Libyan Air Force (Russian made) MiG-23 Jet Fighter.
A T-72 tank from the pro-Gadhafi Libyan military’s elite Khamis Brigade, takes position and checks vehicles in Harshan, 10km east of Zawiya, February 28, 2012.
With rebels holding several cities, it’s unclear how many SAMs are still operational. May 2010, Sean O’Connor, an air-defense analyst, counted 31 long-range SAM sites and 17 radars belonging to the Libyan air force. The bulk of this “strategic” missile force comprises Soviet-designed SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5 systems dating from the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, the Libyan army possesses a large number of short-range SA-6, SA-8, SA-9, SA-13 and Crotale missiles.
The Arab Spring was a complete shock to the international political system. It came literally out of nowhere. For Colonel Gaddafi it was, like many other dictators in the region, a shock. He was unprepared for having to mobilise his army to put down an insurrection. He was even more unprepared for having to deal with a threat from the international community to oppose his efforts to re-establish control of his country.
Having made the overtures to countries like the United Kingdom he must have been surprised that its leader was suddenly calling for his head. For Gaddafi, unused to having his authority to govern Libya challenged, it must have been a really difficult situation to grasp. The slowness of his response, a factor that was to punctuate everything that was to unfold, was indicative of the sudden and unexpected nature of the chaos that erupted in his own country.
From where he sat at the start of the rebellion Colonel Gaddafi must have thought he could ride out the storm. His Army was still relatively well equipped. At the start of the rebellion Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment (updated on 18 March 2011) assessed the Libyan Army as being made up of 45,000 people.
Its structure of eighteen infantry battalions, ten mechanised infantry battalions, ten armoured battalions and twenty-two artillery battalions, with several Special Forces groups and air defence capabilities, must have given the Libyan leader hope that he could put down the insurrection. That assessment, however, would be to belie the reality on the ground. In 1987 the weaknesses of the Libyan Army had been shown graphically as its own intervention in Chad had gone disastrously wrong, costing 4,000 Libyan soldiers their lives in a specifically challenging three months from January to March 1987.
International sanctions had also drained the Libyan Army of the spares needed to maintain its capability. On paper however the Libyan Army was assessed by Jane’s to have 180 Russian-built T90S Main Battle Tanks (MBT), a notional force of around 1600 T54/55 MBT – of which around 500 were thought to be serviceable – and 170 T62 and 260 T72 MBT with seventy of the T62 held in reserve.
The army also had between 2,500 and 3,000 Armoured Personnel Carriers available that had been supplied by Libyan factories and external suppliers from Italy, the United Kingdom and former Warsaw Pact countries, although their serviceability was also in question. The total number of artillery and mortar pieces in service was also hard to estimate. Jane’s assessment was that around 3,500 artillery pieces were available, many of these based on the Russian 82mm mortars.
Jane’s also believed that the regime had retained 40 FROG-7 ballistic missiles in service. Many of the longer range SCUD missile that were originally part of the regime’s ORBAT having been given up at the time of the rapprochement with the West. Add to this an array of anti-tank weapons that could have been useful had the Libyan armed forces gone into battle against another army. These, however, were to be of limited utility against a rebellion whose mechanised capability was to be largely based upon a number of hastily converted pick up trucks with hardly any armoured protection.
The ease with which the rebels were able to convert and field Toyota land cruisers in the role of mechanised infantry transports, provided a ready supply to replace any of those knocked out by any anti-armour capability. The tactics adopted by the rebels also did not help the Libyan Army, as they were inclined to ‘shoot and scoot’. The Libyan Army ORBAT also included nearly 1,700 man-portable surface-to-air missiles and 200 ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft weapons alongside a number of other variants.
On paper the Libyan Air Force looked impressive. At an assessed strength of 23,000 people comprising 10,000 regulars and 13,000 conscripts, the Libyan Air Force was capable of doing a lot of harm to the people of Benghazi. Its mix of MiG21, MiG-23 (NATO code name Flogger), Mirage F1, Su-24 (NATO code name Fencer) and Su-22 (NATO code name Fitter) provided an apparently comprehensive capability to help Gaddafi wage war from the air. Gaddafi also retained a relatively small helicopter force comprised of Mi-24D (NATO code name Hind-D) gunships which Jane’s assessed at being twenty-two serviceable aircraft at the start of the campaign.
The MiG-23 provided the air defence capability for his Air Force. It was not to present a threat to NATO and coalition aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone. Had any MiG-23s actually engaged in air-to-air combat against the F-16 or Typhoon aircraft deployed in the air defence role it would have been a one-sided contest. On the limited number of occasions that Gaddafi’s air force did fly in the run up to the imposition of the no-fly zone its impact on the ground from a military viewpoint was minimal. The few bombs that were dropped provided some helpful media images for those trying to make the case at the United Nations, but in practice the threat posed by the Libyan Air Force tended to be exaggerated. Very quickly a small number of those pilots tasked with attacking their own countrymen fled to Malta. They were not keen to be seen to be killing their compatriots.
Jane’s assessment of the air defence weapons available to Gaddafi at the start of the campaign shows a mix of around 80 SA-2 (NATO code name Guideline), SA-3 (NATO code name Goa), SA-5 (NATO code name Gammon) and some Crotale (R-440) and SA-8 (NATO code name Gecko) missiles in the inventory. Many of these had originally been introduced into service in the early part of the 1970s and their serviceability must have been in doubt. For the NATO and coalition partners involved in establishing the no-fly area the threat from surface-to-air missile systems was never a major factor. On the rare occasions NATO and coalition aircraft came under threat it was mainly from Man Portable Air Defence (MANPAD) systems – some of which had been delivered to Gaddafi in the run-up to the war.
The Libyan Navy was hardly a force to concern the NATO and coalition partners involved in creating a blockade of Libyan ports. Theoretically it could deploy thirty vessels. Two warships of the Koni-class were the main stays of a fleet whose role in recent years had been relegated to patrolling the 1,770 kilometres of the Libyan coastline. The Frigates were backed up with eleven Fast Attack Craft (FAC) that, had they been serviceable, might have posed a threat to NATO warships and their replenishment vessels operating in the Mediterranean Sea.
Had any of the FAC actually emerged from harbour to conduct operations against the NATO navies in the area, the threat they posed would have been swiftly neutralised by the NATO air forces operating in the region. Such was the poor state of repair of the FAC that patrols in the Libyan coastal waters prior to the rebellion were conducted by the Natya-class minesweepers. These also posed little threat to NATO surface vessels.
At the time of the outbreak of the rebellion one of the two frigates was located in Benghazi. It was seized by the rebels early on. That left one Frigate based in Tripoli for the Libyan Navy. Any threat which that posed was quickly eliminated at the start of the enforcement of the no-fly zone. Throughout the war the Libyan Navy posed no surface threat to the NATO warships, other than an ad-hoc attempt to mine some of the harbours.