Strike Operations over Libya : a true success for France and Britain

By the end of August 2011, following the clear victory of the Libyan Rebellion in driving back pro-Gaddafi forces in the east and west of the country and after six months of a protracted conflict which threatened to stalemate on many occasions, the developments of the Libyan crisis — largely inspired by the revolt of the Warfallah tribe of Benghazi in February — have finally accelerated culminating with the toppling of the Gaddafi regime. Today, the old tricolour flag of Libya is again flying over all the country. What started as a rebellion in February 2011 has become a successful revolution.

6th Sep 2011



 Strike Operations over Libya : a true success for France and Britain

 Jean-Michel Guhl / Paris and embedded with French Forces.


By the end of August 2011, following the clear victory of the Libyan Rebellion in driving back pro-Gaddafi forces in the east and west of the country and after six months of a protracted conflict which threatened to stalemate on many occasions, the developments of the Libyan crisis — largely inspired by the revolt of the Warfallah tribe of Benghazi in February — have finally accelerated culminating with the toppling of the Gaddafi regime. Today, the old tricolour flag of Libya is again flying over all the country. What started as a rebellion in February 2011 has become a successful revolution.

The recent Ramadan offensive allowed the rebel militias loyal to Libya's National Transitional Council to march on Tripoli and occupy most of the capital on August 22, threatening the last defended Gaddafist strongholds before investing, on August 23 and after a fierce clash, the vaunted presidential Bab al Aziziyah military camp. This had been a longtime symbol of the regime, from where, for decades, the lunatic dictator used to address seemingly adoring crowds. As the rebels battled to secure the sniper-infested Libyan capital during the last week of August, the fugitive Colonel urged his supporters on radio to cleanse the streets of "traitors, devils and rats, and NATO crusaders"… but it was too late. While pockets of die-hard governmental forces and cash-loaded mercenaries kept up the fight to defend Gaddafi for a while longer, his support was crumbling by the hour. But even as his 42-year-old regime was breaking up around him, Gaddafi vowed not to surrender and fight on “until victory or martyrdom,” in an audio message broadcasted early on August 24 in his usual bombastic style.

Still the game is now well over for the Libyan dictator who is currently on the run. NATO’s prowling fighter-bombers - roaming high over the liberated country - are hitting Gaddafi’s last bastions piecemeal at the sustained rate of some forty strikes day after day, out of more than one hundred sorties conducted every 24 hours.

With Rebel forces fighting to overcome the final pockets of supporters of Colonel Gaddafi's former regime, NATO forces have helped maintain a constant presence over the city spearheaded by attacks from French Air Force Rafales and Royal Air Force Tornados. These two types have been bearing the brunt of aerial strikes on the capital area using Paveway LGBs and - for the Tornados - the new lethal Brimstone air-to-ground missiles.

NATO mission in Libya not over yet

On August 24, the NATO military spokesperson for Operation Unified Protector, the Canadian Colonel Roland Lavoie summed it all: "There's no doubt that pro-Gaddafi forces are severely eroded, losing through defections or capture, key decision-makers being expelled from strategic military positions, and most importantly losing the ability to suppress the Libyan population in a growing number of cities and villages. The Tripoli uprising is without a doubt an historical milestone, although not yet the last chapter of the Libyan conflict. I would like to stress here that, regardless of the latest developments, our military mission has not changed. Our mission remains to protect the civilian population against the threat of attacks and to enforce the arms embargo as well as the no-fly zone as mandated by the United Nations. Let there be no doubt we will continue to monitor military units and key facilities as we have since March. When we see any threatening moves towards the Libyan people we will act in accordance with our UN mandate. This has been and continues to be a 24/7 operation. As such, Operation Unified Protector remains in effect. The UN mandate remains valid. And we remain vigilant and determined to protect the people of Libya. We will keep up the pressure until there are no more attacks against civilians, Gaddafi forces have withdrawn to their base, and full and unimpeded humanitarian access has been ensured. But, as a number of areas are still contested, we have to remain vigilant and continue to protect the civilian population. Most notably, Tripoli is still the site of numerous clashes between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. And the tension is far from being over. In sum, our mission is not over yet. As Libyans are taking control of their country, what is left of the pro-Gaddafi military gave no sign that they will stop terrifying the population. We urge them to stop, to return to their bases and to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all the people in need of assistance. Until this is the case, we will carry on with our mission."

Meanwhile NATO strikes around the countries are continuing, in particular to eradicate the last heavy weapons menacing Libyan civilian populations. On August 24 alone, after passing the 20,000 sorties mark, 141 sorties were undertaken and 48 strikes were directed at ground targets. Key hits included: in the vicinity of Tripoli, a pair of military storage facilities, one military heavy equipment truck, two anti-aircraft guns, one surface to air missile support vehicle, one multiple rocket launcher and one radar. In the vicinity of Sirte: several surface-to-surface missile support vehicles. In the vicinity of Okba: one surface-to-air missile vehicle. In the vicinity of Bani Walid: one anti-tank weapon. Again at the turn of the month, on August 30, just as the happy Muslim crowds celebrated the Id al-Fitr—the end of Ramadan— NATO strikes turned to support the last Rebel onslaughts on the remaining pro-Gaddafi hideouts in the vicinity of Sirte. These destroyed three C2 nodes, four tactical radars, two SAM systems, no less than 22 armed vehicles, two military supply vehicles, one command post and one military facility, while more strikes were performed near Bani Walid and Hun. By that time, Unified Protector air operations since 31 March 2011, amounted to a total of 20,751 sorties, including 7, 848 strike sorties mainly accounted for by French and British fighter-bombers : Rafales, Tornados and Mirages.

NATO took control of all military operations for Libya under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1970 & 1973 on 31 March 2011. The aim of Operation Unified Protector is to keep from harm’s way civilians and civilian-populated areas under attack or threat of attack by pro-Gaddafi groups. The mission consists of three elements: an arms embargo, a no-fly-zone and actions to protect civilians from attack or the threat of attack. Overall NATO has done an excellent job well keeping collateral damage to a minimum.

« No Fly Zone » air operations have been at the heart of NATO’s actions over Libya. On August 22, date of the Rebellion’s conquest of Tripoli — and since the beginning of NATO’s operation on 31 March 2011 at 06.00 GMT) — a total of 19,994 sorties, including 7,541 strike sorties, had been led by the coalition ; including 117 sorties and 36 strikes on 22 August. 2011. But the tempo of NATO fighter sorties, even if now reduced, remain around 100 per day with appropriate targets being regularly incapacitated or destroyed. Another consequence is that enemy forces are simply unable to move out in the open — as many intact tank hidden depots discovered by the Rebels around Tripoli have clearly shown. At the end of August, the coalition said it had flown nearly 21,000 sorties and conducted about 8,000 effective strikes

Of this grand total two NATO nations clearly carry the burden of the aerial attacks : the British and the French. London and Paris have worked hand in hand and since the beginning to make Operations Ellamy and Harmattan, then Operation Unified Protector, a major success. So far French combat aircraft have accomplished more than 4,500 sorties in roughly 20,000 flight hours, something which amounts to about 25% of all the sorties performed by the NATO-led coalition. On top of that the French fighter planes have carried out 35% of all NATO strikes, damaging or destroying over 1,000 targets using mostly GBU-12 and AASM 250kg guided bombs. Even more important is the amount of targets struck since 8 June by the attack helicopters embarked on the BPC Tonnerre in 250 night raids, amounting to 450 time sensitive targets ! This figure represent 85% of all kills made by the coalition since the rotorcraft reached the battle ground in early June. On their side, and since the start of military operations on 19 March, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army Air Corps strikes have damaged or destroyed over 890 former regime targets which posed a threat to the Libyan population, ranging from secret police and intelligence headquarters to several hundred tanks, artillery pieces and armed vehicles or radar equipments.

FS Charles-de-Gaule : the southern-most NATO air base

When France decided to launch the air campaign against Libya on March 19, 2011, it did so with all the Rafales and Mirages of the French Air Force based in Metropolitan France, mainly at Saint Dizier, Nancy-Ochey and Dijon. The aircraft refuelling in flight over the Mediterranean three to four times during sorties lasting easily over 6 hours ! At that time, the nuclear aircraft-carrier Charles-de-Gaulle which had just returned to Toulon after a four-month deployment in the Indian Ocean in support of ISAF operations over Afghanistan, was considered unavailable. This is primarily because the vessel possesses only one operational crew – who were then on leave and in need of rest. Alas —and to give fodder to the proponents of a second aircraft-carrier for France— the Charles-de-Gaulle being the only one of its kind, the Chief of Staff of the French Army, Admiral Édouard Guillaud, decided on March 20 to sound the alarm, calling for the aircraft-carrier to be battle ready within 72-hours.

So well trained is the vessel’s crew that 32 hours later, the French flagship left Toulon, heading south, shadowed by its habitual escort of frigates and replenishment ships. While off Corsica a few hours later, it started to recover its carrier air-wing composed of Rafale Ms, Super-Étendards and E-2C Hawkeyes. She arrived near station, south of Sicily, on March 22, launching its first sorties of Rafale Ms and Super-Étendards during that same night while gradually moving south-east of Malta to a permanent combat station situated some 250 nautical miles from Tripoli and Benghazi. From this position, at roughly 36° N of latitude and 17° E of longitude, the French carrier air wing had an ideal sea base from which to task any target along the Libyan coast as well as deep inside the desert territory, while other coalition actors operated from Italian and Greek air bases (mainly in Sardinia, Sicily and Crete).

During the spring and summer of 2011, the 18 aircraft on-board the aircraft carrier as part of Operation Harmattan – i.e. ten Rafale omnirole fighters belonging to Flottille 12F, six Super-Etendard fighter-bombers of Flottile 17F and two Hawkeyes airborne radars of Flottille 4F – carried out a total of 1,126 sorties. These took place between March 22, which was day one of French naval operations against Libya, and August 10 - the date FS Charles-de-Gaulle left the theatre to sail back to Toulon. The carrier’s Rafale Ms were credited with 770 missions during which they performed 385 strikes on pro-Gaddafi forces, and the Super-Etendards conducted 356 sorties with 178 ground attack missions. Strike sorties performed under UN Resolutions 1970 and 1973 were intended only to identify and engage appropriate targets, but did not necessarily meant that munitions were expended each time. All these Aéronavale aircraft returned safely to their shore base at Landivisiau, Finistère, on August 12. The readiness of the Aéronavale fighters on-board the aircraft-carrier was regarded as exceptional, both for the Rafale F3 which is a new fighter, and for the Super-Etendard « modernisé » - which is a 30-year old aircraft now nearing the end of its operational career.

When the French flagship was in operation off the coast of Libya, the minimum effort set by NATO for France was eighteen combat missions daily, with half assigned to the Navy and the other half to the Air Force. Since the return of FS Charles de Gaulle, the number of French missions has been substantially cut back to match the decelerating tempo of operations in the wake of the Rebellion’s victory in driving out the core of pro-Gaddafi’s troops.

Unified Protector : a real GBU-12 galore

The main weapon used by nearly all the coalition fighter-bombers during operation Unified Protector is the well-proven Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bomb, either equipped with the US Mk.82 standard bomb body or the equivalent MBDA-Eurenco 250kg CBEMS with insensitive munitions (NATO STANAG MIL-STD 2105). This warhead is specific to the FS Charles-de-Gaulle carrier air group, and which is designated BANG (for Bombe Aéronavale Nouvelle Génération) in France. The BANG warhead flexibility allows the weapon to be used from penetration of hardened targets to variable fragmentation and blast of semi-hardened and soft targets. In service, this weapon accepts current precision guidance kits (laser, infrared, GPS or INS). As an insensitive munition, the BANG bomb can be used safely and stored on ships without risk of accidental explosion. It entered French Navy inventory in 2000 and was also selected soon after by the French Air Force.

In service in France since 1994, the GBU-12D/B is the standard precision-guided munition used by both the Armée de l’Air and the Aéronavale. The complete weapon, with Paveway II guidance kit and extendable wing is exactly 273kg— using a US Mk.82 bomb body or a French CBEMS. It is also the most common and least expensive PGM in NATO inventory (ca. $19,000), which explains why, after using high-priced SCALP/EG, AASM and AS 30L « stand off » weapons in the first part of the campaign the French Air Force and the Aéronavale turned to the ubiquitous GBU-12 with an obvious attempt at cutting costs ! During other parts of war operations, the French Rafales, Super-Etendard and Mirages have also also been armed with the 125kg GBU-58 - which can be regarded as a light GBU-12 - or the dual-capacity GBU-49 Enhanced-Paveway II providing more flexibility and real all-weather capability, thanks to the added GPS function. As an experiment, the French fighters tested in combat against surface vehicles a few kinetic 250kg mono-target bombs fitted with a laser guidance kit : in reality GBU-12 bombs equipped with a high density solid resin core and no explosive at all. Conceived as a measure to eliminate collateral damage in zones of contact with civilian population, this type of bomb necessitates an extremely precise and well lased target and constant control as it cannot benefit from the habitual near-miss blast effect. What is known of these trials in combat is that on two occasions, Mirage 2000Ds from Suda Bay made a perfect bullseye on a tank and a self propelled gun, knocking these out like toys.
More than 6,000 GBU-12s have been dropped over Libya according to some sources !

Elsewhere, in order to increase the lethality of the Mirage 2000D and N two-seaters deployed from Suda Bay in Crete— two aircraft which are not earmarked to use the Sagem AASM— the French Air Force added the 326kg Raytheon GBU-22/B Paveway III (with BSU-82/B airfoil group) to its inventory. Benefiting from better precision, a wider and longer range, and improved trajectory angles, the GBU-22/B can also be jettisoned at much lower heights - something which makes this weapon more flexible and less prone to drifting.

Since the departure of the FS Charles-de-Gaulle, French strike operations over Libya are continuing from Italian and Greek air bases with five Rafales based at Sigonella in Sicily and 8 Mirage 2000Ds, 4 Mirage 2000Ns and 4 Mirage F1s from Suda Bay in Crete. Less visible is the action conducted by the reconnaissance assets deployed by France, with Rafale C, Atlantique 2 and Harfang MALE aerial platforms, not to mention the E-3F AWACS and C-135FR Stratotankers taking turns to support the on-going operations.

The entry of opposition forces in the Libyan capital marked the turning point of the conflict. However, despite the departure of the FS Charles-de-Gaulle, the French naval task force, TF 473, is continuing its work in the Gulf of Syrte: "The mission of protecting people in Libya which has been ours for five months is continuing to show its relevance. The entry of the opposition forces in Tripoli does not change the mission », French Rear-Admiral Jean-Baptiste Dupuis said, adding « Until the situation is clarified, our commitment continues ». The French commander of TF 473 is working very closely with Commodore John Kingwell, the Royal Navy commander of Operation Ellamy based onboard HMS Ocean. Recently on-board the FS Mistral the two commanders spoke about the evolution of the security situation in Libya as well as about the coordination of future operations. « The frontlines are increasingly confined to smaller and smaller areas now, French and British helicopters should thus continue their work in these close perimeters without slowing down » reckons Rear-Admiral Dupuis. "Hence the importance of a perfect cooperation between our two forces." And that’s just what has spearheaded NATO operations for almost six months now : the willingness of Paris and London in assisting the Libyan people get rid of a cruel dictator and let the Arab spring live on.


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