Although Libya’s military fortunes in Chad rose and fell in dramatic fashion over the nine years of its involvement there, the performance of Libyan military forces remained remarkably consistent. Libyan tactical forces performed extremely poorly from start to finish. Libya’s generals proved to be a varied but mostly adequate lot: their qualities as strategists ranged from fairly impressive to middling, and their qualities as leaders of men ranged from uninspiring to reasonably effective. On the other hand, Libya’s logistical operations were consistently excellent—at times outstanding—throughout the course of its wars in Chad.
The principal causes of Tripoli’s varying fortunes in Chad were not the performance of Libyan arms at all, but the changing political alignments on either side and the eventual development of Chadian military forces that were able to exploit the limitations of Libyan tactical forces. Ultimately, the performance of Libyan forces closely resembled that of the other Arab armies, although it fell on the worse end of that spectrum. They won at first because their adversary was even weaker than they were, but ultimately lost because their opponent improved dramatically and they could not.
Strategic Performance. Libya’s generals were rarely spectacular and must bear part of the blame for certain Libyan defeats, but they were hardly terrible and deserve credit for many of Libya’s victories. Overall, they can hardly be considered a principal element of Libya’s eventual failure.
In general, the various Libyan invasions of Chad were well directed, if simple. Libyan strategy in each offensive was to move from one population center to the next on the best routes from southern Libya to N’djamena: ounianga kebir and then either Faya Largeau to Kouba Olongo, or Fada to Abeche. These routes were determined largely by logistical considerations: the need to secure each population center (and its crucial water supplies, energy supplies, road crossings and airfields) before moving on to the next. Moreover, the directness and predictability of these routes proved to be an advantage for the Libyans insofar as Libya’s main operational goal was to bring the Chadian army to battle in open terrain outside of N’djamena where it could be smashed by Libyan firepower. Thus, the fact that the Chadians could anticipate the Libyan route of advance and would often send their main army out to try to halt the Libyan invasion frequently meant that the FANT was right where the Libyans wanted them.
For the better part of their involvement, this strategic approach worked fine. By carefully securing each population center before moving on to the next, the Libyans ensured their logistical and communications lines and frequently were able to draw out sizable Chadian formations to fight them in the open where Libyan armor and airpower typically proved decisive. In 1980–1981, Libyan forces successfully conquered Chad, and only Qadhafi’s mishandling of the post-ceasefire political arrangements forced the Libyans out again. Likewise, in 1978 and 1983 there is every reason to believe the Libyans would also have overrun the country had it not been for the French interventions. In 1984–1986 the Libyans solved that problem by deceiving the French into withdrawing and then moving slowly with minimal force so as not to give the French sufficient provocation to return.
Ultimately, the key limitation on Libyan operations was not poor generalship but the incompetence of Tripoli’s tactical formations. Libyan units had such limited effectiveness in combat that only under perfect circumstances could this strategic approach succeed. Specifically, only when Libyan forces were called on to provide almost nothing other than stand-off fire support, air strikes, and the occasional tank charge could they prevail over their Chadian adversaries. Thus, only when the Libyans had sufficient numbers of Goukouni’s Toubous to serve as reconnaissance and assault infantry, only when the French Air Force did not ground the Libyan Air Force, and only when the Chadian forces had limited tactical mobility and no antitank or anti-aircraft weapons could the Libyans prevail in tactical engagements. Any time that any of these conditions were not met, the Libyans lost. Badly.
Consequently, it is hard to fault Libya’s generals, at least for Libya’s inability to secure its objectives up till 1986. During that period of time, it was reasonable for Tripoli’s strategic commanders to believe that they could create the right conditions under which their forces could defeat the Chadians in battle, and indeed they were frequently proven correct.
After 1986 it is more difficult to make a case for Libyan strategic leadership. Specifically, the Libyan high command must bear at least part of the blame for the inability of the Libyan armed forces to recognize or adapt to the change in the balance of power on the battlefield. To some extent, the inability of Libya’s generals to properly react to the dramatic improvement in FANT capabilities can be attributed to surprise. Beyond that, the Libyan high command at least appears guilty of arrogance and/or inertia: they almost certainly had become either so contemptuous of FANT capabilities or so accustomed to the limitations of the FANT that they could not accept that the Chadians were beating them.
By the same token, it is difficult to imagine what Libya’s generals might have done differently had they been less pigheaded and more willing to adapt. Like the Iraqis in the Gulf War, the “right” military answer to the problem created by the FANT’s new capabilities was probably to have evacuated northern Chad, but this was a political decision that Qadhafi almost certainly would have forbidden even if his generals had recommended it. Once their new weapons and motor transport allowed the FANT to return to their traditional swarming tactics, Libyan forces were simply incapable of defeating them. Again, like the Iraqis in 1991, the Libyans could not have adopted a mobile defense and tried to match Chadian maneuver warfare techniques because Tripoli’s tactical formations simply could not execute them. Consequently, the only strategy practicable for the Libyans was to dig in deep at key population centers to force the Chadians to attack heavily fortified positions defended with tremendous firepower and hope to bleed the FANT white. Ultimately, Libyan tactical forces proved unable to accomplish even this, and the Libyans were routed.
Still, Libya’s generals must be faulted for the numerous counteroffensives they conducted during 1987, which clearly ran counter to the logic that made the static defensive posture a reasonable option. Static defense was the appropriate strategy for the Libyans after 1986 because they lacked the ability to defeat the Chadians in meeting engagements and maneuver battles, and therefore it made some sense to try to wear down the FANT by forcing it to repeatedly assault heavily fortified positions defended with massive firepower. This logic should have ruled out large-scale counteroffensive operations such as those the Libyans conducted in 1987 at B’ir Kora, the Tibesti, and Oumchi. Sending large forces out of their fortified bases to try to assault Chadian positions exposed them to the risk of ambush and massacre by FANT units en route, which of course is exactly what happened.
Tactical Performance. Libyan tactical forces performed extremely poorly in Chad throughout the entirety of Tripoli’s involvement there. Libyan tactical incompetence was the Achilles heel of the Libyan war effort, the key vulnerability that the FANT was ultimately able to exploit to defeat them. Libyan tactical forces were so limited in their capabilities that they squandered the opportunities offered by Tripoli’s superb logistical efforts, and severely constrained the strategic choices available to Libyan generals.
Without doubt, the greatest failure of Libyan tactical forces was their rigidity. Libyan units parroted Soviet tactics in the most stereotyped manner, and without taking advantage of even the limited flexibility inherent in Soviet doctrine. For example, Libyan mechanized infantry always fought mounted—regardless of the terrain, mission, or other conditions. As a result, Libyan mechanized infantry usually did not dig-in on defense nor would they dismount to clear out entrenched Chadian infantry or antitank teams. Any number of Libyan APCs were incinerated by the Chadians with full infantry squads inside them (54 such APCs were found at Wadi Doum). Libyan tanks rarely maneuvered or attempted to flank an enemy: when defending, they sat immobile in prepared positions, and when attacking they simply rolled straight ahead, in both cases firing almost indiscriminately until the enemy ran away or they were themselves destroyed. Libyan artillery proved adept at conducting preregistered, pre-planned barrages, but that was it. So if the initial Libyan bombardment did not shatter the Chadian defense, Libyan artillery could contribute little more, and the battle had to be turned over either to the armor to launch a charge, or else to the GUNT infantry (when available) to push forward and dislodge the FANT defenders. On defense, especially in 1986–1987 when the FANT’s new mobility allowed them to attack suddenly from any quarter, Libyan artillery proved largely useless since it could not accurately shift fire around the battlefield.
In addition to the individual failings of each of Libya’s combat arms, its junior officers could not integrate these forces into concerted, combined arms operations. In every case, the infantry, artillery, armor, engineers, etc., were left to fight separate battles. About the best they did was to coordinate tank, artillery, and rocket launcher fire with air strikes in indiscriminate bombardments of fixed targets. They could not provide fire support to actively maneuvering forces. Indeed, Libyan fire support units really could not even conduct rolling barrages in support of armor or GUNT infantry advances; either they bombarded or they assaulted, but not both simultaneously.
As this suggests, the majority of Libyan problems can be traced to ineffective tactical leadership. Libyan junior officers proved inflexible and unaggressive, and therefore had little ability to cope with either the rapid maneuvers of FANT units at the end of the Libyan involvement, or even the slower, more ponderous infantry tactics of Habré’s forces before 1986. In contrast to the fairly aggressive leadership displayed by the senior levels of the Libyan command structure—who insisted on counterattacking all through 1987 despite considerable evidence that such operations could not succeed—Libyan tactical forces almost never counterattacked except when ordered to do so by higher authority.
In similar fashion, Libyan defenders rarely shifted their forces to plug breakthroughs, shore up sectors under pressure, or meet a flanking attack. In those few instances when Libyan local commanders did make such an effort, their forces did so too slowly and rigidly to make the action worthwhile. Nor did Libyan units attempt to maneuver for an advantageous position in battle. The Libyans really tried not to move at all, instead preferring to knock Chadian units out of their positions with firepower. On those occasions when Libyan forces did finally resort to an assault (and when they lacked GUNT infantry to conduct it for them), they launched sluggish, rigidly prescribed frontal attacks directly at the main Chadian positions. Finally, when the Libyans were successful, they rarely pursued defeated FANT units, with the result that they never scored as great a tactical success as was possible and never exterminated Habré’s forces, allowing them to regroup and fight again another day.
The Libyans also experienced debilitating problems managing information throughout their command structure, but again, these lapses were greatest at tactical levels. Libyan senior commanders rarely provided adequate information either about Libyan operations or enemy deployment and capabilities to their subordinates. However, they generally recognized the need for accurate assessments of Chadian forces and so employed either GUNT scouts or LAF reconnaissance planes to gather such information. The Libyans were not very thorough even when they did make the effort to find out where Chadian forces were and what they were up to. Libyan strategic intelligence often left significant gaps in their coverage and seldom kept abreast of developments in Chadian politics and military affairs. Tripoli’s junior officers did not even perform up to this level.
Libyan tactical units simply did not conduct reconnaissance. The most obvious example of this was at B’ir Kora, where neither Libyan column commander bothered to scout his route of advance or deploy forces to screen his flanks. Yet this was a constant of Libyan operations in Chad. Libyan forces were notorious for failing to even keep an alert watch around their fortified bases and field encampments. To make matters worse, Libyan tactical commanders regularly misled their superiors for fear of bringing shame on themselves, their men, their colleagues, or their superiors; they overstated the scale of victories, failed to report defeats, and exaggerated the size of enemy forces. As a result, Libyan strategic commanders frequently had little idea what really was happening on the battlefield.
Unit Cohesion. The cohesion of Libyan formations in Chad and the degree of commitment and bravery evinced by Libyan soldiers fluctuated considerably over the course of the Libyan intervention, correlating to a certain extent with the highs and lows of Libyan morale. When Libyan morale was high, unit cohesion was stronger, and more Libyan soldiers were willing to risk their lives for their comrades and their missions. On the other hand, when they were dispirited, units broke under less pressure and fewer troops were willing to sacrifice for their mission or one another.
Nevertheless, there were other patterns of unit cohesion and individual commitment that did not fit the oscillations in Libyan morale. For example, Libyan forces invariably displayed better unit cohesion when defending fixed positions than in any offensive operations or meeting engagements. When the Libyans had a chance to dig-in and allow their men to fight from fortified lines, Libyan units from squad to battalion level hung together, fought hard, and clung to their trench lines. This was equally true of Libyan forces battling in N’djamena when riding the crest of their victorious advance in 1980 as it was when they were desperately trying to hold on to the Tibesti even after the crushing defeats of 1986 and early 1987. Moreover, it was generally a rarity when Libyan regular units simply collapsed in battle; although the militia and Islamic Pan-African Legionnaires might run at the first sign of battle, Libyan line formations usually had to be beaten before they cracked.
Of course, it should be kept in mind that Libyan unit cohesion—even at its best—had little impact on the success of Libyan forces in combat. Although poor unit cohesion often contributed to Libyan setbacks, it was never a singular cause of defeat. Nor was it ever the case that good unit cohesion alone led to a Libyan victory. The limitations of Libyan junior officers left their tactical formations so inutile that this dwarfed other considerations such as unit cohesion. When attacking, all that mattered was how much firepower the Libyans could bring to bear and whether the Chadians would sit and take it. Because if the Chadians were able to either limit Libyan firepower or maneuver against them, the Libyans were doomed to defeat. Similarly, when defending, all that mattered was whether the Chadians were forced to conduct a slow-moving frontal assault, or could conduct quick flanking maneuvers. Because if the Chadians could maneuver, the Libyans were going to lose. Only when the Libyans were conducting static defensive operations against a Chadian frontal assault did it become at all relevant whether the Libyan units would stand and fight or break and run.
Combat Service Support. The Libyans had a strangely mixed record in terms of supporting their forces in Chad. On the one hand, Libyan maintenance was awful. Libyan soldiers and junior officers seemed to have no understanding of the need for regular preventive maintenance on major weapons systems, nor did they have the desire or the skills to perform repairs to broken equipment. Tripoli tried to compensate by importing large numbers of Cuban and East European technicians who were assigned to large, centralized workshops that deployed forward with the Libyan combat forces to Chad. At Wadi Doum, a number of Cubans, North Koreans, and East Germans were captured by the Chadians. These personnel had been assigned to the maintenance crews of the airbase and the major refit facility the Libyans had established there for armored vehicles. Nevertheless, because the Libyans never had enough Warsaw Pact technicians to attach them to every field formation down to battalion or company level, and because the Libyan vehicle crews were unwilling and unable to perform basic maintenance, Libyan operational readiness (O/R) rates remained poor. For example, even though over half of Libya’s combat aircraft were kept in storage because they had inadequate numbers of trained pilots to fly them, Libyan line squadrons were still rarely able to achieve readiness rates better than 50 percent.
On the other hand, Libyan logistics were first-rate throughout the history of their intervention in Chad. In every Libyan campaign, Tripoli’s forces were kept well-supplied. They never were defeated—or even hindered—by shortages of ammunition, food, fuel, water, or other combat consumables. Instead, Libyan forces typically had ample supplies of everything they needed to prosecute combat operations, no matter how difficult the conditions. Indeed, Libyan maintenance problems cannot be blamed on logistical shortcomings; in 1987, when Chadian forces overran major Libyan forward bases at Faya-Largeau, Wadi Doum, and Aouzou oasis, they discovered vast warehouses full of spare parts, repair tools, repair manuals, and replacement equipment. Similarly, the low morale of Libyan forces cannot be blamed on neglect or inadequate provisioning, because Qadhafi’s quartermasters took superb care of the combat forces, lavishing them with all variety of creature comforts. For instance, in 1980, the Libyan garrison at Abeche was provided with piped-in music, sports facilities, air conditioning, an irrigated wheat field, and even a Guernsey cow for the commander’s milk.
Libyan forces deploying south to Chad moved quickly and efficiently, arriving where they were supposed to when they were supposed to. On several occasions, the Libyan Air Force demonstrated the extraordinary ability to airlift vast Libyan mechanized forces into Chad at the start of an offensive. The best examples of this were in 1980 and 1983, when Qadhafi began his invasions by airlifting thousands of troops complete with tanks, APCs, artillery pieces, and MRLs into the Aouzou Strip. On both occasions, these operations were conducted quickly and skillfully and allowed the Libyans to steal a march on Habré.
Libyan logistical accomplishments appear even more impressive when the circumstances are taken into account. It is over 1,100 kilometers from N’djamena to the Aouzou oasis on the Libyan border. Moreover, it is a further 1,000-plus kilometers from Aouzou oasis to the main Libyan military bases along the Mediterranean coast. Thus, Libya’s most successful campaigns were waged over 2,000 kilometers from the main Libyan depots. Moreover, although Chadian terrain is ideal for tactical armor and air operations, it constitutes an extremely forbidding strategic logistical environment. Much of the northern two-thirds of the country is desert, scrubland, or dry savannah with little water, cultivated lands, or population. Chadian infrastructure was primitive. There were few roads or airfields, and essentially no rail lines for the movement of large military forces.
The Libyans overcame all of these obstacles both in meeting immediate requirements in the short term, and making their presence in Chad sustainable over the long term. Libyan engineers and logisticians built roads, airfields, and all manner of logistical bases, slowly developing a considerable transportation network from the Mediterranean coast south into north-central Chad. When the Libyans were finally evicted from Chad, it was not because they lacked the capacity to supply their forces there. Although it is true that Libyan combat formations did not advance at a particularly torrid pace, it is nonetheless remarkable that their combat service support elements were able to conduct these operations as smoothly and quickly as they did, displaying a skill in sustainment capabilities that most Third World armies (indeed, that many First World armies) lack.
Libyan Air Force Performance. For roughly seven years, the Libyan Air Force was probably the most important arrow in Tripoli’s quiver in Chad. When free to participate in combat operations, Libyan aircraft often proved the decisive element in any battle. Nevertheless, the actual combat performance of the LAF was just as dismal as that of the Libyan Army.
Libyan air strikes, no matter how heavy or protracted, rarely caused any physical damage to the target. Troops of the FAN or FANT suffered few casualties from Libyan air strikes, nor did they lose many pieces of equipment. In particular, in 1986–1987, the LAF could not destroy or impede the fleet of Toyotas that were instrumental to the Chadian victory. The one exception to this rule were Libyan air strikes on Chadian villages, which did cause large numbers of civilian casualties but were counterproductive because they incited large elements of the Chadian population against Tripoli. Libyan air strikes rarely ever caused any physical damage because few Libyan pilots actually understood their planes and munitions well enough to put ordnance accurately on target.
Indeed, the incompetence of Libyan pilots was the single greatest problem of the Libyan Air Force in Chad. Because the Chadians had no air force—and the French never sent more than a couple of squadrons of Jaguars to oppose them while the Libyans regularly committed 5–10 squadrons of Mirages, Su-22s, MiG-23s, and MiG-21s—the LAF invariably had the edge in terms of numbers, firepower, and equipment. But its pilots squandered these advantages, even when unopposed in the air. In Anthony Cordesman’s words, the Libyans had “a serious shortage of even mediocre pilots.” One US government expert on the Libyan military estimated that no more than about 10 percent of Libyan pilots would have been considered even adequate flyers by Western standards.
As was the case for Libyan ground forces, the one bright spot in Libyan Air Force performance was in the logistical field. Tripoli’s quartermasters and East-bloc technicians were usually able to sustain a reasonable sortie rate for Libyan fighter bombers. In key battles, this meant that Libyan aircraft were over the battlefield for long periods of time and Chadian troops were under some form of air attack almost continuously.
Finally, the command and control of Libyan Air Force operations were characterized by a tremendous degree of amateurism. The Libyans had a lot of planes, which they used frequently, but had little appreciation of how to employ them in a systematic fashion to achieve the maximum impact. In most cases, the LAF did not bother to fly reconnaissance missions over a target before striking it. The LAF neglected proper air planning, often sending out strike missions with minimal information about the target to be struck, its location, or air defenses. The Libyans regularly dispatched inadequate numbers of planes to targets, and often provided them with inappropriate ordnance for the mission. When allocating strike assets, the Libyans made no allowance for the poor skills of their pilots, nor were Libyan strikes accompanied by appropriate measures to suppress enemy air defenses (with more serious consequences after 1986). Finally, the Libyans rarely conducted post-strike reconnaissance to assess whether additional strikes were required to destroy a target. By and large, Libyan pilots reported that the target was destroyed, and the chain of command accepted their word.
Chadian Military Effectiveness and Arab Military Effectiveness
In 1986–1987, the Chadians were poorer and more backward than the Arabs were at any time during the postwar period, yet Chadian forces fought better than Arab armies. There were some important similarities in the performance of the Chadians and Libyans: neither army could handle or maintain its weaponry very well. But that’s where it ended. Instead, the Chadians were effectively the reverse of the Libyans, and of the Arabs more generally. The one bright spot in Libya’s war effort was logistics, which the Chadians did not share. There, time and again, the Libyans proved remarkably good, running completely contrary to the expectations of the underdevelopment explanation. In contrast, whereas Libyan forces demonstrated their greatest strengths in unit cohesion, set-piece offensives, and static defenses, these were the aspects of military operations in which the Chadians were weakest.
The Chadians’ greatest strengths were the flexibility, initiative, creativity, and independence of their tactical commanders and the quickness and maneuverability this brought to their units in battle. The Chadians proved superb at maneuver warfare and information management, their junior officers far exceeding the abilities of their Libyan counterparts. The absence of these same traits was the greatest weakness of the Arab armies during the postwar era. Ultimately, the Libyans were defeated principally because Chadian strengths were perfectly suited to exploiting the common Arab weaknesses that the Libyans manifested to an extreme.