The rise and fall of a mighty air force

In the aftermath of the 2011 civil war Libya was effectively left without an air force and the nation is only now taking the first, hesitant steps towards re-establishing something appropriate for its new situation. Jon Lake reports.


The Royal Libyan Air Force (Al Quwwat al Jawwiya al Malakiya al Libiyya) was established in 1951, when Libya gained independence.

Initially equipped with three Lockheed T-33 trainers and six Douglas C-47 Dakota transports, the air force received its first frontline fighters in 1967, in the shape of eight Northrop F-5As and two F-5Bs.

Eight further aircraft were to have been delivered in 1970 but this was cancelled following the September 1969 coup, which saw Colonel Gaddafi overthrow King Idris and form the new Libyan Arab Republic.

Libyan relations with the USA and the UK declined rapidly and the USA withdrew its F-5 training detachment and a Northrop support team in June 1970.

By then, France had stepped into the breach, signing a contract to supply the first of an eventual total of 110 Dassault Mirage 5s in January 1970.

Replacing a planned force of 18 F-5s with more than 100 Mirage 5s would seem extraordinary, but Libya always intended to transfer large numbers of these aircraft to Egypt, for use in a war against Israel.

The next 40 years or so witnessed a rollercoaster ride for the air force, including the (Yom Kippur) War with Israel in 1973 when 495 combat missions were flown; new aircraft orders to, among others, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Italy; interventions in Uganda during that country’s liberation war of 1978-79 and also into Chad in the late 70s and 80s; confrontation with France, the former colonial power in Chad, which led to the cutting off of support for Libyan Mirages and to the impounding of a number of Mirages that were undergoing overhaul in France; skirmishes with the USA over in the Gulf of Sidra in 1981, 1986 and 1989 where Libyan aircraft were shot down and patrol boats sunk; and, of course, the terrorism links that led to the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

However, by 2011 and before the civil war, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan Arab Air Force had built itself back into a large and impressive (at least superficially) force, with 18,000 personnel and a notional inventory of nearly 400 combat-capable aircraft at 10 major bases.

When he briefed journalists in July 2011, the RAF’s Air Marshal Greg Bagwell said that Libya had been the third largest African country in terms of defence spending, which had grown from 1.1% of GDP in 2001 ($339 million) to a peak of 3% ($1,740 million) in 2007.

The Air Force had, he said, 229 fighters (MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25 and Mirage F1), seven Tu-22 ‘Blinder’ bombers and 113 attack aircraft, as well as more than 85 military transports and 250 combat-capable trainers. Libya also boasted 216 air defence missile systems, including Dvina (SA-2 ‘Guideline’), Niewa (SA-3 ‘Goa’), and S-200 (SA-5 ‘Gammon’) SAMs.

But the disparity between the numbers of aircraft delivered and the number of aircraft actually in use was massive.

In some cases, whole fleets of aircraft had been grounded and had not been airworthy for some years. This was the case, for example, with the MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ interceptors and reconnaissance aircraft, the Tupolev Tu-22 ‘Blinders’, the MiG-23BN ‘Flogger-H’ fighter-bombers and the Aeritalia G222 transports.

In other cases, a small proportion of the overall number of a particular aircraft type remained airworthy, with the rest grounded, sometimes for a very extended period. In the case of the Mirage F1, for example, Libya had received a total of 38 aircraft but only 14 remained airworthy, 12 of which had been selected for refurbishing and upgrade in France in a programme that began in 2005. Of these, just four had been returned to service when the war began.

In other instances, Libya had deliberately bought more aircraft than it required, storing a large proportion of a given fleet for future contingencies – reportedly including Gaddafi’s dream of a ‘war of liberation’ against Israel. Thus, when Libya acquired 50 MiG-23MS interceptors, just 24 of these were put into service with two squadrons (No.1050 and 1051) at al-Bumbah air base, while the others were stored.

In some cases, the grounding of aircraft was a direct consequence of the UN sanctions imposed after the destruction of Pan Am Flight 007 over Lockerbie in 1988. These sanctions were suspended in 1999, after Libya agreed to hand over two of its nationals for trial before a Scottish court, and were finally fully lifted in 2003, after compensation was paid to the Lockerbie relatives.

The imposition of sanctions dramatically curtailed Libyan air operations and by the time they were lifted in September 2003, the by now renamed Libyan Arab Air Force was a shadow of its former self. Just six MiG-23MFs were still operational and some other frontline and support fleets were no longer flying.

After September 2003 some aircraft were sold off, including 12 of the surviving CH-47C Chinooks, which were sold to the UAE in 2003. The remaining 50 Mirage 5 fighters and a huge quantity of spares (including some 150 engines still in sealed packaging) were sold to Pakistan the following year, most destined to be broken up for spare parts to support the PAF’s own Mirage fleet.

However, with significant oil revenue, Libya did begin a programme of returning some of its aircraft types to service, dispatching various MiGs and Sukhois for overhaul and upgrade in Russia.

The Galebs were overhauled at the Taminhint centre in Sabha by teams dispatched from Serbia, while the Libyan Italian Advanced Technology Company (LIATEC) worked on the SF260WLs and six of the eight remaining Chinooks. OGMA in Portugal began overhauling and refurbishing some of the LAAF’s long dormant Hercules transports.

The final swansong of the LAAF came in March 2011, when it began operations against opposition forces during the early stages of the rising against the Gaddafi regime. Su-22s and Su-24s from Ghardabiya-Sirte flew ineffective low-level attack missions against abandoned army bases and ammunition depots in Agedabia and Mersa el-Brega, presumably to deny them to the rebels, while MiG-23s and L-39s from Mitiga and Mil Mi-24s operating from a number of bases, flew ad hoc sorties against rebel positions in Misrata, al Zawiya, and Zintan.

The LAAF increased its operational tempo from March 6 and began operating at medium level, dropping heavier weapons with greater effect, and its targets were widened to include oil installations at Ras Lanoof. It also made use of Schiebel Camcopter UAVs and An-26s and An-32s for reconnaissance missions. The Mi-24s supported the Army’s offensive on the ground.

Helicopters and fast jets supported the regime’s offensive against rebel-held Benghazi, losing an Su-22 during attacks on Benina air base before the UN no fly zone came into force on March 19. Subsequent Allied air operations saw the destruction of both aircraft and infrastructure, destroying the LAAF as an operational entity.

Though the LAAF was an elite branch of Libya’s armed forces, and though it was largely composed of those who were most loyal to the regime (with members of Gaddafi’s own Gadhadfa tribe and the allied Magariha tribe given preference in selection and promotion), some pilots, engineer officers and ground crew did switch sides to join the rebels, and a small number of pilots ejected or defected to Malta. Others deliberately missed their targets.

Using aircraft found intact at captured bases (especially at Benina and El Beida-Labraq), the rebels did form a ‘Free Libya Air Force’ and flew some sorties with MiG-21s, MiG-23s, and Mi-24s. They lost a number of aircraft in action, including a MiG-21 and at least one MiG-23. Some of those aircraft, however, are still flying today.