The following article titled Sudden Victory, The Gulf of Sidra Incident of August 1981 and written by LCdr. Joseph T. Stanik, USN (Ret.) appeared in July-August 1996 issue of Naval Aviation News.
When Libyan aircraft unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down a U.S. plane conducting reconnaissance in international waters off Libya in 1973, the U.S. responded not with military might but with diplomatic protests, which were ignored. The next year, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi declared the portion of the central Mediterranean below 32°30′ north latitude —the entire Gulf of Sidra—an integral part of the Libyan Arab Republic. Although this assertion violated international conventions governing territorial waters and spurned the right of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and other navies to conduct naval exercises in international waters and airspace, the U.S. response to this dangerous assertion was again an official protest. Then, in 1980, after another unsuccessful Libyan attack on a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, President Jimmy Carter ordered the Sixth Fleet to avoid the gulf rather than risk a new crisis in the Middle East.
In the summer of 1981, President Ronald Reagan dug in his heels as the anchor in this previously one-sided game of tug of war with Libya. The new president regarded Qaddafi as a dangerous international troublemaker and made no secret of his desire to see him removed from power. Reagan ordered the Pentagon to prepare a major naval exercise aimed at challenging Qaddafi’s claim of sovereignty over the Gulf of Sidra. This exercise would boldly affirm the principle of free navigation of international waters and demonstrate America’s commitment to peace and stability in the Middle East.
The Open Ocean Missile Exercise (OOMEX) would take place from 18 to 19 August in a 3,200-square-mile area, which included a large section of the disputed waters south of 32°30′. It would include the aircraft carriers Nimitz (CVN 68) and Forrestal (CV 59); Carrier Air Wings 8 and 17 based on Nimitz and Forrestal, respectively; and 13 escort and support ships. The scheduled highlight of OOMEX would be the destruction of target drones by missiles fired from fighter aircraft and the guided missile cruisers Texas (CGN 39) and Mississippi (CGN 40).
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had issued revised rules of engagement (ROE) for OOMEX. Coined the “Reagan ROE,” they authorized the on-scene commander to take action to defend his ships, aircraft and personnel without clearing it through higher authority. The rules allowed armed response against a force committing a hostile act, demonstrating an imminent use of force, or exhibiting a continuing threat to use force. In a cabinet meeting shortly before the exercise, President Reagan was asked by a cabinet officer how far a U.S. pilot could go in pursuit of a Libyan plane that fired on him. Reagan responded: “All the way into the hangar.”
Rear Admiral James E. Service—a veteran heavy attack pilot serving as Commander Carrier Group Two and Commander Battle Force Sixth Fleet (Commander Task Force 60)—was officer in tactical command of the two-day surface and air exercise. Besides carrying out the missile exercise and the freedom of navigation operation, Service was fully prepared to meet two operational contingencies: interception and escort of all Libyan aircraft and naval vessels approaching the exercise area and, if necessary, armed defense of the battle force.
With his carriers on station north of 32°30′, Service commenced OOMEX in the early hours of 18 August. Several F-14 Tomcats from Nimitz and F-4J Phantoms from Forrestal catapulted into the morning sky and established a barrier of combat air patrol (CAP) stations between Libya and the battle force. F-14s filled four stations; F-4Js filled the other three. One Tomcat station was located below 32°30′. At day-break, destroyers William V Pratt (DDG 44) and Caron (DD 970) steamed south of 32°30′ and operated in the Gulf of Sidra for the next 34 hours.
Although Qaddafi was conducting an official visit to radical South Yemen, his lieutenants were quick to react to the American flight operations taking place in the airspace of the Libyan flight information region (a self-pro-claimed Libyan air defense zone extending into the central Mediterranean) and the northern portion of the Gulf of Sidra.
On the first day of the exercise, a variety of Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) aircraft—French-built Mirage F-1s and 5Ds and Soviet-made MiG-23 Flogger Es and MiG-25 Foxbat As—took off from their bases along the Libyan coast to challenge the American battle force. The F-14 and F-4J crews performed 35 intercepts of 70 Libyan aircraft. Most LAAF pilots turned back before entering the exercise zone, but six entered the area and were escorted clear by Navy fighters.
Nearly every American airman had an opportunity to practice combat maneuvering against a potential adversary flying Soviet or French-built aircraft. Unbeknownst to the battle force, the residents of Tripoli were being whipped into a frenzy by reports on Libyan television that an attack by the Sixth Fleet was imminent and that the Libyan armed forces had been placed on high alert. The second day of operations over the Gulf of Sidra promised to be at least as exciting as the first.
Flight operations began at 0545 on 19 August. Nimitz and Forrestal launched six Tomcats and four Phantoms, respectively, to fill five CAP stations by first light. The three southern stations would be filled by Tomcats from Fighter Squadron (VF) 41, the other stations by Phantoms of VF-74. An E-2C Hawkeye from Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 124 based on Nimitz provided long-range surveillance and fighter control for the battle force.
The Black Aces of VF-41 flew the most capable fighter plane in the world: the Tomcat’s AN/AWG-9 radar could detect targets out to nearly 200 miles, its weapons control system could track 24 targets, and it could be armed with the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which could engage 6 targets simultaneously. During OOMEX, the F-14s were armed with short-range A1M-9L Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and medium-range AIM-7F Sparrow semiactive radar-guided missiles.
Two Tomcats with radio call signs “Fast Eagle 102” and “Fast Eagle 107” filled the southernmost CAP station. VF-41 CO Commander Henry M. “Hank” Kleemann flew the lead F-14, Fast Eagle 102, while his wingman, Lieutenant Lawrence M. Muczynski, piloted Fast Eagle 107. Lt. David J. Venlet and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) James P. Anderson served as the radar intercept officers in Fast Eagles 102 and 107, respectively. The Tomcats were airborne by 0600 and arrived on station at sunrise. They commenced a racetrack patrol pattern in combat spread, cruising at 300 knots at 20,000 feet.
At about 0715, Kleemann began his last turn toward the coast before breaking off and returning to the carrier. Suddenly, Venlet detected an air contact due south at 80 miles, proceeding north from the Libyan air base at Ghurdabiyah on the south shore of the Gulf of Sidra. The Hawkeye also detected the contact and tracked its progress. The contact increased speed to 550 knots and headed toward the pair of Tomcats. Venlet reported the contact to the battle group’s anti-air warfare commander stationed on Nimitz, as well as to the E-2. No reply was received due to the high volume of radio traffic from other CAP stations who were busy engaging additional Libyan aircraft.
Muczynski and Anderson also held the contact, presumed Libyan, on their radar. Muczynski swung Fast Eagle 107 into a “loose deuce” formation with Fast Eagle 102. This placed him 4,000 feet above Kleemann and two miles off and slightly ahead of his skipper’s right wing. Kleemann banked 20 degrees to the right to build lateral separation from the target’s flight path. But the contact altered course and continued to close on Kleemann. The VF-41 skipper came further to the right, but the Libyan, guided by ground control intercept radar, again changed course continuing his intercept of Fast Eagle 102.
Unable to loop in from behind, Kleemann and Muczynski increased speed to 550 knots and proceeded directly for the Libyan plane with the lead Tomcat flying at 18,000 feet. They planned to execute a very demanding but effective combat maneuver known as the “eyeball/shooter intercept.” Kleemann, the “eyeball,” would fly directly at the contact, while Muczynski, the “shooter,” would jockey into a position from which he could aim a Sidewinder at the Libyan’s tail pipe.
With a relative closure of 18 miles per minute, it would be a matter of seconds before the American aviators saw the Libyan aircraft. When the bogey was approximately eight miles away, Kleemann shouted, “Tally Ho!” as he saw the contact. What had been a single blip on the AWG-9 radar was actually a pair of Libyan planes flying less than 500 feet apart in a tight formation known as the “welded wing.” At a range of about two miles, the skipper identified the aircraft as Soviet-built Su-22 Fitter Js, single-seat, single-engine ground attack planes.
The Su-22 was no match for the F-14 in combat maneuvering and firepower. The Fitter was considerably slower than the Tomcat and unable to turn as tightly. It was armed with two internal 30mm cannons and a pair of AA-2 Atoll heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. Unlike the all-aspect homing capability of the Sidewinder, the Atoll was ineffective unless it was aimed directly at an opposing jet’s exhaust. Nevertheless, Kleemann carefully initiated an offset intercept of his unsophisticated foes.
As Kleemann closed on the pair of Fitters, Muczynski executed a hard left turn to come behind the Libyans. At the merge, Kleemann was nose to nose with the Libyan flight of two when he suddenly noticed the area under the lead Fitter’s left wing erupt in smoke and fire. Without warning, the Libyan pilot had fired an Atoll missile at Kleemann’s F-14. Kleemann called out the launch of the missile, which passed harmlessly under Fast Eagle 102. In accordance with the new ROE, the American pilots took immediate action to defend themselves.
Without hesitation, they performed a crossover maneuver. Muczynski went after the lead Fitter, while Kleemann sought out the wingman. Kleemann figured that since the Americans had been fired upon, the Libyans were likely to do it again, and the only acceptable course of action was to return their fire.
The moment the Fitter pilot carried out his desperate attack, the Libyans broke their tight formation and headed in different directions—the leader in a climbing wide right-hand turn, the wingman in a hard turn toward the east in the direction of the morning sun. Satisfied that Muczynski was pursuing the lead Fitter, Kleemann settled in one-half mile behind the wingman but held off firing one of his Sidewinders, lest the missile home in on the blazing sun instead of the Fitter’s tail pipe. Kleemann waited about 5 seconds for the Libyan to clear the sun, then pulled the trigger. The AIM-9L streaked across the bright Mediterranean sky and struck the Fitter in the tail pipe area causing the pilot to lose control of the airplane. He ejected a few seconds later, and Kleemann observed him descending in his parachute.
Meanwhile, Muczynski streaked to a firing position 1,000 yards behind the lead Fitter. The Libyan made a couple of futile attempts to shake off Fast Eagle 107, but Muczynski fired a Sidewinder just as the Fitter initiated a hard bank to the right. The missile struck the Libyan aircraft in the tail pipe and the massive explosion a fraction of a second later severed the tail section from the rest of the fuselage. Muczynski maneuvered instantly to avoid the cloud of debris from the disintegrating Fitter, and saw the pilot eject but never saw a parachute.
The dogfight over the Gulf of Sidra occurred approximately 60 miles off the coast of Libya and lasted less than a minute. At 0719, Fast Eagles 102 and 107 joined up and headed back to Nimitz. The four aviators were given an exhilarating welcome upon their safe return. RAdm. Service and Vice Admiral William H. Rowden, Commander U.S. Sixth Fleet, su-ported and praised the actions of the Black Aces. VAdm. Rowden, a surface warfare officer, emphasized that “the aircrews correctly reacted in self-defense. They did not require or ask for any specific authorization from Admiral Service or anyone else.”
The Libyans reportedly recovered their two hapless pilots, and the LAAF continued to probe the fleet’s defense perimeter. A total of 45 intercepts, including the two kills, were performed during the two-day exercise. In the afternoon of 19 August, RAdm. Service concluded OOMEX and withdrew the two-carrier battle force from the exercise area.
On 20 August, while visiting the aircraft carrier Constellation (CV 64) off the coast of California, President Reagan commented on the significance of the incident: “We responded as we will respond anywhere when any of our forces are attacked. They’re going to defend themselves.” Reagan had complete confidence in the talent and judgment of his armed forces. His hands-off approach to military operations had attained its first success.
This confrontation between the United States and Libya in the summer of 1981 demonstrated how the decisive employment of naval power can facilitate the attainment of a specific foreign policy objective. The bold deployment of the Battle Force Sixth Fleet and the superb airmanship of the Black Aces, in particular, discredited Qaddafi’s claim of Libyan sovereignty over a portion of international waters. In the skies over the Gulf of Sidra, American fighter crews had acquitted themselves in their first aerial combat since the Vietnam War.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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