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A new type of warfare: How Libya is changing the war in the air?

This post was published in Gazeta.ru. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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TRIPOLI, (BM) – During the proxy war, the sky over Libya was filled with Turkish and Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles, Russian MiG-29 fighters and front-line bombers Su-24, Mirage 2000 of the United Arab Emirates Air Force. The appearance in the airspace of Turkish F-16 and Egyptian Rafale is not excluded. Gazeta.Ru tells how the North African country has become a military laboratory for air war.

Russian air defense systems in the course of hostilities repeatedly shot down UAVs of opponents of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. During the Libyan conflict, aircraft at airfields, civilian objects and persons, positions of armed formations, warehouses with material resources of the opposing sides were bombed with the help of military aircraft. Military transport aircraft C-130 and Turkish A400M continue to supply new weapons and military equipment, as well as carry out the transfer of personnel to the combat zone.

In other words, Libya this year has turned into something like a laboratory for air battles. In this regard, the question arises: what exactly is happening now in this North African country, who is winning and what has this conflict taught the military leaders involved in the planning and combat use of the air force?

“On the one hand, Libya once again just emphasizes the value of combat aircraft – you don’t want to go into battle without it,” Defense News quoted Douglas Barry, a senior military aerospace researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, as quoted by Defense News.

The conflict in Libya began to escalate in April 2019, when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched his campaign to take over the country’s capital, Tripoli. With the support of foreign forces, including Egypt, France and others, he felt quite confident until a certain time, opposing the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, supported by Turkey, Italy and Qatar.

Last April, Chinese UAE-operated Wing Loon II drones bombed civilian targets in the city as a direct consequence of the recent and rapid purchases of Chinese UAVs by countries in the Middle East.

Wing Loon II is a reconnaissance and strike unmanned aerial vehicle. Also in Western sources the name “Pterodactyl 1” is found. In appearance, the Wing Loong II UAV resembles the American MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

The differences between Wing Loong II and Wing Loong were a large take-off weight, wingspan, fuselage length, height, maximum flight height, as well as duration and maximum flight speed. Also, a constructive difference from the first modification is the presence of a ventral keel as on the MQ-9 Reaper.

“The Chinese know how to sell unmanned aerial vehicles in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Iraq. Since the United States was previously limited in the sale of this type of military equipment, the Chinese quickly discerned their niche in the market and skillfully took advantage of this circumstance,” said Barry.

Turkey turned out to be an exception in terms of UAV sales. Around May 2019, Ankara demonstrated on the battlefield in Libya its own unmanned aerial vehicle, Bayraktar TV2 (“Standard Bearer”), an operational-tactical mid-altitude UAV with a long flight duration.

UAVs of this type attacked the troops and forces of Khalifa Haftar, destroying their supporting Russian anti-aircraft missile systems “Pantsir”, thereby helping to end the Field Marshal’s ambitions to seize Tripoli.

“Turkey specializes in the development and production of UAVs and probably partially used Libya as a test and corrective combat laboratory, and now these systems have been tested in combat conditions. Among other things, the Turkish industry, in particular the Roketsan enterprise, is developing small high-precision ammunition for UAVs,” explained Barry.

Turkey’s use of the TB2 UAV in Libya was a game changer. “Turkey has decided that from time to time they can be lost in the course of hostilities, since they are partially one-off, and this new approach has taken opponents by surprise,” said Jalel Harchaoui of the Klingendaal Institute in Holland.

What are the reasons for this strategy of Ankara? First of all, the price of the UAV is at the forefront. “Previously, the construction of one device cost the Turks $ 1-1.5 million per unit, but due to the growth in the production of UAVs, the cost per unit fell to less than $ 500 thousand, and this is without taking into account the control station,” said Kharchaui.

He added that the modernization of the software and other technical changes increased the effectiveness of combat use and the reconnaissance capabilities of the Bayraktar TB2 UAV, which, in his opinion, made it possible to find the correct altitude for the combat use of the apparatus in order to avoid being hit by the Pantsir anti-aircraft gun missile systems.

“The combat use of the Chinese UAE Wing Loon II by the UAE, meanwhile, basically did not carry any special tactical innovations. The devices themselves did not evolve in the course of hostilities, so the results of their actions were less impressive,” Jalel Kharchaoui said.

Barry draws attention to the fact that Libya is another example of the increasing effectiveness of the combat use of drones in modern warfare.

“Currently UAVs are an opportunity used by both state and non-state actors. Obviously, states can afford more powerful and larger systems, while non-state actors may have to be content with homemade devices made from RadioShack components (American company, chain of retail electronics stores located in North America, Europe, South America and Africa, note “Gazeta.Ru”), or the acquisition of systems from government sponsors,” Barry said, adding:

“In Libya, unmanned aerial vehicles are ideal for such an ugly, exhausting war against small and lightly armed units.”

Meanwhile, the use of manned fighters in Libya was characterized by the fact that the major powers sent them to this North African country quietly and without prior notice.

Last July, a missile strike on a migrant center near Tripoli that killed 53 people was likely the work of the UAE, Britain’s nationwide public broadcaster BBC reported, citing a confidential UN investigation.

Analyst Kharchaoui claimed that Mirage 2000 aircraft of the United Arab Emirates Air Force, operating from the Egyptian airbase, provided close air support to Field Marshal Haftar’s units and formations, starting in June 2019.

“The Misurata airbase, where the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles were deployed, was subjected to numerous bombings last year by manned aircraft and UAVs from the United Arab Emirates, while the Turks deployed MIM-23 Hawk anti-aircraft missile systems in the combat area. Raids over Misurata stopped in 2020. Probably, the UAE feared that if the air defense systems of their aircraft were hit by fire, the captured pilots could appear exhausted on Facebook,” he said.

Nevertheless, on July 4, fighters again attacked the Al-Watiya airbase, and immediately after Turkey deployed MIM-23 Hawk anti-aircraft missile systems there.

“The sounds of the plane’s flight and bomb-assault strikes that eyewitnesses heard over Sebkha in southwestern Libya suggest that the plane took off from Egypt, and then headed to Libya through the Sahara Desert, so as not to be noticed by the reconnaissance assets of the Turkish Navy frigates, located off the Libyan coast “, said Kharchaoui.

“Could this plane be an Egyptian Rafale fighter? The aircraft as such are certainly good, but the Egyptian pilots most likely lack the experience for such precision work. It is unlikely that these were French pilots flying Egyptian Rafale. If a pilot of one of the aircraft is captured, the consequences will be quite unfavorable. Most likely, it was Mirage 2000 of the United Arab Emirates,” reflects Kharchaoui.

Of all the Gulf countries, the UAE Air Force is the best able to carry out this kind of mission – they have combat experience, Barry added.

Meanwhile, the US African Command (USAFRICOM) reported at the end of May that detailed reconnaissance spacecraft photographs show that Russian planes are arriving in Libya to support Khalifa Haftar’s formations.

This summer, the intensity of hostilities in Libya has significantly decreased.

Field Marshal Haftar’s formations retreat from the vicinity of Tripoli and take up positions to fight for the coastal city of Sirte, which plays a key role in controlling the Libyan oil trade.

Al-Watia airbase has now been renovated and is fully operational again following an air attack in July. Turkey may be considering the possibility of deploying its F-16s there, which will provide it with a springboard for the combat use of its fighters in Libya, writes Defense News.

However, the redeployment and combat use of American-built aircraft depends on the United States.

“The civil war in Libya was the conflict where unmanned aerial systems were widely used by the opposing sides. One of the conclusions from the interim results of actions in Libya is that the long-standing situation in the world in the field of unmanned systems, which could in fact be called a duopoly of the United States and Israel, is a thing of the past,” the editor-in-chief of the magazine explained to Gazeta.Ru. Unmanned aircraft Denis Fedutinov.

According to a specialist in the field of unmanned vehicles, several new players have appeared on the world stage who are actively developing and mass-producing UAVs intended not only for supply to the national armed forces, but also for export. Moreover, the latter sometimes prevails.

As Denis Fedutinov emphasized, China entered the list of the world’s main developers and suppliers of unmanned systems several years ago. Over the following years, he only strengthened his position and now, bypassing Israel, he will compete with the United States for the championship. Success in the international market is primarily due to the loyalty of the Chinese authorities in the supply of such equipment, which contrasts with the strict restrictions on the sale of UAV systems that exist in the same United States. In addition, unmanned systems made in the PRC, despite the existing loss in technical terms, significantly benefit in comparison with the products of American and Israeli developers in cost.

“Previously, almost the only party using unmanned aerial vehicles in the course of hostilities was the United States. But their UAVs hit mainly on bandit formations, the United States did not conduct an armed struggle against a high-tech enemy, ”a high-ranking source in the General Staff of the Aerospace Forces told Gazeta.Ru.

However, the general noted, starting with Syria, and now in Libya, along with UAVs, all types of aviation forces and air defense systems have been fully included in the armed struggle. In particular, fairly high-tech anti-aircraft missile systems take part in hostilities.

And, as the interlocutor of the publication pointed out, in the course of the military conflict in Libya, a fundamentally new experience of hostilities is being gained, and despite the relatively small combat and numerical strength of the opposing sides. And this experience can already change a lot, both in approaches to the creation of new types of weapons and equipment, and in the forms and methods of warfare.

As it turned out, unmanned aerial vehicles are a very effective means of combating anti-aircraft missile systems, even the latest generations, a source told Gazeta.Ru.

And this is a qualitatively different situation on the battlefields. It is time to talk about a new type of combat in the air sphere. This prompts developers to create new means of combating UAVs, in particular, laser weapons.

It would seem that anti-aircraft gun missile systems are a very effective means of dealing with UAVs and manned aircraft. But Israel in Syria and Turkey in Libya have shown that this, to put it mildly, is not entirely true.

“In general, the Libyan military conflict, as they say, provides abundant food for thought and conclusions,” the military leader concluded.

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