Cold War Carrier Operations in the Middle East

Military operations directed at Libya using F-14s (1980–1989)

F-14s were involved in multiple U.S. military operations directed at Libya between 1980 and 1989. During this period, F-14s shot down four Libyan Air Force aircraft in two aerial engagements over the Mediterranean Sea.

On 21 September 1980, three F-14s from the Kennedy challenged eight Libyan fighters attempting to intercept a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane two hundred miles from the Libyan coast. The Libyans disengaged once confronted by the U.S. fighters.

In the summer of 1981, F-14s from VF-41 and VF-84 performed combat air patrols in support of Freedom of Navigation operations in the Gulf of Sidra. Thirty-five pairs of Libyan Air Force fighters and fighter-bombers were intercepted and driven away from the U.S. fleet by F-14s from the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and F-4 “Phantom IIs” from the USS Forrestal (CV-59) on the first day of operations. The following day, on 19 August 1981, two Libyan Su-22 “Fitters” opened fire on two VF-41 F-14As with an AA-2 “Atoll” missile. The missile failed to hit either of the F-14s and the American pilots destroyed both Libyan aircraft with AIM-9L “Sidewinder” missiles. These were the first aerial combat victories in U.S. Navy F-14s and the first for the U.S. since the Vietnam War.

From 24 July to 14 August 1983, F-14s assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower were involved in Operation Arid Farmer, the code-name for U.S. military assistance to Sudan, Egypt and the government of Hissène Habré of Chad during the Chadian-Libyan conflict. F-14s performed combat air patrols over waters in and near the Gulf of Sidra during the operation. Several flights of Libyan fighters were intercepted with neither side opening fire.

F-14As from VF-102 came under fire from Libyan SA-5 surface-to-air missiles over the Gulf of Sidra during Freedom of Navigation exercises as part of Operation Attain Document on 24 March 1986. The missiles did not hit the F-14s. Later the same day, F-14As from VF-33 intercepted two Libyan MiG-25 “Foxbats” heading toward the U.S. naval force. The Libyans were outmaneuvered by the Tomcats, which got behind the MiG-25s, but the Americans did not receive permission to open fire. These events and several more surface-to-air missile launches prompted the U.S. Navy to initiate Operation Prairie Fire. F-14 Tomcats provided fighter cover during the operation.

On 15 April 1986, F-14s from VF-33, VF-102, VF-74 and VF-103 participated in Operation El Dorado Canyon, providing fighter cover for a series of air strikes against targets within Libya.

On 4 January 1989, two F-14As from VF-32 assigned to the USS John F. Kennedy shot down two Libyan MiG-23 “Floggers” off the coast of Libya. The Libyan fighters appeared to be maneuvering for a missile firing position when the Americans concluded they were under attack. The MiG-23s were shot down with AIM-7 “Sparrow” and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

The Mediterranean Sea became the arena for much action short of war during the 1980s. American confrontation of Libya in the Gulf of Sidra led to incidents on August 19, 1981, and January 4, 1989, during which aircraft from United States Navy Sixth Fleet carriers engaged with Libyan aircraft. In the earlier incident, two F- 14A Tomcats from the Nimitz were fired on by a pair of Libyan Su- 22 fighters and destroyed them, while in the later incident, Tomcats from the John F. Kennedy engaged and shot down two MiG-23 aircraft. The civil war in Lebanon that began in 1975 also led to outside intervention at various stages as it unfolded. United States Marines, together with French and Italian forces, landed in Beirut on August 20, 1982, in an attempt to stabilize the situation in the country. Both American and French carriers provided cover for this operation and maintained a strong presence off the Lebanese coast thereafter. On April 18, 1983, the American Embassy was struck by a suicide attack that killed sixty-three people, leading President Ronald Reagan to order retaliatory attacks. The French Embassy was bombarded on September 9, to which the French carrier Foch responded with air strikes against the presumed artillery positions responsible. Then, on October 23, the barracks housing both the United States Marines and French paratroopers were attacked with massive suicide truck bombs that killed 241 Marines and 58 paratroopers. Aircraft from the Clémenceau, the John F. Kennedy, and the Independence undertook retaliatory raids against targets in the Bekaa Valley, as well as undertaking evacuations of troops from Beirut. Both navies continued to operate carriers off the Lebanese coast for some considerable time after the withdrawal of French and American troops.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, led to a major international operation to expel the invaders that began the counterattack, operation Desert Storm (for United States forces) on January 17, 1991. Eight American carriers and seven helicopter assault ships plus the French carrier Clémenceau formed the air striking force of the international fleet that took part in this operation. The ground assault began on February 24 after an intensive air campaign using substantial quantities of precision strike ordnance against the Iraqi forces. It led to the expulsion of the Iraqis within four days and the negotiation of a cease-fire on March 1. Similarly massive carrier forces were assembled for the United States assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan after the suicide airliner attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001. Operation Enduring Freedom was launched on October 7, 2001. No less than ten United States Navy carriers and four helicopter assault ships took part and demonstrated the extended reach of naval aviation, for Afghanistan is totally land-locked. The later invasion of Iraq (operation Iraqi Freedom to United States forces) involved yet another large concentration of carrier air power: one British and eight American carriers plus one British and six American helicopter assault ships took a major role in the assault that began on March 19, 2003, and was declared complete on April 14. In both these later operations the most notable feature of the aerial assault was its almost exclusive reliance on the use of “smart” weapons, precision guided bombs and missiles, to achieve incomparably greater accuracy and economy of operation than was possible in earlier conflicts.

The prolonged war between Iran and Iraq that raged from 1980 to 1988 led to substantial carrier deployments to the Persian Gulf, especially after the Iranians initiated their campaign against neutral tankers transporting crude oil from the Iraqi terminal at Khargh Island. During the so-called “tanker war” from 1984 to 1987 both American and French carriers operated in the Gulf, providing air cover for tankers and their own surface forces. American carriers also remained in the Persian Gulf after the end of the war to liberate Kuwait, participating in the enforcement of the “no-fly” zone over southern Iraq until 2002. British, French, and American carriers also operated regularly in the Adriatic Sea during the various stages of the conflicts within the former Yugoslavia from 1993 to 2000.

The French, the British, and especially the American experience of carrier operations off Indo-China and Korea after World War II wrought a profound change in their navies’ perception of the operational parameters within which carriers would operate in the future. During World War II, carriers became the primary striking arm of oceanic fleets, launching concentrated forces to attack and sink enemy warships and surface vessels across distances greatly amplified above those possible with surface weaponry. The Indo-Chinese and Korean experience rendered this paradigm obsolete. Instead, carrier air power became the supreme manifestation of the potential for mobile force projection against an enemy’s heartland, especially as the unrefueled range of large carrier strike aircraft expanded. Rather than being an aberration, as some observers and even some participants considered it, this experience presaged the maturation of carrier air power as the preeminent quick-reaction force capable of rapidly bringing devastating concentrated firepower against significant national assets. Even today, despite the great advances in aerial refueling that have enabled land-base aircraft to range around the globe, aircraft carriers consistently demonstrate the economical, flexible, and effective projection of overwhelming force throughout the world.

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