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Peace hopes growing to end long-running civil war

Posted 18 December 2020 · Add Comment

The UN is continuing attempts to broker peace to end Libya’s deadly civil war and a preliminary deal was agreed in early September. But, with so many factions involved, and major countries backing both sides, no-one can predict what will happen next. Alan Warnes analyses the current situation.

Vulnerable: The Wing Loong II unmanned combat air vehicle, operated by the UAE on behalf of the LNA, played a major role in ops until the Turkish changed tactics and started to shoot them down. Picture: Alan Warnes.

Since Libya’s deposed leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was killed in 2011, the north African state has been engaged in a deadly civil war.

Now the conflict between clans from the east and west, infiltrated by several terrorist organisations including Daesh, has morphed into a proxy war.

Turkey makes no secret of its support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), while the opposing Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Benghazi- based General Khalifar Haftar, is backed by Russia, the UAE and Egypt, although the two Arab nations are more clandestine than Turkey with their support.

The UN-backed GNA has served as Libya’s interim government since 2015, although its official governance ended two years ago.

There have been many twists and turns in the civil war in recent years. Although both sides still operate remnants of the former Libyan Air Force, newer, cheaper unmanned air vehicle (UAV) technologies have replaced the likes of the tired old Su-22s and MiG-21s in the ground-attack role.

As a result, Libya saw the first combat-UAV battleground, as opposing militias attacked each other with armed drones.

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S are being used by the GNA to support their operational requirements, while the Chinese-built Wing Loong II, modified with a Thales satcom, is being used by the UAE to support the LNA’s advance on Tripoli.

We have even seen drones from both sides attacking each other’s civilian transport aircraft parked on the ground, after they were alleged to have landed with weapons and supplies.

However, the drone war has effectively been downgraded with the change of tactics by the GNA.

It set up integrated air defences in strategic locations, which brought devastating consequences for the LNA and, as a result, several Wing Loong IIs that do not possess any self-protection system were shot down. The aircraft now spends much of its time grounded.

Turkish President Erdogan’s intervention in January, to prop up the GNA when it was losing ground, changed the course of the conflict.

Turkish surface-to-air missiles were introduced on to the battlefield to establish air defence umbrellas, first around Tripoli, to stop the LNA’s Wing Loong II drones operating around the capital’s airspace, and then other strategic areas.

A network of systems, including the medium-range Raytheon MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile (SAM), shorter-range Hisar-A SAM, and Korkut anti-aircraft guns, were deployed, not to just shoot down enemy combat-drones but also to protect high-value assets.

They are backed up by Turkish Navy Gabya-class frigates sitting off Libya’s coast, which act as mobile anti access area denial (A2AD) systems against anything operating over the west of Tripoli.

These former US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry frigates have been comprehensively upgraded by Turkey’s Havelsan. They are now fitted with the 250km (156 mile) range Thales SMART S Mk2 3D multibeam radar, operating in S-band, and optimised for medium-to-long-range surveillance and target designation in littoral environments.

The system can detect small surface targets, helicopters, and anti-ship missiles.

On board, the radar combines with the RIM-66E standard medium-range SAM or the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) to provide a lethal response.

Their 60km (38 mile) range is very similar to the MIM-23 Hawks, but mounted on the frigates patrolling the coastal waters close to Tripoli and other northern areas they are a flexible threat.

Tactics to target the LNA’s Wing Loong IIs have worked because these drones don’t have any jamming/self-protection systems on board.

Ironically, the Wing Loong IIs, fitted with Thales satcom systems, are being shot down by Thales SMART S Mk2 radars. It meant the drones cannot not work in the areas covered by the Turkish air defences.

A security source told Arabian Aerospace: “This is a big game-changer and the Emirati-backed LNA will now have to develop complex counter A2AD operations, for which they have never been trained.”

As a result, the LNA’s western front collapsed because the Emiratis’ Wing Loong II and Pantsir S1 SAM combo could not deter any threats.

Turkey trains the GNA to operate the Bayraktar TB-2 and Anka-S drones, while the UAE’s Wing Loong IIs are under strict Emirati control.

The GNA use the Turkish weapons autonomously, developing key capabilities and employing armed Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat air vehicles – arguably the first militia to operate a drone in combat operations in Africa.

On May 18 this year, the LNA’s Al Watiyah Air Base was re-taken by the GNA, after the Turkish placed one of its air defence bubbles around the area.

There are suggestions that the United Arab Emirates Air Force and Air Defence (UAEAF&AD) did not respond immediately with Egypt-based Mirage 2000-9s because they could be targeted by a MiM-23 or RIM missile.

But, when a strike did come on July 5, the UAEAF&AD would have probably been working alongside French Air Force Rafales to provide much-needed destruction of enemy air defence (SEAD) and electronic warfare expertise.

The strikes saw some of the Turkish MiM-23s being struck at the base, probably with Al Tariq precision-guided missiles (PGMs).

No one has ever admitted responsibility for the July 5 attack, but the French Navy had been humiliated by Turkish Navy frigates on at least four occasions prior to that date. The most recent had come on June 10, when Turkish and French Navy warships clashed in the Mediterranean as the latter was trying to enforce the UN arms embargo.

As part of NATO’s Sea Guardian operation, the French frigate, Courbet, had attempted to intercept a Turkish-owned ship suspected of arms trafficking. However, it was stopped by Turkish Navy frigates.

There remains a lot of bad-blood between Turkey and France, with the latter having blocked Turkey’s admission to the EU several years previously.

Nearly three months after the Mediterranean clash, on September 22, the EU issued sanctions against Avrasya Shipping, which owns the Cirkin cargo-vessel that the Courbet was trying to intercept.

It remains to be seen whether the EU starts to sanction other companies, like Bayraktar, and even France’s Thales, which is supporting both sides.

Another twist in this long civil war came on May 26, when the Russians deployed 14 MiG-29 Fulcrums and Su-24 Fencers to Al-Jufra (50kms west of Benghazi) and Al-Khadim (170kms east of Benghazi). This deployment has now been increased to 24.

The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) was quick to denounce their arrival, with an official press release stating the aircraft were: “To support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.”

The aircraft are flown by mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner PMC Group, supporting the LNA.

Wagner is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Two of the jets were lost in accidents in June and early-September.

Russia is believed to have positioned S-300 or S-400 SAMs along Libya’s coast, between Sirte and Ras Lanuf, in recent weeks, to deter any Turkish threat to the east and to protect the oil fields.

As well as being highly efficient at shooting down aircraft and long-range missiles, there is also an anti-naval variant. The security source continued: “They are positioned there as a show of force to Turkey and a warning – do not come any further east.”

On September 18, General Haftar agreed to lift the year-long blockade on the oil refineries in the country’s east after an agreement with the Tripoli government that the revenues would be shared.

Meanwhile, the UN continues with efforts to broker a peace deal between both sides, with a preliminary deal agreed in early September. This would include elections within 18 months and the demilitarisation of the city of Sirte, held by Haftar, and the gateway to Libya’s major oil fields and export terminals.

Whether Turkey and Russia will support such an arrangement is unclear, but both will also want a share of the spoils.


 

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