Crossing Libya’s ‘Line of Death’
By DAVID F. WINKLER
Aquarter century ago, increasing tensions between the United States and Libya led to a series of
armed confrontations, with harsh consequences for the
leader and armed forces of Libya. Today, at age 69, Col.
Muammar al-Qaddafi portrays himself as a senior statesman in the Arab world. Having restored relations with
the United States in 2006, he has disavowed any interest
in pursuing nuclear arms and renounced terrorism.
In 1986, Qaddafi was viewed much differently especially in Washington. Having seized power in 1969 at
the age of 27, Qaddafi established an anti-Western
regime that strongly supported the Palestine Liberation
Organization and other radical Arab movements. He
also established strong ties with the Soviet Union,
which became his source for sophisticated weaponry.
Qaddafi violently dealt with dissidents, even sending assassins abroad to kill opponents of his regime.
Following one shooting in Colorado in the spring of
1981, Secretary of State Al Haig ordered the closure of
Libya’s embassy in Washington. In August of that year,
two Navy F- 14 Tomcats shot down two Libyan Arab
Air Force (LAAF) Su- 22 Fitters in a dogfight over the
Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean Sea.
With evidence that a hijacking of the cruise ship Achille
Lauro in October 1985 and a bombing two months later at
the Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome were linked to
Libya, there were those in President Ronald Reagan’s
administration calling for immediate air strikes against the
North African state. Instead, with Qaddafi claiming all of
the Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters, Reagan saw a different opportunity to confront the Libyan strongman.
In late January and mid-February 1986, units of the
U.S. Sixth Fleet led by the aircraft carriers USS Coral
Sea and USS Saratoga conducted exercises to affirm
freedom of navigation through international waters
claimed by Libya. Navy fighters successfully intercepted and veered away LAAF aircraft.
Joined by the carrier USS America, Sixth Fleet ships
approached Qaddafi’s “Line of Death” in the Gulf of Sidra
in late March to again conduct freedom-of-navigation
exercises. After midnight on March 24, Navy fighters and
attack aircraft began operating in the airspace over the
gulf. Later that afternoon, the Libyans fired two SA- 5
missiles at patrolling F-14s.
After dusk, following another volley of missile
launches against Navy fighters, the Libyan missile attack
patrol craft Waheed steered a course toward an American
surface action group that had entered the gulf. Harpoon
missiles and Rockeye cluster bombs delivered from U.S.
A-6E Intruder attack aircraft quickly sank the Libyan
warship. Before midnight, A-6E-dropped Rockeyes
heavily damaged a Libyan Nanuchka II missile corvette
that had deployed from Benghazi.
Elsewhere that evening, a missile fired from a U.S.
A-7E Corsair damaged an anti-air-missile radar site at
Sirte. Hours later, other Navy A-7Es finished the job.
As the sun rose on the 25th, the U.S. Navy continued to punish the Libyans. A-6Es again used a
Harpoon missile and Rockeyes to sink another Libyan
missile corvette. By this time, Qaddafi understood that
it was the Americans who had established a line of
death beyond his coastal waters and ceased venturing
into the gulf. On the 27th, convinced that a message
had been delivered, the Sixth Fleet withdrew.
Qaddafi countered by sending agents to bomb the La
Belle discotheque in Berlin early in the morning of April
5. Two American servicemen were killed in the blast and
scores were wounded.
Having intercepted communications that made it clear
Libya had directed the attacks, the Reagan administration’s response was brutal. On the evening of April 14,
Reagan addressed the nation to announce extensive air
strikes were being conducted against Libya in retaliation
for the Berlin bombing. During Operation “El Dorado
Canyon,” U.S. Air Force F-111 aircraft launched from
England and Navy attack planes from three aircraft carriers bombed five military targets and attacked various surface-to-air missile sites.
Though the attacks forced Qaddafi into hiding, it
did not deter his use of terror to strike at his enemies,
as evidenced by the bombing of a Pan Am aircraft over
Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. It has been widely suggested that American actions in 2003 against Iraq and
its dictator, Saddam Hussein, finally convinced the
Libyan leader to change his belligerent ways. ■
Source: Joseph T. Stanik, Swift and Effective Retribution:
The U.S. Sixth Fleet and the Confrontation with Qaddafi
(Naval Historical Center: Washington) 1996.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical