Current conflict reprises 1986 US-Libya clash
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 2:37 PM
WASHINGTON -- As United States warplanes struck Libya last week, many Americans may have had the sense that they'd seen this movie before.
A generation ago, U.S. warplanes streaked over Tripoli and other Libyan cities, bombing radar installations, missile batteries and other targets while the skies lit up with anti-aircraft fire. The aim then was to punish Gadhafi for his role as friend and patron to terror groups.
Over the intervening decades, the U.S. and its allies used economic sanctions, travel bans and finally negotiations in dealing with the wily and erratic ruler, eventually leading to restored diplomatic relations and even some cooperation against terror networks.
Then came Gadhafi's brutal repression of anti-regime protests in February. In a matter of weeks U.S. and allied jets - this time joined by cruise missiles - were once again attacking Libya.
The air campaign launched over the weekend by the U.S. and several European allies bears eerie similarities to the earlier U.S. raids on Tripoli and other cities. That includes a strike on Gadhafi's compound that hit near where a bomb exploded 25 years ago - and where Gadhafi has erected a monument showing a golden fist crushing an American jet.
Then, as now, the U.S. lost a two-seat U.S. attack plane. This time the American crew ejected safely but in April 1986 the two crew members of an F-111 bomber that crashed, call sign Karma 52, did not survive. An autopsy on the recovered body of the pilot indicated he drowned, probably after parachuting into the Gulf of Sidra; the body of the plane's weapons officer was never recovered.
There are important differences across the decades, too.
A key target of the U.S. bombing in 1986 was Libyan military barracks in Benghazi, but that eastern city now is the stronghold for the rebels fighting against Gadhafi. And 25 years ago, France, Spain and Italy refused to let U.S. F-111 bombers based in England use their air space, forcing pilots to fly 1,300 miles farther around France and Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar.
This time, French jets were among the first launched into Libya over the weekend and fired some of the opening salvos of the fighting. And the American F-15E fighter jet that crashed Tuesday was operating out of Italy's Aviano Air Base.
Twenty-five years ago Libya wasn't battling an insurrection, and the U.S. was seeking only to retaliate, not protect far-flung rebel forces against their government.
But the incident, perhaps, shows how even successful military missions can have mixed long-term results - and how dangerous it can be to tangle with the leader whom Reagan called "this mad dog of the Middle East."
The 1986 raid, led by pilots flying 21 F-111 bombers, a half-dozen F/A-18 fighters and others, decimated its targets. It resulted in more than 100 Libyan deaths, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter.