Friday, March 25, 2011

"Odyssey Dawn" over "El Derado Canyon"

With the current military action in Libya, the news is abuzz with all of the usual chatter from the talking heads. Subtopics range from Colonel Gaddafi, to terrorism, to the budget to President Obama and so on. One of the things that has been mentioned a lot lately, (or perhaps I am just hearing a lot of it) are references to the 1986 bombing of Libya. Sadly, a lot of people I have spoke with or overhead, do not seem to understand the differences between the current US military action in Libya, and the military action in 1986. A handful are so ignorant of the facts that they have said to my face "Isn't this exactly what Regan did back in the eighties?"

Well, as military history is a hobby of mine, I figured I might add to the current noise level, and maybe educate some people as to what did, and didn't happen back in 1986.

Without going back too far, the origin's of the 1986 bombing are immediately attributed to several events, starting with the terrorist attacks in Rome, and Vienna, on December 27th, 1985. Following this, Colonel Gaddafi extended Libya's jurisdiction into the Gulf of Sidra, well into what were otherwise recognized as international waters. The United States Navy, in accordance with US policy of the day, aggressively challenged this claim, moving combat ships into the disputed waters, effectively daring Libya to militarily contest the region, as well as helping to protect civilian merchant vessels legally navigating outside Libyan jurisdiction. By the end of March, the US 6th fleet and sent an impressive battle group to the region, centered on three Aircraft carriers; the USS America, The USS Saratoga, and the USS Coral Sea. Supporting ships included five guided missile cruisers, twelve destroyers and six frigates. It should be noted that the combined air power of this battle group was over 200 aircraft, and had a major military engagement taken place, modern historians are confident that the carrier battle group could have devastated any offense air mission sent by Libya against themselves, or civilian ships in the vicinity.

Throughout February and March of 1986, elements of the battle group continuously challenged Libya's claims by crossing their declared "line of death" (32 degrees, 30 minutes North), effectively daring Libya to respond. by the end of March, the Libyan military decided to respond, and begin countering US maneuvers with actions of their own. This culminated in a limited engagement starting at 7:02am on March 23rd, where a Libyan surface to air missile site near the coast fired on US aircraft flying in international water. The action ended at just before 1:00 the next morning with a US retaliatory strike on on Libyan military ships and selected SAM sites on the coast. The Navy ceased offensive action at that point, with a net result on no American causalities, and and 4 Libyan light combat ships destroyed or heavily damaged, as well as several SAM sites out of action.

In early April, the La Belle night club in West Berlin was bombed, an action later attributed to agents from the Libyan Government, working under orders from Colonel Gaddafi. Following this development, President Ronald Regan ordered a military strike on selected Libyan military assets, and training centers documented to be used for training terrorists. The Specific Targets were Military barracks in Bab al-Azizia and Jamahiriyah, an encampment at Murat Sidi Bilal, Tripoli Airfield and two major air-defense emplacements near Tripoli and Benghazi. The mission would launch on the 14th of April, and the overall mission was officially codenamed "El Dorado Canyon".

The chosen strike aircraft would be the Air Force's F-111F "Aardvark", and the Navy's A-6 "Intruder", both direct descendants of aircraft used in the Vietnam war. Both of these aircraft were designed specifically to penetrate hostile air space at low attitude, engage a target as accurately as possible, and then to retreat at low altitude towards safety. This type of mission, genarically refered to has precision strike, was one that US Navy and Air Force flight crews had trained for extensively throughout most of their careers.
An original plan called for the use F-117s of the 4450th Tactical Group,
and these aircraft were, in fact, within hours of launch from their
classified airfield in Nevada when the mission was canceled out of
concerns for the F-117's continued secrecy.

During the operation, a single F-111f, crewed by Captain Fernando L Ribas, and Captain Paul F. Lorence was shot down (presumably by a Russian-made S-200 Angara surface to air missile) over the Gulf of Sidra during their return from a successful bombing raid. Neither man is believed to have survived the resulting crash, and both are now confirmed to be deceased.

Then and now:
With respect to the current military situation, Operation El Dorado Canyon was extremely limited, focused, and short. Where the original mission was meant to affect Libyan foreign policy through force and threat of force, the current mission is clearly meant to affect domestic policy through force, threat of force, and destruction or neutralization of military hardware.

Also, Pan-Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb planted by two Libyan intelligence agents less than two years later, demonstrating that the effects of the attack were not exceptionally long lasting.

A few things worth noting about the mission:
  • The strike had an extremely limited objective: to visibly inflict damage on the specified targets in order to send a clear message to Gaddafi that none of his military, or para-military (terrorist training) resources were outside US reach.
  • No attempt was made to establish air superiority over Libya, and no Libyan fighters were engaged in the air.
  • The Air Force strike elements had no fighter escort when they hit their targets, the pilots were completely dependent on surprise and skill to defend themselves if Libya managed to get fighter aircraft aloft. (the F-111 does have a rudimentary air-to-air capability, but it is specifically not a fighter aircraft, despite it's "F" designation.
  • The total strike force was composed of 45 aircraft.
  • The time that US combat aircraft were over Libyan airspace was less than 1 hour.
  • The majority of the ordinance used was unguided, impact detonated, free fall munitions.
  • 48 GBU-10 Paveway II laser guided bombs were deployed aboard the F-111Fs, 28 weapons made it to their release points (4 aircraft had to turn back early due to mechanical problems), 3 missed their targets. 
  • While the F-111f was designed for, and its crews extensively trained in the use of guided weapons, the strike on Tripoli airfield was carried out with 60 unguided MK-82 500lb bombs (with devastating results).
  • Most of the of the aircraft that took part in, or supported the raid are no longer in US service. The F-14, the A-6, A-7, EA-6BProwler (in process of being replaced by the EA-18F Growler), KA-6D, and the F-111f have all be retired from service, their respective roles replaced by better aircraft, or superseded by advancements in cruise missile technology, stealth research and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Operation EL DORADO CANYON 1986 Libya

Ronald Reagan Airstrike Libya

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