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Libya Navy Under Qadhafi

The navy under Qadhafi had always been the stepchild of the Libyan armed forces, although its Soviet-supplied submarines and fast-attack craft with missiles endowed it with the potential for inflicting damage on other naval powers in the Mediterranean. The enormous firepower available to small vessels armed with missiles and sophisticated electronic guidance systems enabled Qadhafi to assemble a modern flotilla at relatively low cost and with few personnel. The navy consisted of no more than 200 officers and men when the first warship was delivered to the Idris regime in 1966. Under Qadhafi, naval personnel increased to 6,500 by 1986 and was expected to rise still further to meet the staffing needs of additional ships on order.

Traditionally, the navy's primary mission was to defend the coast and to assist the other services in maintaining internal security and public order. After the previously separate customs and harbor police were joined with the navy in a single command under the Ministry of Defense in 1970, the mission was extended to include responsibilities for curbing smuggling and for enforcing customs laws.

The rapid naval buildup that occurred during the 1970s was intended to enforce Qadhafi's claim of sovereignty over the Gulf of Sidra with its sponging and fishing grounds as well as potential unexploited mineral wealth. The navy could also deter landings or raids aimed against the country's oil fields and vulnerable oil transport network. The purpose of acquiring amphibious ships for landing infantry and tanks was less obvious. One explanation might be to present a threat to Egyptian forces near the border with Libya. The Egyptians' sole land supply route is the coastal road from Alexandria.

Little information was available on the navy's organizational structure, but Tripoli was known to be the site of the naval command headquarters at Al Khums and of the principal naval base. Other bases were located in the ports of Tripoli, Darnah (Derna) and Benghazi, with other Naval bases at Al Khums and Tobruq. A repair base was located at Al Khums east of Tripoli, and a submarine base was constructed at Ras al Hilal. The Naval air station was at Al Girdabiyah, and the Naval Infantry battalion was stationed at Sidi Bilal.

The Libyan navy had faced no hostile actions except for the encounter with the American fleet in March 1986 in which one missile boat and a corvette were destroyed and others possibly damaged. Earlier, it was reported that the small Libyan vessels were experiencing difficulty in obeying Qadhafi's order to remain at sea to avoid the risk of being bombed in port by American planes. The fleet reported breakdowns of engines and electronic failures as well as shortages of food and fuel.

On 11 October 2008 a naval task force from Russia's Northern Fleet, led by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky, arrived in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. after training at sea and some visits to other foreign ports, the Russian warships will head for the Caribbean to hold exercises in November 2008 with Venezuela's navy. The Neustrashimy (Fearless) missile frigate from Russia's Baltic Fleet had also called at Tripoli to replenish supplies. After leaving Tripoli the frigate would continue its tour of duty via the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. The Neutrashimy went to Somalia where it ensured the safety of Russian vessels passing through this area against pirate attacks.

On 16 January 2009 RIA Novosti reported that the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces said Russia believed it was too early to name any countries where its Navy would like to deploy "basing points,". Russian media previously reported that Russia was looking at possible naval facilities in Yemen, Syria and Libya, among other countries. The Soviet-era Navy maintenance site in Syria named Tartus is the only Russian foothold in the Mediterranean. Russian media reports earlier said the facility could be turned into a base. About 10 Russian warships and three floating piers were reported to be deployed there, and Russia was expanding the port and building a pier in nearby El-Latakia.

Qaddafi may have thought Russia's military presence would protect Libya from possible attacks by the United States, which was not willing to embrace the colonel despite numerous conciliation gestures. Russia may still decide to establish a naval base at Benghazi, because it will cost a lot and Libya needs the money. But can Russia do it in conditions of the global financial crisis, when its international reserves are decreasing by day and the once full flow of petrodollars is dwindling into a small creek?

By the late 1980s it was considered probable that the Libyan navy was overextended, having carried out a rapid buildup without sufficient trained personnel. More than one-third of the entire naval complement of 6,500 would be required to supply a single crew for each of the ships in commission in 1986. In addition, personnel would have to be found to staff a number of other vessels on order. Aggravating the problem of reaching a satisfactory level of operation, training, and maintenance was the need to become familiar with a variety of modern weapons systems from numerous supplier countries, among them Britain, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union.

Many vessels were not operational and seldom went to sea. Serviceability had improved, thanks to Ukrainian assistance and with the lifting of sanctions this process may accelerate. Naval helicopters were all shore based, with the Russian-built helicopters in one squadron and French types in a second. As of 2007 the Libyan navy had one operational Koni class corvette, a pair of Nanuchka light corvettes and half a dozen FACs (a mix of Combattante II and Osa II) and a pair of LSTs used for training. The overall operational effectiveness of the navy is very low and by 2010 the operational status of the Koni-class frigate Al Hani 212 is doubtful.

By 2001 the six Foxtrot class submarines were non-operational. One was trapped in Lithuania due to sanctions on Libya and was eventually scrapped, one sank in port and has been hulked. Only recent activity was use of two units as surfaced patrol ships circa 1995. These two Foxtrot-class (Project 641) submarines - Al Khyber 315 and Al Hunain 316 - had a capacity of 44 mines in place of torpedoes. However, the overall operational effectiveness of the navy is very low and by 2010 the operational status of the the submarines is doubtful.

There were reports of six two-man Mala-class SDVs, which can carry 250 kg of limpet mines, equipping Libya's naval infantry battalion stationed at Sidi Bilal. Two units were transferred from Yugoslavia in each of the years 1977, 1981 and 1982. By 2010 their operational status was doubtful and all were probably non-operational.

As of 2010 the Libyan Navy operated four Natya (Project 266ME)-class ocean minesweepers, though these were mostly used for coastal patrols and had never been observed minesweeping. Ras Al Fulaijah 117, Ras Al Qula 119, Ras Al Massad 123 and Ras Al Hani 125 were part of a batch transferred from the USSR between 1981 and 1986 with a further four of the class non-operational. Despite their lack of activity in the minesweeping role, the vessels are equipped with contact, acoustic and magnetic sweeps. Ras Al Massad has been used for training cruises. Most Libyan vessels can lay mines with the Natya-class minesweepers able to carry 10, the two Koni (Project 1159)-class frigates (Al Hani 212 and Al Qirdabiyah 213) having a capacity for 20 mines. The Libyan Navy was known to possess a number of Russian supplied MYaM shallow water moored contact mines.

NATO maritime forces near the Libyan port of Misrata detected a number of small vessels 29 April 2011 and, when investigating suspicious activity, disrupted mine-laying operations by pro-Qadhafi forces designed to threaten the flow of humanitarian aid into Libya. The sea-mines were being laid two to three kilometers offshore and in the approaches to Misrata by deliberately sinking the inflatable boats on which they were being carried. Three mines had been found and are being disposed of in situ.

NATO warned the Misrata port authorities who temporarily closed the facility resulting in two humanitarian ship movements being cancelled. “The mining of a civilian port by pro-Qadhafi forces is clearly designed to disrupt the lawful flow of humanitarian aid to the innocent civilian people of Libya and is another deliberate violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973,” said Italian Navy Vice Admiral Rinaldo VeriI, Commander of the Maritime Headquarters in Naples.

“NATO forces are now actively engaged in countering the mine threat to ensure the flow of aid continues,” said Admiral Veri who is responsible for the Maritime Forces involved in Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, adding “NATO urges civilian shipping companies to continue to coordinate with the NATO Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS) organization to provide for the safe transit of shipping in the Region.”

No British warship spent longer on Operation Unified Protector, the NATO mission to protect the people of Libya and strangle the military machine of Colonel Gaddafi, than HMS Liverpool. Liverpool was dispatched initially to help enforce UN Security Council Resolutions, enforcing an arms embargo and assisting the No-Fly Zone imposed over Libyan skies.

But in her more than seven months away, the ship was fired upon more than half a dozen times by shore batteries – the first time a British warship has been deliberately targeted since the Falklands War. In response her main 4.5in gun fired 211 rounds of star or high explosive shells either to light up hostile positions for NATO jets to neutralise – or to take them out herself.

Much of the Type 42 destroyer’s time was spent off Misrata – the ship’s company witnessed both the siege and its subsequent lifting. They also saw the fall of Zlitan, Al Khums, the capital Tripoli and finally Sirte to anti-Gaddafi forces. In all the 31-year-old destroyer and the 250 souls aboard spent 81 hours at Action Stations on 28 separate occasions.

Quite simply, says Liverpool’s proud Commanding Officer Cdr Colin Williams, the ship had been “at the sharp end of Royal Navy operations for the past seven months." He continues: “We became the first ship to be fired on in 30 years and my ship’s company responded by putting their training into action, returning fire in self-defence and destroying enemy positions ashore."

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