With rebel forces in Tripoli and Muammar Gaddafi on the run, the end could be near for the Libyan civil war. Sporadic fighting continues in the capital city of the oil-rich North African nation, NATO warplanes are still patrolling overhead, and there’s always the danger of Gadhafi true-believers launching a fresh insurgency.
But already, Western analysts are weighing the lessons of the six-month-long conflict. “Modern air power is the key force that is directly leading to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime,” retired Air Force Lt Gen David Deptula concluded.
True, but a host of other cutting-edge technologies, and a few decidedly low-end ones, also played critical roles.
Photo: Mike Elkin
She lurked unseen beneath the Mediterranean Sea in the hours leading up to NATO’s initial air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces. More than 150m long and displacing 19,000 tons of water, the US Navy’s secretive, nuclear-powered, guided-missile submarine USS Florida was the key to taking down Libyan government air defences, clearing the way for the NATO strike planes.
When President Barack Obama gave the order launching the US-led Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, Florida quickly unleashed no fewer than 100 of its 160 Tomahawk cruise missiles in a massive barrage that wiped out potentially scores of anti-aircraft guns, radars and ground-to-air missiles. It was Florida‘s combat debut.
“That’s what you get when you have a global Navy that’s forward all the time,” crowed Adm Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations.
Photo: US Navy
After Florida and other forces smashed Gaddafi’s air defences, a huge armada of NATO strike aircraft descended on Libya. Over the next six months, hundreds of warplanes from 18 countries hit Libyan government forces no fewer than 7000 times.
Many of the planes came from European land bases, but arguably the most important strikers flew from an international fleet of aircraft carriers sailing along the Libyan coast. With the US Navy’s 100,000-ton supercarriers busy elsewhere, smaller “light carriers” handled Libya duty. France’s Charles De Gaulle (40,000 tons) launched Rafale and Super Etendard fighters. The French helicopter carrier Tonnerre (20,000 tons) sent in Gazelle and Tiger attack choppers, while Apache choppers flew from the British HMS Ocean (22,000 tons). Harrier jump jets sortied from Italy’s Giuseppe Garibaldi (14,000 tons) and the USS Kearsarge (40,000 tons). The tiny flattops’ impressive performance prompted some US naval thinkers to reconsider Washington’s slavish devotion to large carriers.
Photo: US Navy
Her Majesty’s Hunter-Killers
Leaving aside an epic, globe-spanning mission by a pair of US Air Force B-1 bombers, the most effective air raids on Libya by land-based warplanes were likely those performed by the British Royal Air Force, forward deployed to an Italian air base. At a time of deep budget cuts, the RAF managed to combine its oldest and newest strike planes into “hunter-killer” teams.
A 30-year-old swing-wing Tornado bomber carrying a reconnaissance camera and laser-guided bombs would join a brand-new Typhoon fighter fitted with a radio data-link, a laser designator and air-to-air missiles. The Typhoon would handle secure, long-range communications and targeting, while also keeping an eye out for Libyan fighters. The Tornado would drop the bombs and record video of the damage. The veteran Tornado crews with their “20 years of experience” helped the greener Typhoon fliers improve quickly, Squadron Leader Rupert Joel told Combat Aircraft Magazine.
Flying Radar Jammers
The devastation was widespread, but some of Gaddafi’s air defences survived Florida‘s cruise missiles and bombing runs by B-2 stealth bombers and other warplanes. To cover the strike planes over Libya, the US Navy deployed its newest combat aircraft, an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter modified with high-powered radar jammers capable of confusing air-defence systems with floods of electronic “noise.”
Any defences the EA-18G can’t confuse, it can kill outright with supersonic, radar-homing HARM missiles. The Growler is so specialised that no other warplane anywhere in the world can equal its skills. For that reason, US Navy Vice Adm. Bill Gortney promised it and other “specialty electronic aeroplanes” would remain over Libya, even after the US handed off day-to-day attack missions to European nations in late March.
Photo: US Navy
Drones, Big and Small
On June 21, chagrined NATO officials admitted the alliance had suffered its first combat casualty over Libya. One of the US Navy’s MQ-8 Fire Scout robot helicopters had been shot down while spying on pro-Gaddafi forces east of Tripoli.
The robot-kill was the most dramatic evidence of the growing robot army fighting on the rebels’ behalf. In addition to several unarmed Fire Scouts, the Pentagon sent in MQ-1 Predators fitted with Hellfire missiles and airliner-size, high-flying RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drones. And just this week, a Canadian company announced it had provided Libyan rebels with a flying ‘bot of their own: a tiny, camera-equipped Aeryon Scout.
Photo: US Navy
DIY Gun Trucks
Cash-strapped and outnumbered, Libyan rebels had to make do with whatever weapons they could scrounge, steal or cobble together in their workshops. The result was a bizarre, improvised arsenal featuring some surprisingly effective DIY gear… and some definite duds.
“Technical” trucks — pickups with guns attached — are a tried-and-true homemade weapon, but in Libya the rebels perhaps exceeded the technical’s potential when they strapped on rocket launchers salvaged from the defunct Libyan air force. Equally dubious were homemade armour plates bolted to some technicals. Ask any veteran of Iraq, circa 2004, and they’ll tell you improvised armour can backfire by producing lethal splinters when hit.
The rebels put to good use at least three captured MiG-21 fighters, sending them aloft over western Libya to escort incoming supply flights. The flights of the so-called “Free Libya Air Force” violated NATO’s no-fly zone, but the alliance didn’t seem to mind.
The Personal Touch
Probably the most decisive “weapon” in the Libyan civil war wasn’t hardware at all. It was the quiet, focused assistance of a small army of foreign agents working alongside the rebels in their long slog towards Tripoli. “They adapted quickly,” Barak Seener, an expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said of the rebels. And that’s “indicative that special forces were training them,” Seener added.
CIA agents and other American spooks reportedly provided intelligence; British, French, Italian and Qatari commandos helped mould the rebel army and formed a critical link between the rebels and the NATO air forces orbiting overhead. Foreign forces also handled logistics and damage assessment.
It just goes to show: Technology can be impressive, but it’s the personal touch that really matters in the end.
Photo: Flickr/Nasser Nouri
Wired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.