By Paul Evancoe
On October 18, 1985, the USAF’s 20th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) stationed at the United Kingdom’s Upper Heyford Airbase secretly launched ten F-111Es on a simulated long range attack mission. The planes performed a low level deception flight well out over the North Atlantic flying below radar and maintaining strict radio silence. While the UK and Canada were given some of the exercise’s details, the actual purpose of the top secret mission was not disclosed. Each plane was carrying eight 500 pound practice bombs on their wing pylons – a heavy load but well within the plane’s design capabilities. Their target was a simulated enemy airfield located in Newfoundland, south of CFB Goose Bay. The cover story was that this exercise was a full dress rehearsal for a pending retaliatory strike against Libya. During the 1970s and 1980s Libya had become a bad actor whose agents had murdered a number of Americans and it clearly needed to be put back into its box. It was a perfect cover that was backstopped by numerous events that easily justified such a strike.
The F-111Es transited at sub-sonic speed only popping up just long enough for aerial refueling where radar coverage was lacking. Hundreds of miles from their target, the ten attacking planes separated to approach from different attack axis. Arriving low level within seconds of one another, they reported “feet dry” spending only seconds successfully delivering their bombs on target before again vanishing undetected into the darkness above the Atlantic.
This top secret exercise, code named “Operation Ghost Rider” was indeed a full rehearsal attack mission but its true purpose was far more sinister than a simple raid on a two bit dictator like Libya’s Gaddafi. Over the next six months a very select group within the CIA and NSA watched and listened to see if the mission had been detected – it had not.
In 1985 the Cold War and the Arms Race were in full swing. There were two superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR, and both wanted to hold the winning trump card over the other. While mutual destruction and strategic deterrence had significant meaning at multiple levels, one up-man-ship was the game both powers played and for President Ronald Reagan, it was time to up the ante. The F-111Es were the first of their kind – a supersonic variable geometry sweep wing bomber designed to fly low level at speeds exceeding 1,100 mph with the ability to penetrate beneath the most advanced Soviet early warning radars unchallenged. It was specifically built to deliver a nuclear bomb carried inside its internal bomb bay anywhere in the Soviet Empire. Operation Ghost Rider had proven the F-111’s low level long range attack capability along with its ability to conduct an undetected surprise attack using multiple F111s. It was now time to indirectly demonstrate it to the opposition in a real-world attack. Events and justification soon aligned, which provided the opportunity the U.S. needed.
On March 24, 1986 the Gulf of Sidra incident made international headlines. For some time, Libya’s dictator, Omar Gaddafi, claimed Libya’s territorial waters extended well into the Mediterranean beyond the Gulf of Sidra. This claim was challenged by the U.S who recognized Libya’s territorial waters to extend no more than 12 nautical miles from shore. After several skirmishes with the Libyan air force and navy, President Reagan sent a powerful naval task force into the Gulf of Sidra consisting of three carrier battle groups led by the carriers USS America, USS Saratoga and USS Coral Sea. Among them, these three carriers carried enough attack aircraft to completely annihilate a country like Libya. But Libya was well defended and there would surely be friendly losses.
The Soviet Union had provided Libya with its most modern early warning air search and anti-aircraft missile systems. They had also provided the Libyan air force with advanced fighter-interceptor aircraft and state of the art training for the Libyan fighter pilots. In fact, at the time, Libya was one of the most well defended nations on the planet. The attack would need to be focused on Gaddafi’s military might and demonstrate U.S. resolve. Mission planning for Operation El Dorado Canyon began in earnest – Libya would be bombed.
Lessons had been learned from Operation Ghost Rider months earlier and they were passed on to the then-secret 4450th Tactical Group who were the recipients of the first thirty F-117 stealth bombers operating from a secret military base in the Nevada desert. This base, known as Area 51, is bordered by DOE’s Nevada Test Site and the USAF’s Tonopah bombing range. The 4450th was given the mission along with other U.S. Navy and USAF conventional strike aircraft.
On April 14 within hours of the actual mission launch, the F-117s were taken out of the order of battle by the Joint Chiefs upon insistence of then CIA Director Alexander Haig. Their stated reason for the change was because of national-level concerns that existence of the F-117 stealth planes could be compromised. However, this seeming last minute change of events was all part of the deception and the real reason Libya was bombed. The airstrike was to be carried out using conventional aircraft and the newer, more capable F-111F variants were put into the mix.
Adding further difficulty, France, Spain and Italy refused to grant the F-111s overflight rights or use of their continental operating bases adding an additional 1,300 miles to the flight. This was brought on by the U.S.’s refusal to disclose the nature of the overflight mission and the fact that U.S. mission planners needed to demonstrate a capability and likely had no intention of using their airspace anyway.
Around dusk on April 14, without informing any U.S. allies or other potentially concerned nations in the region, eighteen F-111F strike aircraft of the 48th TFW departed the UK’s RAF Lakenheath on a low level deception flight along a circuitous route over the Atlantic to Libya. At the same time four electronic warfare variant EF-111A Ravens of the 20th TFW went wheels up from RAF Upper Heyford flying an independent route ahead of their eighteen F-111F bomb laden counterparts. In the Gulf of Sidra, the U.S. Navy’s carrier task force was readying its attack aircraft for the early A.M. attack against Libya.
There were several other moving parts involved in this attack that went unnoticed and unreported. The first was a plan to have U.S. Navy SEALs launch one of their min-subs while submerged from a Navy submarine offshore. Using one of their swimmer delivery vehicles (SDV), they were to penetrate the harbor in Tripoli hours before the bombing raid. Remaining submerged throughout the entire attack profile, they were to navigate to a military pier where Gaddafi had two submarines nested side by side. There they would attach limpet mines to the submarines’ hulls with timers set to detonate during the air raid. This surgical elimination of the submarines was selected over simply bombing them to eliminate the chance of collateral damage to nearby commercial shipping and harbor facilities. This mission was aborted prior to launching the F111s.
The second mission involved a deception. Hours before the airstrike took place a U.S. Navy submarine surfaced under the cover of darkness in the Gulf of Sidra. Navy SEALs inflated two combat rubber raiding craft and mounted 35 hp silenced outboard motors to each. One of the boats was loaded with advance force equipment like weapons, radios, communications plans, maps, time tables, and several personal rucksacks containing battle dress uniforms, food, water, etc. This boat was manned by four lightly armed Navy SEALs wearing swim gear.
The second boat was manned by three Navy SEALs. As the two boats motored from over the horizon toward the Libyan shore, the sub slowly slid beneath the dark sea. Stopping seaward of the surf zone about an hour and a half later, the four SEALs in the equipment laden boat entered the water and pulled the boat through the surf zone setting it adrift on the shoreward side. Undetected, they returned to the second boat which was loitering seaward of the surf zone and silently returned to rendezvous with the submarine some twenty miles over the horizon.
The particular section of beach where they had released the inflatable boat had been carefully chosen because of its gentle gradient, open beach access to hinterland staging areas and close proximity to one of the key F111s’ targets. It was a perfect location to conduct a massive unopposed amphibious assault. And that is exactly what the CIA wanted the Libyans to believe when they found the boat washed up on the beach and examined its contents. In reality, the Marines would never make a landing ashore but the ruse worked. The Libyan military reinforced the area in preparation.
As the F111s approached the Libyan coast a mix of twenty-five A-6 Intruders, A-7, F/A-18 Hornet attack aircraft and EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft were launched by the carrier battle force in the Gulf of Sidra. The combined attack began at 0200 the morning of April 15 and lasted a total of twelve minutes. The F-111s dropped a total of 60 tons of munitions on five Libyan military targets. One F-111 was shot down by a Libyan surface to air missile and lost in the Gulf of Sidra killing both pilots. The carrier based A-6, A-7, F/A-18 attack aircraft primarily bombed radar and antiaircraft gun and missile sites in the heavily fortified Benghazi area before bombing the Benina and Jamahiriya barracks. Tragically, a number of their bombs hit co-located residential areas along with several embassies. The French embassy was one of them sustaining a direct hit.
The United Nations condemned the U.S. attack as irresponsible. The UK and Israel stood with the U.S. President Reagan went on national television and said he would “do it again” if Libya continued to misbehave. But for the Soviet Union who had not been informed of the strike and had not detected it, the unspoken message President Reagan sent them by conducting the strike was profound.
The F-111Fs had been designed specifically to penetrate beneath Soviet radar and deliver a nuclear bomb into the heart of the Soviet Empire. The F-111s were capable of supersonic flight exceeding 1,100 mph at low level – too low to be acquired by surface to air missiles and too fast to be tracked by conventional antiaircraft guns. They had just flown a combat mission against Libya which had the latest Soviet-provided air defenses and they succeeded undetected. Even the distance they had flown corresponded to potential targets deep inside the Soviet Union. Later, the Soviets would stretch a string along the route the F-111s flew detouring around France and Spain from England to Libya. When the string was stretched out and swung on an arch into the Soviet Union the message became crystal clear. U.S. F-111s could deliver nuclear bombs undetected to any number of targets within the Soviet Union any night of the week they choose to do so and nothing the Soviets had could stop them.
This sent shock waves throughout the Soviet military and government, upping the ante in the Arms Race. The U.S. still hadn’t revealed its newest fleet of F-117 stealth bombers and while the USSR had intelligence that the planes existed, they could not imagine the scale of U.S. tactical and strategic advantage they were now facing. And, the rest is history.
Paul Evancoe is the author of 3 military action novels, Own the Night, Violent Peace and Poison Promise available on-line at Amazon Books