Operations Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon
v.2.0 January 20, 2002
Mr. Cooper's website, Webruler.com
Written by Ravi Rikhye
Eldorado Canyon may well hold two records for a military operation. One, shortest time in combat, 12 minutes. Two, highest ratio of supporting to attacking aircraft, approximately 5:1.
In March, 1986, three US carrier groups engaged in maneuvers off the Libyan coast. During these maneuvers, Libyan and American forces came into conflict several times, with the US destroying one SAM base and sinking a Libyan missile boat and a corvette. On April 5 a bomb exploded in a Berlin nightclub favored by American service personnel; one American and one civilian were killed.
The US retaliated with Operation Eldorado Canyon.
The operation was launched from UK bases and the 6th Fleet on April 15, 1986. The airstrike was delivered starting at 0200 April 16, 1986. Five targets were attacked, the first four because the US believed them to be associated with Libyan terrorist operations, and the last for force protection.
US aircraft included:
- Aziziyh Barracks, Tripoli
- Military facilities at Tripoli International Air Port
- Side Bilal Base
- Jamahirayah Military Barracks, Benghazi
- Benina Air Base, SE of Benghazi
18 FB-111 long-range strike aircraft
6 FB-111 airborne spares which returned after the first refueling
5 EF-111 EW aircraft
28 KC-10/KC-135 aerial tankers
14 A-6E light bombers
12 A-7E/F-18 SEAD
"Several" F-14 CAP
In addition, several helicopters were committed for SAR, and 50-80 more aircraft were airborne near the USS America and USS Coral Sea, 150 miles offshore, from which the naval aircraft flew. We have no identification from where these aircraft came. As and upper limit, the total could have approached 200 aircraft out of which 32 were the strike component, giving the 5:1 ratio mentioned above. The US has been criticized for this ratio, but considering the political disaster should US pilot or two fall into Libyan hands, the US was right to overinsure. In the event, though Libyan air defenses were supposed to be on maximum alert, not one shot was fired by the defense till the aircraft had departed, and this alone is proof enough the US "no-risk" policy was justified.
The US denied the real objective of the strike was to kill the Libyan leader and we may probably accept this. Unless the US had an agent among those physically surrounding the Libyan leader at all times, and unless the agent had a means of communicating the Libyan leader's whereabouts to the US, the Americans could not have where he would be.
The mission was complicated by the requirement the attack be made at night, and by French refusal to open its airspace to the FB-111/EF-111 taking off from Britain. This added several 2600 miles to their flight, perhaps 5-6 flying hours, making the sortie an exceptionally arduous one. Four air refueling were required. One FB-111 was lost due to non-combat related causes.
The operation El Dorado Canyon was actually the second part of a much larger
operation prepared by the Pentagon for operations against Libya in the
spring of 1986. The first part was the Operation Prairie Fire.
Operation "Prairie Fire" was planned by Pentagon already sometimes in autumn
1985. That this was the case can also be seen from the fact, that at the
time the USS Coral Sea CV-43 went to sea for her scheduled six-month cruise
(1 October 1985), in an ad-hoc action, a transfer of an EA-6B unit to the
ship had to be organized.
Namely, the CVW-13, which was to go on board the USS Coral Sea, was a new outfit. As Coral Sea could not carry F-14 Tomcats, the carrier got four units of F/A-18A Hornets; namely: VFA-131 Wildcats and VFA-132 Privateers(two first operational USN Hornet units), as well as VMFA-314 Black Knights and VMFA-323 Death Rattlers (two first operational USMC Hornet units). In addition, the wing has got the VA-55 Sea Horses squadron, equipped with A-6E/KA-6Ds, the VAW-127, with E-2C Hawkeyes, and HS-17 Neptune's Riders, with SH-3H helicopters. What was lacking was an VAQ-squadron, a unit for electronic countermeasures support, clearly badly needed if any operations
againt the powerful Libyan air defences were to be undertaken. As no other
unit was available at the time, the VAQ-135 Rooks was taken from the CVW-1
(AB), which just arrived back in the USA from a cruise aboard the USS
America (CV-66; this ship was scheduled to start the next cruise on 10 March
1986). This, in turn, caused another reshufle, as now the USS America was
without any EA-6B unit; consequently, the USN "borrowed" the VMAQ-2 Playboys
In the Mediterranean, there was already the USS Saratoga (CV-60; started the
cruise on 10 August 1985), which was in October 1985 involved in the
well-known Achille Lauro affair. In addition, the CVBGs of these carriers
were then also reinforced by the USS Yorktown (CG-49), the second
operational "Aegis"-class cruiser.
The plan for Prairie Fire was simple: already the operations of the USN in
the Gulf of Syrte were considered to be likely to cause some kind of Libyan
reaction, which then could be declared for a "provocation" that would offer
a reason for the US to strike back. Nothing wrong in itself, as the Libyans
were likely to fire at US aircraft and ships even if these would operate far
outside internationally recognized Libyan territorial waters. Additional
task was to secure more data about the SA-5 system. Another target of the
Prairie Fire was to send a strong signal to Tripolis, that its adventures in
Chad - where Libya started a whole all-out invasion in early 1986 - would
also not be accepted without any response.
Nothing special happened by March 1986, as the USN apparently decided to
wait for the third carrier, the USS America, together with the battleship
USS Iowa (BB-62), to arrive, in order to have more firepower. This was
seemingly plausible, as USN pilots needed some more training, and at the
time the LARAF was trully a powerfull force; it consisted of dozens of
SAM-sites, while there were also two squadrons of MiG-23MS, two each with
Mirage 5D, Mirage F.1AD and F.1ED, and also - so the intelligence from that
time - two squadrons with 55 MiG-25PD/RBs. Actually, as the Soviet report
posted above shows, there were no less but 80 MiG-25s in Libya, and, despite
embargoes, the serviceability of Libyan Mirages was apparently very good!
Anyway, some first operations along the Libyan coast were flown already in
late February 1986, and during the following 32 days, USN fighters
continuously entered the airspace south of the "Line of Death", declared by
Ghadaffi. This line connected Benghasi and Tripolis, and declared the waters
and airspace south of it as Libyan; the Libyan leader threatened to shot
down or destroy any US ship or aircraft crossing that line. During these 32
days, the LARAF dispatched a number of fighters towards the US CVBGs, but
these were always intercepted by Tomcats and Hornets (there are
nice photos of F/A-18s and MiG-25PDs "in formation"). Even some Soviet
Tu-16s flew around several times, and had to be "escorted away".
Nevertheless, nothing happened until the noon (local time) of 24 March 1986,
when two MiG-25PDs were intercepted by two F-14As of the VF-33, which
belonged to the newly arrived USS America. One of the Foxbats peeled away,
while the other did some threatening maneuvers towards Tomcats. The
situation finally escalated so far, that Cdr. "Bucchi" Haimgartner acquired
the Libyan several times with his AWG-9-FCS, hanging continuously at
Libyan's six o'clock, and finally requesting a permission to fire. Until
this permission came, however, the Foxbat accelerated away. While this was
going on, Tomcats apparently crossed the "Line of Death", closing to some
40km from the Libyan coast (still outside the territorial waters) and this
was the moment when first SA-5s was fired.
The first SAM-launch was registered by the Americans around 13:52hrs, from a
SAM-site near Syrte. The SA-5 is a huge weapon, not especially maneuvreable
and dangerous only for slower and less maneuvreable aircraft. It couldn't
hit any of F-14s, and if anything was hit or shot down by it, then it was
the Libyan MiG-25; there are no reports about this happening, but the
Libyans claimed three US aircraft as shot down by SA-5s (interestingly, the
Soviets believed them; see the attachment below). Shortly after, two
additional SA-5s were fired, but both were jammed by an EA-6B, which
meanwhile started to support Tomcats. Additionally, the Libyan Navy
dispatched several ships into the Gulf of Syrte, in order to attack US ships
for which it was believed to operate there.
Anyway, around 19:00hrs, the CVW-17 started to launch the first
counterattack, dispatching several AGM-88A-armed A-7Es of the VA-83, a
number of AGM-84A- and Rockeye-armed A-6Es of the VA-85, and at least two
EA-6B fo the VAQ-132. The USS America followed with A-6Es of the VA-34, and
Coral Sea with Intruders from VA-85. Attackers were suppored by a number of
E-2Cs, F-14As, F/A-18As, and KA-6Ds.
First to strike were - around 19:26hrs - two A-6Es from the VA-55, which
found Waheed, a Libyan Combatante-IIG fast missile craft. The ship was first
disabled by a single AGM-84, and then destroyed by the other Intruder, which
blasted it by a load of Rockeye CBUs.
Some 40 minutes later, at least two F-14As of the VF-102, accompanied by
F/A-18s, A-7Es, and EA-6Bs, which remained low, closed upon the SA-5-site
near Syrte and caused it to activate and fire. As soon as the radar turned
on, Corsairs launched several HARMs, and then the whole formation distanced.
It is unknown if any hits were scored, but subsequently, Intruders of the
VA-85 and VA-55 had a free space to attack several other Libyan missile
boats. Around 21:55hrs, two A-6Es of VA-55 attacked a Nanuchka-class
corvette which closed upon the cruiser USS Yorktown. The corvette was hit by
a single AGM-84A, and started to burn fiercely (she was subsequently towed
back to Benghasi). Simultaneously, USS Yorktown fired two Harpoons and
disabled another Combatante IIG boat.
Around midnight, Libyans fired several SA-2s and SA-5s again, and this time
Corsairs and Intruders responded in force: A-7Es of VA-83 closed - for
example - to only 25km of the Libyan coast, and whole buntch of AGM-88s was
fired, disabling several Liban radars, including at least two Squaire Pairs,
used for the guidance of SA-5s. The Americans suffered no losses, although
at least three more SA-5s were fired by the site near Syrte, and one SA-2
from another site, stationed near Benghazi.
At 07:30hrs next morning, finally, Ean Mara ("416"), another Libyan
Nanuchka-class corvette, was intercepted by A-6Es of the VA-55s, and blasted
by Rockeye CBUs, dropped by an Intruder which closed at a level of only 30m.
The ship was immediately disabled, and subsequently sunk by an AGM-84 fired
by an A-6E from VA-85 from a distance of 25km. Although this attack was
flown inside the range of SA-5s, the Libyans have not responded by any
means: probably also because they never detected the US planes, flying at
levels under 30 meters.
Operation Prairie Fire was terminated at 08:30hrs, by which time the
Libyans suffered a loss of two Combatante IIG fast attack crafts, and one
Nanuchka-corvette, while another Nanuchka was disabled, but could be
salvaged. The Americans also believed to have destroyed two Square Pair
radars, and several other SAM-fire control systems, foremost Fansongs, used
for SA-2 guidance. Although aircraft flew closer, USN ships never approached
to closer than 74km from the Libyan coast.
After the "Prairie Fire", the situation developed as follows: USS Saratoga
was at the end of her scheduled cruise, and was sent back to the USA. USS
Coral Sea was to remain for a while longer in the western Med, visiting the
port of Malaga, while the USS America was sent to Florence, in Italy. USS
Yorktown and the destroyer USS Caron were at visit in some Spanish port as
On 2 April 1986, however, at least two agents of the Libyan secret service
and two other persons (including one German woman - all four were sentenced
to 15 years in a process which ended in December 2001), planted a bomb in
the West Berlin's discoteque "La Belle", which was frequented by US GIs. One
American and a young Turkish woman were killed.
Initial US reaction was to send USS Enteprise from the Indian Ocean and the
Red Sea through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean (the first
nuclear-powered ship to pass Suez). Hardly four days after this move was
announced, the TV-footage of the huge carrier passing the Canal was shown:
something particularly unusual at the time.
However, what the whole USS Enterprise CVBG did for the next several days in
front of the Libya remains unknown. Known is only, that the ship and several
officers were decorated for their services "during operations off the Libyan
coast", before the carrier and its whole escort disappeared somewhere into
Certain is only, that after the attack on La Belle, the started to prepare a
much more powerful reaction, this time to include a strike by USAF
fighter-bombers as well. Actually, such solution was already considered for
Prairie Fire, when six F-111Fs from the 48th TFW, based at Lakenheath AB (in
England) were to take part. But, the idea was dropped at the time, just like
another one, calling for the participation of the F-117As (don't forget that
the first unit - the 4450th TG, at Tonopah AFB - was already operational
with the type at that time). A team from the 48th TFW planned an attack with
six Aardvarks, considering the whole operation as a kind of a test, which
would finally give some taste of combat to that version and the crews. The
higher command, however, wanted more F-111Fs to take part, despite several
warnings that that would probably not function. Such warnings were ignored,
just like the fact, that the attack could also be flown by A-6Es from USN
carriers, which were equipped to carry and use LGBs - just like F-111Fs.
Anyway, the USAF started intensive operations off Libya already on 10 April,
dispatching C-135Cs of the 4950tzh TW and RC-135V/Ws of the 55th SRW to
Mildenhall, in England, and Helenikon, on Crete, and then sending them to
flights over the Med. Additionaly, USN EP-3As and EA-3Bs of the VQ-2s,
stationed at Rota, in Spain, flew a series of ELINT/SIGINT-missions along
the Libyan coast. Finally, also SR-71As of the 4th Detachment 1st SRW (also
stationed at Mildenhall) flew at least one mission over Libya in the next
few days. The Libyans haven't responded with any SAMs or interceptors.
Meanwhile, at different bases in Englad, a huge armada of KC-10A and KC-135
tankers was concentrated, officially in advance of some NATO-exercise, actua
lly in preparation for a larger attack on Libya, called Operation El Dorado
EL DORADO CANYON
This operation was initiated on the late afternoon of 14 April, when first
planes started from bases in England towards Libya:
- 17:45hrs six KC-135s from Mildenhall,
- 18:00hrs ten KC-10As from Mildenhall,
- 18:10hrs - 18:36hrs 24 F-111F, 16 KC-135 and KC-10A from Lakenheath,
- 18:12hrs single KC-10A from Fairford,
- 18:13-18:40hrs three KC-10A and two KC-135As from Fairford,
- 19:34 - 20:55hrs three KC-10As and five EF-111A of the 42nd ECS/20th TFW
from Upper Heyford.
Six of 24 F-111Fs acted as spares for the case of some problems on other
Aardwaarks, and were to return back to England after the first refuelling.
Two of five EF-111A were also planned to act as spares, should any of the
remaining three develop any problems early during the flight, and were to
return after the first refuelling from tankers. Instead, only one returned,
while the second spare continued with the strike package. All six spare
F-111Fs and the single EF-111A returned back to their bases between 20:30
Meanwhile, the strike package continued towards Tripolis around the Iberian
Peninsula; the first refuelling operation was initiated around 19:40hrs off
the Spanish coast, the second followed SW of Portugal, the third east of
Gibraltar and north of Algier, and the last east of Tunis. Obviously, this
huge US formation was not detected by any of the Soviet ships operating in
the Med, nor by any of their listening posts in the area, even if the
Soviets knew that the USAF was preparing some kind of attack. Supposedly,
the formation of F-111s was detected only by the Maltese, which socialist PM
Karmenu Mifsaud Bonnici then tried to warn Ghaddafi about the American
attack - in blatant violation of the Maltese constitution, which imposed
strict neutrality. Apparently, the Libyans ignored this warning, just like
they ignored earlier Soviet warnings.
THE NAVAL STRIKE
As the F-111Fs neared Libya, the carriers USS America and USS Coral Sea
started to ready for their part of strikes. Around 22:20, they finally
turned into the wind, and then launched a total of three E-2Cs and six
F-14s, which were to - together with at least one EP-3A from Rota - to cover
the USAF strike. Around 22:35, these planes were in the air some 200km north
of Tripolis, while two other Tomcats and at least two EA-6Bs - launched at
22:30 - deployed towards Benghazi, to cover the USN strike.
Between 22:45 and 23:15hrs, 18 F/A-18As of the VFA-131, VFA-132, VMFA-351
und VFMA-323, all armed with HARMs, were launched from USS Coral Sea,
together with eight A-6Es and one EA-6B. The USS American simultaneously
launched six A-7Es of the VA-46 and VA-72, armed with HARMs and Shrikes, six
A-6Es, one EA-6B and eight F-14As more. The whole operation was controlled
by a single E-3A of the 960th AWCS/552nd AWCW, while at least one RC-135E
also monitored the Libyan radio communications.
The plan for El Dorado Canyon was far more simplier than its execution. As
first USN planes were to attack SAM-sites around Benghazi, oppening the way
for A-6Es from USS Coral Sea to attack the Benina AB. Simultaneously, planes
from USS America were to strike the al-Jamahuriyah barracks, also near
Benghazi. There was - at least not officially - no coordination with USAF
strike, but an EC-135E of the 7th ACCS was in the area as well, probably
acting as some sort of airborne command post. Certainly, USN stirkes were to
draw the attention of the Libyans to another side, while F-111F would do
The attack against targets in Benghazi area was initiated around 23;45,
when - supported by heavy jamming from EA-6Bs - Hornets fired a number of
AGM-88 HARMs against active Libyan radars and SAM-sites from long range.
This was followed by more HARMs - as well as some AGM-45 Shrikes - fired by
Corsairs. Reportedly, up to 30 missiles were fired in less than three
minutes, and around 23:49, the RC-135E intercepted the
communication between one of Libyan SAM-sites and its superiors, that they
are under "murderous" fire and that "all radars are destroyed".
In the wake of the SEAD-assets, and the salvo of ARMs, USN bombers -
supported by additional EA-6Bs - approached their targets. Exactly at 00:01,
Intruders of the VA-55 crossed the Libyan coast. Guided by their Norden
AN/APQ-148 radars and TRAMs, and closely escorted by EA-6Bs, they found the
Benina AB, and plastered it with Mk.82s and Mk.83s. Four MiG-23s were
instantly confirmed destroyed and 12 were either badly damaged (probably
w/os) or disabled, two Fokker F.27s and two Mi-8s were also destroyed.
Simultaneously, A-6Es from USS America obliterated the al-Jamahuriyah
barracks with Mk.82s and Mk.83s, destroying most of larger buildings. At
least 80 Libyans were said to have been killed in these two strikes, and the
inflicted damage was heavy. The USN suffered no losses, but two Intruders
aborted the attack because of technical problems; by 00:13 all aircraft were
outside the Libyan airspace, and by 01:58 all were back on their carriers.
THE USAF STRIKE
At the moment the break down of the Libyan air defence near Benghazi was
reported, the 18 F-111Fs were short of entering the Libyan airspace,
escorted closely by four EF-111As and - from a distance - by several F-14As,
flying at a level of 60 meters, and a speed of 600km/h.
Shortly after entering the Libyan airspace, first problems appeared,
foremost caused by strict RoEs, which permitted no F-111s to continue the
mission if not all three targeting and navigational systems would be fully
functional. This decision was to assure that no civilians were to be hit.
Because of this, two F-111Fs aboredt when already inside the Libyan
Anyway, remaining F-111Fs crossed the beach around 00:01hrs, west of
Tripolis, accelerated to 800km/h and then the formation parted in three
sections in order to attack three different targets:
- Azziziyah barracks (with the Ghaddafi's HQ),
- military side of Tripolis International,
- terrorist training camp at Sidi Billal.
After activating their APQ-130 radars, three other F-111Fs had to abort, due
to additional technical problems. Despite this, the attackers were obviously
still not detected, and the strike caused a surprise. The Libyan air
defences haven't reacted so far: actually, the whole Tripolis was still in
The first to attack was the Remit-section, dropping AN/AVQ-26 Pave
Tack-guided 907kg heavy GBU-10 LGBs against Azziziyah barracks, at a speed
of 834km/h and level of some 150 meters:
- Remit 01 dropped all four bombs and these landed some 50 meters in front
of Ghaddafi's HQ,
- Remit 02 aborted at the last moment due to some technical problem,
- Remit 03 scored direct hits by all four GBU-10s, and its Pave Tack video
showed also the first two SAMs fired at US planes over Tripolis on that
night. These were to cause immense problems to the following Karma-section.
- Karma 51 faced tremendous AAA, which disrupted the crew and the Pave Tack
system; the crew failed to notice the loss of the lock, which caused four
GBU-10s to miss by some 2.700 meters and damage Austrian, French, Iranian
and Swiss embassies;
- what exactly happened to Karma 52 remains unclear: the plane apparently
dropped its bombs precisely, and flew with the others in formation for some
30kms away from Tripolis, when other crews - and, reportedly, the crew of
one or two Tomcats which waited for them - noticed a fireball over the sea
surface at 00:10. There are different theories for the loss; including AAA,
SAM, and even a fratricide shot from one of F-14s. Certainly, the crew,
Capt. Ribas-Dominici, and Capt. Lorence, was killed. Autopsy of
Ribas-Dominici (which body was returned by Libyans years later), showed that
he drowned, possibly still inside the capsule (the F-111F has no ejection
seats, but the whole cockpit is ejected from the rest of the plane).
The third section, Jewel, then approached Sidi Bilal, meeting only light
resistance, and hitting with all bombs except that of the last plane, which
missed by some 40 meters due to dust and smoke from earlier hits.
Tripoli International was hit by Puffy and Lijac-Sections, which dropped 24
Mk.82s with Snakeye retarding fins per plane, from a level of only 70
meters. Despite coming so close to their targets, only bombs from one plane
hit something, obliterating three Il-76MDs (there is a well known gun-camera
footage of these hits), and damaging two others, as well as some
No other US or Libyan aircraft were hit. Around 01:00hrs, first F-111Fs
reached the waiting KC-10As off the Tunisian coast. Around 03:15, one F-111F
landed at Rota, in Spain, with an overheating engine. The others returned to
Lakenheath, Upper Heyford, Fairford and Mildenhall between 05:45 and
06:30hrs local time.
The post-strike recce collection was already in process, however: between
01:30 and 03:20, a total of three KC-135Qs and two KC-10As started from
Mildenhall, in order to support one SR-71, which started at 04:00, and other
which followed around 05:15hrs (this was the first time that two Black Birds
were to fly a joint mission).
Both SR-71As thundered over Tripolis and Benghazi, and their flights were
reported by the Libyans and the Soviets as the "3rd and 4th American
strikes". Strangely, neither the Libyans nor the Soviets reported any
"additional attacks", despite the SR-71s flying more recon missions over
Libya again on 16 and 17 April, because the photographs from earlier
missions were spoiled by the bad weather....
RESULTS OF THE EL DORADO CANYON
Recce-photos shot by SR-71s, showed a destruction of six Il-76s, one Boeing
737 and one G.222 at Tripoli, together with between four and 16 MiG-23s,
two F.27s and two Mi-8s at Benina.
In total, Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon cost the Libyans the mentioned
barracks, at least five, but probably up to ten SAM-sites, three ships sunk
and one badly damaged, and a number of aircraft, at - possibly - one USAF
F-111F shot down.
For the USAF, the operations was a technical success, and an immensely
important lection, used very much in 1991 - what else can one say about
tactical fighters, flown by crews without any previous combat experience,
delivering PGMs during a 9, 500km return-trip. But, the strike was very much
overshadowed by the loss of one plane, technical problems suffered by
several aircraft (despite this, four aircraft which scored hits in Tripoli
had done their job properly), and fierce international reactions, which in
part - without any reason, as we now know - attacked the USA.
THE SOVIET REPORT ABOUT PRAIRIE FIRE AND EL DORADO CANYON
In autumn 2001, the website of the "Parallel History Project" about the Cold
War, between the NATO and Warsaw Pact:
Air Force Marshall Koldunov reported that it was not until 20 April 1986
that a group of Soviet specialists were permitted to travel to LIBYA to
study on-site the US acts of aggression and the countermeasures taken by the
Currently the only information available is from the Soviet specialists who
were employed in the Libyan military air defense units.
LIBYA has acquired a great deal of modern technology from the Soviet Union,
- 4 "VEGA" anti-aircraft missile units units = 24 launch pad and
"VOLCHOV" and "NEVA" anti-aircraft missile units = 276 launch pads.
Thus, LIBYA's air defense alone has more than 300 launch pads for various
anti-aircraft missile systems.
In addition, there are a large number of Soviet "KUB" and "OSA-AK"
anti-aircraft missiles systems and French "CROTALE II" anti-aircraft missile
systems in the LIBYAN ground forces.
The following air defenses cover TRIPOLI, the capital:
- 7 "VOLCHOV" anti-aircraft missile units = 42 launch pads
- 12 "NEVA" anti-aircraft missile units
= 48 launch pads
- 3 "KUB" anti-aircraft missile units = 48 launch pads
- 1 "OSA-AK" anti-aircraft regiment = 16 launch pads
- 2 "CROTALE II" anti-aircraft units = 60 launch pads
Secret - Classified Material!
GVS-No. A 456 721 Copy 5 page 2
These air defense forces, which include more than 200 launch pads, are more
than enough to provide assured protection for the capital against air
On the aggressive acts at the end of March
American aircraft operating from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean were
testing LIBYA's air defenses as early as the end of March.
A first group of three aircraft flew into Libyan airspace from the sea at
about 1200 on 24 March 1986.
Qadhaffi then ordered that the "VEGA" anti-aircraft missile system be used.
Two missiles were launched against the target at a range of 105 km and the
target disappeared from the monitor.
The American search and rescue helicopters employed immediately thereafter
proved that the target had been destroyed.
The approach of a second group of two aircraft was detected in the evening
at about 1800.
The target was destroyed with one launched missile at a range of 75 km.
The Libyans therefore claimed that they had shot down a total of five
After more precise analysis and more objective examination, Soviet
specialists determined that three aircraft had been shot down.
President Reagan said that there had been no losses.
On the aggression on 15 April 1986
The Soviet Union reported as early as 13 April 1986 that a possible air
attack on LIBYA was imminent based on the concentration of the carrier group
in the Mediterranean and on other intelligence information.
The Libyans were encouraged to declare "heightened combat readiness" for its
military and "full combat readiness" for national air defense forces and
resources. Qadhaffi and the leadership of the Libyan army did not take this
warning seriously and did not respond to it.
Secret - Classified Material!
GVS-No. : A 456 721 Copy 5 page 3
F-111 fighter bombers flying out of ENGLAND conducted the 1st air attack at
0335 on 15 April 1986.
The air attack on the capital of TRIPOLI did not come from the sea, that is,
it did not come from the MEEDITERRANEAN, but from the south across the
desert at an altitude of approx. 50 m.
At the same time, aircraft carriers operating in the MEDITERRANEAN launched
a large number of unmanned aircraft (drones), which threw Libyan radar
reconnaissance into an extremely difficult position.
After the unmanned aircraft were employed, the fighter bombers took off from
the aircraft carriers at an altitude of 50 to 70 m while heavy radar jamming
The first strikes were directed entirely at the air defense system,
especially radar stations and "VEGA" anti-aircraft missile control centers.
The 2nd air attack occurred at 0400 against TRIPOLI and BENGASI. At this
time the air defense system had already acted, but with poor results.
The 3rd air attack occurred at 1600 and the 4th air attack occurred on 16
April 1986. Libya claims that a total of 20 aircraft were shot down during
the last two attacks. However, objective examination by Soviet specialists
determined that a total of only 10 aircraft were shot down.
A few of these crashed into the ground, but most of the aircraft went down
over the MEDITERRANEAN.
It was very difficult to use the "VEGA" anti-aircraft system during these
attacks because the aircraft approached at very low altitudes (50 m).
Qadhaffi ordered that the fighters not be used, he prohibited them from
taking off; these aircraft include more than 300 fighters, of which 80 alone
The attitude on Soviet technology is characterized in that, for instance,
all French "Mirage" aircraft are always carefully covered and maintained. On
the other hand, the modern Soviet MiG-25 aircraft are continuously exposed
to inclement weather, which has a negative impact on their continuous combat
readiness under actual meteorological conditions.
Secret - Classified Material!
GVS-No. : A 456 721 Copy 5 page 4 19
The American aviation forces used a great number of "HARM" anti-radiation
missiles launched from aircraft at a range of 130 km from the target.
However, they had only a minor effect because 15 of the 30 missiles used did
not reach their targets. The "Paveway" laser-guided bomb, used for the first
time, was launched 60 km from the target. In addition, "Bullpup" missiles
with laser targeting devices were used; 30 to 40% of these did not detonate.
As a result of the employment of the above munitions, a total of five Libyan
national air defense anti-aircraft missile units were lost, specifically:
- 2 "Volchov" anti-aircraft missile units
- 1 "NEVA" anti-aircraft missile unit
- 1 "KUB" anti-aircraft missile unit, and
- 1 French "CROTALE II" anti-aircraft missile system unit.
Air Force Marshall Koldunov cited as reasons for the limited effectiveness
of the Libyan air defenses, in that only 10 of the 70 aircraft that were
used were destroyed:
1. Poor command and control of LIBYA's air defense forces and weapons, lack
of a clear mission, and poor interaction.
2. Poor political perspective/morale among the crews and personnel manning
the radar stations, missile control stations, and anti-aircraft missile
complexes. Cowardice among some of the crews, who fled their positions in
panic during the air attacks.
3. Insufficient level of training among air defense forces and consequently
poor mastery of modern Soviet technology.
4. Inadequate organization of radar reconnaissance over the MEDITERRANEAN.
Minimum acquisition altitude of radar field was only 250 to 300 m. This
meant that the extremely low-flying American aircraft were not acquired as
(Due to its own arrogance, the Libyan military did not act on requests and
recommendations put forth by Soviet specialists to organize the radar field
so that it would be possible to acquire targets at altitudes of 50 m and
Secret - Classified Material!
GVS-No. : A 456 721 Copy 5 page 2 20
LIBYA's fighters were not used to engage and destroy the intruding aircraft.
In conclusion, Air Force Marshall Koldunov stressed that there would be a
thorough evaluation of the military aspects of the US aggression against
LIBYA pending the return of the group of Soviet specialists that had been
sent to LIBYA on 20 April 1986.
The information collected and lessons learned from this evaluation will be
provided to the Ministers of Defense for the Warsaw Pact nations.
CONCLUSION ABOUT MARSHALL KOLDUNOV'S REPORT
For a Marshall of the Soviet Air Force, Koldunov was obvious completely
clueless about the weapons capabilities of his principle enemy, even if the
data about these was widely (well, at least to the military) available in
the USSR. His remarks about the capabilities of certain US weapons are a
blamage for higher Soviet officers. For example:
- AGM-88s with a range of 130kms?
- Paveway LGBs with a range of 60km?
- Bullpup "laser targeting devices"?
The "more more precise analysis and more objective examination", after which
the "Soviet specialists determined that three aircraft had been shot down"
during the fighting on 24 March 1986, must be of the same quality like the
"precise analysis and more objective examination of the gun-camera footage
of PAF Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Mahmood's 'double MiG-23 Flogger kill'", claimed as
scored over the Afghan border on 12 September 1988, done by an American DoD
and General Dynamics team: wishful thinking. Bearing in mind the "results"
of such "precise analysis", the results of similar Soviet analysis from the
fighting between the Israeli and the Syrian air forces over Lebanon, in
1982, and also some other places where US and Soviet weapons were engaged in
direct clashes during the 1970s and 1980s, become very questionable, and put
a huge question mark over any reports in the Russian and the Ukrainian press
based on them and published during the 1990s and subsequently.
If such misinformations were delivered by the persons from the top of the
Soviet military and political leadership, one must wonder what were the
results of any kind of Soviet evaluations about the NATO too.
In the aftermath, it is certainly not a surprise that Marshall Koldunov -
then the CIC of the Soviet PVO - was thrown out of the service because of
the Mathias Rust affair...
US OrBat for Operations Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon
USS SARATOGA CV-60
October 1985 until March 1986
VF-74 Bedevilers F-14A
VF-103 Sluggers F-14A TARPS
VA-83 Rampagers A-7E
VA-81 Sunliners A-7E
VA-85 Black Falcons A-6E/KA-6D
VAW-125 Tigertails E-2C
VAQ-132 Scorpions EA-6B
VS-30 Diamondcutters S-3A
HS-3 Tridents SH-3H
USS CORAL SEA CV-43
February 1986 until July 1986
VFA-131 Wildcats F/A-18A
VFA-132 Privateers F/A-18A
VMFA-314 Black Knights F/A-18A
VMFA-323 Death Rattlers F/A-18A
VA-55 Sea Horses A-6E/KA-6D
VAQ-137 Rooks EA-6B
HS-17 Neptune's Riders SH-3H
USS AMERICA CV-66
March 1986 until July 1986
VF-33 Starfighters F-14A
VF-102 Diamondbacks F-14A TARPS
VA-46 Clansmen A-7E
VA-72 Blue Hawks A-7E
VA-34 Blue Blasters A-6E/KA-6D
VAW-123 Screwtops E-2C
VMAQ-2 Playboys EA-6B
VS-32 Maulers S-3A
HS-11 Dragonslayers SH-3H
VQ-2 Batmen (JQ) EA-3B, EP-2E Rota AB, Spain (permanently stationed)
Although there were two large wings with F-111s in England, only the
aircraft from the 48th TFW took part in El Dorado Canyon, supported by
EF-111As of the 42nd ECS.
The 20th TFW, stationed at Upper Heyford (officially under the command of
the 2nd ATAF), had the 55th TFS, 77th and 79th TFS, with F-111Es (without
the Pave Tack-system), and did not take part in the attack at all.
On the same base also the 42nd ECS of the 66th ECW, equipped with EF-111As,
was stationed. A total of six EF-111As took off with the strike, but only
five flew to Libya and back.
The 48th TFW, stationed at Lakenheath (under command by the 4th ATAF), flew
Pave Tack-equipped F-111Fs, and consisted of four squadrons, namely the
492nd TFS, 493rd TFS, 494th TFS, and the 495th TFS. Aircraft from all four
squadrons took part in El Dorado Canyon.
Beside the F-111Fs of the 48th TFW, and the EF-111As of the 42nd ECS, also
following USAF units participated in the Prairie Fire and the El Dorado
- 55th SRW/922nd SRS, with RC-135V/Ws, which flew from Helennikon, at Crete,
- 9th SRW/Det. 4, which flew SR-71As from Mildenhall, England,
- 4950th TW/Det. 1, which flew C-135C from Andrews AFB,
- 7th ACCS, which flew EC-135E from Mildenhall, and the
- 532nd AWCW/960th AWCS, which flew E-3A, either from Helenikon or from
Furthermore, for El Dorado Canoyon in specific, the USAF concentrated a huge
fleet of tankers from following units (all based in England between 11 April
and 17 April 1986):
- 2nd BW, KC-10A, KC-135A at Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. Barkasdale AFB)
- 22nd ARW, KC-10A, Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. March AFB),
- 68th ARG, KC-10A, Mildenhall (ex. Seymour Johnson AFB),
- 116th ARS, KC-135E, Mildenhall (ex. Fairchild AFB),
- 9th SRW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall (ex. Beale AFB),
- 19th ARW, KC-135A, Fairford (ex. Robbins AFB),
- 22nd ARW, KC-135A, Fairford (ex. March AFB),
- 305th ARW, KC-135A, Fairford (ex. Grissom AFB),
- 380th ARW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. Plattsburgh AFB),
- 5th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall, (ex. Minot AFB),
- 7th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. Carswell AFB),
- 42nd BW, KC-135Q, MIldenhall (ex. Loring AFB),
- 92nd BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. Fairchild AFB),
- 96th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall (ex. Dyess AFB),
- 97th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. Blytheville AFB),
- 379th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall (ex. Wurthsmith AFB),
- 410th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall, Fairford (ex. Sawyer AFB),
- 416th BW, KC-135Q, Mildenhall (ex. Griffiss AFB),
- 509th BW, KC-135Q, Fairford (ex. Pease AFB)
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