How Reagan Handled Qaddafi: Operation El Dorado Canyon

En route to Libya

On April 14, 1986, the United States Air Force launched Operation El Dorado Canyon, a highly controversial but ultimately successful mission. Working in conjunction with the U.S. Sixth Fleet, the Aardvarks of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing flew longer and further than any fighter combat mission in history. Their hard-hitting strikes against Col. Murammar al Qaddafi’s training installations resulted in a remarkable reduction in Libyan sponsored terrorist activity.

Background to the Attack

In the mid-1980s, the United States was locked in its decades long Cold War with the Soviet Union, its forces poised to deter either a first strike nuclear attack or an assault by massive conventional forces through the Fulda Gap into Europe.

The 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, stationed at Lakenheath Royal Air Force Base, and equipped with General Dynamics F-111F aircraft, was a key element of the NATO forces. If war came, the 48th’s long range and night low-level bombing capability would have been vital in defeating a Soviet attack. To the south, in the Mediterranean, the powerful U.S. Sixth Fleet made its presence felt engaging the Soviet Navy in a continuous game of mutual surveillance. As fate would have it, the 48th TFW and the aircraft of the Sixth Fleet would be teamed in a totally unexpected quarter against a very different kind of enemy: state-sponsored terrorism.

Western nations had been alarmed for more than a decade by the terrorist activity by Soviet-supported third-world nations. The frequency and intensity of the attacks had risen from 292 in 1970 to an annual rate of over 3,000 in 1985. In that 15 year period, more than 28,000 attacks had occurred, ranging from simple assaults to mass executions like the October 23, 1983 suicide truck bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut.

The Political Situation

The United States had maintained excellent diplomatic, business and military relations with Libya since its independence in 1951. After centuries of colonial status, it became the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional monarchy under King Idris I. Apparently a benevolent monarch, Idris sought to maintain the political status quo while still improving the lives of his people. The U.S. had established several military installations, including air bases at El Adem and Wheelus. Americans had many business interests, including investments in the forty-odd oil companies that produced most of Libya’s wealth. Purchases of oil by the United States rose to as much as $7 billion annually, and more than 2,000 U.S. citizens worked in Libya.

On September 1, 1969 a surprise coup by some junior military officers toppled Idris from his throne. A captain before the coup, Muammar al-Qaddafi soon had the rank of colonel and became chairman of Libya’s new governing body, the Revolutionary Command Council, on January 16 1970. Thereafter, U.S. relations with Libya deteriorated from one of mutual trust to covert unilateral warfare by Libyan sponsored forces.

Qaddafi expelled the United States and Great Britain from its bases on Libyan soil, and, in 1973, nationalized the oil companies. In 1977, he changed the name of the country to the Socialist People’s Libyan Jamahiriyah, and openly backed terrorist activities in the United States, Northern Island and elsewhere. In time, Libya trained about 8,000 terrorists per year, providing them with false passports, international transport on Libyan airliners and safe-houses throughout Europe. Libya’s support of terrorists surpassed all other nations except Iran; it also disbursed $100 million to Palestinian terrorists, primarily for action against Israel.

Perhaps because his attempts to unify Libya with other Arab countries were unsuccessful, Qaddafi became a profligate spender, using his oil wealth on vast civil projects and purchasing more than $12 billion in Soviet arms by 1981, far more than Libya, with its 3,500,000 population, could ever use. Despite this, the Soviet Union was wary of Qaddafi’s eccentric ways and considered Libya as “a problem for the United States.” It was indeed, as on August 19, 1981, when two VF-41 squadron Grumman F-14 Tomcats from the Nimitz were forced to use Sidewinder missiles to shoot down two aggressive Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 “Fitters.”

Military Response to Terrorism

Somewhat ironically given the history of the modern state of Israel, the history of terrorism has been traced back to 48AD, when a group of Jewish nationalists, the Zealots, began resisting Roman rule. They carried out both guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks until the fall of Masada in 70AD.

Modern Israel has used a variety of responses to terrorist attacks from its Arab neighbors, including military actions, to deter terrorism. In contrast, the United States had used diplomatic and economic means to counter terrorism, but with little success. One principal difficulty was that it was difficult to pinpoint the national source of the terrorism. Many terrorist groups were supported by more than one nation, and many terrorist incidents had several groups claim responsibility.

In 1985, two terrorist attacks heightened world tension because of the intense, sometimes gruesomely graphic, coverage by the world’s media. The first of these was the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 over Greece, on June 14, 1985. Seventeen days of hell ensued for the passengers and crew before the highjackers achieved their objective: the release of Shi’ite prisoners. One man, Robert Stetham, a U.S. sailor, was killed. The second was the takeover of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, on October 7, 1985 and the subsequent murderous treatment of its passengers and crew.

Qaddafi, perhaps feeling that the two incidents had diverted attention from his own efforts, raised the stakes by joining forces with the most notorious terrorist of the time, Abu Nidal. In November, 1985, Nidal’s operatives hijacked an EgyptAir transport; sixty were killed, most in a botched rescue attempt by an Egyptian commando team.

On December 27, 1985, Nidal’s terrorists made simultaneous attacks on airports at Rome and Vienna, with twenty passengers and four terrorists killed in the process. Qaddafi publicly acclaimed the terrorists, calling them martyrs, and applauding their heroic actions.

In January 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 207, setting U.S. policy against terrorism. He decided that a U.S. military response against Qaddafi was required, but wanted first to obtain cooperation from the Western Allies and to allow time for the removal of U.S. citizens working in Libya.

In the meantime, the Sixth Fleet began a series of maneuvers designed to keep pressure on Libya. Two and sometimes three carriers (Saratoga, America and Coral Sea) conducted “freedom of navigation” operations up to and across 32 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. This, Qaddafi’s so called “line of death,” passed across the top of the Gulf of Sidra, encompassing 3,200 square miles of the Mediterranean Sea.

On March 24 1986, the Libyans fired SA-5 missiles against two Grumman F-14A Tomcats that had turned away an intruding MiG-25. The next day, Vought A-7E Corsair II aircraft from VF-83 hit the site with HARM AGM-88A anti-radiation missiles. Qaddafi had also launched five attack vessels including a French-built Combattante II patrol boats equipped with Otomat anti-shipping missiles. These represented a genuine threat to the carriers, and the Sixth Fleet response was lethal. Two vessels were destroyed by Harpoon missiles, one from a Grumman A-6 and one from the cruiser Yorktown. Intruders also sank a Nanuchka-II Class corvette.

The tension further increased on April 2, 1986, when a bomb exploded in TWA Flight 840, flying over Greece. Four Americans, including a young mother and her nine-month old baby girl, were killed when they were sucked from the cabin to fall 15,000 feet. The atrocity was accentuated by autopsy reports that indicated all four were alive until they hit the ground.

Three days later, a bomb was placed near the dance floor of the La Belle Discotheque in Berlin; three were killed, including two U.S. servicemen, Sergeants Kenneth T. Ford and James E. Goins. Seventy-nine were injured. Three terrorist groups claimed responsibility for the bomb, but the United States and West Germany independently announced “incontrovertible” evidence that Libyans were responsible for the bombing. President Ronald Reagan decided that it was time to act.

Plans Change

As tensions were building, the 48th TFW had developed a series of more than thirty plans for delivering a punitive blow to Libya. Most of them involved a flight across France by six aircraft to strike selected military targets. Surprise was assumed, and the small number of aircraft involved made it probable that the bombers would be in and out before the Libyan defenses were alerted. Later, when speculation in the media lessened the probability of surprise, the attack plans were changed to include suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) support packages from the Navy in the form of Corsair IIs and Grumman EA-6B Prowlers, as well as General Dynamics EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft. This began some vitally needed liaison between the Air Force and the Navy that would prove essential when the actual mission was flown. No practice flying would be conducted, however.

By April, all the 48th’s plans were obsolete. Continuous media coverage, apparently fueled by leaks from knowledgeable sources, had rendered surprise almost impossible. And while Great Britain would ultimately stand by the United States, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approving the use of British bases to launch the attack, other friends were not so stout hearted. The dual fear of terrorist reprisals and loss of business caused Germany, France, Italy and Spain to refuse to cooperate. This forced the F-111s to navigate around France and Spain, fly through the straits of Gibraltar, and then eastward across the Mediterranean until in a position to attack. It meant a grueling round-trip of 6,400 miles and 13 hours, with eight to twelve in-flight refuelings en route. Given that the standard NATO sortie for the F-111 was about two hours, the mission placed a tremendous strain on the crews and upon the complex avionic systems that were the heart of the aircraft.

Higher headquarters determined that it would be a joint Air Force/Sixth Fleet operation, and selected not one but five targets, three near Tripoli and two across the Gulf of Sidra near Benghazi. Eighteen F-111s were assigned to targets near Tripoli, while the Navy was to hit the targets in the Benghazi area. The Navy was also to provide suppression of enemy air defense support to the F-111Fs.

Overall command of the operation was given to Vice Admiral Frank Kelso, who commanded the Sixth Fleet. The Navy would probably have preferred to handle the entire task, but the Saratoga had departed for home, leaving only the America and the Coral Sea on station, and they did not have the capability to hit all five targets in a single attack. Further, Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt that the F-111s would add both an element of surprise and a new axis of attack.

Crowe’s confidence was well placed. The F-111Fs of the 48th were special birds, equipped with two Pratt & Whitney TF-30 P-100 turbo fan engines of 25,100 pounds of thrust each and the highly classified AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack bombing equipment carried in the bomb bay on a rotating cradle. Pave Tack consisted of a Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) camera and a Laser Designator. The equipment enabled the F-111 crew to see the target in the dark, or through light fog or dust obscurations, but not through heavy dust and smoke. When the target was seen, it was designated by the energy of a laser beam. The 2,000 pound GBU-10 Paveway II Laser Guided Bomb (LGB) tracked the laser to the illuminated target. Unlike the sophisticated design of air to surface missiles such as the Shrike or the HARM, LGBs are standard “iron bombs” fitted with laser guidance modification kits. The kits contain the guidance unit, which tracks the laser beam, and maneuverable control fins which alter the otherwise ballistic fall of the bomb to guide it directly to the target. In addition to its accuracy, Pave Tack imparted a limited stand-off capability, one that required both skill and practice. The F-111F would approach the target at low level and high speed to acquire the target. At the appropriate distance, an abrupt pull-up was made, and the bombs were automatically lobbed at the target. A hard-turn was made away from the bomb’s path, but the target continued to be designated with laser energy so that the bomb could guide accurately. From pull-up to bomb-impact took about forty-five seconds. As events unfolded, the Pave Tack equipment would be crucial to the mission’s success.

The Attack Begins

At 17:36 GMT, the first of 24 Aardvarks rolled from Lakenheath, the first U.S. bomber attack from England since World War II. The tanker force was launched almost simultaneously with the F-111s, four of which joined up on their respective “mother-tankers” in radio silence, flying such tight formation that radar-controllers would see only the signature of the tankers on their screens. Before the first refueling, six F-111Fs and one EF-111A would break off and return. Flight from Lands End, England, would take place beyond the control of any international authority, operating at 26,000 feet and at speeds up to 450 knots, under the “With Due Regard” navigation protocol.

To save time and ease navigation, the tankers were to accompany the fighters to and from the target area. The KC-10s, called in from Barksdale, March and Seymour Johnson, were refueled in turn by KC-135s, which were stationed at RAF Mildenhall and RAF Fairford. One important aspect of this combat mission should be noted: several women were included in the tanker crews.

What had been intended to be a small, top secret mission had changed drastically. Instead of six strike aircraft operating alone, there were now eighteen USAF strike aircraft and four Grumman EF-111F electronic warfare aircraft from the 42nd Electronic Combat Squadron based at RAF Upper Heyford.

The increase in the force size overturned the judgement of the leaders of the 48th, including its commander, then Colonel Sam W. Westbrook, III. With the possibility of surprise gone, the 48th felt that the extra aircraft meant too much time over the target, particularly the nine aircraft assigned to attack the Azziziyah Barracks. The Libyan defenses, already on the alert, would have time to concentrate on the later waves of attackers.

However, those in higher headquarters felt differently. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was an advocate of a larger strike, and he was supported in this by General Charles A. Gabriel, Chief of Staff, General Charles Donnelly, USAFE Commander and his deputy for operations, Major General David C. Forgan. All three felt that the additional aircraft increased the possibility of doing substantial damage to the targets. Major General Thomas G. McInerney, the Third Air Force Commander, agreed with his pilots, but could not overrule the decision. (It should be noted here that the very real fear of personal retaliation by terrorist action has kept secret the names of those who flew the mission–and survived.)

The Sixth Fleet was attacking with forces from two carriers. The Coral Sea launched six McDonnell Douglas F/A 18 Hornets for strike support and eight A-6E for the attack. The America launched six A-7Es, six A-6Es and an EA-6B. There were in addition, F-14s airborne to protect the fleet, along with Grumman E-2Cs and EA-3Bs.

The combination of leaks and aggressive reporting had heightened the alert status of Soviet Union vessels monitoring both ship and aircraft movement. The Libyan defenses had more guns and anti-aircraft equipment than anywhere in Central Europe and were very sophisticated. They were also acutely aware that an attack was coming. In a forecast of later events in the Gulf War, NBC had sent reporter Steve Delaney to Tripoli, to cover the expected attack.

The difficulties implicit in the mission were great. Most of the crews had never been in combat before; most had never refueled from a KC-10, much less doing so at night in radio silence. (They did have the advantage of highly experienced flight leaders, many veterans of combat in Vietnam.) They were flying the longest and most demanding combat mission in history against alerted defenses, and doing it in coordination with a naval force more than 3,000 miles distant.

Timing was absolutely critical, and the long route and multiple refuelings increased the possibility of substantial error. The Air Force and Navy attacks had to be simultaneous to maximize any remaining element of surprise and to get strike aircraft in and out as quickly as possible.

The difficulty of the mission was greatly compounded by very rigorous rules of engagement that stipulated that targets had to be identified through multiple sources, and that the mission-critical F-111 systems had to be operating before an attack could be made. Any mission critical system failure required an immediate abort, even if an F-111 was in the last seconds of its bomb run. At about midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, six elements of three F-111Fs each bore down on Tripoli. The fatigue of the already-long mission was forgotten as the pilots monitored their terrain-following equipment, and the Weapon Systems Officers prepared for the attack, checking the navigation, looking for the targets and the off-set aiming points, and, most important of all, checking to ensure that the vital equipment was working.

The first three attacking elements, code named “Remit”, “Elton” and “Karma” were tasked to hit Qaddafi’s headquarters at the Azziziyah Barracks. This included a command and control center. It happened that his residence and the Bedouin style tent he often used were located here, but these were not specific targets. Colonel Westbrooks assessment that nine aircraft were to many to put against the Azziziyah Barracks was correct. Only two of the nine aircraft got bombs on target, but these would prove to be tremendously important in the long run.

One element, “Jewel,” struck the Sidi Balal terrorist training camp where there was a main complex, a secondary academy, a Palestinian training camp and a maritime academy under construction. “Jewel’s” attack was successful, taking out the swimming pool where naval commandos trained despite smoke obscuring the laser designators.

Two elements “Puffy” and “Lujac” were armed with Mk. 82 Snakeye retarded 500 pound bombs, and they struck the Tripoli airport, destroying three Ilyushin IL-76 transports (not unlike the C-141) and damaging three others as well as destroying a Boeing 727 and a Fiat G. 222.

The F-111 attacks were supported both by EF-111A Ravens and Navy A-7s, A-6Es and an EA-6B, using AAGM-88 HARM and AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles.

Similar defense suppression support, this time including McDonnell F/A-18 Hornets, was provided across the Gulf of Sidra where Navy A-6E aircraft were to attack the Al Jamahiriyah Barracks at Benghazi, and to the east, the Benina airfield. Curiously, the Sixth Fleet carriers made their run-in to the attack without detection by Soviet naval surveillance, only to be reported by an aircraft chartered by NBC. Other Navy and Marine aircraft included F-14s for fleet defense, Grumman E-2C Hawkeye’s for command and control, Lockheed S-3 Viking anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Grumman KA-6 tankers and Sikorsky CH-3 Sea King helicopters.

The Air Force F-111Fs would spend only 11 minutes in the target area, with what at first appeared to be less than totally successful results. Anti-aircraft and SAM opposition from the very first-confirmed that the Libyans were ready. News of the raid was broadcast while it was in progress.

Sadly, one aircraft, Karma 52, was lost, almost certainly due to a SAM for there were reports that the aircraft was on fire in the air. (The possibility of an inadvertent flight into the water was raised, but soon discounted.). Captain (Major select) Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Paul Lorence lost their lives. Major Ribas-Dominicci’s body was recovered and returned to the United States three years later.

Meanwhile, across the Gulf of Sidra, the Navy’s Intruders damaged the Al Jamahiriyah Barracks and destroyed four MiG-23, two Fokker F-27s and two Mil Mi-8 helicopters.

As each F-111 aircraft exited the target area, they gave a coded transmission, with “Tranquil Tiger” indicating success and “Frostee Freezer” indicating that the target was not hit. Then the crews, flushed with adrenaline from the attack, faced a long flight home, with more in-flight refuelings, the nagging knowledge that one aircraft was down and the incredible realization that the raid’s results were already being broadcast on Armed Forces radio. The news included comments from both Secretary Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz. One F-111F had to divert to Rota Air Base in Spain, because of an engine overheat. The mission crew was brought home to Leakenheath within two hours of landing at Rota, but, the aircraft recovery crew, somewhat to their surprise, were royally entertained by members of the Spanish Air Force.

USAF post-strike analysis of the mission initially gave rise to some discomfort on the performance of the F-111s, even though all three targets were struck successfully. The difficulty rose from that fact that only four of the 18 attacking aircraft had dropped successfully. Six F-111aircraft were forced to abort due to aircraft difficulties or the rules of engagement. Seven aircraft simply missed their targets and one aircraft was lost. There had been some collateral damage, one bomb landing (appropriately enough to some, given the circumstances) near the French embassy. The combined Air Force/Navy raid resulted in one-hundred thirty civilian casualties with thirty-seven killed, including, it was claimed, the adopted daughter of Qaddafi.

The discomfort at the results was heightened by the initial world-wide adverse response of the press against the attack. Yet events were soon to prove that the raid had been a genuine success, and as time passed, its beneficial effects would be generally recognized.

Libya, of course, protested about the American terrorist bombing, but received only muted support from its fellow Arab nations. The Soviet Union was curiously non-judgmental in its comments. More important, it was obvious that Qaddafi, who had backed the bombing of so many other people, was terribly shaken when the bombs fell near him. Although definitely not the object of an assassination attempt, his house had been damaged and flying debris had reportedly injured his shoulder.

He disappeared from the scene for 24 hours, inspiring some speculation that he was dead. When he did surface on television, he was obviously deeply disturbed, lacking his usual Mussolinesque arrogance.

More importantly, the following months would see a dramatic decrease in the number of Libyan-sponsored, anti-American terrorist events. The “Red Army Faction”, one of the groups that had claimed responsibility for the La Belle Disco bombing, reduced its activities from 20 attacks before El Dorado Canyon, to zero afterward. Two other belligerent revolutionary groups, “Black September” and the “Arab Revolutionary Brigades” dropped from a combined total of 20 attacks before to two after.

Almost equally important, the drop in Libyan sponsored raids was not off-set by an increase in activity from other terrorist groups, whose activity remained virtually unchanged.

Success versus Rewards

As time passed, it became evident that the F-111s of the 48th TFW, ably assisted by tankers and other Air Force and Navy units, had achieved a signal success. Ironically, that success was not to receive much formal recognition. Perhaps conscious that the many decorations awarded after the invasion of Grenada had incurred some public criticism, there was slight muted for the aircrews of the 48th. The Air Force declined a nomination for a Presidential Unit Citation, although the Navy awarded it a Meritorious Unit Citation. This unusual situation, along with an excellent account of the raid, is covered in Colonel Robert Venkus’ book Raid on Qaddafi.

The flight crew of Karma 52, Major Ribas-Dominicci and Captain Lorence, were put in for a Silver Star. All flight-leaders were put in for a Distinguished Flying Cross and all surviving crew members were put in for an Air Medal. Higher headquarters disagreed with these claims. Two of the flight leaders, whose bombs were placed on the target, received Distinguished Flying Crosses. All other participating crew members, including those who were lost, received an Air Medal.


Operation El Dorado Canyon was carried out in the finest tradition of the Air Force. Its crews and aircraft were pushed beyond the absolute limits of their capability, and they none-the-less prevailed. The effect of El Dorado Canyon went far beyond Libya, but registered with the entire terrorist world.

It could not have done so without the superb aircrews of the 48th TFW, and the excellent support it received from other Air Force units and from the Sixth Fleet.

Perhaps almost as important as the mission itself was the fact that the F-111 problems that surfaced during El Dorado Canyon were ironed out. During Desert Shield the F-111F Pave Tack system flew more missions and destroyed more targets than either the McDonnell Douglas F-15s or the Lockheed F-117s.

6 responses to “How Reagan Handled Qaddafi: Operation El Dorado Canyon

  1. On April 14th, I was sleeping in a Tunisian AF barracks at Sfax AB, Tunisia, one of two USAF pilots assigned to train Tunisian pilots in the F-5. We were awakened by Tunisians running around and going on alert. It was the Eldorado Canyon strike package they observed going by on their radar. As U.S. allies (so to speak) the Tunsians were concerned that Libya might retaliate against them. It certainly changed things for us. We didn’t fly for several weeks as the Tunisians went on full alert.

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