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Operation El Dorado Canyon

On April 5, 1986, a bomb exploded in a discotheque in Berlin frequented by United States service personnel. Of the 200 injured, 63 were American soldiers; one soldier and one civilian were killed.

On the late evening of 15 April and early morning of 16 April 1986, under the code name El Dorado Canyon, the United States launched a series of military air strikes against ground targets inside Libya. The timing of the attack was such that while some of the strike aircraft were still in the air, President Reagan was able to address the US public and much of the world. He emphasized that this action was a matter of US self defense against Libya's state-sponsored terrorism. In part, he stated, "Self defense is not only our right, it is our duty. It is the purpose behind the mission...a mission fully consistent with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter."

The use of force was specifically prompted by what the President claimed was "irrefutable proof" that Libya had directed the terrorist bombing of a West Berlin discotheque nine days earlier which had killed one American and injured 200 others. The impetus for the President's decision to authorize the raid was the American intelligence interception of a message from Gadaffi ordering an attack on Americans "to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties." Another communications source, an intercepted Libyan message outlined the attack being planned in West Berlin.

The raid was designed to hit directly at the heart of Gaddafi's ability to export terrorism with the belief that such a preemptive strike would provide him "incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior." The final targets of the raid were selected at the National Security Council level "within the circle of the President's advisors." Ultimately, five targets were endorsed by the JCS and Secretary of Defense and approved by President Reagan:

  • Aziziyah [Tarabulas] Barracks in Tripoli, which was described as the command and control headquarters for Libyan terrorism.
  • Jamahiriyah Guard Barracks / Benghazi Military Barracks in Benghazi, which were described as another terrorist command post. Like Aziziyah Barracks, it was a billeting area for Gadhafi's elite Jamahiriyah Guard. It also contained a warehouse for storage of MiG components.
  • Murrat Side Bilal base, which administration officials said was used to train terrorists in underwater sabotage. This combat swimmer and naval commando school, in the Tripoli area, was where PLO and other terrorist organization frogmen were trained.
  • military facilities at Tripoli's main airport. IL-76 Candid transports used to support Gadhafi's export of terrorism were the primary targets.
  • Benina Military Airfield southeast of Benghazi. Although not directly related to terrorism, Benina Military Airfield was selected for attack to ensure that its MiG fighters would not intercept or pursue US strike forces.

All except one of these targets were chosen because of their direct connection to terrorist activity. The single exception was the Benina military airfield which based Libyan fighter aircraft. This target was hit to preempt Libyan interceptors from taking off and attacking the incoming US bombers. It should also be noted that the French Embassy in Tripoli and several of the neighboring residential buildings also were bombed inadvertently during the raid; they were not targeted.

Mission planners decided, as part of the effort to attain tactical surprise, to hit all five targets simultaneously. This decision had crucial impact on nearly every aspect of the operation since it meant that the available US Navy resources could not perform the mission unilaterally. The only two types of aircraft in the US inventory capable of conducting a precision night attack were the Navy's A-6s and the Air Force's F-111s. The Navy had two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean at the time planning for the raid: The America and The Coral Sea. Each had ten A-6 aircraft, but these were not the total of 32 aircraft estimated as required to successfully hit all five targets with one raid. The closest F-111s were based in the United Kingdom (UK); and use of these UK based aircraft dramatically affected the scope and complexity of the operation. Planning was even further compounded when the French refused to grant authority to overfly France. This refusal increased the distance of the flight route from Great Britain to Tripoli by about 1300 nautical miles each way, added 6-7 hours of flight time for the pilots and crews, and forced a tremendous amount of additional refueling support from tanker aircraft.

Concurrent with target selection, the nature and size of the strike force were considered. Concern for collateral casualties and risk to US personnel, a certain desired weight of attack, coupled with availability of assets, quickly narrowed the field to a strike by tactical aircraft. . Mission forces are seldom selected on the basis of a single factor, such as accuracy, but on myriad political and military considerations. Tactical air offered the ability to place the greatest weight of ordnance on the targets in the least amount of time while minimizing collateral damage and providing the greatest opportunity for survival of the entire force.

The size of the strike force's final configuration was immense and complex. Approximately 100 aircraft were launched in direct support of the raid:

    Air Force

    28 KC-10 and KC-135 tankers

    5 EF-111 Raven ECM (Electronic Countermeasure) aircraft

    24 FB-111 Strike aircraft (six of these were airborne spares, and returned to base after the initial refueling)


    14 A-6E strike aircraft

    12 A-7E and F/A-18 Electronic warfare and jamming aircraft which undertook air defense suppression for the mission

    Several F-14 Tomcats which took up the long range Combat Air Patrol (CAP) responsibilities

    4 E-2C Hawkeye airborne command and control and warning aircraft

In addition to the above, several helicopters were deployed for possible search and rescue operations, and "50-80 more aircraft were airborne in the vicinity of the carriers some 150-200 miles off shore." In fact, the total size of the force was criticized as excessive from various sources. All combined, the whole operation involved (to some degree) "more aircraft and combat ships than Britain employed during its entire campaign in the Falklands."

The 66th Electronic Combat Wing detached the 42nd ECS to the 20th TFW to take part in Eldorado Canyon the raid on Libya. On 14 April 1986, 5 EF-111As and 20 F-111Es took off from RAF Upper Heyford as part of the attack force. They were used as an airborne reserve for the F-111Fs of the 48th TFW, RAF Lakenheath. Three EF-111s (two were spares and turned back) formed up with the 48th's F-111Fs and provided electronic defense during the attack on Tripoli. USAFE initiated the Project Power Hunter intelligence network in December 1987. The wing first tested the Durandal runway-buster bombs during Exercise Red Flag, in January and February 1988.

During the evening of 14 April, 28 Eighth Air Force KC-135s and KC-10s left the Royal Air Force (RAF) bases at Fairford and Mildenhall, England, to meet up with 24 F-111s from RAF Lakenheath. For this mission to Libya, the Eighth Air Force's tankers refueled the strike force four times under conditions of radio silence. On their return, the F-111s needed two more refuelings to get back to England. The mission took 14 hours to cover 5,500 miles nautical miles because France and Spain would not allow the formation to fly over their territory. Eighth Air Force's refueling support made the longest mission ever accomplished by tactical aircraft a success.

The first aircraft to launch were the 28 tankers from Britain followed closely by the F/EF-111s. Four refuelings and several hours later, these planes rounded the tip of Tunisia and were integrated into the Navy's airborne armada by an Air Force officer aboard a KC-10 tanker which had been modified to function also as an airborne command coordination center.

Although joint in nature, the actual execution of the strike was operationally and geographically divided between the Navy and Air Force. Navy A-6s were assigned the target in the Benghazi area, and the Air Force F-111s hit the other three targets in the vicinity of Tripoli. This division of responsibility was done largely to simplify and deconflict command and control of the operational aspects of the raid. The modified KC-10 tanker was given charge of the Air Force resources while the carrier America controlled the Navy aircraft. The airborne E-2C Hawkeyes provided early warning, air control vectors, and operations.

The actual combat commenced at 0200 (local Libyan time), lasted less than 12 minutes, and dropped 60 tons of munitions. Resistance outside the immediate area of attack was nonexistent, and Libyan air defense aircraft never launched. One FB-111 strike aircraft was lost during the strike. The entire armada remained in the vicinity for over an hour trying to account for all aircraft.

Benina airfield BDA, April 1986

Benina airfield BDA, April 1986

Although retaliation for the Berlin bombing had been anticipated, Libyan air defenses seemed almost wholly unprepared for the attack. In fact, it was reported that antiaircraft fire had not begun until after the American planes had passed over their targets at Tripoli. Libya's formidable air-defense system (manned by 3,000 Soviet air-defense technicians) was completely overwhelmed by precise Navy suppression strikes. It was reported that some Libyan soldiers abandoned their posts in fright and confusion and officers were slow to give orders. Also, Libyans fighters failed to get airborne to challenge the attacking bombers.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 14:05:23 ZULU