At 0200 local time on April 15th 1986, United States Air Force (USAF), United States Navy (USN), and United States Marine Corps (USMC) aircraft attacked targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya. The attack was code named Operation El Dorado Canyon. The raid was President Ronald Reagan’s response to several Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks in Europe, among them the 1985 Rome and Venice airport attacks that killed 19 and wounded approximately 150 people. On the night of April 5th 1986 Libyan agents bombed the “La Belle” nightclub in West Berlin, killing a Turkish woman and two American Army Sergeants, Kenneth T. Ford and James E. Goins. Also injured were 50 US military personnel among the total of 230 hurt. The gloves were about to come off.
Libya had been a thorn in the world’s side ever since Muammar Gaddafi had risen to power. Gaddafi was unapologetic about his support for terrorism, even saying publically that he would continue to support terrorism. Previous confrontations had not gone well for Gaddafi. During a United States freedom of navigation exercise during August of 1981, two Libyan SU-22 Fitter pilots mixed it up with VF-41 Black Aces F-14A Tomcats. The T-shirts that magically appeared seemingly within minutes on every Navy base and air station around the world proclaimed: Navy 2. Libya 0. This engagement went down in history as the Gulf of Sidra Incident.
President Reagan, having worked for several days after the LaBelle bombing with European and Arab countries to try and arrive at some kind of diplomatic resolution to the Gaddafi problem, decided on April 14th to attack terrorism-related targets in Libya. Unfortunately he got little or no support from any of the European countries. France, Italy and Spain not only denied overflight permission for the strikes; they also denied the use of any bases by the Americans. This would mean that the USAF bombers would have to fly from their bases in the United Kingdom around the entire European land mass in order to reach their Libyan targets- turning a long but manageable duration mission into a 15 hour, 5,500 mile marathon. It would be the longest mission flown by tactical aircraft to date. Go find your most uncomfortable chair and sit in it without getting up and moving around. For 15 hours. In the for-what-it’s-worth department, the French president was said to have denied the Americans his support because he wasn’t interested in a limited response, but wanted a stronger response that would remove Gaddafi from power. Does that make your six feel any better after hour ten in that chair?
One little-known aspect of the operation is that during October of 1985 ten of the F-111E Aardvarks of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) flew a practice long-duration bombing mission from their base at RAF Upper Heyford in the UK to Newfoundland, Canada and back again. Referred to as Operation Ghost Rider (cool name!), this training mission was conceived to work out any potential kinks in the plan so a similar mission could be flown the following year. Perhaps even against Libya. Information and tactics used by the 20th TFW were passed down the line to the 48th TFW, equipped with F-111F model ‘Varks.
The order of battle for Operation Eldorado Canyon, which would be the first Air Force combat mission since the war in Vietnam, started with the 24 (including six spare) F-111F Aardvarks of the 48th TFW, based at RAF Lakenheath in the UK. These Pave Tack infrared targeting designator-equipped bombers would drop precision-guided Paveway bombs on their Libyan military targets. Providing electronic countermeasures support would be five (1 spare) EF-111A Ravens of the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron (ECS) out of RAF Upper Heyford. 19 KC-10A Extenders and ten KC-135 Stratotankers aerial refueling tankers from RAF Mildenhall and RAF Fairford would provide the total of six aerial refuelings the USAF bombers and jammers would require to fly their assigned missions. The additional tanker assets needed to support the mission were moved in to the bases in the UK under the cover of a NATO exercise dubbed Salty Nation.
In the Mediterranean Sea aboard the aircraft carriers USS America (CVA-66) with Carrier Air Wing (CVW)-1 embarked and USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) with CVW-13 embarked, the Navy and Marines were preparing a strike of their own. Grumman A-6E Intruders, LTV A-7E Corsair IIs, McDonnell-Douglas (Boeing) F/A-18A Hornets, and Grumman EA-6B Prowlers were being prepared to hit their own targets. Grumman F-14A Tomcats and some other Hornets would provide combat air patrol (CAP) coverage over the aircraft carriers and their escorts and Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes would provide airborne early warning and control for the Navy and Marine aircraft as well as coordination of search and rescue (SAR) efforts. The Navy had already hit several Libyan coastal naval targets during March and early April. Overall mission command and control was provided by a modified USAF KC-10A Extender aircraft.
Another little-known aspect of Operation Eldorado Canyon is that it was nearly the combat debut of the F-117A Stealth Fighter. By the time April of 1986 rolled around, about 30 F-117As had been produced and were operating out of the Nevada desert at Tonopah Test Range. Or maybe they weren’t. But very few people knew they existed at that time and rather than expose them to the not inconsiderable Libyan air defense network, manned by some 2,900 Soviet air-defense specialists, the Secretary of Defense decided to use the more conventional one-two punch of Air Force Aardvarks and a Navy Alpha Strike. Libya’s air defenses were nothing compared to the skies above Baghdad into which the F-117As ventured five years later, but when the air raid sirens started going off in Tripoli and Benghazi, the job got done.
Specifically targeted that April night were the Al Aziziyah Barracks in Tripoli and the Benghazi Military Barracks near Benghazi. Both barracks facilities were command and control centers for Libyan terror networks and bases for Gaddafi’s own Jamahiriyah Guard. Al Aziziyah also contained Gaddafi’s residence. The Benghazi Barracks also contained a warehouse full of MiG aircraft parts and components. Also targeted was the Murrat Side Bilal base, a Libyan naval training center used to educate terrorists in things like underwater sabotage and other water-borne dirty tricks. Two airfields were on the target list as well- Tripoli’s Okba Ben Nafi Air Base (formerly Wheelus US Air Force Base) where Soviet-built IL-76 Candid transports used to export Libyan arms and equipment to terrorists were based, and Benina Military Airfield near Benghazi, where Libyan MiG and Sukhoi fighter aircraft were based. Benina was also a former American base.
Just before 0200 the F-111Fs split up into three flights of six aircraft using the call signs Remit, Elton, and Karma. Then they went to work. The attack lasted all of 13 minutes from feet dry (over land) to feet wet (back over the Med). The bombers deposited 60 tons of bombs on their targets. Due to the late hour civilian casualties on the ground were minimal, but inevitably some bombs missed their targets- creating a diplomatic stir but again minimal casualties. Ironically one of the bombs that missed its target nearly destroyed the French embassy. Which target was that bomb supposed to hit anyway? The Navy and Marine aircraft executed Iron Hand defense suppression missions, destroying Libyan air defense radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites with Shrike and HARM anti-radar missiles and jamming their signals and communications with the Prowlers before working over the Benghazi targets. Confirmed destroyed at Benina were four MiG-23 Flogger fighters, two Mil-8 Hip helicopters, and two Fokker F27 transports. Gaddafi’s transport capability was cut back somewhat with several of the IL-76 Candid transports at Okba Ben Nafi Air Base destroyed or damaged.
The attacks were over so quickly that the air defense weapons not destroyed failed to fire on the American attackers until they had already passed overhead on their way out of the country. But one F-111F (Karma 52) was shot down with the loss of both crew members, pilot Captain Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and Weapon Systems Officer Captain Paul Lorence. There was controversy over the loss of the aircraft and crew but it was the only operational loss during the mission. It has been theorized that the bombs that hit non-targeted structures in Tripoli came from Karma 52. It’s also likely that some of the damage done to the city and its inhabitants was self-inflicted by the guns and missiles fired indiscriminately at depressed levels by the Libyan/Soviet air defense crews.
One target (or objective) that was missed was Gaddafi himself. It’s been said that he received warning via telephone that the raid was incoming. Whether the call was placed by the Maltese Prime Minister or the Italian Prime Minister is of little consequence now, but when it was learned that Gaddafi beat feet mere moments before the bombs hit his house it seemed to be another case of European tacit approval of Gaddafi and his policies. Whatever the reasoning, Operation Eldorado Canyon left Gaddafi alive but his ability to operate and support terrorism was at least temporarily crimped.
Almost inevitably, soon after the raid concluded Gaddafi proclaimed that he had “won a spectacular military victory over the United States” and the country was officially renamed the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah.” The Libyans also displayed the wreckage of a Soviet-made SA-3 Goa SAM and said it was the remains of a shot-down F-111. More terrorism and sponsorship of it by Gaddafi followed in the ensuing years; Pan Am 73, the French seizure of the freighter MV Eksund, which was found to be carrying 150 tons of Soviet arms from Libya to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Kidnappings and killings by Abu Nidal and others during the late 1980s. And then, in 1988, Pan Am 103 brought down over Lockerbie in Scotland.
One story without a truly happy ending, Operation Eldorado Canyon was notable for a number of firsts. It was the first Air Force combat mission since Vietnam and the first flown from the UK since World War II. Both the F-111F and the Pave Tack targeting system saw their first combat. It was also the first of the very few combat uses of the EF-111A Raven electronic countermeasures aircraft. Navy and Marine Corps firsts included the first combat for the F/A-18A Hornet and the first time the High Speed Anti-radiation Missile (HARM) was used in combat.