The U.S. Air Raid on Libya in April 1986 - A Confidental Soviet Account
from the Stasi Archives,
by Bernd Schäfer
When the Military Council of the Warsaw Pact met in 1986 between April 23 and 25 in Warsaw for its regular 33rd Session, Poland's First Secretary Wojciech Jaruzelski hosted a reception for the participants after their conference. Giving a speech to them he blamed "U.S. Imperialism" for having "barbarically attacked civilians" in Libya ten days ago. But he also complained about the inadequate flow of information within the Warsaw Pact concerning the U.S. military action. According to Jaruzelski, Poland did not know anything about the performance of Libyan air defenses during the raid. The announcement of U.S. President Ronald Reagan that the United States had lost only one plane in the course of action could not be disputed publicly because of a lack of knowledge on the Polish side. It would have left very bad impressions in the socialist countries if "modern weapons technology supposedly could not destroy the enemy, imperialism could strike aggressively with impunity, and countries singled out for its aggression are defenseless'. General Jaruzelski certainly was aware of the sophisticated level of Libya's Soviet-supplied air defenses. But apparently he had not been given the information Soviet Air Force Marshal Koldunov had provided the East German military leadership a few days earlier. Koldunov had indicated that the Libyans had not let a group of Soviet specialists investigate the results of the U.S. strike and the performance of Libyan air defenses, not allowing them to enter their country before April 20. So Koldunov was only able to convey to the East Germans some revealing preliminary reports from Soviet advisers who had been with the Libyan military before, during and after the U.S. air attacks. Quite certainly he was not aware of East Germany's role in triggering them.
On April 4 three men, two Lebanese and one Libyan, met with two German sisters, one of them married to the Libyan, in a West Berlin apartment and built a bomb following instructions by the Libyan embassy ("People's Bureau") in East Berlin, with the knowledge of the East German Stasi. One day later, the two women carried the bomb to the West Berlin discotheque "La Belle," well known as being frequented by United States service personnel, and left before the detonation of the bomb In a heavy blast, two American soldiers and a Turkish girlfriend of one of them were killed. Over 200 people were injured, some of them to be severely handicapped and traumatized for their lifetime. 79 of the injured were Americans. The next day, a cable by the Libyan embassy in East Berlin to the Libyan intelligence headquarters in Tripoli stated that "at 1.30 a.m. this morning the execution of one of the actions took place without leaving any traces." This and other cables were intercepted and decoded by the United States government. Numerous other bombing plots against American installations and citizens in different parts of the world originated in those days in Libya. So the U.S. decided to attack Tripoli and Benghazi on April 15 and 16 from British airports and U.S. aircraft carriers and ships in the Mediterranean.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy flew four raids against five targets in Libya: barracks and airport in Tripoli, Sidi Bilal military base and barracks, and an air base in Benghazi. This operation, codenamed "El Dorado Canyon," involved "more aircraft and combat ships than Britain employed during its entire campaign in the Falklands." The results of these attacks are well known as is the public outrage they elicited in Moscow and other Warsaw Pact countries. What has not been known until now is the Soviet assessment of these raids with respect to the performance of the Libyan air defenses and Libyan-Soviet relations.
For some time, there had been ongoing conflict between the United States and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, which hosted and supported anti-Israeli terrorist groups. In early 1986, the U.S. administration had undertaken a massive naval foray in the Gulf of Sidra, north of the Libyan coast, to retaliate against Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks on the airports in Rome and Vienna in December 1985. Maneuvers were held in an area unilaterally claimed by Libya as its territorial waters and bordered off, in Qaddafi's colorful phrase, the "line of death." By deliberately crossing this line with ship and aircraft on March 24, the U.S. sought to provoke an attack by Qaddafi's forces.
The Reagan Administration hoped that a "Battle of Sidra" would teach Qaddafi a military lesson and possibly precipitate his overthrow by the Libyan military. This calculation only worked to some extent. When U.S. ships and planes entered the disputed waters and airspace, the Libyans send out patrol boats with antiship missiles towards the American ships. U.S. aircraft attacked them, sank two and damaged another severely. Many Libyan sailors were sacrificed for these almost suicidal missions. The Libyans subsequently fired Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles at the U.S. planes. The Americans responded with missiles that knocked out the Libyan radar at the launching sites, but carefully avoided targeting the missiles themselves to prevent harm to the Soviet advisers present there. No American lives, aircraft or ships were lost during this course of action.
But the "battle," with its "sailor martyrs," only strengthened Qaddafi's resolve and allowed him to step up propaganda at home. Furthermore, by not involving his air force in the skirmishes, he saved it unharmed. From the perspective of the Libyans and their Soviet advisers, the story had been that of an American "testing of Libya's air defenses." As Marshal Koldunov reported from information received by his Libyan-based Soviet advisers, there had been altogether five American aircraft in the "Libyan airspace" on March 24. Three missiles had been fired on them and the Libyans claimed they had shot all of them down. "After more precise analysis and more objective examination, Soviet specialists determined that three aircraft had been shot down," citing as a proof the alleged presence of American rescue helicopters in the area immediately after the firing of the missiles. But the Soviet report did not comment on any damage done to radar systems or the sinking of the Libyan ships and noted that "President Reagan said there had been no losses."
Koldunov's report from late April 1986 sheds an revealing light on the sophistication of the Libyan air defenses before April 15. The Libyans had acquired 300 launching pads of Soviet-made Vega, Neva and Volkhov anti-aircraft missiles. Together with 64 additional Soviet Kub and Osa-Ak and 60 French made Crotale II launching pads, there were over 400 modern anti-aircraft missiles in Libya, more than 200 around the capital of Tripoli alone. According to the Soviets, those were "more than enough to assure protection of the capital against any air attacks."
The USSR had not only provided the massive air defenses but also warned Qaddafi and his military on April 13 that, according to Soviet intelligence, an air attack on Libya was imminent. Moscow recommended to the Libyans to put their armed forces on full alert and in combat readiness. But they did not take the advice seriously and chose to ignore the warnings. So the American attacks hit them completely unprepared. Only a few anti-aircraft missiles were actually fired. The Libyans boasted to their Soviet advisers to have shot down 20 American planes, but the latter believed merely 10 to be likely. Allegedly some of the planes "crashed into the ground, but most of the aircraft went down over the Mediterranean." In the aftermath of the air raids, the Libyans were nevertheless unable to present even one downed aircraft or pieces of it. In fact, just one American plane with two pilots went down over the Mediterranean. The families of the pilots had been notified by U.S. military even before this information was publicly released by Washington. No additional casualties were reported by the United States.
Beyond reporting the facts more or less accurately, Marshal Koldunov's analysis of the Libyan performance was devastating, full of expressions of annoyance about the disrespect shown to Soviet advice and equipment. He noted that Qaddafi had ordered not to use the Soviet-delivered MiG fighters. The Soviet planes were "continuously exposed to inclement weather, which has a negative impact on their continuous combat readiness under the existing weather conditions." In contrast, the French "Mirage" aircraft owned by the Libyans were "always carefully covered and maintained," which seemed to characterize the negative Libyan "attitude toward Soviet technology." Koldunov noted "poor command and control" of Libya's forces, a "lack of a clear mission and poor interaction." The morale of the Libyan personnel in the missile defense complexes was rated as "poor." Some of the crews showed "cowardice" when "they fled their positions in panic during the air attacks." Koldunov rated level of training of the air defense forces insufficient, as a result of which the Soviet technology was not mastered. The altitude of the radar fields over the Mediterranean was not adjusted despite Soviet requests and advice. Koldunov characterized the Libyan military as "arrogant."
The April 1986 U.S. air strikes on Libya annoyed almost all the parties involved. For the Libyans, they were a shocking humiliation. In the aftermath of the attacks, Qaddafi had to struggle hard against the danger of being overthrown by a military coup or popular unrest. The Soviet Union was angry at its unreliable and presumptuous Arab partner, resistant to reasonable advice and supposedly undeserving of Soviet military technology. For the U.S., the mission was highly successful from a military perspective. The Americans were very lucky about the feeble performance of the Libyans despite their impressive air defense systems. But some of the Libyan shots deprived the United States of international support, even by the allied countries of Western Europe. In order to avoid approaching missiles, American planes over Tripoli inadvertently hit the French embassy and residential neighborhoods, killing many civilians. TV pictures of this devastation spread through the world. In the long chain of strained relations between the Reagan Administration and popular opinion in Western Europe during the 1980s, the aftermath of April 15 prompted the worst public outburst of anti-American sentiment. Although the evidence of Libyan support of terrorism gave justification to the American side, U.S. communication skills abroad were limited. In the polarized world of that time, there was no room for an international "coalition against terror."
BERND SCHAEFER is a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C. where he is currently working on U.S. foreign policy since 1969. He graduated from the University of Tuebingen (M.A.) and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (Master of Public Administration). From the University of Halle he got his Ph.D. on postwar East German history. Within PHP he coordinates the research in the East German Stasi archives.
 Die Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes (BStU), Zentralarchiv (ZA), Arbeitsgruppe des Ministers (AGM), 533, pp. 9-13 (quotes from p. 13).
 BStU, ZA, AGM, 533, pp. 16-21.
 Cf. the articles by Christiane Wirtz in Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich) from October 4, 12 and 27, 2001,
 Brian L. Davis, Qaddafi, Terrorism, and the Origins of the U.S. Attack on Libya, New York: Praeger 1990, p. 121.
 Colonel Stephen E. Anno and Lieutenant Colonel William E. Einspahr, Command Control and Communications Lessons Learned: Iranian Rescue, Falklands Conflict, Grenada Invasion, Libya Raid, Air War College Research Report, No. AU-AWC-88-043, Air University, United States Air Force, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, pp. 36-63.
 Davis, op. cit., pp. 101-105.
 BStU, ZA, AGM, 533, p. 17.
 BStU, ZA, AGM, 533, p.16.
 Ibid., p. 17.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 Anno/Einspahr, op.cit., p. 55.
 BStU, ZA, AGM, 533, p. 19.
 Ibid., p.19-20.