15 Mar 2011

Who armed Gaddafi?

As Colonel Gaddafi’s forces launch new air attacks on rebel positions in eastern Libya, defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones reports on who supplied the arms being used against opposition fighters.

Pro-Gaddafi soldiers celebrate the re-capture of Zawiyah (Reuters)

The blame for Gaddafi’s well-stocked arsenal currently being used against the opposition cannot be entirely laid at the feet of the former Soviet Union.

Gaddafi’s war machine is totally reliant on foreign manufacturers for spares and ammunition. Unlike neighbouring Egypt, Gaddafi’s Libya has no real military manufacturing capability. Lacking the skilled labour to develop an indigenous arms manufacturing sector he was content to import all his needs over the years.

Up until the mid-1960s, Libyan arms imports were extremely small, but with the boom in oil revenues that swiftly changed. The major expansion of the regular army coincided with Colonel Gaddafi’s coup d’état, which swiftly realigned the country from its traditional relationship with America, Britain and France to the Soviet Union and Egypt.

American and British military bases were closed down and western military aid ceased. It was at this point that Soviet-supplied arms – including tanks, artillery, fighter jets and patrol boats – began to flood into the country. Since then however, Gaddafi has also brought weapons from the Austrians, Brazilians, Bulgarians, Czechs, French, Italians, Romanians and Yugoslavs.

Arms imports

Despite his status as a sponsor of terrorism and international pariah, Gaddafi still took receipt of almost 500 Brazilian armoured cars and armoured personnel vehicles as well as 100 Czech armoured personnel carriers during the 1980s.

It is highly unlikely that any of the Brazilian vehicles are still operational, as the manufacturer has long ceased to exist. Libya’s formidable self-propelled gun fleet includes the 152mm Dana supplied by the Czechs and the 155mm Palmaria supplied by the Italians. He also has towed 155mm howitzers courtesy of the Austrians (which came via former Yugoslavia).

Former Yugoslavia provided jet trainers and ground attack aircraft. The relationship with France flourished culminating in a deal for over 100 Mirage III/5 in the mid 1970s worth £110 million. The last of Gaddafi’s French supplied Mirage F1 jets were delivered in the late 1980s; Iraq the main export country found them effective in an anti-shipping role but they were outmatched during the 1991 Gulf War.

A decade earlier, two Libyan Su-22s were shot down by US Navy Tomcats in the 1981 Gulf of Sirte air battle. By the 1990s Gaddafi had purchased more arms than he could possibly need and deliveries had begun to dry up.

Air power

By this stage Gaddafi possessed one of the largest and most potent air forces in North Africa; with a long-range capability provided by half a dozen T-22 supersonic bombers. These aircraft are expensive and difficult to operate and it is highly doubtful that that they are currently operational.

The bulk of Gaddafi’s aircraft are the Soviet-supplied MiG-23, which is robust and was easy to produce in vast numbers. The MiG-23 as a fighter is uninspired, its avionics and performance were found wanting up against its American counterparts and its cockpit offers poor visibility.

Nonetheless, Gaddafi has a number of the MiG-23BN ground attack variant known as the “duck-nose”, which could be useful against the opposition. Again a limited – but effective – counter-insurgency capability could also be provided by the single squadron of Yugoslav Soko J-1E Jastreb, though there has been no evidence of these aircraft being deployed against the opposition. Today Soko makes only car parts.

Gaddaffi’s surface-to-surface missiles did include over 100 Soviet Scud and Frog missiles, but he has never deployed any of these in previous conflicts and a number were sold to Iran for use against Iraq. His air defence missiles include French Crotale as well as French air-to-air missiles.

Libyan small arms, particularly the ubiquitous AK-47, are clearly of Soviet and East European origin, though it is quite possible that the Libyan Army also has the Egyptian made Maadi. Opposition forces have been seen brandishing Romanian-manufactured assault rifles.

Even if only a fraction of Gaddafi’s vast arsenal remains operational, it could still deliver a body blow to the opposition.

Anthony Tucker-Jones is the author of “The Rise of Militant Islam”.