In 1986, the United States and Libya fought one of the largest naval battles of the missile age
Two the largest naval battles of the post-World War II era occurred in the 1980s. The United Kingdom fought Argentina over the Falkland Islands from April 2 to June 14, 1982, resulting in the British regaining control of its territory.
In the second battle, Operation Praying Mantis, the United States battled Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, the culmination of years of attacks on merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War and more recent attacks on U.S. forces safeguarding marine traffic. The United States soundly defeated the Iranians in its largest naval engagement since World War II.
Both battles were significant for both the level of sophistication they demonstrated and the fact they constituted the last major naval battles in history. From the 1970s onward, warships became increasingly lethal and sophisticated, with missiles replacing guns as the primary weapon. This technological progression came during an era where sea power increasingly played a supporting role in war, which has since come to be fought primarily from the air and on land since the end of World War II.
Though largely forgotten, there was also another, lesser-known naval battle fought between 1982 and 1988 that also encompassed the full range of capabilities afforded to the most powerful and sophisticated navies of the time.
Upon its arrival in 1981, the Reagan administration had immediately taken a confrontational posture towards the regime of Muammar Gaddafi over, among other things, its support of international terrorism. The new posture resulted in the shoot-down of two Libyan fighters over the Gulf of Sidra in August 1981, covert and proxy warfare between the two countries and was answered with a wave of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism throughout the decade.
In 1986, U.S.-Libyan tensions reached a fever pitch, stemming from many deadly, high-profile terrorist attacks the previous year and the continuing dispute over the Gulf of Sidra. Since 1973, Gaddafi claimed the entire Gulf as Libyan territorial waters, an assertion the U.S. had strongly challenged since the beginning of the Reagan administration.
The persistent campaign of terror emanating from Tripoli was demanding an overt response and the United States once again chose to contest, by force, Libya’s claim of the Gulf of Sidra as its own. As it had done multiple times in the preceding five years, Pres. Ronald Reagan ordered another freedom-of-navigation exercise, or FoN, in the area — this time with an even larger force.
In March 1986, U.S. Navy Task Force 60 – comprising the aircraft carriers USS America, USS Saratoga and USS Coral Sea – was operating in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. They were tasked with conducting a third in a series of FoN operations. The first two, named Operations Attain Document I and II, had taken place in January and February without incident. Attain Document III would be a whole different story.
The third FoN of 1986 was scheduled to take place between March 23 and April 1. It included a contingency operation – Operation Prairie Fire. With hostilities expected to eventually occur and escalate, the White House authorized Task Force 60, a.k.a. “Battle Force Zulu,” under the command of Sixth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso, a wide latitude in preemptive and retaliatory strikes in the event of Libyan aggression.
Prairie Fire was planned with three stages in mind. The first stage of, as explained by Joseph Stanik in his book El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War With Qaddafi, would place Task Force 60 on a “full wartime footing, free all weapons for task force defense and permit proportionate preemptive and retaliatory surface and air strikes against Libyan ships, planes and shore facilities.”
The second stage involved a strike against military and terrorist targets, should a Libyan attack result in American casualties. The third stage planned for an all-out Libyan attack and would have resulted in attacks against economic targets, including Libya’s petroleum industry, to directly damage the Gaddafi regime. While Kelso and Task Force 60 was given a high degree of latitude with which to conduct operations, including relaxed rules of engagement, anything greater than an immediate response in self-defense required presidential approval.
As March 23 approached, both the Reagan administration and the men of Task Force 60 were brimming with anticipation. Years of heated rhetoric and terrorism suffered at the hands of the Gaddafi regime had seemingly paved the road to war. Though not a stated objective of Attain Document, the White House hoped to provoke a hostile action from Libya, legitimizing an overwhelming military response which would destabilize the Gaddafi regime and, perhaps, precipitate regime change in Tripoli. Expecting air-to-air entanglements, fighter pilots aboard the carriers even fashioned templates for kill decals.
On March 22, Admiral Kelso released tactical control of the operation to Rear Adm. David E. Jeremiah, Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group Eight, embarked aboard Saratoga. The three carriers, plus 20 surface combatants and the Sixth Fleet flagship, along with three air wings totaling 250 aircraft, were ready to roll. At 1:00 A.M. the following day, Attain Document III was underway.
Throughout the day, Task Force 60 operated north of the 32 degrees, 50 minutes north latitude, the so-called “Line of Death,” as labeled by Gaddafi, drawing no reaction from the Libyans. That evening, at 8:15 P.M., F-14A Tomcat fighters from America and Saratoga crossed the Line of Death and took up combat-air-patrol stations in the Gulf, one a mere 60 miles off the coast of Libya. Hours into the incursion, the Libyans finally responded.
The Square Pair fire control radar of the recently-acquired Soviet-built SA-5 surface-to-air missile system went online and acquired a lock-on of aircraft patrolling within the Gulf of Sidra. The entire Task Force braced itself for a SAM launch. It did not occur. At least, not yet.
Task Force 60 continued to press the issue. At noon, March 24, a surface action group led by the then-new guided-missile Aegis cruiser USS Ticonderoga and the destroyers USS Scott and Caron and crossed the Line of Death and the Libyans finally took a swing.
Two Soviet-built MiG-25PDS “Foxbat-E” interceptors took off from Benina Air Base with orders to shoot down any airborne intruders in the Gulf. Directed via ground-controlled interception, the two Foxbats were vectored to engage the nearest hostiles – two F-14As belonging to VF-33 flying off America. The approach was detected by an E-2C Hawkeye carrier-borne airborne early warning aircraft, which immediately warned the two Tomcats of trouble.
Armed with the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix radar-guided air-to-air missile, the F-14s were looking for an opportunity to employ them against the enemy MiGs. To nullify this capability, the Libyans used the MiG-25’s superior speed and closed the distance, looking to take out the Tomcats with short-range missiles. Despite demonstrating clear hostile intent, Kelso had yet to upgrade the ROE – the Americans could not fire unless fired upon. As a result, the Tomcats had no choice but to out-maneuver the Foxbats and avoid being fired at.
Minutes of jockeying ensued. Finally, the F-14s gained the advantage, as described by Tom Cooper in his richly-detailed book about the battle. “Turning around, the two Tomcats dragged the MiGs into a descent to about 5,000 feet, where they enjoyed a huge advantage in maneuverability, and then took positions at their opponents’ ‘six o’clock’ – directly behind two Libyans.”
At top — an A-7 aboard USS America in March 1986. Above — USS Coral Sea and her battle group in May 1986. U.S. Navy photos
Reporting “excessive hostile actions and intentions” to their air controllers, the F-14s requested permission to fire. The Tomcats locked up the Libyan MiGs with radar and readied short-range AIM-9L Sidewinder infrared-guided missiles and guns to take the “bandits” with. As the seconds ticked by, there was no response. Meanwhile, the Libyans took evasive maneuvers, but the Navy fighters stayed with them. This, among other intercepts, were recorded on the F-14’s fairly-new Television Camera System.
Once more, the F-14s requested permission to fire. Suddenly, the Foxbats found an out, lit their afterburners, and blasted south, again utilizing their superior speed to outrun the F-14s. Finally, the air warfare commander aboard America ordered the Tomcats to “take the bastards on.” Unfortunately, the F-14s had also disengaged by this point and were headed for a tanker to replenish their severely-depleted fuel reserves.
Towards the end of this engagement, another pair of F-14s, also from America, but flown by sister-squadron VF-102, arrived at their CAP station within the Gulf of Sidra. At 1:52 P.M., one of the Tomcats detected a contact on radar. Thinking it to be a Libyan fighter, the F-14 locked on and prepared for an engagement, only to notice it’s speed increase through Mach 1, Mach 2, then Mach 3, and spotted a contrail streaking vertically into the afternoon sky.
The F-14 crews’ realization was confirmed via secure data-link message that stated the Libyans had fired two SA-5 SAMs.
Though no U.S. aircraft had been shot down, the Libyans had now committed an overt act of hostility against the U.S. forces, demanding a punitive response. After establishing hard proof, the Libyans had, in fact, locked onto the U.S. aircraft with the SA-5’s Square Pair radar prior to firing, Kelso transmitted a FLASH-priority message to the task force and activated the Prairie Fire contingency plan, authorizing the force to engage all hostiles within the Gulf of Sidra. The fight was on and full might of the U.S. Sixth Fleet would be unleashed upon the Libyan military.
The first order of business was to attack the SA-5 site which had launched the missiles. At dusk, A-7E Corsair II light-attack planes were launched to eliminate the SAM site at the city of Sirte with High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, specially-designed to destroy air defenses by “riding in” on the emissions given off by radars.
The attack was foiled, however, when the site unleashed additional SA-5s at the A-7s, which missed. The mission was aborted, and Jeremiah ordered all U.S. aircraft above the Line of Death. The Libyans fired off a few more SAMs, all of which missed their targets due to the maneuvering skills of the American pilots and the excellent Electronic Counter-Measures employed by aircraft such as the EA-6B Prowler.
A little after 8:00 P.M., the French-built La Combattante II-G-class fast missile attack craft Waheed was detected heading straight for the American SAG led by the cruiser Ticonderoga. Armed with four anti-ship cruise missiles, Waheed was a high-priority threat and was tabbed for immediate elimination.
A Surface Combat Air Patrol consisting of four A-6E Intruders, two of which were from VA-34 off America and the other two from VA-85 from Saratoga, vectored in to handle Waheed. The VA-34 Intruders were armed with AGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the other two had Rockeye cluster bombs. When verifying with Saratoga they indeed had clearance to engage, the response they received was, “Smoke ‘em.”
At 8:17 P.M., the Blue Blasters each fired a single Harpoon at Waheed from 16 miles out. Each Harpoon found the target and the missile boat never had a chance. Waheed had become the first victim of a Harpoon missile used in actual combat. The Black Falcons Intruders finished it off with their cluster bombs, sending Waheed to the bottom with much of its crew. The following day, a Spanish oil tanker would rescue 16 survivors.
As 9:00 P.M. approached, the SAM site at Sirte re-activated its radar, preparing to target U.S. jets once more. But the United States would only be deterred once – two A-7Es from VA-81 off Saratoga approached the SAM site and served as a diversion for the Libyan Square Pair radar. Before any SAM could be fired, two A-7Es from VA-83, also from Saratoga, fired an AGM-88A HARM each. One found its target and knocked the Square Pair radar out.
The Libyan navy continued to sortie into the Gulf of Sidra. Soviet-built Nanuchka II-class missile corvette Ean Mara departed Benghazi and headed west. Posing a threat to USS Yorktown, another Ticonderoga-class cruiser, with four Soviet-built Styx anti-ship missiles, two A-6s of VA-85 engaged Ean Mara with cluster bombs.
Severely damaged, the corvette survived by using a nearby merchant vessel as a shield, preventing the Intruders from using Harpoon missiles to finish it off. Ean Mara eventually made it back to Benghazi the following morning.
There being no shortage of drama, the legend of Prairie Fire would not be complete without an element of mystery. Not to disappoint, the next two engagements of the battle occurred around midnight and remain unexplained to this day.
For over two hours, VF-33 F-14s occupying a CAP station in the western Gulf of Sidra reported either anti-aircraft artillery or small arms fire and indications they were being tracked with fire-control radar. The guided-missile cruiser USS Richmond K. Turner answered the call and, at 11:50 P.M., fired a Harpoon at 50 miles towards what it evaluated as another La Combattante II-class boat in the general vicinity of the CAP station and, according to Turner’s radars, appear to score a hit.
An orbiting Hawkeye AEW plane tracking the missile, however, detected no target at the point of detonation. A Surface Combat Air Patrol of A-6s diverted to the area to visually verify the kill, but they, too, found nothing. While floating wreckage was implicated as the apparently misidentified contact, this does not explain the weapons discharges or indications of hostile sensor usage reported by the F-14s. It also does not explain why the A-6s found nothing, though visual observation at night is, for obvious reasons, a challenge.
Meanwhile, the cruiser Yorktown was tracking a small surface contact 40 miles away on its AN/SPY-1A radar, the centerpiece of its high-tech Aegis system. At 25 miles, the target was also detected on the AN/SPS-49 air-search radar and a SuCAP was dispatched to find and engage what was being evaluated as a surface vessel. The SuCAP, however, found nothing.
A few minutes after midnight, the target appeared to take a turn towards Battle Force Zulu and dramatically increase its speed to 40 knots. Yorktown saw a high-speed surface combatant making an attack run on the task force. It was already within striking range of the carrier Coral Sea, which was conducting an underway replenishment with USS Detroit fast combat support ship. Both vessels were sitting ducks.
The two ships executed an emergency break-away and, along with Yorktown, went to battle stations and readied to engage the apparent surface contact. Fulfilling its responsibility to protect the battle force, Yorktown took the lead and fired two Harpoons when the target was at 11 miles. Sonar operators reported sounds of two direct hits. Aircraft were sent to provide visual confirmation of a target destroyed, but found neither a vessel nor any wreckage.
A Libyan corvette burns. U.S. Navy photo
Yorktown insisted it had destroyed an Italian-built Assad-class corvette. But U.S. Navy intelligence later accounted for all surviving Libyan warships – the Assad-class corvette Yorktown thought it had destroyed was one of them.
It was also noteworthy that this bizarre surface engagement was the only one that took place north of the Line of Death, well into the Mediterranean and far off the coast of Libya. This raises questions as to what warship in Libya’s otherwise limited, coastal defense-oriented arsenal would dare venture that far out on its own to take on vastly superior opposition.
Investigation into the data recorded by Yorktown’s sensors would later reveal the targeted warship to be an air contact misidentified as a surface contact. The identity of this mysterious air contact, however, remains unknown.
During this baffling incident, the Square Pair radar at Sirte recovered from its earlier attack and became functional again. At 12:47 A.M., now March 25, A-7s from VA-83 off Saratoga fired a pair of HARMs at the radar and placed it out of service once more. The success of the attack was made possible using the same diversionary tactic employed in the previous raid. The Square Pair would not reactivate again for the rest of the battle.
As dawn of March 25 approached, things were quiet in the Gulf of Sidra – too quiet. The silence was broken by the detection of a Libyan warship charging northwest at 25 knots straight out of Benghazi. Identified as yet another La Combattante II-G-class missile craft, two A-6s armed with cluster bombs were vectored to intervene. When the A-6s, belonging to VA-55 off Coral Sea, executed their attack, they positively identified the target not as a La Combattante, but instead the Nanuchka II-class corvette, armed with SA-N-4 SAMs. And the A-6s were deep within the SA-N-4’s lethal envelope!
Though the cluster bombs registered hits, the corvette, named Ean Zaquit, appeared to still be operational. The VA-55 Intruders gave way to two VA-85 Intruders armed with Harpoon missiles. After receiving permission from the surface warfare commander aboard Saratoga, one of the VA-85 A-6s fired a Harpoon, which scored a direct hit and critically damaged Ean Zaquit. The VA-55 planes, still armed with Rockeyes, swooped back in and dropped two of the cluster bombs onto the doomed warship, finishing Ean Zaquit once and for all.
The Libyans ceased all challenges against Task Force 60 after the destruction of Ean Zaquit. For the next two days, the Sixth Fleet freely operated within the Gulf of Sidra, with U.S. fighters being able to fly right up to the Libyan coast without triggering a hostile reaction. The three carriers did not let up, maintaining flight operations at the same back-breaking pace they started with. Meanwhile, the Ticonderoga-led SAG sailed uncontested within the Gulf.
Finally, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger ordered Kelso to cease Attain Document III on March 27. Some, like Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, were disappointed by this decision, believing the U.S. was passing up a golden opportunity to cause catastrophic and irreversible damage to the Gaddafi regime. But both Weinberger and Reagan, who were more restrained than their public sentiments implied, felt a strong and convincing message had been sent.
Gaddafi, unsurprisingly, disagreed, and cited the withdrawal of Task Force 60 to claim victory.
Whether or not the decision to conclude Attain Document III two days ahead of schedule was strategically prudent, there is no question it was a resounding operational and tactical success. Operationally, Task Force 60 exhibited superior organization and readiness for battle.
From the White House down to the cockpits of U.S. fighters, the Americans demonstrated a high degree of leadership, management, and professionalism, functioning competently under a high degree of autonomy afforded to them by an administration that ensured they would exercise ultimate authority over the operation without resorting to micromanagement.
Tactically, the United States proved once more they were second to few on the seas and skies. The Libyans lost one corvette, one patrol boat, at least 35 killed, endured damage to two other warships and SAM sites, while scoring no blows of their own. An estimated five to 12 SAMs were launched by Libya, but none of them came close to striking an American aircraft.
In addition to established systems, such as the A-6 and F-14, new systems, such as the Aegis system, the F/A-18A Hornet strike fighter, the HARM and Harpoon missiles, and even the SH-60B Seahawk Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System Mk. III helicopter, all made their combat debut and performed admirably in such a grueling arena.
Overall, the Americans outclassed and outmatched the Libyans in every way. Though Gaddafi embraced the role of underdog, his side was ultimately overcome by superior weapons and warfighting skills.
But, despite the successes of Prairie Fire, it was overshadowed less than a month later by Operation El Dorado Canyon. Not yet deterred, Gaddafi responded with a terrorist bombing of a nightclub in West Berlin, killing three, one an American servicemember. The U.S. launched its first attack on Libyan soil. U.S. Air Force F-111 Aardvark bombers flying from England, along with the carriers, air wings and surface combatants in the Mediterranean, struck military installations, a terrorist training camp and may have nearly killed Gaddafi himself.
Direct hostilities subsided afterwards, but occurred once more in January 1989. As if destined to end the way it began, two more Libyan fighters were shot down, again by F-14s, over the Gulf of Sidra. The United States wouldn’t fight in Libya until April 2011, when American and allied air and naval power supported the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime by rebel forces during the Arab Spring.
Prairie Fire, along with Praying Mantis two years later, would also constitute the final major naval battles in both American and world history. Since then, naval warfare has been largely limited to small-scale skirmishes between the navies of less-than-great-powers.
This does not mean the great powers have allowed their naval prowess to atrophy, however. To the contrary, the major navies of the world in the United States, the United Kingdom and France have maintained their standing. Meanwhile, potential adversaries, such as China, Russia and even Iran, have committed to naval build-ups of their own, albeit focusing less on clashing with America and its allies on the high seas and more on asymmetric capabilities, such as land-based missiles, mines and submarines.
There is little doubt the outcome of battles like the one that took place in March 1986 weighs heavily on their collective minds.