri Lanka possesses immense potential, the rhetoric alone is not sufficient.

The country as a whole needs to write its own narrative, review its progress, discuss its challenges and find means to address and overcome such obstacles.

For a country possessing huge potential in a plethora of spheres, the need of the hour is strategy for the next 25 to 50 years. A critical lesson from other countries is that they strategised and achieved what they have within specified periods with innovative and often indigenous policies.

Sri Lanka stands at a juncture where the narrative has to be scripted within the island. At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, it is imperative that Lankans know where we want to be in a decades’ time, and at our centenary anniversary in 2048.

This can be done through concerted policy formulation. An integral module of that policy formulation is knowledge of the journey and we must write our own narrative rather than responding to narratives emanating from elsewhere, which are naturally biased and prejudiced to circumstances and situations overseas, rather than reflective of that which occurs in the island nation.

A key milestone for the Sri Lanka Air Force is upon us, and a noteworthy publication has been launched. May Glory of Iron Wings serve as a reminder that strategising must always be done if Sri Lanka is to take her rightful place among emerging nations.