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The Navy


Sailors of Libya's growing navy

The navy has always been the stepchild of the Libyan armed forces, although its Soviet-supplied submarines and fast-attack craft with missiles have 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 has 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 had 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 has been 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.

The navy has always been dependent on foreign sources for equipment, spare parts, and training. In 1972 a British naval advisory mission that had assisted in the development of the Libyan navy since its founding was terminated. Training was shifted to Greece and to Egypt and later to the Soviet Union. The initial ship orders, placed with British yards, were for patrol boats and corvettes. The largest surface ship in the Libyan navy, a frigate of about 1,500 tons with a crew of 130, was ordered just before the 1969 coup and delivered in 1973. Later, high-speed patrol boats and corvettes equipped with surface-to-surface missiles were purchased from France, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Between 1976 and 1983, six Soviet Foxtrot-class submarines were delivered. Each required a crew of seventy-five; in addition, twelve Soviet advisers were reportedly assigned to each vessel. (For an inventory of ships of the Libyan fleet, see; table 11, Appendix).

Little information was available on the navy's organizational structure, but Tripoli was known to be the site of the naval command headquarters and of the principal naval base. Other bases were located in the ports of Benghazi, Darnah, Tobruk, and Marsa al Burayqah. A repair base was located at Al Khums east of Tripoli, and a submarine base was under construction at Ras al Hilal.

As of early 1987, 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.

By early 1987 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.

Data as of 1987

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