Gaddafi’s Strategic Surprise 2011-12


Rafale Ops over Libya in Config AASM Hammer.


The nature of the air and naval attacks was a major surprise to Gaddafi. It would seem that as Colonel Gaddafi had been able to reconcile his regime with the West through offering to give up his WMD program that he thought it was unnecessary to invest in updating his air defence systems. He obviously did not imagine that the circumstances would arise when his new-found friends in the West would decide that he needed to be replaced.

Clearly the Arab Spring and its rapid impact upon the people of Libya had completely surprised Gaddafi. He could not believe his former subservient people would wish to overthrow him; after all he was their great benefactor. In a commentary aired weeks before the rebellion gained ground, Gaddafi had boldly declared that his people loved him. In his last moments, in a desperate appeal for his life, he can be heard asking his captors, ‘what have I done to you?’

For Colonel Gaddafi the next few weeks were to provide him, quite literally, with the strategic shock of his life. For David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy the Gaddafi shock was to be their benefit. Launching a war against a country with a well-equipped air defence system carries huge risks. The images of airman captured and tortured in Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1991 are still fresh in the minds of many in senior command levels in the Ministry of Defence. Any military operation carries inherent risks. For David Cameron the idea that members of the Royal Air Force might be captured and tortured in Libya and displayed on television must have been a recurring moment of concern.

The political landscape may have changed since 1991, but the threat of airman being shot down and paraded in front of the world’s media still has the ability to erode support for what might be advertised as a moral campaign. Fortunately for Cameron and Sarkozy the environment in which the combat aircraft they had committed to the campaign quickly became permissive.

The Libyan air defence system was literally taken off the air within hours. The intelligence assets deployed by the United States, the United Kingdom and France in the run up to the conflict had done their initial tasking well. The key nodes of the Libyan Air Defence system had been quickly mapped and target profiles developed that enabled the first wave of strikes to be very effective.

The Initial Target Portfolio

The air defence capability that could be fielded by the Libyans proved no match for the initial military onslaught. Early on, American and British warships and submarines fired 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles against fixed targets. With these elements disabled, the enduring threat to the coalition aircraft that operated over Libya came from the kind of man-portable surface-to-air missiles so effectively used by the Mujahidin against the Russians in Afghanistan. The Russian Air Force paid a heavy price for underestimating the ability of irregular fighters to master the apparent complexities of the Stinger missile. This was not to be repeated by the NATO forces in Libya.

That Libya had been delivered the very latest Russian surface-to-air missile systems became apparent in the aftermath of the war, as empty boxes were discovered in a warehouse in Tripoli. However their lack of use in the campaign is a slightly more puzzling element to the way the war in Libya panned out. The reasons why Gaddafi’s forces did not make extensive use of the SA-28 missiles supplied by Russia is not immediately clear.

As Libya’s main supplier of military equipment the outcome of the war for the Russians can only be described as a disaster. Senior officials in the Kremlin moved quickly to ensure damage limitation, commenting that the Libyan regime was using ‘outdated air defence systems’. For the Russians the Libyan campaign was not a great shop window for the weapon systems they had supplied to Gaddafi.

Coming in the wake of the military strike carried out with impunity by the Israeli Air Force against the Syrian nuclear reactor, in the face of what was supposed to be the most modern air defence system deployed by an Arab country supplied by the Russians, only serves to illustrate the technical imbalance that currently exists between NATO and Russia. It is a point that David Cameron and his advisors will not have failed to appreciate.

The degree of embarrassment for the Russians was so significant it left them appealing to the incoming leadership in Tripoli to ‘honour existing contracts’. The reaction of the NTC to this was to instigate a ‘review’ of all contracts that have been signed to ensure that they have not been subject to any corrupt payments, noting that some of the prices paid do not seem to be ‘competitive’. The implications are significant.

Opening Fire

On the 19 March 2011, nineteen aircraft of the French Air Force entered Libyan air space. Their tasking was two-fold; to collect reconnaissance on potential military targets and to prevent any pro-regime military assets conducting operations against the people of Benghazi. In the evening Italian aircraft also joined the mission, before dusk fell, when the initial wave of assaults from United States and British assets joined the campaign.

In order to enforce the no-fly zone and to ensure that the aircraft could operate in what in defence circles is referred to as a ‘permissive environment’, the first targets that would be attacked would inevitably be the Libyan air defence systems.

The air defence system is made up of a number of components. These include missiles, control centres The air defence system is made up of a number of components. These include missiles, control centres and any communications infrastructure that linked the various elements into an integrated capability. This first wave of attacks was to be conducted by Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) and the stand-off cruise missiles launched from Tornado GR4s – the Storm Shadow. On the first night of the campaign four RAF Tornados were to fly a mission that saw a number of Storm Shadow missiles fired at strategic locations around Tripoli.

Given the short notice on which the operation was launched this would have been a difficult mission as there had been only a limited time window in which to collect a range of intelligence on the configuration of the Libyan systems. The lights would have been burning late in the various ministries of defence involved in the mission, trying to look back over a range of publications to find any insights into the nature of the threat posed by the Libyan air defence system.

A large number of questions would have been on the mind of those preparing to enter Libyan air space. How many surface-to-air missiles systems does the regime have? Which radar systems do they operate? What frequency bands do they occupy? Are there any special features of the radars that make them difficult to jam?

These questions, and others, would have sat alongside the concerns that would have existed over the extent to which the Libyans would have been able to use MANPADS against any aircraft entering their air space. As it turned out the extent of the threat from the Libyan air defence system was limited. The political leaders need to appreciate the huge advantage this gave them in prosecuting this campaign. It might not be the same in another theatre of war.

Overnight four Tornado GR4 ground attack aircraft left their base at Marham to mount attacks against key nodes in the air defence system. They flew 3,000 miles to the target, initially at the lower altitudes of 15,000 feet due to their fuel weight and weapons load. This was the longest bombing mission recorded since the Black Buck missions flown during Falklands conflict. It was a mission that was to be repeated several times in the coming months of the campaign.

To accomplish the mission the Tornados were refuelled by VC-10 and Tristar aircraft and were also supported by E-3D Sentry, Nimrod R1 (with its sophisticated electronic listening capabilities) and Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft. This was an operation that had been put together really quickly. An operation that would have taken many weeks to plan was assembled in hours. The E-3D aircraft provided the ‘eyes’ of the operation and the Nimrod R1 aircraft provided its ‘ears’. This helped the RAF maintain situational awareness in the areas which were considered to be dangerous.

In less than eighteen hours the RAF had taken a political instruction to ‘do something’ over Libya and put that into action. At 03.00 hours on Friday 18 March, RAF personnel were informed by senior officials that they ‘had to act fast in order to get an operation underway’. By 08.00 hours, the aircraft were ready to go, awaiting the final confirmation from the Prime Minister. This arrived at 20.00 hours on Saturday 19 March, at which point the aircraft left on their first bombing raids from Marham, and the tanker aircraft that supported them left RAF Brize Norton.

The French Air Force Acts First

Using their geographic advantage, the French military had stolen a march on the RAF and arrived first over Libyan air space. However the RAF was hot on its heels and was about to deliver the first of a series of blows to the Libyan air defence system that would quickly render it useless. This first mission was also to define the nature of the pivotal role played by the RAF throughout the war. Numerically the French would end up flying the most missions in the period until Tripoli was seized by the rebels. However it was the RAF that achieved the most effect.

A few nights after the mission commenced on the 23 March, two Rafale B aircraft of EC-1/91 took off from Saint-Dizier armed with two of the French equivalent of the Storm Shadow – the Scalp-EG missiles. As they climbed out on a heading for Libya they were joined by two Mirage 2000D aircraft from Nancy airbase. Each of these aircraft had a single Scalp-EG. The package was then also joined by two further Rafale M aircraft that had been launched from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle also carrying a single missile.

This single missile deployment was necessary as aircraft returning to the aircraft carrier cannot land in an asymmetric configuration, so they have to operate with a single, underbelly, missile configuration. If they had launched with two under-wing missiles, a hang-up on launch or a single missile being deployed, would create an asymmetric configuration that would mean the aircraft having to divert.

The package was inbound to the Libyan Al Jufrah airbase located 500 kilometres to the south-west of Benghazi. Clearly disabling that air base was important if the people of Benghazi were to be protected. The base was home for some TU-22 and Mig-25 aircraft that were housed in sand berms and aircraft shelters – although their serviceability might have been in doubt. As the aircraft closed to their launch point a computer malfunction prevented one of the Mirage 2000D from launching its missile. Seven missiles were launched against the airfield that night. It was a target that NATO was to return to on 13 June in a follow up attack.

On the night of 27 and 28 March, another mission was launched by the French Air Force and Navy. This time two Rafale B of the EC-1/91 and two Rafale M from the 12F Flotilla, each armed with a single Scalp missile, attacked a remote command and control centre located in the deep south of Libya.

This, and a small number of other attacks, saw the French Air Force and Navy use 15 Scalp-EG missiles – four fired by Rafale M, ten by Rafale B and a single one from a Mirage 2000D, on a variety of hard targets in Libya. The stand-off capability available from the Scalp-EG had allowed targets as far as 400 kilometres from the launch point to be attacked. Given the geography of Libya, that enabled nearly 50 per cent of the country to be attacked from an aircraft that was operating off the coastline.

The RAF Gears Up to Operations

The speed with which the RAF was to be able to commit its forces showed its huge versatility in being able to assemble a range of assets in such short order to mount the attacks. The speed with which the mission planning was done being reflected in the comments made by those in the RAF charged with conducting the mission. The praise heaped upon the people involved showed just how much effort it had required. All the stops had indeed been pulled out. Once again the professionalism of the United Kingdom’s armed forces had answered a political call to arms.

The Tornados carried the Storm Shadow missile system which is a versatile weapon system that can attack in a stand-off mode. This avoids the need for the aircraft to fly into hostile territory. The Storm Shadows maximum range is reputed to be 155 miles (250 kilometres). This offers versatility when it comes to attacking command and control centres that may have been based deep inside an adversary’s territory, well behind the front line of surface-to-air missiles that provide a shield over a country’s airspace.

Once launched, the Storm Shadow missile acts like a cruise missile, comparing the terrain and inputs from the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation system to fly a highly accurate path to the designated target. In the final attack phase the nose cone is jettisoned, allowing a highly accurate infrared camera to do the final pattern matching on the approach to the target, to ensure a precise delivery of the warhead. In order for it to penetrate the concrete that inevitably covers a command bunker, a two-stage warhead detonation sequence occurs. The first, smaller charge, penetrates the concrete, before enabling the second larger charge to then detonate inside the bunker.

Commenting on the raids mounted by the RN and the RAF, David Cameron noted: ‘Tonight, British forces are in action in Libya. They are part of an international coalition that has come together to enforce the will of the United Nations and to support the Libyan people.’ Making sure he emphasised the legality of the actions being undertaken, the Prime Minister went on to add, ‘It is legal because we have the backing of the United Nations Security Council and also of the Arab League and many others’.

He was clearly making sure that the international consensus for action that he and President Sarkozy had secured was front and centre in the arguments being made about the initiation of the campaign. David Cameron now had his war. How it would unfold would, to some extent, define his premiership.

Collateral Damage

The campaign had got off to a decisive start. But, as ever with military campaigns, once in contact with the enemy things can go awry. The situation on the ground in Libya was ‘fluid’, according to reports being broadcast by the media. In a dynamic environment, where equipment can be seized and turned against an adversary quickly, the situation on every street corner can be quite different. The urban and rural environments were equally chaotic. For NATO this was a very different operating environment. Not the kind of warfare envisaged in the Cold War where a distinct FEBA would exist between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries. This was warfare ‘amongst the people’, as General Sir Rupert Smith had characterised the new forms of war in the twenty-first century in his book, The Utility of War.

Against this backdrop, in the early stages of the campaign, it is perhaps understandable how tanks were considered to be weapons of the Libyan Army and therefore legitimate targets. On 6 April the coalition air forces had engaged and destroyed what appeared to be a Libyan tank operating against rebels between the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya. This tank had in fact been captured by rebel fighters who had turned it on the Libyan Army. With communications between the rebel forces and NATO being ‘patchy’ at best, there was little chance that such an event could have been avoided. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan where communications were supposed to be much better, blue-on-blue engagements had sadly occurred. On this day a blue-on-grey event occurred – where a coalition warplane destroyed a tank, killing five of the rebels who had seized it hours earlier.

Making a statement on the event, and another one that had occurred around the same time, Rear Admiral Russ Harding, the British deputy commander of NATO’s Libya operation, said, ‘alliance jets had conducted 318 sorties and struck twenty-three targets across Libya in the past forty-eight hours’. He added that, ‘it would appear that two of our strikes may have resulted in [rebel] deaths’. The deputy commander pointedly refused to apologise for the incidents, in language that some commentators regarded as insensitive. Reacting to the fallout from this event the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Ramussen, commented saying that ‘this was an unfortunate incident’, adding that he ‘strongly regretted the loss of life’. He also noted however how fluid the situation was on the ground but emphasized that NATO was operating in a way that sought to ‘avoid civilian casualties’.

For NATO, thrown into a mission that was quite different to that which had characterized its missions in Afghanistan, new lessons would have to be learnt quickly. The subsequent measures to improve communications with the rebels, and the definition of areas in a number of towns where rebel forces operations were restricted, provides a testament to the additional measures introduced after these two events to avoid further bloodshed. One such measure involved the rebel forces painting their vehicles a peach colour and the United Kingdom Foreign Office donating 500 satellite phones to the rebels to improve their command and control arrangements.


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