Blogs > Cliopatria > Libya's century as a target

Mar 18, 2011

Libya's century as a target

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

Golden fist, crushed jet

Libya now holds an unfortunate record. It is the country which has the longest experience of aerial bombardment. Libya was first bombed in 1911, by Italy; now, in 2011, it is being bombed by its own air force. That makes it just under a century from the first bomb to the latest.

It helps that Libya was the very first country to experience aerial bombardment from aeroplanes and from airships. I'm using the word 'country' here in a loose sense, as it was then part of the Ottoman Empire (technically, the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica). Italian forces landed in Tripoli in early October 1911, after a (naval) bombardment. Its total air forces in Libya never totalled more than nine aeroplanes and two airships. The aeroplanes first carried out a bombing mission on 1 November 1911, attacking Ain Zara (one bomb) and Taguira (three bombs). The two airships didn't go into action until March 1912, but still managed to carry out over 300 sorties between them before the end of hostilities in October. The effect of airpower on the Italian victory was negligible, but a precedent was set.

Libya then became an Italian colony for three decades. But it wasn't a pacified one until well into the 1930s. Italy presumably used its airpower to help crush dissent, as did Britain, France and Spain in their own Middle Eastern and North African possessions. Unfortunately I have no specific information about Italian air operations in interwar Libya, but it's probably safe to say they were somewhere towards the less humanitarian end of the air control spectrum.

Then there was the Second World War, when between 1940 and 1943 Axis and Allied armies washed back and forth over Libya. By and large, this was not the Libyan people's war, and they don't figure much in histories of it. But they could not have escaped its effects. Bombers from both sides would have attacked primarily military objectives -- logistical interdiction was especially important in the desert war -- but towns and villages were bombed too, and towns and villages have inhabitants, and most of those inhabitants were Libyans. So they suffered as well.

Libya became an independent kingdom in 1951. As far as I can tell there was no bombing during the kingdom's existence. There may have been some during several coup attempts in the late 1960s and early 1970s (the first of which, in 1969, was the one in which Colonel Gaddafi first rose to prominence). There was definitely bombing during Libya's war with Egypt in July 1977. Gaddafi, now in power, started it, very ill-advisedly; Egyptian forces counter-attacked and bombed towns in the east of Libya.

Then, of course, there was the American bombing of Libya on 15 April 1986. This was in retaliation for a Libyan terrorist attack in Berlin, when a disco was blown up in West Berlin. USAF F-111s flying from Britain and US Navy A-6s, A-7s and F/A-18s dropped their bombs on barracks, airfields, air defence sites and the Murat Sidi Bilal camp. Murat Sidi Bilal was chosen in an apparent attempt to kill Gaddafi himself. Obviously this failed, but about 60 other Libyans were killed, including about 15 civilians (though one claimed victim, Gaddafi's adopted daughter Hanna, appears not to have existed). One F-111 and its crew were shot down by Libyan air defences.

And now we come to the present day. I won't attempt to summarise recent events in detail. Briefly, the Libyan air force has been bombing pro-democracy forces and areas, including protesters in the capital, Tripoli, and other civilian targets in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. Remarkably, it seems that some pilots have refused to do so, landing their aircraft in Malta or handing them over to the revolutionaries (who now have their own small, but free, air force). It has even been claimed that one pilot intentionally flew his aircraft into a pro-Gaddafi barracks in Tripoli.

Gaddafi's use of airpower against his own people has played a large part in outraging world opinion, and helped motivate calls for the UN to authorise a no-fly zone over Libya. (The idea of a no-fly zone harks back to the international air force and related ideas, but I won't go into that now.) But bombed civilians evidently weren't quite enough to justify the no-fly zone; it took serious military reverses for the revolutionaries and the prospect of their sudden collapse to bring about an authorisation from the UN Security Council, which came about in just the last 24 hours.

A no-fly zone itself would likely involve further bombing of Libya, in order to eliminate threatening Libyan anti-aircraft and radar sites. But if so, I hope those will be the last bombs to fall on Libyan soil. Democracy and bombing don't go well together.

Oh, and the previous record holder for the longest experience of bombing? Ironically enough it was Italy, with ninety-five years (from Venice in 1849 to the end of the Second World War in 1945).

Image source: The Atlantic

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Chris Bray - 3/23/2011

Makes sense, yep. Thanks for this.

The French prime minister just said explicitly that France is "not at war" with Libya, which is such a fascinating claim. We're not at war with you, we're just bombing you. If bombs were raining down on Los Angeles, but I couldn't see any ground troops, it would be such a comfort to me to know that no one was waging war on my home.

Brett Holman - 3/22/2011

That's a good question, and one I probably should have addressed instead!

Two or three strands come to mind. One is the humanitarian argument for airpower in war -- that fighting a war primarily from the air results in fewer casualties (on both sides, but more so on the bombing side). Partly because it is more selective, and partly because it is more decisive (so the argument runs), but mainly because there are no ground troops involved. This came out of the First World War and the trench stalemate. But it was seen as war, and many (most) argued it was actually worse because of the heavy civilian casualties involved.

The second strand is also from the post-WWI period: the air control of imperial territories like Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Morocco by Britain, France, Spain, etc. Here airpower was used as a cheap replacement (in manpower and hence financially) for ground forces in enforcing tax collection, putting down revolts, and so on. Though there was some opposition to these actions at home, they were not seen as warfare per se but as legitimate 'police' actions.

Another idea related to the no-fly zone is the international air force, which would be a supranational force ready to respond to wars of aggression. Never happened, obviously, but I think that's a conceptual ancestor of NFZ arrangements.

So I think if you put humanitarian airpower, air control and the international air force together you end up with something like the Libyan NFZ. To get back to your question, it's air control which most obviously relates to the idea that bombing isn't war, but the other two contribute to a degree by promoting the idea that bombing is a better form of war.

Does that make sense?

Chris Bray - 3/21/2011

I've had a series of conversations this week in which generally sensible people have told me that we're not going to war in Libya -- we're just waging an air campaign. Do you have any insight into the historical development of this idea that it's not war to just use air power?

Brett Holman - 3/21/2011


Charles Fulton - 3/20/2011

The Italians did in fact use airpower against the Senussi rebellion in the 1920s. James Sadkovich published a good introduction to Italian airpower in the interwar period in Military Affairs (Vol 51, No 3 July 1987).