Operation El Dorado Canyon and Bombing Libya in 1986

Ground crew prepares a 48th Tactical Fighter Wing F-111F aircraft for an air strike on Libya.
US Air Force

After providing support for the 1985 terrorist attacks against airports in Rome and Vienna, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi indicated that his regime would continue to aid in similar endeavors. Openly backing terrorist groups such as Red Army Faction and the Irish Republican Army, he also attempted to claim the entire Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters. A violation of international law, this claim led President Ronald Reagan to order three carriers from the US Sixth Fleet to enforce the standard twelve-mile limit to territorial waters.

Crossing into the gulf, American forces engaged the Libyans on March 23/24, 1986 in what became known as the Action in the Gulf of Sidra. This resulted in the sinking of a Libyan corvette and patrol boat as well as strikes against selected ground targets. In the wake of the incident, Gaddafi called for Arab assaults on American interests. This culminated on April 5 when Libyan agents bombed the La Belle disco in West Berlin. Frequented by American servicemen, the night club was extensively damaged with two American soldiers and one civilian killed as well as 229 injured.

In the wake of the bombing, the United States quickly obtained intelligence that showed the Libyans were responsible. After several days of extensive talks with European and Arab allies, Reagan ordered air strikes against terrorism-related targets in Libya. Claiming that he possessed "irrefutable proof," Reagan stated that Gaddafi had ordered attacks to "to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties." Addressing the nation on the night of April 14, he argued "Self defense is not only our right, it is our duty. It is the purpose behind the mission...a mission fully consistent with Article 51 of the UN Charter."

Operation El Dorado Canyon

As Reagan spoke on television, American aircraft were in the air. Dubbed Operation El Dorado Canyon, the mission was the culmination of extensive and complex planning. As the US Navy assets in the Mediterranean lacked sufficient tactical strike aircraft for the mission, the US Air Force was tasked with providing part of the attack force. Participation in the strike was delegated to the F-111Fs of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath. These were to be supported by four electronic warfare EF-111A Ravens from the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Upper Heyford.

Mission planning was quickly complicated when both Spain and France refused overflight privileges for the F-111s. As a result, the USAF aircraft were forced to fly south, then east through the Straits of Gibraltar in order to reach Libya. This wide detour added approximately 2,600 nautical miles to the round trip and required support from 28 KC-10 and KC-135 tankers. The targets selected for Operation El Dorado Canyon were intended to aid in crippling Libya's ability to support international terrorism. Targets for the F-111s included the military facilities at Tripoli's airport and Bab al-Azizia barracks.

The aircraft from Britain were also tasked with destroying the underwater sabotage school at Murat Sidi Bilal. As the USAF attacked targets in western Libya, US Navy aircraft were largely assigned targets to the east around Benghazi. Utilizing a mix of A-6 Intruders, A-7 Corsair IIs, and F/A-18 Hornets, they were to attack the Jamahiriyah Guard Barracks and suppress Libyan air defenses. In addition, eight A-6s were tasked with hitting Benina Military Airfield to prevent the Libyans from launching fighters to intercept the strike package. Coordination for the raid was conducted by a USAF officer aboard a KC-10.

Striking Libya

Around 2:00 AM on April 15, the American aircraft began to arrive over their targets. Though the raid was intended to be a surprise, Gaddafi received warning of its arrival from Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici of Malta who informed him that unauthorized aircraft were crossing Maltese airspace. This allowed Gaddafi to escape his residence at Bab al-Azizia shortly before it was hit. As the raiders approached, the formidable Libyan air defense network was suppressed by US Navy aircraft firing a mix of AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles.

In action for approximately twelve minutes, American aircraft struck each of the designated targets though several were forced to abort for various reasons. Though each target was hit, some bombs fell off target damaging civilian and diplomatic buildings. One bomb narrowly missed the French embassy. In the course of the attack, one F-111F, flown by Captains Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence, was lost over the Gulf of Sidra. On the ground, many Libyan soldiers abandoned the posts and no aircraft were launched to intercept the attackers.

Aftermath of Operation El Dorado Canyon

After lingering in the area searching for the lost F-111F, American aircraft returned to their bases. The successful completion of the USAF component of the mission marked the longest combat mission flown by tactical aircraft. On the ground, the raid killed/wounded around 45-60 Libyan soldiers and officials while destroying several IL-76 transport aircraft, 14 MiG-23 fighters, and two helicopters. In the wake of the attacks, Gaddafi attempted to claim that he had won a great victory and began circulating false reports of extensive civilian casualties.

The attack was condemned by many nations and some argued that it far exceeded the right of self-defense set forth by the Article 51 of the UN Charter. The United States received support for its actions from Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Australia, and 25 other countries. Though the attack damaged the terrorist infrastructure within Libya, it did not hamper Gaddafi's support of terrorist endeavors. Among the terrorist actions, he later supported were the hijacking of Pam Am Flight 73 in Pakistan, the shipment of arms aboard MV Eksund to European terrorist groups, and most famously the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Selected Sources