The U.S. and allied forces began their assault on Libya by hitting the North African nation’s air-defense systems with cruise missiles, followed by attacks from bombers and fighter jets, to reduce the risks for subsequent overflights by coalition aircraft.
The opening rounds of Operation Odyssey Dawn followed the script of major operations since 1991 with the launch of Raytheon Co. Tomahawk cruise missiles to clear a path for manned aircraft. The first strikes on March 19 involved 124 missiles against more than 20 targets; by contrast, 288 Tomahawks were fired in the opening hours of the 1991 Gulf War.
In addition to the missile launches, the U.S. used 19 aircraft to strike Libyan targets, including three radar-eluding, bat-winged B-2 bombers that dropped 45 Boeing Co.-made 2000-pound satellite-guided JDAM bombs on air defense sites. The B-2s flew from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Libya and back without landing, staying airborne with four aerial refuelings each, according to Air Force Global Strike Command.
The arsenal also included four Boeing F-15E and eight Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16CJ Air Force fighter jets. The Navy flew Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic-jamming jets and the Marines flew at least four AV-8B Harrier jets from the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in the Mediterranean Sea. The Harrier short-takeoff and vertical-landing jets attacked Libyan ground forces, including tanks, with laser-guided bombs.
The U.K. deployed Tornado and BAE Systems Plc’s Eurofighter Typhoon jets.
Major targets were Muammar Qaddafi’s SA-5 missiles, which, at their longest range of 300 kilometers, provide “significant standoff capability,” said a Pentagon statement. Libya also has about 50 SA-6 missiles, the type Bosnian Serbs used to shoot down U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady’s F-16 in 1995.
Libya’s integrated air defense system, similar to Iraq’s, had about 30 surface-to-air missile sites, linked by 15 early warning radar installations along the Mediterranean coast. They posed a “significant threat” to foreign warplanes over or near Libyan airspace, according to declassified Pentagon data.
“Initial operations have been very effective, taking out most of his air defense systems, some of his air fields,” Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
The next phases will likely include setting up systems for quickly rescuing downed pilots, as well as aerial refueling patrols, Global Hawk surveillance drone and RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance flights, electronic jamming EC-130H Compass Call sorties and attacks by F-16CJ radar-killing jets -- all before coalition pilots start flying no-fly-zone patrols, according retired military officials.
Suppressing Air Defenses
After air defenses are “suppressed, you can fly more vulnerable aircraft in there,” retired Air Force General Charles Wald, who served as deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, said in an interview. Wald planned and flew Bosnia no-fly missions in the mid-1990s.
“It’s kind of progressive -- they don’t have the capacity to threaten, so you can basically loiter over their country,” he said.
Libya has a limited air force, with about 80 percent of its aircraft “non-operational,” according to the Pentagon. Libyan pilot training levels and air combat tactics “have remained far inferior to those of U.S. pilots and well-trained Middle Eastern pilots,” such as those from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to the Pentagon.
Libya’s air force has more than 100 MiG jets, 30 helicopters and 15 transport aircraft, “but much of it is obsolete or inoperable,” the Pentagon said.
The first strike came from French warplanes against Libyan military vehicles, followed by volleys of U.S. and U.K. missiles.
“My sense is that the coalition will allow a brief pause in coming days to see if Qaddafi steps down,” Cliff Kupchan, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a New York political-risk consulting firm, said in an interview.
“If he does not, that will be followed by a much more intensive campaign, implementing what I would call a no-drive zone, in which neither Libyan aircraft nor heavy armaments, tank artillery, would be immune from strike,” Kupchan said.
The airstrikes have so far been “very effective in degrading the regime,” Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said at a Pentagon briefing yesterday.
“The ferocity of these initial strikes is impressive,” said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a defense-oriented think tank in Washington.
“It’s a fairly intense opening blast. This is not a symbolic use of force. Only the United States has the capability to act against the integrated air defense systems that Libya has,” said Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “Maybe I should say ‘had’ before these strikes.”
At a Pentagon briefing on March 19, Gortney said the U.S. and U.K. submarines and surface vessels launched the Tomahawk cruise missiles, manufactured by Raytheon Co., at more than 20 Libyan air defense targets.
The first of the missiles, programmed with global positioning satellite coordinates, landed on Libyan coastal targets at about 3 p.m. Washington time, kicking off Operation Odyssey Dawn, he said.
Destruction of Libyan missiles, radar and communication “nodes” was “vital to the enforcement of a no-fly zone, since so much of the activity we have seen has been in this part of the country,” he said, referring to the coastline.
Destroying the SA-5s and key communications “opens up as broad a space as possible for the no-fly zone” and will allow a Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk drone to fly over Libya, Gortney said.
Coalition aircraft will “penetrate a medium to high threat without putting air crews at risk,” Gortney said.
Still, if Qaddafi’s ground forces sit in place, “then it gets to be a lot harder,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Removal from Power?
“The question is, can some combination of the rebels and allied air power drive Qaddafi out of the capability of using his forces, and eventually from power,” he said. “Or will the U.S. have to go from providing these command and control and intelligence assets, and striking at surface-to-air missiles, to a much more direct form of intervention? At this point, none of us know.”
The coalition naval forces in the area included about 25 U.S., U.K., Canadian and Italian vessels, including three U.S. submarines. The French are deploying the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the waters off Libya.
The Tomahawk strikes came hours after a French jet “neutralized” a tank, a French Defense Ministry spokesman said. The mission was part of sorties flown by French warplanes including Mirage 2000s and Rafales in Libyan air space, Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire said March 19.
Canada will deploy six CF-18 fighter jets, Postmedia News reported, citing people not identified by name.
Norway will contribute as many as six F-16s and one P-3 Orion reconnaissance plane in five to 10 days, officials said. The six F-16s Denmark sent to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Sigonella in Sicily took off for Libya yesterday, according to Italian news agency Agenzia Giornalistica Italia.
Qatar plans to take part, the state-run Qatar News Agency said.