‘Why consult the crystal ball when you can read the book?’ – Aneurin Bevan
The Anglo-French led air incursion over Libya is being presented in Europe as unprecedented. It isn’t. 15 April 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the American attack on Tripoli and Benghazi by a force of eighteen F‐111 bombers and twenty-eight KC10 and KC135 tankers from airbases in and around what then was the Suffolk constituency I represented in the British Parliament. The raid was a success in so far as it convinced Muammar Gaddafi to give up his reach for nuclear weapons and to reduce his support for terrorist bombing and assignations in Britain and the murder of Americans in the Middle East and Europe. The complex military details and subsequent political fallout have never been fully revealed but (studied in depth by a subsequent generation of USAF pilots and commanders) undoubtedly played a part in making the Pentagon reluctant to get involved in a contemporary No Fly Zone.
I was closely involved in the preparations for and political fallout from Operation El Dorado Canyon as the US attack was codenamed. Like the British and French air crews overflying Libya today, the Americans were under strict order to ‘avoid collateral damage’ – not to kill or injure civilians. That was why the 48th tactical air wing at Lakenheath in England was tasked to carry out the attack. Only its 493 squadron could deliver the air to surface television guided glide bomb (GBU‐15s) that could penetrate the Libyan defences and carefully selected military targets without inflicting casualties on the population of surrounding buildings.
The targets selected were Gaddafi’s own headquarters, located in a bunker under the Bab Al Azziziyeh barracks in the diplomatic sector of Tripoli and the Libyan Air Force’s facilities at Tripoli International Airport, where large numbers of Soviet‐supplied Ilyushin transports were stationed. A secondary target was the Sidi Bilal naval centre where, under Soviet supervision, the Libyans were training underwater demolition teams some of whom were believed to have taken part in the laying mines in the Red Sea that damaged ships transiting the Suez Canal.
On Tuesday 9 April President Reagan got Margaret Thatcher’s approval for the British bases to be used. The orders already had been typed by a senior clerk in the Pentagon, but no date and time was shown for commencement of the attack. The Secretary of the Air Force inserted these in long hand and moved them up 24 hours to ensure against leaks that might alert the Libyans. A four‐star general then carried the orders across the Atlantic by hand to Major General McInerney, Commander of the Third Air Force in Suffolk.
Only then did Tom McInerney learn that France and Spain had refused to allow US flights across their territory. This would add up to 2,400 miles and six more hours of flying time for his crews to reach Libya and return. The F‐111s must therefore launch from England several hours earlier, thus increasing the risk of the Libyans being tipped off in advance by Soviet reconnaissance aircraft. Because of the greater distance, many more air refuellings would also be needed on both the outward and return legs of the mission.
Each of the F‐111s regardless of weather or any other contingency had to rendezvous with a tanker, on four separate occasions at exactly the right place, the right height and the right time – without using their radios (for fear of the Libyans overhearing them).
My diary records how the mission unfolded:
12.36 pm: Twenty four khaki and brown camouflaged F‐111s began taking off from Lakenheath. Six of these aircraft were spares, reserves to fill any gaps that might arise because of malfunctions among the eighteen aircraft tasked to make the strike.
12.50 pm: Five other US aircraft flew out of RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Specially equipped with state of the art electronics. Their task was to put the Libyans’ radars out of action.
6.55 pm: The radar jammers cross into Africa, heading south into the Sahara, then wheeling north. They made their final run into Tripoli – not from the Mediterranean as might have been expected, but from the south across the desert. Their radar‐suppression worked. Though the Libyans loosed off more and denser anti‐aircraft missile fire than the Americans had experienced in Vietnam, virtually the whole of the attack force came through unscathed.
7.00 pm: Complete tactical surprise is achieved. Not a single alarm was signalled in Tripoli. Not one Libyan fighter aircraft took off as the main F‐111 strike force roared in at low level from the Mediterranean. Eight bombed the Sidi Bilal naval training area; nine others aligned themselves on Gaddafi’s command post in Al Azzizyah.
In the event, only five of these aircraft pressed home their attack. The pilots of the other four aborted their attacks to guarantee that they stayed within the constraints laid down by the President – avoid collateral damage. One attacking aircraft released its bomb prematurely. This almost certainly was responsible for most of the 49 Libyans, including Gaddafi’s 10 year old adopted daughter, who were killed.
8.14 pm: Heading home through the Straits of Gibraltar to avoid flying over Spain and France, the Lakenheath F‐111s rendezvous with their first return leg tankers over the Atlantic west of Gibraltar.
3.10 am Tuesday 15 April: Landing at Lakenheath, some of the pilots are so stiff after 14 hours cramped up in their narrow cockpits that they have to be bodily lifted out of their seats.
How effective was the raid?
I subsequently discussed this with Gaddafi when he invited me to Libya in my capacity as National Chairman of the World Affairs Council of America. He received me at the rebuilt Habbinayah Barracks in Tripoli from which he and his son, Saif, would later direct the counter attack against the rebels (March 2011). We sat outside the goatskin tent that accompanied him to New York when he subsequently addressed the United Nations (and made a fool of himself with a 90 minute harangue that led scores of delegates to walk out!).
I began the conversation with Libya’s support for terrorism citing the murders of Libyan exiles in Britain, his supplying of weapons and cash to the IRA and the destruction of Flight 103, killing 258 US passengers and 11 Scots in the village of Lockerbie.
Gaddafi: “We Libyans did not kill them. But Libya has offered to pay large sums to the victims.” His eyes flashed as he went on: “Is Libya not entitled to compensation for the victims of the American attacks on our children?”
We came to the key issue. Griffiths: “Is Libya trying to build atomic bombs?” Gaddafi: “Why should we? Libya does not need them.”
I pressed him to be more specific, but he danced around the subject. “Who would we use (nuclear weapons) against?” he asked. “Not our Arab neighbours; they are our brothers. Not the Europeans, they are our friends and trade partners; as for the United States, how could we reach America?”
It was at this point that I made what may have been a small contribution to Gaddafi, and therefore Libya’s decision to abandon its reach for nuclear weapons.
Griffiths: “If you make a bomb, Libya will not be safer. You will only make it certain that the United States will come after you again, and next time, Libya could be obliterated.”
Tough talk? Yes it was, and I had no authority whatsoever to say this, only my own judgement of the Bush Administration’s outlook and some experience of speaking frankly to political leaders who knew that I no longer had axes to grind, goods to sell or electors to impress.
Gaddafi made no reply. Though he understood my English, he asked his interpreter to repeat my words in Arabic. Unusually, he then fell silent as I had thanked him for receiving me and left.
* * *
President Bush later made the claim that Gaddafi’s nuclear ambitions ‘crumbled’ in response to America’s use of force against Iraq. That was too simple by half. On the basis of the talk I had with him and my subsequent contacts with Libyans, there were two main reasons why Gaddafi dismantled his underground bomb-making labs and turned over the blueprints to Britain and the US. One was that oddly named air strike – Operation El Dorado Canyon. The other, as one of his confidants told me was that Gaddafi wanted to ‘come in from the cold’; to reopen Libya’s trade links with the US and the EU, allowing the imports of the components needed to revive its limping oil industry: above all to take its turn as a member of the UN Security Council.
For close to a decade, Libya came close to achieving this. International traders and investors poured into Tripoli; western leaders, among them Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hilary Clinton, flew to Tripoli and embraced Muammar Gaddafi. Not until the Arab revolutions brought down the despotic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011 did Britain, France and the United States abandon ‘reconciliation’ and reverse their pragmatically benign approach to Gaddafiland.
The Americans involved in today’s No Fly Zone will undoubtedly share with their allies the critical lessons learnt from Operation El Dorado Canyon.
One is that Libya’s radars and air defence missile batteries must be put out of action ‐ in advance. Another is that no matter how carefully the pilots may try to avoid ‘collateral damage,’ civilian casualties are inevitable, not least because the enforcers have no alternative but to strafe Gaddafi’s tanks if they advance on Benghazi and shoot down any of his warplanes and helicopters that may take off. These are acts of war. David Cameron was talking nonsense when, in one breath he pledged UK participation in a No Fly Zone, while declaring in the next “we will not go to war”.
A third lesson is that while armed intervention may save the revolutionaries from being crushed and at first may be welcomed by many, though by no means all the Arab states, the longer term response is more uncertain. Whatever its merits in human rights’ terms, the No Fly Zone could yet rekindle a new version of the hostility to the West that followed Operation El Dorado Canyon.