Cold War Era

The Libyan Scud Attack on Lampedusa and the Italian Retaliation against Gaddafi that never was

As one of the final parts of preparation for the Italian retaliation against Libya, a single Italian Air Force RF-104G reconnaissance fighter should have made a high-speed dash over Tripoli, collecting up-to-date intelligence, at an unknown date…

The Libyans were deeply shocked by the US air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi. Bulgarian Ambassador Philip Ichpekov visited Gaddafi shortly after the strike to find a broken man, bitterly complaining he could not trust anyone. The Bulgarian answered that his country was always supportive and that all the Bulgarian personnel had been mobilized to treat the numerous wounded. Of course, officially Tripoli acted as if not impressed at all, declaring a victory and to have shot down three US aircraft including an F-111F, the wreckage of which was supposedly recovered and would be turned to the USSR. Actually, the Libyans became so nervous that their air defences repeatedly opened fire for several nights, although no US aircraft operated over either Tripoli or Benghazi at the time.

As explained by Tom Cooper, Albert Grandolini and Arnaud Delalande in their book Libyan Air Wars Part 3: 1986-1989, after recovering his composure, the Libyan strongman was quick to order a retaliation. Around 1700 on Apr. 15, 1986 two SS-1c Scud-B surface-to-surface missiles were fired against the Italian island of Lampedusa — where the US Coast Guard ran a LORAN-C navigational station. Both missiles missed their target, crashing into the sea about 2km north-west and south-west of Cap Ponente. But the explosions were heard all over the island and shocked the local population.

SS-1 Scud surface-to-surface missile

Ironically, about an hour after this attack, Washington warned Rome — and instantly announced the withdrawal of all US personnel from Lampedusa, ‘for security reasons’. The departure of the Americans in turn caused collective panic among locals: amid wild rumours about additional detonations, low-flying aircraft and supposed Libyan warships approaching, some of the people preferred to leave their homes and seek security in one of the many bunkers left behind from the Second World War or in caves.

Craxi was furious about Gaddafi’s ‘betrayal:’ the Scud attack on Lampedusa caused a public outcry in Italy over the government’s mismanagement of the entire affair with Libya. The next morning, the Italian Prime Minister summoned the Chief of Staff, General Riccardo Bisognero, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare Italiana, AMI), General Basillio Cottone, and ordered them to put the entire military on full war alert and develop plans for retaliation against Libya — including air strikes against selected targets in Tripoli and Benghazi! The AMI instantly cancelled all leave, recalled all personnel and began arming and refuelling all operational aircraft, preparing them for take-off at short notice. Some units were also prepared for deployment to air bases on Sicily. Interestingly, while the AMI reported a total strength of 40 F-104G and 126 F-104S Starfighters (with 54 F-104S-CB fighter-bombers and 72 F-104S-CIO interceptors), 54 Fiat G.91Rs and 36 Fiat G.91Ys as fully mission capable, its commanders selected the brand-new Tornados of the CLIV Gruppo/6th Stormo and CLVI Gruppo/36th Stormo for strikes against Libya. Their crews spent the next two weeks running intensive exercises at Gioia del Colle and Trapani Air Bases, while the military began planning a combined aerial and amphibious assault to destroy Libyan Navy and a number of other targets along the coast.

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On Apr. 16, the AMI launched Operation Girasole, within the frame of which defences on Lampedusa and Sicily were significantly bolstered. As one of the first measures, 12 additional F-104S from the XXI Gruppo of the 53rd Stormo redeployed from Trapani to NAS Sigonella, reinforcing 18 F-104S of the XVIII Gruppo already deployed there. All the Starfighters were re-armed with newly acquired AIM-9L Sidewinders. Although already available to the AMI, for unknown reasons such weapons were never installed on Italian interceptors before. In the rush caused by the Scud attack on Lampedusa, this task was accomplished in just one week. Even then, early during Operation Girasole, pilots scrambling with AIM-9L-armed Starfighters lacked necessary instructions, without the training that would enable them to deploy the new weapons. It took weeks to remedy all related problems and develop proper tactics. As well as Starfighters, the 134th Remote Radar Squadron deployed its AN/AFPS-8 radar to Lampedusa, where a new SIGINT station — the Operative Centre for Electronic Research (Centro Operativo Ricerca Elettronica) —was constructed.

The defences of Sicily were bolstered considerably too. Two new radar stations operated by the AMI were established near Crotone and Marsala, enabling the establishment of an air defence system including about 10,000 troops from all three branches of the Italian military, that covered the airspace of Sicily and Lampedusa. Air defences were reinforced through the deployment of two SPADA SAM sites (one at Sigonella and another at Comiso, where it protected the US units equipped with nuclear-armed BGM-109G cruise missiles) and a MIM-23B I-HAWK SAM site of the Italian Army (deployed at Sigonella). Furthermore, a detachment consisting of several Tornados and at least three Aermacchi MB.339As of the Lecce Air Academy was forward-deployed to the small airfield on Pantelleria island, and readied for combat operations.

Lockheed C-130H Hercules and G.222 military transports also began deploying to Lampedusa paratroopers of the 5th Airborne Battalion ‘Folgore’, the 1st Airborne Battalion `Tuscania’ and a company of Carabinieri on Apr. 16. This build-up was continued through the spring and summer with the help of requisitioned civilian airliners, the Italian Navy’s amphibious ships and even requisitioned merchant ships escorted by six warships. AMI Starfighters flew 68 top cover sorties for this operation, for the protection of Atlantic MPAs that were patrolling the area and for the civilian transports involved. They also performed 70 operational scrambles, 450 hours of air defence operations and 108 hours of reconnaissance operations.

As one of the final parts of preparation for the Italian retaliation against Libya, a single AMI RF-104G reconnaissance fighter should have made a high-speed dash over Tripoli, collecting up-to-date intelligence, at an unknown date. Whether such a mission was actually flown or not, the Libyans appear not to have detected any of these deployments. Their only Italy-related reaction after the Scud attack on Lampedusa was for Libyan intelligence to collect all Italian personnel that served in the country, bring them to Tripoli and interrogate them for about ten days. The Libyans were especially curious to find out who informed the Italians about the incoming US attack, prompting them to evacuate Benina AB. Eventually, all Italian personnel were repatriated on Gaddafi’s personal order.

Italian military preparations are said to have continued until the cancellation of the actual strike, only few minutes before it was due to start, at an unknown date. Supposedly, the primary reasons were complaints from AMI commanders that their aircraft would suffer heavy losses due to the lack of suitable ECM equipment, along with expectations of massive collateral damage. However, it seems that the actual reason for the cancellation of this strike was over doubts expressed by General Cottone over the nature of Libyan Scud attacks, that made Craxi believe that he had been hoaxed by the Americans into getting involved in their feud with Gaddafi. Cottone observed that satellite intelligence of launching pads for Libyan Scuds showed nothing and that his deputy, General Mario Arpino — who was present at the headquarters of NATO’s 5th Allied Tactical Air Force (ATAF) in Vicenza — reported no warning about an incoming Scud strike. Finally, Italian Navy warships deployed around Lampedusa found no traces of any kind of missiles.

The fact that the Libyan ambassador to Rome subsequently made an ambiguous statement about his country firing two Scuds, `against American forces only, not against Italian people’, appears to have been considered irrelevant. Nevertheless, all the training, rehearsals and planning of the Italian armed forces during the period April-July had not been for nothing: the resulting plans were subsequently continuously upgraded, just in case of another hot-headed action of Gaddafi’.

Libyan Air Wars Part 3: 1986-1989 is published by Helion & Company Limited and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, US Navy and Mike Freer Via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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