Mobility Operations: Global Reach and Operation El Dorado Canyon— The 1986 Strike on Libya


We are all familiar with Global Reach as one of three core precepts of the modern U.S. Air Force (USAF), in tandem with Global Vigilance and Global Power. We have seen some remarkable examples of our Global Reach capabilities in recent decades. One of the most notable was during Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011, when three B-2s flew from Whiteman Air Force Base, MO, to drop bombs on a Libyan airfield, refueled by tankers four times during each round-trip mission. Similar long-distance sorties were also conducted during the Yugoslavia air campaign in 1999.

An earlier precedent for Global Reach worth reexamining existed long before the debut of the B-2 “Stealth Bomber,” however. While that famous aircraft was still in development in the 1980s, the United States and our western allies faced an ongoing threat of global terrorism, much of it sponsored by Muammar Qadhafi’s Libya. Between 1981 and 1986, at least 300 Americans had been killed, with hundreds more injured, in a variety of attacks worldwide. On April 5, 1986, a bombing at the LaBelle Club, a discotheque frequented by U.S. Servicemen, was directly linked to Qadhafi, giving President Ronald Reagan the evidence he needed to justify an armed response. The result was Operation El Dorado Canyon.

For Operation El Dorado Canyon, USAF planners opted to task the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), based in England, to fly the F-111F. The aircraft, despite some reliability issues, was optimal for long-range nighttime precision-strike missions and is capable of flying as low as 200 feet above the ground. Additionally, its Pave Tack infrared laser-targeting system could identify and guide ordnance to the designated targets. Initial plans for a Libyan raid had been in development since the previous December, but global politics forced a drastic last-minute change to the mission.

Although British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher granted the United States permission to fly out of air bases in England, both France and Spain refused to allow American aircraft to fly over their territory for the mission. This lack of support forced our crews to travel south, around the Strait of Gibraltar, then east along the Mediterranean Sea, adding roughly 2,600 miles to the round-trip flight.

EF-111A Ravens from the 42d Electronic Combat Squadron, based at Royal Air Force (RAF) Upper Heyford, accompanied the F-111Fs to help the Sixth Fleet’s Marine EA-6B Prowlers jam enemy radar systems. Also, at the last minute, the number of F-111s was increased from six to 18. The 48th TFW could not make the round-trip sorties without multiple refuelings along the way, so several KC-10 refueling tankers were utilized from bases in Louisiana, California, and North Carolina. The KC-10s were, in turn, refueled by KC-135s assigned to the 300th Strategic Wing, RAF Mildenhall, and the 11th Strategic Group, RAF Fairford, United Kingdom. Most of the tanker crews did not know the mission targets until their arrival. As plans finalized, the mission evolved into a grueling 6,400-mile round-trip flight spanning approximately 13 hours, with each aircraft requiring eight to 12 in-flight refuelings. In contrast, at the time, a typical NATO F-111 sortie only took approximately two hours.

On Monday, April 14, 1986, the tankers launched at 5:13 p.m., GMT, followed by the F-111Fs and EF-111s 23 minutes later. They flew and refueled in radio silence, which was not an easy task for the crew on a long-distance night mission. According to one of the pilots, James A. Jimenez:

“I was probably the most junior pilot chosen for the mission. I had never flown below 400 feet at night; our mission called for a run to the target at 200 feet—and 700 mph. I had never dropped live ordnance; my jet was armed with four 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs. My previous longest mission had been 4.5 hours; the planned route around Spain and back would take more than 13 [hours]. Moreover, I had never air-refueled from a KC-10 tanker, air-refueled under radio silence, or ejected chaff or flares [countermeasures to foil radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles].”

-James A. Jimenez

As the aircraft approached Libya, the mission was supported by two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, the USS Coral Sea and the USS America, which launched 14 A-6E strike aircraft and 12 F/A-18 and A-7 strike support aircraft. After the long flight, 13 of the F-111s struck the Aziziyah barracks in Tripoli and the nearby Sidi Bilal terrorist training camp. An additional five F-111s hit the Tripoli military airport. Although the mission was deemed a success overall, there were many complications. Seven F-111s missed their targets, and six encountered mechanical problems or decided not to fire due to strict rules of engagement and the risk of civilian casualties. Only one aircraft, an F-111 dubbed “Karma-52,” was shot down by Libyan forces over the Gulf of Sidra, killing two Air Force Captains: Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence. Considerable damage was inflicted on the Libyan targets, with an estimated 40 fatalities.

Operation El Dorado Canyon proved to America and the world at large that the U.S. Air Force could carry out precision strikes against targets thousands of miles away.

Air Mobility Command currently manages more than 400 KC-135 Stratotankers, which proved essential to the operation. This early example of the Air Force’s “Global Reach” maxim, however, was performed more than a decade before the first operational B-2 stealth fighters. Operation El Dorado Canyon proved to America and the world at large that the U.S. Air Force could carry out precision strikes against targets thousands of miles away. Some of the technical and logistical problems with the mission were later remediated, and the F-111’s Pave Tack targeting system proved to be successful five years later, hitting more targets than any other aircraft during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.