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Libyan Wars, 1980-1989, Part 4
By Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 03:36

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The First Anti-Terror War

The next crisis around Libya - which, however, would not see a direct involvement of Libyan armed forces - developed already in September 1985, when Palestianian terrorists captured the Italian liner Achille Lauro, while the ship was underway on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. The crisis could be solved with the help of Egyptian authorities, which promised the hijackers to leave them free and bring them to Tunis if no passengers would be harmed. An agreement was reached, however, shortly after the hijackers reached Egypt the passengers and the crew of the Achille Lauro found out that one passenger - an American Jew - was exectued by the hijackers. Learning about this, the US authorities tried to do their best in order to get the hijackers. Yet, the Egyptians have given their word and could not do anything to change the situation. Therefore, the US 6th Fleet went into action again.

The Americans knew that the hijackers were first brought to Egypt, concealed, and were then to be flown out to Tunis. Because of this, at least four RC-135s and one E-3A patrolled off the Egyptian Med coast for almost a week, waiting for the Egyptians to start the transport of the hijackers, while on the ground the local US agents tried to find out where the hijackers were concealled. Finally, the Americans learned that the transport was to be undertaken on the night of 10 October 1985, and that hijackers would be aboard an Egypt Air Boeing 737, which was to start from Cairo International.

The USS Saratoga (CV-60), a Forrestal-class carrier, and the Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17, coded "AA") played a prominent role in all US activities in the Mediterranean, in Autumn 1985 and Spring 1986, starting with the "Hijacking the Hijackers", and ending with the series of sharp clashes with the Libyan air defenses. (USN)

The Carrier Air Wing 17, lead by Cdr. Brodsky and embarked aboard the USS Saratoga (CG-60), was immediately placed on alert, and the embarked air wing, CVW-17, received an order to intercept the airliner. Around 18:45hrs local time, the Saratoga turned into the wind and launched the first E-2Cs of the VAW-125. The second Hawkeye followed around 21:30h. One of the two Hawkeyes took up a position over the Otrant Straight (southern entrance into the Adriatic Sea) and was to act as a back-up, while the other trained its radar to the Cairo area. Half an hour later also four fully-fueled F-14As of the VF-103, two KA-6Ds of the VA-85, and at least one EA-6B of the VAQ-132 followed. Three more Tomcats were launched approximately one hour later.

An F-14A of the VF-74 only moments away from being catapulted from the USS Saratoga. The VF-74 also participated in the interception of the Egypt Air Boeing 737. As this was always the case with F-14s during the operations inside the Mediterranean, this Tomcat is also armed with four AIM-7M Sparrows and four AIM-9L/M Sidewinders: no AIM-54s were carried during any confrontations in the Med of the 1980s, and therefore none could have been fired. (USN)

The Tomcats, escorted by the tankers, Prowlers, and one E-2C, and supported by USAF RC-135s and USN EA-3Bs (the last carrying Arabic linguists in order to be able to listen to Egyptian and Tunisian communications) established a patrol line due north of Benghazi, waiting for the Boeing 737, mmunications). Soon enough, a communication between an Egypt Air aircraft - underway over the Kreta Island - and the Tunesian authorities was intercepted, which indicated that the Tunesians forbade the aircraft to enter their airspace. Now the situation was clear, and this aircraft was immediately intercepted by the F-14A „AA205“. Despite the complete darkness, the crew of the Tomcat managed to approach the airliner completely unnoticed, identify it and then contact the crew. The remaining three F-14s, and the EA-6B then closed as well. After the EA-6B jammed all the communications of the Boeing: so far, the whole USN operation was executed without a single radio message, with all the orders and data exchanged only via the data-links. Breaking the radio-silence, one of the USN Crews finally advised the pilot of the Egypt Air Boeing 737 about the situation, and ordered him to follow USN fighters. Initially, he was reluctant, but then all the US aircraft turned their anti-collision lights on, and the Egyptian saw he could not possibly came away.

An F-14A of the VF-103 "Sluggers" on a patrol together with an VAQ-132 "Scorpions" EA-6B Prowler. Similar combination of aircraft was used also for the interception of the Egypt Air Boeing 737 which was to bring Achile Lauro-hijackers from Egypt to Tunisia. (USN)

Afterwards, the lead F-14 flew ahead of the 737 to NATO Sigonella Air BAse, on Sicily, forcing it to land there, while three other Tomcats waited in the landing pattern, effectivelly closing the airspace overhead for all the other aircraft - except two USAF C-141s, which landed shortly after, carrying at least a platoon of SEALS. The Italians waited at Sigonella as well. While the US troops surrounded the Boeing 737 on the ground, they were surrounded by the Italian security forces, which requested the hijackers to be delivered to their authorities. While this was going on, an F-14A equipped with TARPS-container flew over to make photographs of the situation - which became particularly tense. Outraged by the Italian reaction, the Americans finally pulled away, leaving the hijackers and the Egypt Air Boeing 737 to the Italians.

"The Morning After": VF-103 F-14s bathing in the sun on the deck of the USS Saratoga after the successful interception of the Egypt Air Boeing 737. (USN)

The affair was not yet over, however, as the Italians now had to bring the hijackers from Sigonella to Rome. At 22:00hrs on 11 October 1985, the same Egypt Air Beoing 737 took off from Sigonella towards Rome. Five minutes later, the aircraft has got an escort by two F-104S’ of the Italian Air Force, which started from the Giola del Colle AB, and subsequently two additional Starfighters from the Grazzanise AB joined the formation. Shortly after, however, two unnanounced and unknown aircraft neared, turned around and took a position behind Italian fighters. Two Italian fighters then tried to turn around and find out who these aircraft were: the result was some sort of a dogfight, in which the unknown aircraft - obviously fighters - came closer and closer to the Boeing, as the Starfighters could not outmaneuver them. Finally, one of the Italian pilots warned the nearest unknown aircraft to move away, or he would likely cause a collision. Second later, there came a response in US-English, that there are two F-14As of the USN nearby, and that they want to take the Boeing 737 under their control. The Italians remained stubborn, however, and would not pull back. Therefore, and as the whole formation meanwhile approached Rome, both Tomcats had to turn away. Reportedly, their egress was covered by an EA-6B, which jammed the Italian radars.

However, even if the Americans could have brought the Boeing 737 under their control, they would not get the hijackers: these were not aboard. The two events influenced the US-Italian relations very negatively for quite some time, however, they were to be forgotten, foremost because soon after a new Libyan-supported terrorist attack followed.

Namely, on 27 December 1985, the Palestinian terrorists attacked the airfields in Rome and Vienna, shooting from machine-guns at passengers waiting in front of El Al counters. 19 people were killed, including five US citizens, and Pentagon now responded that each similar attack will result in a new and more powerfull US reaction.

"Prairie Fire"

The Operation with a name which indeed was fitting fine to the situation in the Mediterranean at the time - „Prairie Fire“ - was planned by Pentagon already sometimes in autumn 1985. That this was the case can also be seen from the fact, that at the time the USS Coral Sea CV-43 went to sea for her scheduled six-month cruise (1 October 1985), in an ad-hoc action, a transfer of an EA-6B unit to the ship had to be organized.

USS Coral Sea (CV-43) was at the time one of the oldest USN carriers. But, her air wing, consisting of four squadrons armed with brand-new F/A-18As and one unit of A-6Es, was a sign of the times to come. Here a Hornet is being launched from the bow catapult. (USN)

Namely, the CVW-13, which was to go on board the USS Coral Sea, was a pretty new outfit. As Coral Sea could not carry F-14 Tomcats, the carrier got four units of F/A-18A Hornets; namely: VFA-131 Wildcats and VFA-132 Privateers (two first operational USN Hornet units), as well as VMFA-314 Black Knights and VMFA-323 Death Rattlers (two first operational USMC Hornet units). In addition, the wing has got the VA-55 Sea Horses, with A-6E/KA-6Ds, VAW-127, with E-2Cs, and HS-17 Neptune's Riders, with SH-3Hs. What was lacking was an VAQ-squadron, a unit for electronic countermeasures support, clearly badly needed if any operations against the powerfull Libyan air defences were to be undertaken. As no other unit was available at the time, the VAQ-135 Rooks was taken from the CVW-1 (AB), which just arrived back in the USA from a cruise aboard the USS America (CV-66; this ship was scheduled to start the next cruise on 10 March 1986). This, in turn, caused another reshufle, as now the USS America was without any EA-6B unit; consequently, the USN "borrowed" the VMAQ-2 Playboys from USMC.

In the Mediterranean, there was USS Saratoga (CV-60), which started the cruise on 10 August 1985, and was already involved in the well-known Achille Lauro affair. In addition, these carriers were then also reinforced by the Aegis-cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-49), in addition to their usual escort ships, and by the mid-March 1986 the USN had a concentration of some 30 warships in the central Mediterranean.

The plan for Prairie Fire was simple: already the operations of the USN in the Gulf of Syrte were considered to be likely to cause some kind of Libyan reaction, which then could be declared for a "provocation", which would offer a reason for the US to strike back; nothing bad in itself, as the Libyans were likely to fire at US aircraft and ships even if these would operate far outside Libyan territorial waters. Additional task was to secure more data about the SA-5 system.

The operations off the Libyan coast were initiated in February 1986: by March, no less but 130 interceptions of LARAF fighters in the airspace over the Gulf of Syrte were recorded. Yet, neither side was easy to provoke - the USN especially not because the 6th US Fleet was waiting for the third carrier, the USS America. This ship arrived in mid-March, together with the battleship USS Iowa (BB-62), in order to have more firepower. This was seemingly plausible, as USN pilots could well need some more training and at the time the LARAF was truly a powerfull force, while Libyan reactions were unpredictable: the US intelligence estimated that the LARAF had two squadrons of MiG-23MS, two each of Mirage 5Ds, Mirage F.1ADs, and F.1EDs, and also - so the intelligence from that time - two squadrons with 55 MiG-25PD/RBs. Actually, the later report by Marshall Koldunov (see the Part 3) revealed not only these forces, but that the total number of Foxbats available to the Libyans was around 80, and that there was also a large number of different SAM systems operational, as well as that the serviceability of Libyan Mirages was far better than expected by the USA.

The USN fighters continued penetrating the airspace south of the so-called "Line of Death", declared by Kaddaffi for 32 consequtive days. This line connected Benghazi and Tripolis, and marked the waters and airspace declared as Libyan; the Libyan leader threatened to shot down or destroy any US ship or aircraft moving further to the south. During these 32 days, the LARAF dispatched a number of fighters towards the US CVBGs, but these were always intercepted by Tomcats and Hornets. Even some Soviet Tu-16s appeared several times to take a look at the USN fleet, and had to be "escorted away".

On 24 March 1986 two LARAF MiG-25P (export) were scrambled with the task of attacking and downing some of the USN Tomcats which were operating over the Gulf of Syrte. Their pilots did their best, but could not achieve a lock-on. Their flying was so aggressive, that the USN crews finally got a permission to fire, and subsquently the USN changed its Rules of Engagement (RoE) of Libyan fighters. (USN)

At noon (local time) on 24 March 1986, two MiG-25PDs of the 1025th Sqn LARAF - lead by Col. Ali Thani - started from Benina AB with an order to intercept and shot down some of the USN fighters which operated nearby. Before they could get close enough, however, they were detected by an E-2C of the VAW-123 (callsign „Dead Eye“), and then intercepted by two VF-33 F-14As, which belonged to the newly arrived USS America. The four opposing fighters meet at a level of 20.000ft. Such intercepts meanwhile became a routine for USN fliers, but it was not to be this time. As soon as they closed, Libyan Foxbats started a series of aggressive maneuvers, trying to get into a firing positions. The Tomcats had to avoid, but could not disengage as it was clear that the Libyans were searching for a fight. This especially became clear when the Foxbats several times faced the F-14s head on - which is a clear sign of hostile intention. Finally, the F-14 flight leader reported „excessive hostile actions and intentions“ back to USS America, and the Hawkeye backed his report. Therefore the air warfare commander on the carrier advised Tomcat crews to go "warning yellow, weapons hold" - or to defend themselves if necessary, and then continued, "take the bastards on"!

A fully armed F-14A of the VF-33 thundering down the catapult of the USS America (CV-66). On 24 March 1986 two crews from this squadron had one of the most important engagements with Libyan fighters, which was to become influential also for the later clash between the USN Tomcats and LARAF MiG-23s in 1989. In this case, however, their permission to fire came too late. (USN)

What followed next can at best described as close range knife fighting without knifes. Both Tomcats first dropped to 5.000ft, where they had a distinct advantage over the MiG-25PDs and then the USN pilots positioned themselves between the sun and the Libyan fighters. Finally, both Tomcats ended at the high six o'clock position behind their opponents, painting them with their radars and acquiring them with Sidewinders. The Libyans soon had enough of this and turned straight back to their base.

Another VF-33 F-14A moments from being launched from USS America. Note that this example was armed with the AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles; a clear sign that the "Foxbat hunting season" was oppen. To the disappointment of the USN fliers, no Foxbats appeared again to play: the Libyan dictator himself ordered the LARAF to stop sending fighters and operate with SAMs only. (USN)

Seconds later, one of the Foxbats peeled away and turned back towards the Tomcats, escalating the situation so far, that Cdr. "Bucchi" Haimgartner first acquired him again with his weapons and then requested a permission to fire. Before the permission came, however, the Foxbat managed to get away once again. While this was going on, Tomcats apparently crossed the "Line of Death", closed to some 40km from the Libyan coast (still outside the territorial waters) and this was the moment when first SA-5s were fired.

Seen as photographed by the TCS-set of a Tomcat belonging to the VF-33, this is one of the two LARAF 1025th FS MiG-25PDs encountered on 24 March 1986. (USN photo)

It seems that the successful turning away of two Foxbats was too much for local Libyan commanders, and soon after, their SAM-sites around Sirte started to fire at USN fighters. The first launching was registered around 13:52hrs, from a SAM-site near Syrte. The SA-5 is a huge weapon, not especially nimble and dangerous only for slower and less maneuvreable aircraft. It couldn't hit any of F-14s. Shortly after, two additional SA-5s were fired, but both were jammed by an EA-6B, which meanwhile started to support Tomcats. Interestingly, the Soviet report (see Part 3) mentions nothing of what happened afterwards on the same day, when the USN started to respond in force, but explains about the US "seach and rescue helicopters". Most likely, these were USN aircraft sent to identify several Libyan warships which sortied out towards the US CVBGs. Anyway, around 19:00hrs, the CVW-17 started to launch the first counterattack, dispatching several AGM-88A-armed A-7Es of the VA-83, a number of AGM-84A- and Rockeye-armed A-6Es of the VA-85, and at least two EA-6B fo the VAQ-132. The USS America followed with A-6Es of the VA-34, and Coral Sea with Intruders from VA-85. Attackers were supported by a number of E-2Cs, F-14As, F/A-18As, and KA-6Ds.

SA-2 SAM of the Libyan Air Force. Aside from at least two SA-5s, the Libyans fired also a number of SA-2s at USN fighters operating over the Gulf of Syrte. All SAMs missed the planes that flew at minimal levels. (US DoD)

An F/A-18A of the VFA-131 Cougars, armed with Mk.7 Rockeye CBU, seconds away from being launched. During the clashes with Libyans, the USN fighters used a surprisingly high number of "dumb" ammunition, which required them to overfly their targets and thus come very close to the Libyan air defenses. However, not a single aircraft was even scratched by the AAA or SAMs. (USN)

First to strike were - around 19:26hrs, two A-6Es from the VA-55, which found a Libyan Combatante-II fast missile craft. The ship was first disabled by a single AGM-84, and then destroyed by another Intruder, which blasted it by a load of Rockeye CBUs. Some 40 minutes later, at least two F-14As of the VF-102, accompanied by F/A-18s, A-7Es, and EA-6Bs, closed upon the SA-5-site near Syrte at low level and then suddenly climbed, caused the Libyans to activate and fire. As soon as the radar turned on, Corsairs launched several HARMs, and then the whole formation descended to less than 30m over the sea surface, and distanced. At the time it was unknown if any hits were scored, but subsequently, Intruders of the VA-85 and VA-55 had a free space to attack several other Libyan missile boats.

An EA-6B of the VAQ-137 "Rooks" being repositions from the bow of the USS Coral Sea prior to the next cycle of operations. The EA-6Bs proved their value during the operations off Libya: despite the Libyans firing dozens of SAMs at USN planes in March and April 1986, not a single scored a hit.

VMFA-323 "Death Rattlers" F/A-18A, about to catch the #3 wire aboard the USS Coral Sea. USN Hornets flew their first combat sorties during the series of skirmishes with Libya, in which all the possible experiences from the Vietnam War, the attack against the Syrian SAMs, in Lebanon, in 1983, and the "Strike" Naval Fighter Weapons School were implemented with high succes. (USN)

Around 21:55hrs, two A-6Es of VA-55 attacked a Nanuchka-class corvette which closed upon the cruiser USS Yorktown. The corvette was hit by a single AGM-84A, and started to burn fiercely (she was subsequently towed back to Benghasi). Simultaneously, USS Yorktown fired two Harpoons and disabled another Combatante II boat.

Libyan Navy Nanuchka-class corvette after an attack by AGM-84s fired from USN Intruders: the craft was already heavily damaged and afire when this shot was taken. (USN)

This VA-55 A-6E TRAM Intruder - which operated from USS Coral Sea as a part of the CVW-14 - spots a "kill-mark" for one of the Libyan fast missile crafts or corvettes sunk during the Operation Prairie Fire. (USN)

Around midnight, Libyans fired several SA-2s and SA-5s again, and this time Corsairs and Intruders responded in force: A-7Es of VA-83 closed - for example - to only 25km of the Libyan coast, and whole buntch of AGM-88s was fired, disabling several Liban radars, including at least two Squaire Pairs, used for the guidance of SA-5s. The Americans suffered no losses, although at least three more SA-5s were fired by the site near Syrte, and one SA-2 from another site, stationed near Benghazi. At 07:30hrs next morning, finally, another Libyan Nanuchka-class corvette was intercepted by A-6Es of the VA-55s, and blasted by Rockeye CBUs, dropped by an Intruder which closed at a level of only 30m. The ship was immediately disabled, and subsequently sunk by an AGM-84 fired by an A-6E from VA-85 from a distance of 25km. Although this attack was flown insidie the range of SA-5s, the Libyans have not responded by any means, also because most of US aircraft flew at levels under 50 meters.

The Operation Prairie Fire was terminated at 08:30hrs, by which time the Libyans suffered a loss of two Combatante II boats and one Nanuchka-corvette, while another Nanuchka was disabled. The Americans also believed to have destroyed two Squaire Pair radars, and several other SAM-fire control systems, foremost Fansongs, used for SA-2 guidance. Although aircraft flew closer, USN ships never approached to closer than 74km from the Libyan coast.

El Dorado Canyon

After the "Prairie Fire", the situation developed as follows: USS Saratoga was at the end of her scheduled cruise, and was sent back to the USA. USS Coral Sea was to remain for a while longer in the western Med, visiting the port of Malaga, while - if I remember correctly - USS America was sent to Florence, in Italy. I remember also, that USS Yorktown and the destroyer USS Caron were at visit in some Spanish port.

On 2 April 1986, however, at least two agents of the Libyan secret service and two other persons (including one German woman - all four were sentenced to 15 years in a process which ended last week), planted a bomb in the West Berlin's discoteque "La Belle", which was frequented by US GIs. One American and a young Turkish woman were killed, if I remember exactly. Initial US reaction was to send USS Enteprise from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean (the first nuclear-powered ship to pass Suez). I remember vividly the TV-footage of the huge carrier passing the Canal: something pretty usuall these days, but particularly unusual at the time. Anyway, what exactly the whole USS Enterprise CVBG did for the next several days, remains unknown: known is only, that several officers were decorated for their services during operations off the Libyan coast, before the carrier and its whole escort disappeared somewhere into Atlantic!

After the attack on La Belle, the US set up another strike, this time much more powerfull, and including USAF fighter-bombers. This solution was already considered for Prairie Fire, when F-111Fs from the 48th TFW, based at Lakenheath AB (in England) were to take part. But, the idea was dropped at the time, just like another one, calling for the participation of the F-117As (don't forget that the first unit - the 4450th TG, at Tonopah AFB - was already operational with the type at that time). A team fromt he 48th TFW planned an attack with six Aardwaarks, considering the whole operation as a kind of a test, which would finally give some taste of combat to that version and the crews. The higher commanders (over the 48th TFW), however, wanted more F-111Fs, despite several warnings that that would probably not function. Such warnings were ignored, just like the fact, that the attack could also be flown by A-6Es from USN carriers, which were also equipped to carry LGBs, just like F-111Fs.

Anyway, the USAF started intensive operations off Libya already on 10 April, dispatching C-135Cs of the 4950tzh TW and RC-135V/Ws of the 55th SRW fir to Mildenhall, in England, and Helenikon, on Crete, and then sending them to flights over the Med. Additionaly, USN EP-3As and EA-3Bs of the VQ-2s, stationed at Rota, in Spain, flew a series of ELINT/SIGINT-missions along the Libyan coast. Finally, also SR-71As of the 4th Detachment 1st SRW (also stationed at Mildenhall) flew at least one mission over Libya in the next few day. The Libyans haven't responded with any SAMs or interceptors. Meanwhile, at different bases in Englad, a huge armada of KC-10A and KC-135 tankers was concentrated, officially in advance of some NATO-exercise, actually in preparation for a larger attack on Libya, called Operation El Dorado Canyon.

This operation was initiated on the late afternoon of 14 April, when first planes started from bases in England towards Libya:

- 17:45hrs six KC-135s from Mildenhall,
- 18:00hrs ten KC-10As from Mildenhall,
- 18:10hrs - 18:36hrs 24 F-111F, 16 KC-135 and KC-10A from Lakenheath,
- 18:12hrs single KC-10A from Fairford,
- 18:13-18:40hrs three KC-10A and two KC-135As from Fairford,
- 19:34 - 20:55hrs three KC-10As and five EF-111A of the 42nd ECS/20th TFW from Upper Heyford.

Six of 24 F-111Fs acted as spares for the case of some problems on other Aardwaarks, and were to return back to England after the first refuelling. Two of five EF-111A were also planned to act as spares, should any of the remaining three develop any problems early during the flight, and were to return after the first refuelling from tankers. Instead, only one returned, while the second spare continued with the strike package. All six spare F-111Fs and the single EF-111A returned back to their bases between 20:30 and 21:30hrs. Meanwhile, the strike package continued towards Tripolis around the Iberian Peninsula; the first refuelling operation was initiated around 19:40hrs off the Spanish coast, the second followed SW of Portugal, the third east of Gibraltar and north of Algier, and the last east of Tunis. They were apparently not noticed by anybody of states eventually friendly to Libya, except the Maltese.

Out of 24 F-111Fs launched to take part in the operation El Dorado Canyon, six were spares and turned back hardly one hour after the take off. Five others had to abort due to different - minor - technical problems, and 13 delivered their weapons. Two sections of three aircraft each (originally four aircraft each) were armed with GBU-10 LGBs, and most of these fell either on or within 100m off the target.

As the F-111Fs closed, the carriers USS America and USS Coral Sea started to ready for their part of strikes. Around 22:20, they finally turned into the wind, and then launched a total of three E-2Cs and six F-14s, which were to - together with at least one EP-3A from Rota - to cover the USAF strike. Around 22:35, these planes were in the air some 200km north of Tripolis, while two other Tomcats and at least two EA-6Bs - launched at 22:30 - deployed towards Benghazi, to cover the USN strike.

As the evening of 15 April 1986 - and the F-111Fs neared - the two USN aircraft carriers started launching their aircraft. Here an F-14A of the VF-111 powers up to full afterburner, moments before being shot off the cat 3. (USN)

Between 22:45 and 23:15hrs, 18 F/A-18As of the VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-351 und VFMA-323, all armed with HARMs, were launched from USS Coral Sea, together with eight A-6Es and one EA-6B. The USS American simultaneously launched six A-7Es of the VA-46 and VA-72, armed with HARMs and Shrikes, six A-6Es, one EA-6B and eight F-14As more. The whole operation was controlled by a single E-3A of the 960th AWCS/552nd AWCW, while a single RC-135E monitored the Libyan radio communications.

Later, more and more aircraft were brought to the catapults of the USS America and USS Coral Sea. This scene shows the catapults 3 and 4 of the USS America in the full swing of the launching procedure. An A-7E Corsair II, armed with HARM anti-radar missile, is about to take off from the catapult 3. Behind, an EA-6B waits for its turn. Also, two fully armed F-14As and another A-7E are waiting behind. (USN)

...To the Shores of Tripolis

As first USN planes were to attack SAM-sites around Benghazi, oppening the way for A-6Es from USS Coral Sea to attack the Benina AB. Simultaneously, planes from USS America were to strike the al-Jamahuriyah barracks, also near Benghazi. There was - at least not officially - not much coordination with USAF strike, but an EC-135E of the 7th ACCS was in the area as well, probably acting as some sort of relais. Anyway, these strikes were to draw the attention of the Libyans to another side, while F-111F would do their job.

The attack against targets in Benghazi area was initiated around 23;45, when first Corsairs - after closing at very low level - popped up to a level of 300ft/100m, in order to show on Libyan radars and provoke them into action. As soon as the first emissions from Libyan air defences were registered, Corsairs fired several Shrike ARMs against active Libyan radars and SAM-sites, closely followed by a number of HARMs, fired by F/A-18s. Reportedly, up to 30 missiles were fired in less than three minutes, and around 23:49, the RC-135E intercepted the communication between one of LARAF bases and their superiors. A commander of a SAM-site defending Benina AB first complained „my radar does not work“, and when repeatedly ordered to open fire, he replied, „It’s out. I can’t do it“. Not that the Libyan commanders had it easier with their pilots: the commander of the MiG-23 interceptors at Benina refused to take off when ordered to do so, claiming in a long and heated radio conversation that his field had been put out of commission. Still, as subsequently reported by Commander of the 6th Fleet, Vice Adm. Frank Kelso, the Libyans put up intense air-defence over Benghazi: „They came at us with a wide spectrum of surface-to-air missiles, and there were anti-aircraft (guns) of all kinds“. One of his pilots later recalled dodging a SAM that looked like a „Roman candle coming up at me“. He added, „One was enough for me“. Exactly at 00:01, Intruders of the VA-55 crossed the Libyan coast. Guided by their Norden AN/APQ-148 radars and TRAMs, and closely escorted by EA-6Bs, they found the Benina AB, and plastered it with Mk.82s and Mk.83s. Four MiG-23s were confirmed destroyed and 12 were either badly damaged (probably w/os) or disabled, two Fokker F.27s and two Mi-8s were also destroyed.

Row of SA-2s on their trailers as seen on one of the LARAF sites in the Gulf of Syrte from the coastal road (former "Via Balbia" of the WWII fame). Hardened facilities with the radar are to the right. (US DoD)

Simultaneously, A-6Es from USS America obliterated the al-Jamahuriyah barracks with Mk.82s and Mk.83s, destroying most of larger buildings. At least 80 Libyans were said to have been killed in these two strikes, and the inflicted damage was heavy. The USN suffered no losses, but two Intruders aborted the attack because of technical problems; by 00:13 all aircraft were outside the Libyan airspace, and by 01:58 all were back on their carriers.

At the moment the break down of the Libyan air defence near Benghazi was reported, the 18 F-111Fs were short of entering the Libyan airspace, escorted closely by four EF-111As and - from a distance - by several F-14As, flying at a level of 60 meters, and a speed of 600km/h. Shortly after entering the Libyan airspace, first problems appeared, foremost caused by strict RoEs, which permitted nobody to continue the mission if not all three targeting and navigational systems would be fully functional. This decision was to assure that no civilians were to be hit. Because of this, two F-111Fs aborted when already inside the Libyan airspace.

Anyway, remaining F-111Fs crossed the beach around 00:01hrs, west of Tripolis, accelerated to 800km/h and then the formation parted in three sections in order to attack three different targets:
- Azziziyah barracks (with the Ghaddafi's HQ),
- military side of Tripolis International,
- terrorist training camp at Sidi Billal.

After activating their APQ-130 radars, three other F-111Fs had to abort, due to additional problems. Despite this, the strike caused a surprise, and the Libyan air defences haven't reacted so far: actually, the whole Tripolis was still in full light. The first to attack was the Remit-section, dropping AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack-guided 907kg heavy GBU-10 LGBs against Azziziyah barracks, at a speed of 834km/h and level of some 150 meters.
- the first plane dropped all four bombs and these landed some 50 meters in front of Ghaddafi's HQ,
- the second aborted at the last moment due to a technical problem,
- the third scored direct hits by all four GBU-10s, and its Pave Tack video showed also the first two SAMs fired at US planes over Tripolis on that night. These were to cause immense problems to the following Kamra-section.

The Libyans were taken completely by surprise, and all lights in Tripolis were on. Nevertheless, the air defenses of the city opened fierce fire (which was to last for the next two hours), and managed to disturb the crews of the "Karma" Section enough to cause several misses. (US DoD)

- Karma 51 faced tremendous AAA, which disrupted the crew and the Pave Tack system; the crew failed to notice the loss of the lock, which caused four GBU-10s to miss by some 2.700 meters and damage Austrian, French, Iranian and Swiss embassies;
- what exactly happened to Karma 52 (F-111E 70-2385) remains unclear: the plane apparently dropped its bombs precisely, and flew with the others in formation for some 30kms away from Tripolis, when other crews - and, reportedly, the crew of one or two Tomcats which waited for them - noticed a fireball over the sea surface at 00:10. There are different theories for the loss; including AAA, SAM, and even a fratricide shot from one of F-14s. Certainly, the crew, Capt. Ribas-Dominici, and Capt. Lorence, was killed. Autopsy of Ribas-Dominici (his body was returned by Libyans years later), showed that he drawned, possibly still inside the capsule (the F-111F has no ejection seats, but the whole cockpit is ejected from the rest of the plane).

The third section, Juwel, then approached Sidi Bilal, meeting only light resistance, and hitting with all bombs except that of the last plane, which missed by some 40 meters due to dust and smoke from earlier hits.

Tripolis International was hit by Puffy and Lijac-Sections, which dropped 24 Mk.82s with Snakeye retarding fins per plane, from a level of only 70 meters. Despite coming so close to their targets, only bombs from one plane hit something, obliterating three Il-76MDs and damaging two others, as well as some helicopters.

Series of stills from the Pave Tack system from one of the F-111Fs which attacked the military side of theTripolis International, and was targeting four Il-75 transports used for moving weapons for terrorists inside and outside Libya. The first frame shows the situation as the F-111F is closing from the south towards the ramp with the Il-76s. Seconds later, the F-111F passes almost vertically over the third Il-76 in the row (frame 2), and then drops 24 Mk.82s (with Snakeye retarding fins), the second salvo of 12 of which can be seen falling in the third frame (the first salvo is already exploding in the background). The precision is stunning, given the fact that the aircraft passed almots 4.000km and refuelled four times in the air before making this one and only pass directly over the target! (USAF)

Depiction of the attack on the military side of Tripolis Int. Airport. (Unknown artist, via US DoD)

No other US or Libyan aircraft were hit. Around 01:00hrs, first F-111Fs reached the waiting KC-10As off the Tunisian coast. Around 03:15, one F-111F landed at Rota, in Spain, with an overheating engine. The others returned to Lakenheath, Upper Heyford, Fairford and Mildenhall between 05:45 and 06:30hrs local time.

Post Scriptum

On 9 March 2004 the mastermind of the hijhacking of the Achille Lauro passenger ship in which an American tourist was killed, Palestinian Abu Abbas, the leader of Palestine Liberation Front, died in US custody in Iraq at an age of 56. Abbas, whose given name was Mohammed Abbas, was captured in southern Iraq by US forces during a raid in April 2003, and has spent the last eleven months of his life as a US prisoner. Although no official cause was so far given by the US or Palestinian authorities, a Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that he died, "apparently....of natural causes", and that there would be an autopsy.

© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

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