Today in 1986, air units from the United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps bombed targets in the nation of Libya. Known as Operation El Dorado Canyon, it was the largest battle in a series of confrontations that took place between Libya and the United States during the 1980's.
Muammar Gaddafi had been in control of Libya for nearly 17 years by the spring of 1986. During that time, he had distanced his nation from the Western powers, namely Great Britain and the United States. By the beginning of the 80's, evidence pointed to the fact that Libya had become a state sponsor of terrorism. In addition, Gaddafi ignored long-standing international agreements by which all nations recognize only 12 nautical miles of territorial waters extending from their shores; Libya claimed the entire Gulf of Sidra and created a "Line of Death" beyond which any vessel or aircraft was subject to attack without warning.
Confrontations over the Gulf of Sidra had occurred throughout the 80's. In 1981, two US Navy F-14 fighters shot down two Libyan Su-22 aircraft after the former were fired upon by the latter. As a result of this incident and to keep pressure on the Libyan government, a US carrier battle group could almost always be found in or around the Line of Death. So it was in March, 1986 when the US Navy again traded shots with the Libyan military, this time resulting in the destruction of a Libyan radar station and two missile boats.
On April 5, a bomb exploded in a nightclub in West Berlin, Germany, killing two American soldiers and a Turkish civilian. More than 200 others were wounded. US and West German intelligence assets obtained records of communications between Libya and that nation's agents stationed in East Germany connecting them with the bombing. US President Ronald Reagan reached out diplomatically to European and Arab heads of state over the next few days, hoping to reach an agreement on what action should be taken against Libya. When an agreement could not be reached, Reagan decided to act alone.
The strike on Libya was made by air units based hundreds of miles apart. The aircraft carriers America, Coral Sea, and Saratoga, all steaming in the Gulf of Sidra, contributed F/A-18 fighter-bombers, A-6E medium bombers, and A-7E attack aircraft. From US airbases in England came F-111F bombers. These aircraft had a very long journey to the target because France and Spain both denied the United States over-flight permission for the attack. As a result, the planes had to fly 1,300 miles further in each direction and make several mid-air refuelings.
The entire strike force converged over Libya at 2AM on April 15. Five targets and two air defense networks were attacked: an army camp, two barracks and two airfields. The hope was that the loss of these assets would diminish Libya's ability to train and equip terrorists. In addition, the attack on the camp at Murat Sidi Bilal was thought to be against Gaddafi himself, although he was unharmed in the attack.
The bombs did their job with devastating efficiency, but the operation was not without its costs. At least 15 civilians died in the attack, including a 15-month old girl who was purported to be Gaddafi's adopted daughter. Two of his sons were injured and his home in Tripoli was destroyed. One F-111 was shot down during the attack and the 2-man crew was killed. While the body of one of the officers was returned in 1989, the other is presumably still in Libyan hands. In addition, the French embassy was accidently hit.
The attack was roundly criticized in Europe and the Middle East, but was supported by the governments of Australia, Israel, the UK, and a few others. While the Soviet Union publicly denounced the attacks, behind closed doors Moscow began to distance itself from Gaddafi. At a time when the Soviets were trying to reach out to the Western powers, having Libya as a close ally was a dangerous liability.
Gaddafi and his government changed little in the wake of the attacks. In fact, records now show that weapons shipments from the country to terror groups around the world, including the IRA, actually increased after the operation. Libya continued to fund terror and was even shown to be directly involved in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December, 1988.
Whether due to Gaddafi's encroaching old age, a change in world attitudes since the attacks of September 11, 2001, or some combination of reasons, Libya has spent most of the first part of the 21st century reaching out to her old adversaries. In 2002, the government admitted to its role in the Lockerbie bombing and paid more than $2.7 billion to the victims' families. In 2003, Gaddafi announced that the nation was abandoning its nuclear program.