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Encounters with the United States

Figure 14. Principal Military Installations, 1987

In 1973 Qadhafi claimed the Gulf of Sidra to be within Libyan territorial waters by drawing a straight line between a point near Benghazi and the western headland of the gulf at Misratah (see fig. 14). His claim was not generally accepted, although only the United States presented a direct challenge by declaring that its ships would continue to regard all areas beyond a distance of 12 nautical miles from the coast as international waters. On several occasions, Libyan fighter planes harassed United States planes from carriers maneuvering in the area. When the United States Sixth Fleet began exercises in August 1981, Libyan fighter planes were assembled from elsewhere in the country to fly patrols near the American ships. On August 19, two Su-22 fighter-bombers were intercepted by two F-14 Tomcat fighters from the aircraft carrier Nimitz. While trying to escort the Libyans out of the exercise area, one of the American planes was the target of an air-to-air Atoll missile but was able to evade it. Both Libyan planes were then shot down with Sidewinder missiles launched by the Tomcats. The two Libyan pilots managed to eject and were rescued from the sea. The ease with which the American planes disposed of their attackers demonstrated that the earlier generation Su-22 and its Atoll missile could not prevail against more sophisticated United States equipment.

Tensions between the two countries mounted after the hijacking of a TWA airliner at Beirut in July 1985 and bombing attacks at American airline counters at Rome and Vienna in December of that year. Qadhafi was implicated in these actions through his patronage of the alleged perpetrator, the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal (see International Terrorism and Support for Insurgent Groups , this ch.). The Libyans also began installing batteries of SA-5 missiles acquired from the Soviet Union in late 1985, along with associated radar, to augment their air defense capabilities. United States naval vessels continued to challenge Qadhafi's claim to the Gulf of Sidra, periodically crossing the line of Libyan territorial claim, which he came to refer to as the "line of death" (see fig. 14).

Three carrier task forces of the Sixth Fleet with 225 aircraft assembled off the Libyan coast for maneuvers in March 1986. On March 24, six SA-5s were launched from the new missile base at Surt against American aircraft. None was hit, however, because the SA-5, with a range of 240 kilometers, could threaten high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra but was relatively ineffective against high-performance jet fighters. Subsequently, the missile site was put out of action by carrier-based A-6 Intruders firing High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs), that homed in on the Libyans' radar guidance signals. A second strike followed the next day to knock out a replacement radar unit. Although Soviet technicians were believed to be present to oversee the installation and operation of the SA-5 batteries, none was reported injured in the exchanges.

At the same time, a French-built Combattante-class missile attack craft was destroyed when it approached United States Navy ships protecting the aircraft carriers. The Libyan vessel was hit by two Harpoon missiles launched from an A-7 Corsair aircraft. The most serious loss for the Libyans was one of the eight Sovietsupplied Nanuchka-class missile corvettes in an attack by two A-6s shortly after midnight on March 26. A total of five attacks was carried out on Libyan ships.

Ten days later, 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. Messages intercepted by the United States, including one from the Libyan mission in East Berlin, furnished what the United States government described as evidence of Libyan involvement in the bombing, which was probably carried out by the Abu Nidal organization.

On April 15, the United States retaliated by attacking military installations in Benghazi and Tripoli. Eighteen FB-111 bombers, supported by four EF-111 electronic countermeasures aircraft, left England, refueling several times enroute, and struck the Tripoli airport, a frogman training center at the naval academy, and the nearby al Aziziyah barracks, where Qadhafi often resided. The aircraft carriers Coral Sea and America launched twenty-four A-6 and F/A-18 Hornet strike aircraft against radar and antiaircraft sites at Benghazi before hitting the Benina military airfield and the Jamahiriya barracks. A number of casualties also occurred in residential areas of Benghazi and several Western embassies were damaged.

Several transport aircraft and some Soviet-built MiG-23 fighters and helicopters were destroyed on the ground at the two airfields. The only loss among the American attackers was one FB111 that failed to return to its base in England. 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. 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.

Data as of 1987

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