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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014


by Carlo Kopp
First published in Australian Aviation
July, 1986
© 1986,  2005 Carlo Kopp

At 01.00 hours on the 15th April, 1986 F-111Fs of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing thundered over the Libyan capital of Tripoli at 200ft in a precision strike which demonstrated both the resolve of the Reagan administration in dealing with state sponsored terrorism and also the capabilities of a new generation of weapon systems.

The strike was not entirely unexpected, the shootout between Libyan missileers and the US Navy two weeks earlier followed by the Libyan backed disco bombing in Berlin had set the stage for the strike, a precedent which set several additional precedents.

USAFE was alerted to the planned strike on the 11th April, preparations were concealed within a NATO exercise called Salty Nation which saw 16 KC-10 tankers deploy to RAF Mildenhall, with another 8 deploying to RAF Fairford with some 6 KC-135s reinforcing the existing 14 strong Mildenhall KC-135 units.

The joint air strike was under Navy command and would involve both TAC F-111 aircraft and Navy strike aircraft with the Navy also providing defence suppression aircraft.

TAC's strike force of 24 Pave Tack equipped digital F-111Fs left its home base at RAF Lakenheath at 21.30 GMT on the 14th April, joining up over the sea south of England with 5 EF-111 A tactical jammers of the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron based at RAF Upper Heyford. Due to various political considerations the governments of France, Spain and Italy denied permission for the US aircraft to overfly their territory thus forcing the one elevens to fly around Spain and through the straits of Gibraltar. This increased the distance covered from around 1,300nm to over 2,800nm and mission duration from 6-7 hours to 13-14 hours with major endurance implications for the mission.

The strike force refuelled twice over the Atlantic and six aircraft brought along as a backup to allow for inevitable system failures returned to the UK (exceeding the design mission duration of a weapon system increases the chance of failures cropping up). Approaching the Mediterranean the aircraft dropped to low altitude to reduce chances of detection and hit the tankers again.

At this instant the Navy's carriers, the 80,000 tonne America and recently re-equipped 65,OOOt Coral Sea, were launching their aircraft. Grumman E-2C Airborne Early Warning aircraft launched to coordinate the strike and expected search and rescue sorties following it. MiGCAP was provided by F-14A Tomcats and F-18A Hornets, the latter launching from the Coral Sea. The Navy strike force was comprised of TRAM equipped A-6Es six of which launched from the America and 8 from the Coral Sea. EA-6B Prowler tactical jammers, equipped with the ALQ-99 jamming system similar to that in the EF-111 As supported the strike aircraft with radar and communications jamming. Defence suppression was provided by 6 A-7Es from the America and 6 F-18As from the Coral Sea. These aircraft approached the coastline as the F-111s and A-6s neared their targets but unlike the bombers at 200ft they popped up to several hundred feet of altitude a few miles from the target zones to allow the Libyan air defence radars to detect them. This allowed their Shrike and HARM antiradiation missiles to lock on, over a dozen Shrikes and about 30 HARMs were fired. These effectively suppressed the Flat Face, Low Blow, Straight Flush, Fan Song and possibly Land Roll acquisition radars associated with the Soviet supplied SA-3 Goa, SA-6 Gainful, SA-2 Guideline and SA-8 Gecko surface to air missile systems situated in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Meanwhile, the 18 F-111Fs attacking Tripoli split into three sections of six aircraft covered by three EF-111 A jammers. The aircraft acquired their targets with the AN/APO-144 attack radars and then climbed up to 400ft to acquire and precisely identify the target using the AN-AVQ-26 Pave Tack infra-red targeting system. Stringent rules of engagement specified that aircraft which could not positively identify the target with Pave Tack and aircraft which experienced any problems with onboard systems were not allowed to bomb. The F-111Fs carried payloads of 4 x 20001b laser guided GBU-10 Paveways or 12 x 5001b Mk20 Cluster Bombs (CBUs), the latter used both in the airport and naval base strikes. Approaching the targets the Pave Tack laser provided precise ranging, after bomb release it illuminated the targets to guide the Paveways to impact.

An F-111F of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Lakenheath, England and the first USAF one eleven unit to be equipped with the Pave Tack system. Supporters of the retention and enhancement of our own RAAF one elevens took a considerable leap forward with the overall high performance achieved by the type during the ultra long Libyan mission.

The newly introduced Grumman modified General Dynamics EF-111A Raven proved its worth in the electronic defence suppression role.

TRAM (Target Recognition Attack Multisensor) equipped Grumman A-6E Intruders performed the bulk of the coastal attack duties in company with Vought A-7Es from the carriers America and Coral Sea.

The F-111Fs attacking the Tripoli airport destroyed three and damaged two large 11-76 Candid transports (much like a C-141) while also damaging several buildings. The Sidi Bilal naval base and barracks were also hit with the final six aircraft attacking the Bab al Aziziya army compound. This target housed Gaddafi's command post and was considered to be most important. Four aircraft dropped 16 Paveways but damage was apparently limited, although Gaddafi's adopted infant daughter was among the casualties. Gaddafi as it appears was rather lucky and survived.

Five aircraft aborted their bombing runs and one was lost, reports suggest it was hit by AAA and burning fell into the Mediterranean some distance from the coast. The Navy searched extensively but no signs were found of the aircraft or its crew, Capt. Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and Weapon Systems Officer Capt. Paul Lorence. Their aircraft is currently considered the likely source of several 2000 lb bombs which landed in a residential area of Tripoli causing some civilian casualties and damage to foreign embassies. Other collateral damage appears to have been the result of Libyan SAM and AAA firings at the fast moving and low flying one elevens. Wreckage reported by the Libyans and shown on international television as being from an F-111 turned out to be an SA-3 SAM.

The Navy's A-6E strike on Benghazi focussed upon the Benina airbase and the AI Jumahiriya Barracks. The A-6Es acquired their targets with AN/APQ-148 multimode radars and then zoomed in with AN/AAS-33 TRAM infra-red vision turrets (see AADR Sept 81 p63 for details) using its laser for precise ranging. These aircraft released unguided 10001b demolition bombs and 5001b CBUs, the latter used extensively at Benina. Targets confirmed destroyed include four MiG-23 Floggers, two Mil-8 Hip helos and two Fokker F27 transports. Two of the Intruders aborted their bombing runs.

Libyan air defences performed poorly particularly in view of the warning time involved. Intense but uncoordinated AAA fire was encountered and the Libyans fired a large number of SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and SA-8 SAMs most of which were not correctly guided in the absence of radar and full communications. The heaviest SAM activity was reported over Tripoli and the city of Benghazi. The most effective system appears to have been the vintage ZSU-23-4P / Gun Dish which was deployed in large numbers about the el Aziziya Barracks. US sources suggest that the lost F-111F was fatally damaged by one of these weapons while attacking this target. Libya's MiG-25 Foxbats, MiG-23 Floggers and Mirages remained on the ground throughout the strikes.

All Navy aircraft recovered safely while one F-111F landed at Rota in Spain after experiencing difficulties with an onboard system. The one elevens refuelled once on the return flight at altitude. One source suggests that some of the TAC crews had to be lifted out of their cockpits by ground crew after the 15 hour sortie.

The joint strike on Libya was significant in several respects. It was the first major strike flown from the UK since WW II, it was the first combat application of the digital F-111F, the Pave Tack targeting system, the EF-111A tacjammer, the F-18A and first use of HARM inside a hostile air defence zone.

The unfortunate loss of one aircraft may well have been avoided under looser rules of engagement while the fatigue level of crews after flying fully loaded aircraft for 8 hours with low level flight and refueling included must be considered when assessing the outcome of the mission.

To the Australian observer the performance of Pave Tack, the F-111, the F-18A, the tankers and the AEW platforms confirms the RAAF's existing strategy as being correct. To the Warpac observer the strike demonstrates the effectiveness of Allied defence penetration and suppression techniques. Hopefully it will serve to deter.

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornets operated from the USS Coral Sea in the MiGCAP and defence suppression role. For the top cover MiGCAP role the Hornets operated in company with F-14s and in the more active defence suppression role operated with VoughtA-7s using the very effective HARM anti-radiation missile. (right) The value of tankers never really needs to be proved, however, this mission represented the first time that the new generation of wide bodied tankers had been employed in anger - their inherent flexibility and endurance more than meeting expectations.

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