Libyan Air Force Under Qadaffi
Libya under Qadaffi had the largest Air Force in North Africa, but had not demonstrated any capability of effective employment and had struggled to maintain air and ground crews capable of flying and servicing the aircraft. With Soviet assistance, the air force was organized into medium bomber, fighter-bomber (ground attack), fighter-interceptor, reconnaissance, transport, training, and helicopter squadrons. The fighter-interceptor, medium bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons are located at bases along Libya's coast and along its border with Egypt. The helicopter squadrons are probably based to support ground troops, but overall command apparently rests with air force headquarters in Tripoli.
Last of the military services to be established, the air force had been obliged to struggle to develop trained air and ground crews to match the rapid acquisition of modern planes and weaponry. As a result, in spite of the significant inventory of combat aircraft, amounting to more than 500 as of early 1987, Libyan air units have been committed only reluctantly and have not acquitted themselves impressively in air-to-air engagements. However, the considerable air transport fleet, had apparently been employed capably in Chad and elsewhere. Although the air force was extensively used in support of Libyan ground units in the fighting in Chad, it does not seem to have played a decisive role.
The Air Force was organized into an Air Command which was subdivided into squadrons and regiments which attention paid to close air support and ground attack. Eight close battlefield support squadrons and nine air defence squadrons exist. The size of the Air Force in 1990 was 22,000 persons including 15,000 conscripts. It had 426 combat aircraft and 52 armed helicopters with many more in store.
At the time of the overthrow of the monarchy in 1969, the roster of personnel was only about 400 officers and enlisted men. A recruitment drive undertaken in 1970 eventually brought a tenfold increase in the force by 1978. As of 1986, its strength was estimated at 10,000.
It appears that the Air Defense Command may have been merged into the Air Force in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but information was not clear on this. Air Defense units were equipped with a variety of Soviet supplied surface-to-air missiles (SAM), antiaircraft guns (AAA), and radars, but as was shown in the US raid in 1986, the Libyans have not shown an ability to integrate these systems into any comprehensive air defense network. Organization of the Air Defense Command was unclear.
With Soviet assistance, the air force was organized into one medium bomber squadron, three fighter interceptor squadrons, five forward ground attack squadrons, one counterinsurgency squadron, nine helicopter squadrons, and three air defense brigades deploying SA-2, SA-3, and Crotale missiles. The three SA-5 launch sites may have been operated by army units.
The country's burgeoning inventory of air force weapons accounted for a considerable share of Libya's procurement efforts. The hundreds of aircraft acquired since 1969 included American helicopters and transports (although deliveries of United States planes were blocked in 1975), later-model French close-air-support fighters, and up-to-date fighter interceptors from the Soviet Union. Of the combat aircraft, the United States Department of State estimated in 1983 that 50 percent remained in storage, including most of the MiG fighters and Tu-22 bombers. According to another report, the Mirage aircraft were so neglected that only half were in flying condition, the others being cannibalized for spare parts. Pilots from Syria and other countries reportedly helped fly the Libyan planes, and instructors, technical personnel, and maintenance teams included Soviets, Pakistanis, and Yugoslavs.
The air force's primary installation was the huge Uqba ben Nafi Air Base (the former Wheelus Air Base) near Tripoli. It had excellent operational features and contained the service's headquarters and a large share of its major training facilities. Both MiG fighters and Tu-22 bombers were located there. A large air base at a site near Benghazi shared with the civil airport also had some MiG squadrons. Most of the Mirages were located at Gamal Abdul Nasser Air Base. Two airfields not far from the Egyptian border, at Al Kufrah Oasis and at Jabal al Uwaynat in the far south, were among the Libyan installations attacked by Egyptian air crews during the 1977 border clash. The Soviets have constructed another base in central Libya at the new army headquarters site of Al Jufrah near Hun with a runway of over 4,000 meters.
An air force academy established at Az Zawiyah near Misratah in 1975 was reportedly staffed mainly by Yugoslavs. Institutions referred to as "secondary colleges," possibly technical training schools, were opened at Sabha and at Uqba ben Nafi Air Base in 1978. Basic pilot training was conducted on Italian-manufactured SF-260 planes before the students moved on to the Soko G-2AE Galebs (Yugoslav) and the Aero L-39 Albatros (Czechoslovak) at Az Zawiyah. Additional training took place outside Libya. Several hundred Libyan students were reportedly undergoing instruction with the Dassault firm in France in 1983 as part of the Mirage contract. This was at a time of confrontation between French and Libyan forces in Chad.
Information on training programs conducted by the Soviet Union was scanty but in light of the sophisticated weapons in the air force inventory, it could be assumed that much time and effort were invested in producing even a limited number of combat-ready crews, backed up by ground support personnel. Soviet specialists reportedly accompanied the Libyans during the 1980 incursion into Chad and possibly were directly involved in missions of the Tu-22 bombers.
Much of Libyan air doctrine appeared to be of an ad hoc nature and contracted personnel from Yugoslavia. South Africa, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan provide piloting, maintenance and technical services. It was possible that contract officers often fly important operational missions, such was the low standard of locally trained aircrew. Russian pilots who have been to Libya have remarked upon the apparent disinclination, if not inability, of Libyan pilots to tolerate and become accustomed to high G-force maneuvers.
The performance of the Libyan air force in emergency conditions cannot have been reassuring to Qadhafi. Libyan pilots reportedly experienced difficulty in finding and identifying aircraft they had been ordered to intercept. They have been reluctant to fly at night for fear of being unable to locate their bases. To some extent, these problems may reflect outdated navigation and radar aids in their combat aircraft, which were mostly older, stripped-down versions of Soviet designs. The two Su-22 fighters were handicapped in their engagement with carrier-based American F-14s in 1981 because the equipment, instruments, and airto -air missiles were outmoded in comparison with those of their adversaries. In spite of Qadhafi's express warning that his air force would repel the United States fleet in the Gulf of Sidra in 1986, his planes did not seriously challenge the American naval units. In addition, Libyan planes did not take off to meet the American fighter-bombers that attacked targets at Benghazi and Tripoli in April 1986; consequently many planes were destroyed or damaged on the ground. In Chad it was reported that many Libyan bombing raids were carried out at excessively high altitudes when met with antiaircraft fire.
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