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Libyan Wars, 1980-1989, Part 6
By Tom Cooper
Nov 13, 2003, 04:42

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Operation "Èpervier"

Before the USA could find out who exactly was responsible for attacks in Vienna and Rome, in December 1985, a new crisis developed in Chad. Obviously, Col. Khaddaffi was not satisfied with the situation there, and in February 1986 - after the airfield at Ouadi Doum was finished (3.800m long runway), and fully equipped with at least one SA-6 battery, a dozen of ZSU-23-4 flaks and comprehensive radar net was established over central northern Chad, as well as the oppositional forces armed with more modern weapons - he deployed three brigade-sized forces to start an invasion of southern Chad, moving out from Ouadi Doum, Faya Largeau, and Fada. Each combat group was supported by SF.260WLs for strike, and CH-47Cs and transport aircraft for flying in supplies. This was an operation which could not be tolerated by Paris, and on 16 February, the French military launched the Operation „Èpervier“.

While Transalls of the French AF began deploying 1.400 Foreign Legionaries and support equipment to N’Djamena, 12 Jaguars and eight Mirage F.1C-200s, supported by at least two C-135FR tankers and one Atlantique, took off from Bangui airfield in Central African Republic for a tremendous strike against Ouadi Doum AB. Eight of Jaguars were equipped with BAP.100 anti-runway bombs (BAP = "bombe anti-pist"), while four carried standard 250kg "iron" bombs: one had to abort shortly before the take off because of technical problems, so that eventually only eleven took part in the attack.

The Libyans at Ouadi Doum never expected such an action and were taken completely by surprise: the air defence sites were first hit by the four Jaguars dropping 250kg bombs, and then the remaining fighters plastered the runway with BAP.100s. The damage was considerable, and the airfield remained closed for several days.

Mirage F.1C-200 fighter seen while refuelling in the air from C.160 Transall tanker low over the Sahara Desert. (via Tom Cooper)

French Air Force Jaguar A in the same configuration as the Jaguars which flew the first strike againt Ouadi Doum AB: armed with Thomson Brandt BAT.100 cratering bombs under the centreline, and carrying a Matra Phimat chaff/flare dispenser under the outside plyon of the starboard wing. (Thomson-Brandt)

The strike-cameras of the Jaugars catched this sequence of the attack against Ouadi Doum: several BATs missed, but one hit the runway and two more can be seen under their parachuttes. (FATac)

Libyan SA-6 site near Ouadi Doum as photographed by the Omera 40 camera of a French Air Force Jaguar fighter. (FATac)

Eastern end of the runway at Ouadi Doum: four SF.260s and a single Mi-24 can be seen on the tarmac. (FATac)

This, however, couldn’t prevent the LARAF to strike back in a similar way. Only one day later, a single Tu-22B approached N’Djamena flying along commercial route, then accelerated to Mach 1 and climbed to 5.030m before dropping three heavy bombs against the airfield near the Chadian capital, where French troops were still landing. Despite the considerable speed and height, the attack was extremely precise: two bombs hit the runway, and one demolished the taxiway, and the airfield of N’Djamena was closed for three following days as a consequence! Subsequently, the French were fast to charter a USAF C-5 Galaxy transport, which flew in a battery each of Crotale and MIM-23B I-Hawk SAMs to bolster the defences. Also, two Jaguar As and a single KC-135F were deployed to Chad. By that time, however, the message was delivered: the Libyans would not left anybody to throw them out of Chad that easy.

The French wouldn’t let up either. After the airfield in N'Djamena was repaired, the Épervier was continued, and subsequently not only 1.400 troops, but also equipment for Chadian Army worth $10 million - and including anti-tank weapons as well as Redeye MANPADs - was delivered.

The first serious clash between a combined Libyan-Oppositional battle group and the Chadian Army, supported by French helicopters, developed on 5 March, near Oum Chalouba. In a short but sharp clash, the Libyans were thrown back, and several of them captured. Exactly at this moment, when the Libyans were in better position to capture whole southern Chad than ever before, however, the tensions with the USA increased once again, and Libya was facing a confrontation in the Gulf of Sirte which it could not possibly win.

Toyota Wars

While the Operations Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon were going on, the French and the USA supplied the government of Chad with more equipment and weapons, as well as supporting a rebellion of pro-Libyan forces in the north of the country, and by autumn 1986 most of the cental Chad - including the airfields at Aouzou, Bardai, Zouar and Yebbi Bou - was again under the control of N’Djamena. On 11 November, however, the Libyans, deploying 10.000 troops, started a counteroffensive, and within weeks captured most of the northern Chad back, destroying several larger units of the opposition and forcing their remnants to retreat into the Tibesti mountains.

By this time, however, also the Chadian Army - lead by the President Hissene Habré - now equipped with a large number of Toyota and Rover 4x4 vechilles - on which such weapons like Milan ATGWs and flaks were mounted - was ready for an offensive towards north, and in late December several columns drowe into the northern Chad. Their first clash with Libyan forces followed on 2 January 1987, near Fada: during a short battle, a whole Libyan armored brigade was decimated: 784 Libyan troops were killed, 92 T-55 MBTs and 33 BMP-1 AFVs were destroyed, while 13 T-55s and 18 BMP-1s were captured and 81 Libyans were taken POW. All of this in exchange for 18 dead Chadian troops and three destroyed Toyota trucks!

One of the dozens of Libyan T-55s knocked out by Chadian ATGMs: even the heavy armour could not defeat the highly-mobile Chadians. (via Tom Cooper)

The LARAF responded by pounding Fada fiercely, trying to destroy the captured equipment and piles of ammunition there. On 3 January, several successive waves of Tu-22Bs, MiG-23BNs, Mirage 5s, and Su-20/22s bombed the city and also Zouar, and on the morning of 4 January adidional strikes hit Fada again.

LARAF Mirage 5ED; this interceptor version of the Mirage 5 was mainly used as fighter-bomber by the Libyans. Ironically, while France and Libya almost went to a war because of the situation in Chad, the LARAF continued sending its Mirages to Dassault for overhaul. (Dassault)

However, the presence of the French troops and the fighter-bombers of the operation „Épervier“ apparently enabled the LARAF no continuation of this air offensive in the similar stile like in 1981 or 1983. Although no air-to-air engagements were reported, it is obvious, that in 1987 for some reason the LARAF was much more carefull when flying missions over the central Chad, and it is highly likely that this reason were Mirage F.1C-200s of the EC.5. Even if it remains unknown if French and Libyan fighters ever meet in any kind of air-to-air combats, it is certain, that French fighters flew a number of missions deep into northern Chad, either to patrol in the area around Faya Largeau, or - if for no other reason - then to escort Transall transports which flew supplies and ammunition for the rebels in the Tibesti mountains. Certain is also, that the French finally decided to neutralize the Libyan air defences in northern central Chad.

Mirage F.1C of the EC.12 underway over the desert landscape of Chad. The French pilots became masters of low-level flying during their operations over Chad. (FATac)

Mirage IVP reconnaissance aircraft were active over these areas in early January and then the French decided to strike again - this time targeting Libyan radars and SAM-sites in the Faya Largeau area. The attack was to rather be of simbolic importance: France and Libya were officially not in a war, but Paris wanted the Libyans out of specific areas, so only enough damage was to be caused to warn but not to provoke Tripolis.

On the morning of 6 January four Jaguars of the EC.4/11, armed with one AS.37 Martel anti-radar missiles each, and eight Mirage F.1C-200s, supported by several KC-135FRs started. Approaching Faya at low level, however, they were not able to detect any radar emissions: obviously, the Libyans were sleeping again. As their Martels needed radars that emitted elecotromagnetic radiation in order to guide, the French had to abort the strike. They would not give up, however: only one day later, the same aircraft started again, this time accompanied by two Mirage F.1CRs of the ER.33, which were to act as baits.

Once the rest of the formation was in postion south of Faya, the F.1CRs accelerated and climbed to a higher level, passing close enough near Libyan positions to be detected visually. The Libyans reacted as expected, turning their radars on and activating their SA-6 site based in Faya, and now the strike group could start its attack. The lead Jaguar acquired the main observation radar and launched a single AS.37 missile. The other three pilots, however, experienced considerable problems while attacking the SA-6 radars: for unknown reasons none of them could achieve a lock-on and all had to abort without firing.

Nevertheless, the sole Martel hit home, destroying the Libyan radar by a precise hit. After some post-strike reconnaissance - probably again by Mirage IVPs - the attack was eventually declared successful. Certainly, the pilots of the EC.4 - all of which were meanwhile experts in low-level fying - wever exceptionally proud of themselves and their unit: the EC.4 was now the first unit that was deployed in combat (in Mauritania, in 1977), the first unit to participate in operations Manta and Épervier, and use BAP.100s and AS.37 Martels in combat, and the first unit to participate in the Red Flag exercises in the USA. It is indeed interesting to note how much was indeed EC.4 used for all these deployments: while F.1C-200s of the EC.5 have escorted it on missions over Chad, and were searching for Libyan fighters, they most likely have not seen any combat at all. The F.1CRs of the ER.33 were only few times used for reconnaissance, while the Mirage 5Fs of the EC.13, which are often claimed to have participated in the war in Chad, were actually not deployed there ever at all.

While this was going on, at least three USAF C-5As flew additional equipment and vechilles to N’Djamena, and by 21 January, the Chadian Army was replenished enough to continue the offensive towards north. The next clash with Libyans occured near Zouar, where another Libyan armored brigade was forced to retreat. Concentrated Libyan counter-attacks on 6, 15, 16, and 20 February remained ineffective and during the last days of the month the Chadians were already approaching Faya Largeau.

A reconnaissance photograph taken by French Mirage F.1CR, showing a LIbyan camp in the Chadian desert, including several tents, some trucks, and a BMP-1 AFV. (via Tom Cooper)

The Libyan supply routes were now much shortened, and they were able to reinforce their troops in Chad, bringing their strength to a peak of 14.500 troops. These, however, were not interested on the conflict, and demoralized by previous losses. Therefore, it was again the LARAF alone which had to try to stop the enemy advance. After the strike against Ouadi Doum, however, not even the LARAF could be present along the whole width of the front, and any kind of effective CAS-operations became increasingly problematic. Therefore, the Libyans decided to start another try to capture Fada, this time by a pincer movement of two armored brigades.

LARAF MiG-23MS with empty missile rails rolling along the runway at Faya Largeau AB, sometimes in mid-1980s. Notice also the radome of an Il-76MD in the foreground left. Faya Largeau was the main Libyan base in northern Chad until the building of Ouadi Doum. (US DoD)

On the morning of 19 March, both columns were detected by Chadians, and these decided to attack immediately. The first column was overrun while only some 50km south of Ouadi Doum, with the loss of 384 killed and 47 captured soldiers. Hardly 24 hours later, the second column was tackled as well, losing 467 troops in the battle. In both cases, also huge amounts of weapons and equipment were captured. But, the fighting was not yet over: in their panic, the retreating Libyans run back towards Ouadi Doum, driving through extensive mine-fields around the base. The Chadians followed on their heels and drove right into the middle of the site, causing a tremendous three-days long battle, in which 1.269 Libyans were killed and 438 captured. Also, 89 T-55 MBTs and 120 BMP-1s were either destroyed or captured, together with two SF.260s, three Mi-25s, two Tu-22B bombers, eleven L-39 jets, two complete SA-8 SAM-batteries and a plethora of additional equipment, weapons, supplies and ammounition, a good deal of which was flown out to France and the USA within the next five days (while the L-39s apparently landed in Egypt).

With the catastrophe at Ouadi Doum, the Libyan occupation of the northern Chad - and the annexation of the Aouzou Strip - was over: by 30 March, also the bases at Faya Largeau and Aouzou had to be abandoned. The LARAF now has got a completely different task: its Tu-22Bs were to attack the abandoned bases and destroy as much equipment left there as possible. First such strikes were flown in April, and they continued until the 8 August 1987, when two Tu-22Bs which tried to strike Aouzou, were ambushed by a captured SA-6 battery used by the Chadian Army, and one of the bombers shot down.

Chadian troops inspect a captured Libyan ZRK-SD Kub armoured vechile with the launcher for three SA-6 SAMs, captured in Ouadi Doum. The Chadians captured practically the whole heavy equipment used for the defense of this airfield intact. Most of this equipment was transported to France and the USA in the following days, but some SA-6s remained in Chad, and one of them was used to shot down a LARAF Tu-22B! (via Tom Cooper)

The reaction to this loss was again fierce: between the 17 and 24 August 1987, the LARAF started an offensive against different bases of the Chadian Army in northern Chad. Although no less but nine Libyan aircraft - including a Mirage F.1 and an SF.260 to SA-7s, as well as an Mi-24 and Mirage 5 - were claimes shot down, the offensive hit hard, and the Chadian Army was once again forcecd out into the desert. Simultaneously, the remants of Libyan forces which retreated from Chad, were once again concentrated at the Tanoua and Ma’atan Bishrah oasis, where a new unit was organized along the same lines like Chadian highly-mobile troops, equipped with light vechilles and infantry-weapons, and placed under the command of Col. Ali Sheriff al-Rifi. Under given circumstances, Habré felt compelled to start a drive into Libya and definitely neutralize the enemy.

In late August 1987, he concentrated around 2.000 troops north of Ouadi Doum, and on the night from 5th to 6th September these drowe over the border, over 110km deep into Libya, to strike at Ma’atan Bishrah. The attack caused a complete surprise: within an hour or so, 1.713 Libyan soldiers were killed, two Mi-25s shot down while trying to start, and 70 tanks destroyed. Subsequently, the Chadians also destroyed 26 LARAF aircraft, including eigth Su-22s, as well as MiG-21s, MiG-23s, several Mirages, and one Mi-25. Before the dawn, the Chadians were again back behind the border.

Chadian troops with one of the LARAF Mi-25s captured during the heavy fighting in 1987. (via Tom Cooper)

One of the reasons for the heavy losses of the LARAF during the operations in Chad, in 1986 and 1987, was an increasing number of automatic AAA mounted on the trucks of the Chadian Army. In this case a ZU-23-2 was mounted on the French VLRA 4x4 long-range truck, which became highly popular with several armies in Africa (foremost for its range of 1.000km). (via Tom Coopern)

The shock caused by the attack against Ma’atan Bishrah must have been terrible, then already on morning of 7th September, two Tu-22Bs were underway to strike the airfield at N’Djamena. This time, however, the French were ready, and a battery of MIM-23B I-Hawk SAMs of the 402° French Air-Defence Regiment well positioned. As the leading Blinder approached, two SAMs were launched, one of which caused a hit and a brilliant explosion. The other Tu-22B aborted the mission and escaped to the north. The French deployed a search party to find the wreckage of the downed Tupolev bomber, and these found the cockpit section with its dead crew still inside: all three crew-members were East Germans.

Left without the possibility to respond, four days later Khaddaffi agreed to a cease-fire, but the LARAF continued to fly sporadic bombardments of targets inside Chad. On 8 October 1987, for example, an Su-22M-22K was shot down by a FIM-92A Stinger while attacking government positions in northern Chad. The pilot, Capt. Diya al-Din, ejected and was captured (two years later he was granted political asyl by the French government). The LARAF immediately organized a recovery operation, including at least two helicopters and several MiG-23MS fighters. But then, one of the Floggers, flown by Col. Ali Thani (the same pilot which engaged USN Tomcats on 14 April 1986), was also shot down by a Stinger. The recovery operation was aborted, and the LARAF was happy to at least recover Col. Thani from the barren desert.

With this the fighting came to an end. After the war in Chad against the Libyans was definitely over, the French expanded the air base at Faya Largeau, and stationed there Mirage F.1C and F.1CR fighters, as well as - in 1988 - some Mirage 2000s of the EC.5. For some time, LARAF MiG-25RBs flew reconnaissance missions over the northern Chad, and French fighters patroled the Libyan border. Time and again some incidents happened: in April 1988 a Jaguar A of EC.2/11 crashed north of N’Djamena, and in December of the same year a Libyan SF.260 was shot down over the northern Chad by Chadian troops.

Meanwhile, the government in N'Djamena delivered a report to the UN, declaring that during the fighting in 1987 its forces have captured a total of eleven L-39s, nine SF.260MLs and three Mi-25s, and destroyed or shot down eight Mi-25s, eight SF.260s, four L-39s, two Tu-22Bs, two MiG-21s, two MiG-23s, two An-26, one MiG-25s and several Mirages. The Libyans should also have lost almost 5.000 killed, and over 2.000 captured troops. Much of the captured equipment found its way to other countries: four USAF C-5 Galaxy transports were sent to N'Djamena to collect the captured Libyan equipment. The Mi-25s and some of the SA-6s as well as considerable amount of anti-tank missiles and other equipment were given to France and the USA, while at least ten L-39s ended in Egypt, where they serve as training aircraft until today.

Libyan LUNA ("FROG-7") surface-to-surface missile on a parade in Tripolis, in 1978. In the last 12 months of the war in Chad the Libyans fired over 150 such missiles against different targets in southern Chad! (Tom Cooper collection)

One of the reasons for the defeat of the Libyan Army in Chad was the massive use of such light and highly mobile vechiless like this Land Rover by the Chadian Army. (via Tom Cooper)

Chemical Reaction

Despite the truce in Chad, the tensions between the USA and Libya could not decrease, esepcially after on 21 December 1988 a PanAm Boeing 747-121 on the flight PA103 from Heathrow to New York, exploded and crashed on Lockerbie, in Scottland. 258 passenges and crew-members were killed in what the USA were fast to recognize as an terrorist attack organized by the Libyan secret service. This, as well as the Libyans building a plant for production of chemical weapons near Rabta, caused new tensions, and the US decision to deploy the CVBG with the USS J. F. Kennedy (CV-67) near the Libyan coast, in January 1989, while also preparing another carrier battle group, centered on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) to sail towards the Gulf of Sirte.

F-14A „AC207“ was one of the Tomcats which participated in the downing of two Libyan MiG-23MS on 4 January 1989. It is seen here after returning from the cruise. There was not much respite for the squadron which was - together with the whole CVW-3 soon to participate in the operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. (David F. Brown)

On the morning of 4 January 1989, the Kennedy CVBG was operating some 100km north of Tobruq, with a group of ist A-6E Intruders exercising south of Krete, escorted by two pairs of F-14As from VF-14 and VF-32, and an E-2C of the VAW-126. Later in the morning, the southernmost CAP was taken by two Tomcats of the VF-32 flown by leading officers of the unit, which were specially briefed for this mission. It appears, namely, that - for an unknown reason - the USN was expecting some kind of a Libyan reaction to its exercise. Consequently, the pilots were advised to expect some kind of hostilities as well as to wait for a possible signal from the commanding E-2C Hawkeye to open fire.

After some time on station, around 11:50hrs, the E-2C advised the two Tomcat-crews about the take-off of four LARAF MiG-23MFs fighters from the al-Bumbah AB, near Tobruq. The F-14s turned into the first two Libyans, which flew almost 50km ahead of the rear pair, and acquired them with radars. Then the Tomcats turned away. Usually, the Libyans would recognize such a maneuver and turn around in order not to close any more; but this time, they increased the speed and went on. For four more times USN pilots repeated their evasive maneuvers, still continuosly keeping the Libyans tracked by their radars, simultaneously spreading their formation and flying lower, so in order to enable their AWG-9s to track the MiGs without any problems due to the ground clutter. The Libyans continued approaching, following each maneuver, and finally, around 12:02hrs the formations closed to less than 20 miles.

The USN fighter-controller aboard the E-2C has meanwhile given the permission to fire, and now the Tomcats were about to engage their opponents: their crews activated their weapons systems, which was in accordance with new Rules of Engagement, according to which they did not have to wait any more to be fired on, but could engage their opponents if these were approaching in a threatening manner.

Without properly coordinating his actions, the RIO of the lead F-14A fired the first AIM-7M Sparrow from a range of 12.9nm - surprising his pilot, who did not expect to see a missile to accelerate away from his Tomcat, leaving a huge plume of smoke. The Sparrow, however, failed to guide because of wrong switch-setting. Noticing the failure, the RIO acted again, firing a second Sparrow from a range of seven miles. The missile failed for the same reason as the first one.

Meanwhile, the MiGs continued approaching and the Tomcats split their formation, in order to be able to „sandwich“ the opponents. The Libyans turned towards the wingman F-14 who was reversing to engage from head-on: closing to a range of five miles the pilot fired a single AIM-7M Sparrow and scored a direct hit on the lead MiG. The lead Tomcat now reversed as well and caught up with the wingman MiG. Approaching from the rear to only 1.5 miles from the opponent, the pilot then fired a single AIM-9M Sidewinder and this impacted the target, causing heavy damage and sending the MiG in flames towards the sea surface.

It remains unclear why the two LARAF MiGs operated in this manner and provoked an engagement in which their survival chances were only very limited (especially illustrated by the fact, that even if the Libyans ejected, Libyan SAR teams mounted no rescue operation, and neither was recovered). The most plausible explanation is, that they were purposedly sent on a „one-way“ mission in order to distract the public attention from the Lockerbie and Rutbah affairs.

Indeed in the following days the Libyans accused the USA for purposedly attacking two unarmed reconnaissance planes, and only the gun-camera video, shot by the TVS-systems of the two Tomcats and clearly showing R-23 missiles mounted under the wings of Libyan fighters proved them wrong.

Although not showing LARAF MiG-23MFs - the version engaged by USN F-14As on 4 January 1989 - these two photographs remains interesting because it shows many details of the camouflage pattern of Libyan MiG-23MS, and their standard weapons configuration, including four R-13s, and a single drop tank under the centreline. (USN)

Taken out of the context, the clash at noon of 4 January 1989 remains a typical example of modern air-to-air combat. The opponents knew about each other for a pretty long time before engaging: the USN-fliers from their E-2C and their radars, the Libyans from their ground control. From the time the deceptive maneuvering started, the crews of the Tomcats flew their planes early to a favourable position, from which their radars had a clear view of the opponents, but the older and far less capable Sapheer-23 had much more problems in finding Tomcats against the sea clutter. The only exception from what can be considered as a „rule“ in such cases was, that the F-14s opened fire lately, almost from within the visual range. The failure of the USN crews to properly utilize the AIM-7 was also nothing new: the same already happened during an engagement between two F-14s and a single Iranian F-4E in August 1988 as well. Consequently, the miss of the first two Sparrows fired during this combat was less of a surprise.

AC202 - or "Gipsy 202" - was the second F-14A involved in the clash with two Libyan MiG-23s, on 4 January 1989. The aircraft should have been flown by the wingman of that USN formation, and was used for scoring the first of two kills on that day. It's BuAerNo remains unknown, however.

Quite a few observers frequently ask why were the MiGs not engaged with AIM-54C Phoenix long-range AAMs. The simple answer is that the Tomcats carried none but were armed with four Sparrows and four Sidewinders only - which was the standard weapons-configuration for USN F-14As during most of the operations in the Mediterranean already since the first series of engagements with Libya, in August 1981: USN Tomcats never carried any Phoenixes during their operations along the Libyan coasts.

Until today, this remained the last clash between Libyan and US - or any other western armed forces.

In the late 1980s Libyans increasingly turned to Yugoslavia for the pilot training and aircraft maintenance. While a while squadron of Libyan MiGs was stationed at Mostar, where up to 30 Libyan pilots were trained on an almost permanent basis, some 130 SOKO G-2 Galebs (on the photo) and J-21 Jastrebs were delivered to Libya. Until today, these aircraft remain the primary jet trainers on the Air Academy of the Libyan Air Force. (SOKO, via Tom Cooper)

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