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Chapter 5. National Security

A Libyan surface-to-surface missile supplied by the Soviet Union

BEFORE THE COUP that brought Colonel Muammar al Qadhafi to power in 1969, Libyan national security clearly meant protection of the reign of King Idris and of the national development goals his regime had adopted. Insurance against potential external threats was sought through various compacts with Western powers-- principally the Libyan-United Kingdom Treaty of Friendship of 1953, which granted the British continued use of their World War II Al Adem (Al Adam) Air Base near Tobruk (Tubruq). A similar treaty in 1954 perpetuated use of Wheelus Air Base, near Tripoli, by the United States Air Force. Meanwhile, the monarchy devoted its own resources to the business of warding off domestic threats--largely arising from its faction-ridden army.

After Idris was deposed, Qadhafi insisted on the early termination of the treaties that gave Britain and the United States permission to maintain forces on Libyan soil. The country's energies were turned to the cause of pan-Arabism and to supporting fellow Arab countries in their conflict with Israel. The armed forces were doubled in size but, until 1973, the expansion was grounded on a reasonable balance that took into account the country's available resources and the fact that its neighbors were neither aggressive nor naturally hostile. Qadhafi became frustrated over Egypt's failure to consult with Libya in prosecuting the 1973 war against Israel and the fading of his pan-Arabist ambitions in the failure of the unions concluded with Egypt and Syria and later Tunisia. New revenues derived from the escalating price of oil were now available, and the Soviet Union was prepared to supply arms that Western powers had vetoed. For Moscow, the appeal was, first, the commercial one of a cash customer and, second, the potential of Libya as a new client state in the Mediterranean area, following the Soviet 1972 expulsion from Egypt.

Only gradually did the extent of Qadhafi's arms appetite become apparent. To Libya's existing fleet of Mirage aircraft from France, large numbers of Soviet fighters were added, including the up-to- date MiG-25. Although Libya had only 7 percent of the population of France, Libya's inventory of over 500 combat aircraft was roughly equivalent to that of France. A force of 3,000 tanks was purchased, although only one-third could be deployed with active units. Its hitherto inconsequential navy was outfitted with submarines and high-speed missile boats. Because voluntary enlistments were wholly inadequate to man the new equipment, conscription was introduced in 1978.

Because the inflated arsenal could not be justified by any perceived threat to the nation's borders, there was initial speculation that Libya was becoming a Soviet surrogate in Africa, stockpiling modern weapons for future adventures on that continent. This notion, however, was contradicted by Libya's evident determination to employ its newly purchased arms as it saw fit. Its alignment with Moscow, although based on parallel interests, was a limited one that did not extend to Soviet bases on Libyan soil.

In the decade between 1973 and 1983, arms acquisitions amounted to US$28 billion, of which US$20 billion worth had originated with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But the quantity and sophistication of the new weaponry outstripped the ability of the limited skilled personnel to employ it. In spite of a multitude of foreign technical advisers and trainers, a shortage of qualified personnel needed to operate and maintain the military hardware persisted. Moreover, the wide range of models and countries of manufacture has created logistics and maintenance problems.

The Libyan armed forces have not, in fact, thus far played a significant role in Qadhafi's declared objective of the destruction of Israel by united Arab might because Libya's direct involvement in the Arab-Israeli wars has been negligible. Nonetheless, Qadhafi often has been a divisive element in the Middle East.

Libya's acknowledged sponsorship of terrorism for the purpose of "liquidating" exiled opponents of the regime and of punishing moderate Arabs and others regarded as opposing the primary purpose of defeating Israel has brought it into conflict with the West and particularly the United States. Hostile encounters with United States military, especially the American retaliatory bombing attack of 1986, demonstrated serious weaknesses in Libya's threat perception and defense posture. The incidents, however, caused many African and Middle Eastern countries briefly to band together in public support of Libya and in condemnation of the United States.

By early 1987, some observers believed that Qadhafi's hold on the Libyan public had waned, owing to his radical and sometimes bizarre policies in the name of the Libyan revolution. Yet opposition groups, consisting mostly of Libyan exiles, have been ineffective. The main threat to Qadhafi's continued rule came from the army itself. Numerous plots and coup attempts have been uncovered, most of which have not seriously threatened Qadhafi's authority. Distrustful of the professional military, Qadhafi often shifted senior officers from one post to another to prevent the officer corps from closing ranks. In addition, he entrusted his personal security to a handpicked detachment from his own region. A comprehensive internal security system involving police, secret service, and local revolutionary committees was alert to any indications of disloyalty or conspiracies. Any form of dissent from the policies of the government was deemed contrary to the revolution and subject to severe punitive measures.

Data as of 1987

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