In 1987, the French Air Force Staged a Daring Raid on Libyan Defenses
With a patrol plane as bait, fighter jets targeted radar sites
by TOM COOPER & ARNAUD DELALANDE
In 1983 and 1984, France intervened in the war between Chad and Libya. Paris’ Operation Manta established a “red line” along the 15th parallel — a blocking position meant to stop any advance by Libyan troops and Chadian rebels into southern Chad.
Chad was in the throes of a civil war that escalated when Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi backed Chadian rebel leader Goukouni Oueddei. Libyan troops and Chadian rebels occupied northern Chad. France was determined to protect what was left of Chad — its former colony — from Libyan influence.
France moved the red line north to the 16th parallel in January 1984 after Chadian forces shot down a French Jaguar fighter-bomber, killing its pilot. And on Feb. 16, 1986, the French air force launched an air raid targeting a Libyan-built airbase near the Ouadi-Doum oasis in northern Chad. Eleven Jaguars lobbing BAP-100 bombs totally destroyed the runway.
Thus began Operation Sparrowhawk — France’s big push to bring the Chadian civil war to a close. Air power played a central role.
In early January 1987, Chadian president Hissène Habré’s troops seized the Libyan-held town of Fada in northern Chad. In retaliation, Libyan fighter jets crossed the red line to hit Oum-Chalouba and Arada. A few bombs struck French forces based Kalaït.
French commander Yvon Goutx had been the leader of L’Escadron de Reconnaissance 1/33 — Reconnaissance Squadron 1/33, operating Mirage F.1s — since the summer of 1986. On Dec. 26, 1986, he arrived along with two others pilots — lieutenants Claude Dischly and Alain Holfeierat — in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena aboard a French air force DC-8.
He flew his first mission with wingman Dischly on Dec. 30.
The objective was to monitor the Sudanese border to spot infiltration by Oueddei’s soldiers coming from Darfur. The next day, Mirages and Jaguars flew two more missions. There were additional sorties on Jan. 1 and 2, 1987.
On Jan. 3, the ER 1/33 pilots switched to the air-defense mission alongside the pilots of L’Escadron de Chasse 12 operating the Mirage F.1C.
EC 3/12’s mission was to defend against Libyan aerial incursions. But the Mirage F.1C navigation systems were rudimentary. The small, single-engine fighter required the support of a fairly dense network of ground-based radars.
In France, that was no problem. But there were few radars in Chad, leaving aside the surveillance, acquisition and fire-control radars belonging to French army air-defense units operating Hawk and Crotale surface-to-air missiles in N’Djamena and Moussoro.
Thus the F.1Cs were usually accompanied by better-equipped Jaguars or Mirage F.1CRs.
Yvon Goutx was the leader of the second mission on Jan. 3. “My second was Lt. Plasse of EC 3/12,” Goutx recalled. “My Mirage F.1CR was carrying two external [fuel] tanks of 1,200 liters, two Matra 550 Magic 1 missiles, a Barax jammer and a Phimat decoy launcher with 18 cartridges instead of a braking parachute.
“Plasse’s Mirage F.1C carried a ventral tank, two Matra 550 missiles, one Matra Super 530 missile and the same ECM as me. Like all the pilots of the French air force, my second wanted to register a kill on a [Libyan] MiG, Mirage or IL-76.” But no Libyan jets flew out to challenge the French fighters.
For days, French patrols continued near the 16th parallel. But Paris had something bigger in mind. In retaliation for Libya crossing of the red line and bombing French troops, the French planned to attack a Libyan base — either Maaten Al Sahra, Aouzou or Ouadi Doum.
On the advice of the chief of staff of the army, French president François Mitterrand decided the target would be once again Ouadi Doum. Four Jaguars would strike, each jet carrying one AS-37 Martel guided missile.
This time, the objective was to destroy the base’s air-defense radars. The Libyans had rushed reinforcements to the facility after the French raid in February 1986. A French Mirage IV recon plane piloted by Lt. Col. Jacky Morel confirmed the presence of five SA-6 missile sites plus eight quad-gun ZSU 23-4s.
For greater security in advance of the raid, the 30 French planes based at the airport in N’Djamena scattered to a greater number of airfields. The 12 Jaguars of 11 EC went to Libreville in Gabon. Two Mirage F.1CRs flew to Bangui in Central African Republic along with the four Jaguars of EC 3/3.
Four Boeing C-135F tankers split between Libreville and Bangui. Eight Mirage F.1Cs, a Breguet Atlantic patrol plane and some C-160 Transalls transports including a C-160NG tanker remained in Chad.
On Jan. 6, 1987, the Jaguars prepared to launch from foggy Bangui. Three Jaguars piloted by Jean-Paul Saussier, Patrick Guy and Thierry Lebourg successfully took off other three. The fighter-bomber with the serial number A100, piloted by Guy Wurtz, stayed on the ground, as its Martel missile had proved defective after Wurtz had already started his engine.
Two C-135Fs — each escorted by a pair of Mirage F1Cs from EC 3/12, including one piloted by Jean-Marc Dall’Aglio — awaited the Jaguars south of the 16th parallel.
After several refuelings, the Jaguar pilots crossed the red line, while the Atlantic commanded by Lt. Col. Jean-Marie Peccavy probed Libyan defenses, trying to force the Libyan radar operators to switch on their sensors.
Unfortunately, that day only the radar at Faya-Largeau operated intermittently. Without radar signals to hone in on, the mission was a failure. It’s possible embassy staffs in Bangui sympathetic to Libya had warned the Libyan government of the Jaguars’ early-morning take-offs.
The same day, the French jets that had scattered across the region converged again in Chad. The Jaguars of EC 3/3 transferred from Bangui to N’Djamena to execute the next mission from an air base less vulnerable to monitoring.
The mechanics took the opportunity to troubleshoot Jaguar A100. Soon all 26 combat aircraft and their pilots were again in N’Djamena. Only the C-135Fs remained in Libreville and Bangui.
To encourage the Ouadi Doum radars to activate, French planners decided to send a patrol of Mirage F.1CRs to trigger the radar at Faya-Largeau, whose operators should in turn alert their comrades controlling the radar at Ouadi Doum.
In the event that the target radar at Ouadi Doum remained silent, the French prepared a second option — an attack on the Libyan air base at Aouzou by eight Jaguars armed with rocket launchers.
“I was at that time head of the detachment of Jaguars,” André Carbon remembered. “France had decided to take military action against Libya. There were two options — fire a missile against the radar of the airbase of Ouadi Doum or attack an airfield near Aouzou. The missile shot was preferred, but to do this it was necessary that the radar emit.”
French intelligence services indicated that Aouzou and Maaten-Sahra air bases were buzzing with activity, making them prime targets. At 8:00 in the morning on Jan. 7, 1987, the Atlantic patrol plane headed for the 16th parallel. The Jaguar pilots waited on the ground.
“Both missions were ready to take off — I was leading eight Jaguars armed with rocket launchers — and were only waiting for the green light from the Breguet Atlantic which ‘tickled’ the 16th parallel, awaiting the good will of the Libyans switching on their radars,” Carbon recalled.
It was almost 9:20 and the crew of the Atlantic still had not detected anything. The crew of the C-135F in charge of refueling the two air-defense Mirage F.1Cs announced that it had no more fuel to deliver to the fighters. The Mirages returned to N’Djamena, leaving Peccavy’s Atlantic undefended.
“At the time limit, still not sensing any signal, the Breguet Atlantic should have given me the green light at the expense of my comrades from EC 3,” Carbon said, “but the air commander on board [the Atlantic] … decided to make one last run … because it was his birthday.”
It was during this last pass — at 9:30 in the morning — that the Flat Face air-defense radar at Ouadi Doum finally began to emit. The French force had a target. But it wanted more.
It was 11:00 when the two pilots of the EC 33, Goutx and Dischly, climbed into their Mirages. It fell to them to tickle the radar at Faya-Largeau in order to trigger more radars at Ouadi Doum. Their rendezvous with a C-135F tanker was scheduled for noon.
Once they’d filled their tanks, the Mirage F.1CR pilots flew into the radar coverage zone of Faya-Largeau. Meanwhile, the missile-armed Jaguars accompanied their C-135FR tanker 160 nautical miles south of Wadi Doum in order to readjust their navigation systems.
At around 12:50 p.m., the two Mirage pilots reached their preplanned turning point northwest of Faya-Largeau. They were flying at 300 feet and 450 knots. They angled 90 degrees to the right and climbed to 6,000 feet.
The Flat Face at Faya-Largeau detected them, as they had intended. On board the Atlantic, sensor operators picked up increased emissions on the frequencies between Ouadi Doum and Faya-Largeau. The Libyans had panicked.
The Flat Face at Ouadi Doum began to emit continuously. The time to attack was now. The Jaguars were 50 miles south of their objective, flying at 500 knots and 200 feet. Pilots Lebourg and Wurtz were in the lead. At distance of 35 miles from Ouadi Doum, Wurtz’s AS-37 missile detected the Flat Face signal. Wurtz then climbed to 300 feet to facilitate radar lock. He fired his missile at 1:00 p.m.
The AS-37 struck its target.
A Libyan source claimed that the radar the French pilots targeted wasn’t actually a Flat Face. Rather, it was a Straight Flush fire-control system belonging to one of the SA-6 sites at Ouadi Doum. Another source insisted that the missile actually failed to hit any radar antenna, and instead struck a nearby vehicle that had reflected the radar emissions.
In any event, the French had proved they could tease, target and strike Libyan defenses.
The second pair of Jaguars flown by Saussier and Guy failed to achieve lock. The four Jaguars turned around at very low altitude. At the same time, the two F1CR pilots were flying between 400 and 500 feet above the ground 12 miles west of Faya Largeau. A fire-control radar, probably from a ZSU-23–4 anti-aircraft gun, locked onto Dischly’s Mirage.
Both Mirage pilots descended to 100 feet and accelerated to 570 knots and raced away for a distance of 125 miles. South of the 17th parallel, the two Mirages climbed to 15,000 feet for refueling. They then ascended to 30,000 feet and returned to N’Djamena, landing just behind the Jaguars and Mirage F.1Cs.
Goutx and Dischly soon met the crew of the Atlantic, which told the fighter pilots that at the same time they were dodging the apparent ZSU-23-4, a Libyan MiG-23 had pursued them, as well. The MiG followed the two French fliers for around 60 miles before turning around, probably owing to a lack of fuel.
The French mission was a success — and apparently helped to restrain Libyan ambitions in Chad.