Vital Role for British Airpower over Libya

 - November 10, 2011, 8:00 PM
Tornados on the flight line at Gioa del Colle airbase in Italy. The sun has not yet set on this capable and flexible strike aircraft. (Crown Copyright/MoD 2011)

British commanders are counting the cost of a major and successful contribution to NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. The UK and France were the biggest contributors to the campaign, after the first week when U.S. forces provided an initial boost. British aircraft and helicopters flew more than 3,000 sorties, including more than 2,100 strike missions. They successfully attacked about 640 targets with more than 1,400 precision-guided munitions.

In an operation that the UK codenamed Ellamy, Royal Air Force (RAF) commanders believe that they have again demonstrated the service’s flexibility and adaptability–the ability to wring the maximum capability out of both its people and its machines. But after suffering big cutbacks in last year’s defense review, the RAF must now restock a depleted inventory of smart weapons at an estimated cost of $200 million. The RAF must also catch up on deferred training, plus maintenance of the hard-pressed fleets of combat aircraft, tankers, AEW&C and surveillance aircraft.

The first RAF aircraft over Libya were C-130 Hercules transports that flew deep into the desert to rescue stranded oil workers from airstrips. Flying low and at night to avoid Libyan air force interceptors, one of the six flights was hit by ground fire, but the evacuation of nearly 450 people was safely completed.

The RAF quickly deployed 12 Tornado and six Typhoon combat jets to Italy. Four more Tornados were added in July. They struck everything from command and control bunkers through ammunition storage dumps to artillery and rocket-launching “technical” trucks. Six-hour missions became routine, as the RAF fast jets patrolled the skies awaiting targets.

This “dynamic” mode of operation, as opposed to striking targets that were preplanned before takeoff, became an RAF specialty, according to senior officers. They believe that years of rigorous training, plus extensive experience over Iraq and Afghanistan, and a tight command, control and communications system, helped aircrews to apply rigorous Rules of Engagement (RoE) so that collateral damage was kept to a minimum. If aircrews had doubts about whether a dynamic target met the RoE, they conferred with operations staff at the NATO Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Italy in real time.

The Typhoon’s debut as a bomber was not without difficulty. When the Libyan operation began, the UK was the only one of the four Eurofighter partner nations to have implemented a strike capability. Eight RAF pilots had been trained to drop 1,000-pound Enhanced Paveway II bombs that could be guided by GPS-aided INS or laser-designated to their target by a Litening 3 pod. But their currency had lapsed due to a cut in flying training hours.

Commanders therefore decided to initially pair each single-seat Typhoon with a Tornado, crewed by two fully experienced “mud movers.” If lasing was required, Tornados sometimes did the task for the Typhoon pilot. The combination proved to be synergistic; the Typhoons provided greater situational awareness to the mixed formation thanks to their Link 16 datalink and secure voice communications. They also provided an insurance against any airborne threats, since they also carried AMRAAM and ASRAAM air-air missiles, and a greater-capability defensive aids system.

In a conflict where it was vital to match striking power to target type, the Tornado offered extra flexibility thanks to its warload of smaller 500-pound Raytheon Paveway IV bombs (with fuzing selectable in flight) and 100-pound MBDA Brimstone missiles. In particular, the laser-guided version of Brimstone became the weapon of choice in urban environments. This missile was originally produced as a “fire-and-forget” anti-armor weapon with a millimeter wave (MMW) radar seeker. With the laser seeker added, and using a shaped-charged warhead, the Brimstone provided superior target discrimination and three-foot accuracy, including against fast-moving vehicles. Air Marshall Sir Stuart Peach, the UK’s Commander of Joint Operations, said that Brimstone demonstrated “a world-class capability that was made in Britain.” 

The MMW version of Brimstone was hardly used until mid-September, when commanders approved a tank park near Sabha for attack. A pair of Tornados each carrying 12 missiles salvo-fired them into the compound, to great effect.

Tornados also carried the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile, which employs GPS and/or terrain-referenced navigation (TRN) until closing with the target, when an imaging infrared scene-matcher takes over. Designed to attack high-value targets, more than 60 of these powerful but expensive weapons were fired. A considerable mission planning effort is required (even though TRN was not used in the Libyan strikes). The first Storm Shadow attacks were on Libyan air defense systems, on a 3,000-mile roundtrip from RAF Marham in the UK. Later, weapons bunkers and command centers were targeted. One Storm Shadow mission that was planned to attack the main Ghadaffi compound in Tripoli was famously aborted just prior to weapon release when commanders realized from live television coverage that the Libyan regime had taken international journalists to the site to observe a previous strike by submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles. Storm Shadows were still being used late in the operation to attack targets located deep in the Libyan desert. Because the missiles can fly up to 150 miles after release, the Tornado crew did not have to penetrate so far inland that they were beyond the range of search-and-rescue helicopters stationed offshore.

Some Tornados also carried the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod containing the Goodrich DB-110 long focal-length electro-optic camera. The Tornado is a very flexible strike aircraft, but it is more than 30 years old and has never been fashionable. Last year, RAF commanders were forced to choose between axing them or withdrawing the fleet of iconic Harrier STOVL jets instead. The Libyan conflict has proved that their choice was correct.

The RAF’s Raytheon Sentinel (ASTOR) surveillance jet is also a victim of the defense cuts, the fleet of five being scheduled for withdrawal in 2014-15, as UK troops leave Afghanistan. And yet the aircraft has played a major role in Op Ellamy, with its dual-mode radar helping to compensate for the lack of observers on the ground. During missions lasting up to eight hours, the three onboard intelligence analysts helped develop an understanding of “the pattern of life” over wide areas that was vital to the correct targeting of the fast jets. On one occasion, all five Sentinels were airborne over, or in transit to, Afghanistan or Libya at the same time.

The RAF made four E-3D Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft available for the operation. They shared patrol duty with similar NATO, French and U.S. Air Force E-3 AWACS aircraft. Their crews were the orchestrators of the air campaign, managing the airspace and the aerial refueling, and providing an airborne information fusion and communications service. Typically, during eight hours on station, they organized the dispensing from tanker aircraft of 650,000 pounds of fuel. Moreover, their radars also provided the maritime picture to NATO warships enforcing the blockade of Libyan ports.

Flying from the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, five Army Air Corps WAH-64D Apaches joined the operation in early June. They attacked coastal radar sites and patrol boats, plus vehicles and control points up to 50 miles inland, using laser-guided Hellfire missiles, rockets and 30mm gunfire. Of note, they flew only at night to reduce the risk of attack from naval shore batteries and man-portable surface-to-air missiles. Intelligence estimates have suggested that the Libyan regime had acquired 23,000 such low-altitude SAMs, including the improved version of the Russian Igla infrared-guided and truck-mounted SAM, designated SA-24. (All of the NATO fast jet operations over Libya were carried out from medium altitudes that were judged to be above the effective ceiling of these weapons).

Also flying mainly at night were two Royal Navy Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control helicopters. They logged nearly 100 missions, using their Thales surveillance radars to find safe routes for the Apaches.