In 1981, Weather and Reporters Stymied a Complicated Air Ambush in Sudan
The Reagan adminstration was determined to catch Libyan planes attacking U.S. allies
In reaction to Libya claiming all of the Gulf of Syrte as its territorial waters, in January 1981 U.S. president Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. Navy to conduct a “freedom of navigation exercise” in that part of the Mediterranean Sea.
During the exercise, there were dozens of tense encounters between Navy fighters and warplanes from the Libyan Arab Air Force. On Aug. 19, 1981, two Su-22s from the LAAF’s No. 1032 Squadron opened fire on a pair of F-14s from Navy squadron VF-41. The Tomcats evaded the Libyans’ fire and then promptly shot down both Sukhois.
Undeterred, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi plotted to assassinate members of the Libyan opposition living in the United States, as well as the leaders of neighboring countries. Libyan machinations provoked the United States and its allies to concoct an elaborate counter-scheme — one that fell afoul of weather and the media.
His primary target in the early 1980s was Egypt. Libya’s relations with Egypt had been strained since the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Egypt and Libya fought their own brief war in July 1977. In September 1978, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords with Israel and aligned his government closer to the United States. That annoyed Gaddafi. He publicly called for Sadat’s assassination.
This Libyan SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 was shot down after bombing Al Geneina in western Sudan in 1981. Tom Cooper Collection
Around the same time, Qaddafi also began criticizing the government of the Sudanese president Jaffar Numayri, whose government maintained good relations with Egypt and even allowed the Egyptian air force to base its aircraft in Sudan. Numayri also supported Chadian insurgents fighting against the Libyan occupation of Chad.
Time and again through 1981 and 1982, Qaddafi sent LAAF fighters and bombers to attack towns in Sudan. On at least two occasions, Libyan Tu-22s — pictured at top — bombed targets in Omdurman, a suburb of the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – who took over after Sadat’s assassination by Islamists in 1981 – requested that the United States deploy E-3 radar plane to Egypt to monitor Libyan flights.
The Reagan administration had what it thought was an even better idea — to stage a fake, Libyan-supported coup in Khartoum, thus enticing Tripoli to send its aircraft over Sudan, where Egyptian and Sudanese interceptors could then shoot them down.
The U.S., Egyptian and Sudanese intelligence agencies and air forces set in motion Operation Early Call in February 1983.
A U.S. Air Force E-3 and other aircraft at Cairo West Air Base in Egypt in 1983. Air Force photo
The U.S. Air Force deployed four E-3s and four KC-10 tankers to Egypt, while the USS Nimitz carrier battle group re-deployed from its station off of Lebanon to a position some 85 miles north of the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Supported by E-2 radar planes, F-14s began flying combat air patrols along the border. Meanwhile, the E-3s patrolled along the three-way border between Egypt, Libya and Sudan, in order to issue a timely warning about any Libyan activity.
To Reagan’s disappointment, Early Call was effectively thwarted – by a storm and the U.S. media.
While the anti-Numeyri coup attempt – set up by Sudanese intelligence operatives – was “foiled” and Tomcats from Nimitz intercepted a pair of Libyan MiG-23s that approached the border area, on Feb. 15, 1983, the rest of the plan was spoiled by the weather.
A sandstorm forced some of the E-3s and KC-10s to land at Cairo International instead at Cairo West Air Base. There they parked in plain view of civilians, including U.S. journalists.
The aircraft’s presence became big news. Gaddafi canceled plans to send the LAAF over Khartoum on Feb. 18. A day later, Reagan was left with no choice but to order U.S. forces to return to their bases.