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The roots of the contemporary Libyan army can be traced to the Libyan Arab Force (popularly known as the Sanusi Army) of World War II. Shortly after Italy entered the war, a number of Libyan leaders living in exile in Egypt called on their compatriots to organize themselves into military units and join the British in the war against the Axis powers. Five battalions, which were initially designed for guerrilla warfare in the Jabal al Akhdar region of Cyrenaica, were established under British command. Because the high mobility of the desert campaigns required a considerable degree of technical and mechanical expertise, the Libyan forces were used primarily as auxiliaries, guarding military installations and prisoners. One battalion, however, participated in the fighting at Tobruk.

After Britain succeeded in occupying the Libyan territories, the need for the British-trained and -equipped Sanusi troops appeared to be over. The Sanusi Army was reluctant to disband, however, and the majority of its members arranged to be transferred to the local police force in Cyrenaica under the British military administration. When Libya gained its independence in 1951, veterans of the original Sanusi Army formed the nucleus of the Royal Libyan Army.

Until the discovery and exploitation of oil, beginning in the late 1950s, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. Limited available natural resources and a small population provided little basis for viable defensive strength, and the new state was militarily insignificant during its early years. King Idris deliberately divided the security forces into a regular army and a variety of armed police forces. The primary mission of the armed police was to counterbalance dissidents within the faction-torn armed forces and thus preclude a coup against the monarchy.

With substantial British assistance, the army was slowly enlarged, and by September 1969 its strength was estimated at roughly 6,500--about half the size of the armed police. The police forces, composed mainly of conservative tribal elements that the king considered more reliable than the regular army, were extremely diverse. They ranged from several lightly armed territorial forces to the mobile National Security Force, which was equipped with helicopters and armored cars. Units of the prestigious Cyrenaican Defense Force, assisted and advised by British military specialists, were garrisoned at several places in Cyrenaica.

The small naval and air components were not developed until later. The air force was formed in August 1963, and the navy was established in November 1962. Consisting initially of only a few aircraft and two pilots, by 1967 the air force had increased to about 250 American-trained personnel and a few jet trainers and piston-engine transports. After the June 1967 War, demand for more sophisticated aircraft resulted in the purchase of ten American F-5 fighter-bombers in 1968 and 1969. Throughout this early period, the British were influential in the development of the Libyan navy, which, however, grew extremely slowly and even by the time of Qadhafi's coup in 1969 consisted of just over 200 men.

Partly because of the limited resources in trained personnel locally and partly because the monarchy was suspicious of the professional military, the idea of purchasing a sophisticated air defense missile system and training a few specialists in its operation gained popularity among the king's nonmilitary advisers. In 1968 the government entered into a contract with Britain for the installation of an air defense system to be delivered over five years at a cost of almost US$300 million. Under the contract, the British agreed to supply a complex antiaircraft missile system and radar detection and control equipment and to train Libyans to operate them. The high priority assigned to this project and the unprecedented expense involved were reflected in an accompanying decision to postpone the introduction of the monarchy's second five-year development plan until April 1969. Idris, however was unwilling to disrupt the balance between the army and the police by providing the military element with tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers, recognizing that such equipment could be employed against his regime as easily as against a hostile external force. Ironically, when Qadhafi and his Free Officers Movement mounted their overthrow of the monarchy, the ostensibly reliable police did not interfere.

Assuming power after the 1969 coup, the new Qadhafi regime integrated major elements of the police into the army. Although he cancelled the British air defense project, Qadhafi began to build up the country's military strength through large equipment purchases from foreign suppliers. In 1970 the government contracted to buy 110 Mirage jet fighters from France. Thereafter, the air force grew rapidly and became an important component of the armed forces. Similar purchases provided tanks and artillery for the army and vessels for the navy.

Within a year after the coup, the size of the military establishment was estimated at about 22,000 men--over three times the figure immediately before the coup. Although this increase followed a major recruitment effort, it was primarily the result of the merger of the regular army with most of the former National Security Force and the Cyrenaican Defense Force, which between them had comprised about 14,000 troops.

In 1971 the government announced the creation of the Popular Resistance Force, a militia that was under the operational control of the chief of staff of the Libyan armed forces. Initially, the primary mission of the force was to guard government buildings, oil installations, and other important facilities in the event of war or internal disorders.

Less than a year after the 1969 coup, Qadhafi and his fellow Free Officers assumed control of British and United States bases in Libya and began to sever military supply links with those countries. France, politically less objectionable to Qadhafi, became the leading source of arms but, in 1974, Libya reached agreement with the Soviet Union for the purchase of equipment on a scale well in excess of France's production capacity, even if France had not been deterred by Qadhafi's increasingly radical and irrational behavior. Tremendous quantities of modern Soviet armaments were delivered beginning in 1975, and the flow was continuing in 1987. In spite of the fact that thousands of advisers from the Soviet Union and other communist countries helped with manning, maintenance, and training in the use of the new equipment, the sheer quantity overwhelmed the ability of the Libyan armed forces to introduce it into operational units.

Prodigious importation of new weapons systems was accompanied by a rapid buildup of manpower. When voluntary enlistments proved inadequate, the government invoked a conscription law calling for three to four years service for all males between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five. Consequently, the armed forces more than doubled in strength between 1974, when the first arms agreement with the Soviet Union was concluded, and 1986, when the total manpower of the three services was estimated at over 90,000. In addition to creating the most highly mechanized army among the Arab nations, by the late 1980s Qadhafi had procured a fleet of submarines, corvettes, and missile boats that constituted a significant new naval force in the Mediterranean. The Soviet Union had also supplied Libya with modern fighter aircraft, a bomber and transport force, and a sophisticated air defense system.

Data as of 1987

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