The Only War We've Got

Raid on a Dictator

By Daniel Ford (Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2003)

Ronald Reagan's first term was bloodied by hijackings and massacres around the world, many of them traceable to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. The U.S. responded with fleet maneuvers off the Libyan coast, covert operations and finally a military strike called El Dorado Canyon. (Nor was that the only odd name: Fleet challenges in the Gulf of Sidra were known as Attain Document; and a proxy war in Chad, with the U.S. and France backing the government against forces sent by Libya, was called Arid Farmer.) The raid is almost forgotten today, but it was the first display of a style of warfare that has become the hallmark of American arms.

Joseph Stanik was a U.S. Navy officer in the 1980s, and he devotes more than half of El Dorado Canyon: Reagan's Undeclared War with Qaddafi to the run-up to the raid and to Navy operations in the Gulf of Sidra. This is useful stuff, but the narrative catches fire only with the bombing of La Belle, a disco frequented by U.S. soldiers in Berlin. Mr. Gadhafi's fingerprints were all over the massacre, and before sundown that day -- April 5, 1986 -- Washington was selecting targets that could be bombed in retaliation.

Because Navy strike aircraft are comparatively lightweight, the planners turned to U.S. Air Force bombers based in Britain. (There may have been interservice rivalry as well.) Despite its F-for-fighter designation, the long-nosed F-111 "Aardvark" weighed as much as a World War II heavy bomber and carried twice the payload. Eighteen F-111s set out for Libya in the early evening of April 14, each tucked beneath the wing or tail of the tanker that would refuel it, in hopes they'd go unnoticed by European radar operators. The tankers in turn had other tankers to refuel them, plus electronic-warfare aircraft and a flying command post, totaling 52 aircraft -- a "gorilla package," in airman's parlance.

A direct line from London to Tripoli leads through the Arc de Triomphe, but France predictably banned the formation from its airspace. So the route described a reverse question mark: out into the Atlantic, down the coast of Portugal, through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean before turning south again. The distance was 2,995 miles, and the elapsed time 6½ hours. For all its heft, the F-111 had only two men aboard, a pilot and a weapons-systems officer, who couldn't leave their seats till they were safely home again. Each man was supplied with snacks, amphetamines and a "piddle pack" of absorbent material for nature's call.

El Dorado Canyon Shortly before 1 a.m. on April 15, while the F-111s were topping off their fuel tanks near the coast of Tunisia, the Navy planes catapulted from their carrier decks. It took an hour for them to reach the Libyan coast and for the Air Force bombers to descend from 26,000 feet to their low attack altitude.

At 1:50 a.m., the Navy planes turned on radar jammers and fired missiles at Libyan anti-aircraft batteries, to clear the way for the Air Force. Two minutes later, the first F-111 (it happened to be Puffy 11) crossed the coast at an altitude of 200 feet and a speed of 600 miles per hour. Streetlamps were burning in Tripoli, and the military airport was brightly lit, a convenient beacon for Puffy 11 as it streaked in to drop its bombs and capture the video that was shown around the world, showing Russian-built military transports exploding.

The raid wasn't a complete success: Bombing results were mixed, one F-111 was lost at sea and there was collateral damage -- including, ironically, damage to the French embassy. Nor did it immediately put an end to terrorism from Libya: Mr. Gadhafi's agents blew Pan Am Flight 103 out of the air over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

What was memorable about El Dorado Canyon was the Air Force's ability to fly a 6,000-mile mission, its reliance on guided bombs, the timing that brought planes from two services over the target within seconds of each other and the fact that it was all done at night. The raid became the model for American air operations in the last decade of the 20th century and the opening years of the 21st.

And in the long run it seems to have worked. Mr. Gadhafi eventually paid reparations for Pan Am 103, and thereafter he seemed to retire from the bloody game. Indeed, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, forced the U.S. to open another front in the war on terrorism, Mr. Gadhafi not only condemned the attacks but ordered his intelligence service to cooperate with the CIA.

Mr. Ford is the editor of "The Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II" (iUniverse 2002).

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