Establishing a no-fly zone over Libya may not be a massive challenge for the coalition trying to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1793, but the operation has nevertheless exposed serious military and political pitfalls.
One of those surprises is the unexpected and elusive threat from a sophisticated surface-to-air missile (SAM) that Libya fielded virtually unnoticed—the NATO-designated SA-24 “Grinch.” Its presence on the battlefield underscores the need for coalition partners to draw on the full spectrum of electronic warfare capabilities to prosecute their air campaign. The missile also poses a latent threat to low-flying cargo aircraft once relief, medical, evacuation and rebuilding missions begin. Expectations are that these much-sought-after weapons will slip into the black market and into the hands of lawless groups that will want to stop aid to any of the sides involved in the Libyan conflict.
The presence—not announced yet—of the jam-resistance weapon was a surprise to U.S. and international military analysts because there have been only rumors of a possible Igla-S/SA-24 sale to Libya and no mention of it in officials sources, such as the U.N. Arms Register. Pictures of the SA-24 have appeared on television since the start of the war, but were not publicly identified by the intelligence community.
“The SA-24, or Igla-S, is an improved variant of the SA-18 ‘Grouse’—or Igla—with better performance, lethality and countermeasures resistance,” says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It is believed to have a maximum slant range of up to 6,000 meters [3.7 mi.] and a maximum engagement altitude of 3,500 meters. Development of the system appears to have been completed early in the last decade. The SA-24 represents a credible threat to aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles operating within its engagement envelope.”
There is a question about whether the SA-24 systems sold to the Libyans can be removed from their small-truck mounts and used as man-portable air defense systems (manpads), or if they are instead considered part of an integrated system. From the pictures, the weapon’s flexibility is not apparent.
“If you were to ask me which SAMs are the threat right now, I would say the unlocated mobile ones [SA-6 ‘Gainfuls’ and SA-8 ‘Geckos’ on tracked vehicles and SA-24s welded into the beds of pickup trucks] rather than the fixed-site, easily targeted ones,” says a U.S. defense official. “The mobile ones are extremely dangerous—both radar-guided and manpad-based systems.”
Concern over radar-guided, pop-up SAM threats has driven the Pentagon to operate its EA-18G Growlers over Libya. Italy also has contributed radar-locating Tornado ECRs to the coalition operation.
The surviving longer-range SAMs are radar-guided SA-6s (7-km altitude) and SA-8s (5-km altitude). The mobile SAMs are still on the loose, but radar-guided missile systems and their supporting communications and data links are being degraded by an active electronic attack campaign that includes jamming and some cybernetwork penetration activity, say U.S. officials who are analyzing the campaign on a real-time basis. That leaves optically guided and infrared-guided weapons as the main threat to coalition aircraft flying over Libya, which makes the IR-guided SA-24 the most potent current threat.
“This is not an operation without risk,” says the U.S. defense analyst. “We are putting people in harm’s way. [The coalition aircraft] are the only things in the sky right now, so target de-confliction is not an issue for the bad guys.”
Airborne electronic attack and information warfare are being conducted by Navy Growlers in a “stand-in” role and by Air Force EC-130 Compass Calls and RC-135 Rivet Joints. Also participating are EP-3 Aries II and advanced, specially modified P-3s that were designated as patrol utility units before being integrated into standard patrol squadrons as an operational disguise. EC-130J Commando Solo aircraft conduct specialized media broadcasts and other information operations.
Britain also dispatched several high-end, intelligence-gathering systems—including the Sentinel R1 ground surveillance and Nimrod R1 signals intelligence aircraft—to support the operation from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. All these assets aided in destroying Libya’s fixed, air-defense force of SA-2 “Guideline,” SA-3 “Goa” and SA-9 “Gammon” SAMs by providing precision targeting for more than 160 Tomahawk and several Storm Shadow cruise missiles. U.S. officials indicate the campaign against fixed sites has been successful; and Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell, the RAF officer in charge of the air operations, says the Libyan air force is effectively destroyed.
While states are supposed to report the transfer of man-portable missiles to the U.N. Arms Register, many do not and they are not in violation of national or international law. Also, transfers can been made through third parties.
Questions raised by the photos involve identifying who sold the systems to Libya and when.
Matt Schroeder, director of the arms-sales-monitoring project for the Federation of American Scientists, says there is no record of such an arms transfer in the U.N. registry. “One of the key concerns regarding the SA-24 missiles and launchers is their utility to terrorists who tend to favor man- or crew-portable systems over vehicle-mounted systems should the weapons be diverted to the black market,” he says. “It’s not clear whether [the Libyan missiles] fit that description.
“We must first identify the model of the SA-24 missile launcher and whether it can easily be taken off the light truck on which [it is] currently mounted and used as a stand-alone weapon by a small, autonomous crew of dismounted infantry,” Schroeder says. Another key question is “whether the SA-24s used with the [truck-mounted] launchers can be used with man-portable gripstocks. If the answer to both is ‘no,’ then the danger of the system being acquired and used by terrorists is significantly diminished.
“If the answer to either question is ‘yes,’ then more questions follow, including when were the systems transferred, since manpad transfers were not required to be reported before 2003 and submissions for 2010 have not been published yet,” he says. Yet another determinant would be whether “they come directly from Russia or were they transfers [from an intermediate buyer]?” Venezuela, for example, is buying thousands of SA-24s, and international watchdog groups worry that they will end up in the hands of narco-traffickers and insurgent groups.
There will be ample need for political after-action fine-tuning of the coalition. Although France and the U.K. pushed no-fly zone approval through the U.N., and France kicked off the air campaign with attacks near Benghazi, the bulk of the operational heavy-lifting was initially carried out by the U.S. France—only recently re-admitted fully into the alliance—has been positioning itself to take the helm. Germany, for its part, has decided to stay entirely on the sidelines and withdrew from enforcing NATO’s arms embargo. Arab state contributions that were to provide political top cover have been slow to emerge. Qatar’s four Mirage 2000s were not scheduled to begin operation until late last week. The campaign also has exposed fissures over how the long-term enforcement action should be directed.
Strike aircraft involved in the early operations against Libya included B-2 stealth bombers from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Mo.; F-15Es from the 492nd and 494th Fighter Sqdns. from RAF Lakenheath, England; and F-16CJ Wild Weasels from the 480th FS at Spangdahlem AB, Germany. The B-2s struck Ghardabiya Airfield in Libya.
The U.K. initially participated with submarine-launched Tomahawks and Tornado GR4s firing Storm Shadow cruise missiles. The Tornados then switched focus to direct-attack roles using Paveway IV laser/GPS-guided bombs and dual-mode Brimstone weapons. The U.K. also employed the Raptor reconnaissance pod. The aircraft—from RAF Marham, England—redeployed as part of the 906 Expeditionary Air Wing based at Gioa de Colle in southern Italy, which was already hosting the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons. The Typhoons, in their first combat missions, flew air patrols.
France has been operating Mirage 2000s and Rafales. It also began operations from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier for both reconnaissance missions and no-fly-zone enforcement. French aircraft employed Scalp EG cruise missiles, AASM air-to-ground modular weapons and GBU-12 precision guided bombs Other allies have been weighing their contributions. Norway and the Netherlands late last week were readying their F-16s, pending assignment of missions by NATO. Canada and Spain are contributing F-18s, while Sweden may dispatch 6-8 JAS39 Gripens.
The single coalition aircraft destroyed so far is an F-15E that suffered mechanical problems. The pilot and weapon systems officer were rescued. A MiG-23 flown by the Libyan rebels was shot down near Benghazi by friendly anti-aircraft fire. The third air casualty was a Libyan air force G-2 Galeg trainer.
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