Bait and Switch in Libya | Military Aviation | Air & Space Magazine
(Commander Thompson S. Sanders, U.S. Navy (Ret.); Photo-Illustration by Théo)

Bait and Switch in Libya

Naval aviators push Qaddafi's buttons in a 1981 exercise

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In March 1981, after being stationed in the Caribbean for training exercises, the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal steamed to the Mediterranean on a six-month deployment. As a naval aviator and administrative officer, I flew anti-submarine/anti-ship Lockheed S-3A Vikings off the Forrestal with the VS-30 Diamond Cutters squadron.

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U.S. relations with Libya had become increasingly tense since the previous year, when Libyan fighters had fired at a U.S. Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Med. Muammar Qaddafi, murdered last year by his own countrymen, had been in power for a dozen years and for the last eight had claimed the entire Gulf of Sidra as Libyan territory. At the time of our deployment, he threatened a military response if either aircraft or ships crossed his “Line of Death.” The United States, its allies, and the United Nations, through the Freedom of Navigation program, all refused to recognize Qaddafi’s claim.

Today we know that President Reagan had authorized the exercise on which we were about to embark, which would simulate an air/sea incursion in the gulf: We would radar-target our own ships, and they, in turn, would defend against fake missile attacks.

Late one night in August, the USS Nimitz and the Forrestal took up station in the gulf, about 100 miles off Libya. Our mission was to test Qaddafi’s line by observing Libya’s response to a U.S. Navy jet racing around far inside it, but (just barely) outside a 12-mile zone of internationally recognized territorial waters. To prepare for the possibility of a battle, most of the carriers’ non-essential aircraft were flown to Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, to make space for fighters to trap, refuel with engines running, and re-launch.

Even before the exercise began, we got an ominous call: Three MiG-25s were approaching Nimitz from the Libyan coast. Combat air patrol F-14 Tomcats from the Nimitz and F-4 Phantom IIs from Forrestal escorted them from the area without incident. Watching from the pilots’ ready room, we surmised that the MiGs, lacking sophisticated radar, were trying to pinpoint our location.

Next, a wave of 70 aircraft approached—MiG-25s, -23s, Sukhoi Su-20s, and -22s. The chuckles and high-fives in the ready room turned to frowns. “Are you kidding me?” someone said. “I didn’t think they even had 70 airplanes!”

Soon a third flight approached, flying high and fast, but F-14s and F-4s headed the group off without incident. Some combat air patrol pilots boasted they’d finally seen some action on what had been a fairly uneventful tour.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 19, seven pairs of F-14s and F-4s launched from the Nimitz and Forrestal, orbiting 60 miles off the coast to protect the long-awaited “missile exercise” aircraft from Libyan harassment.

At 5:30 a.m., while I finished the preflight checks of our S-3A, call sign “Diamond Cutter 702,” the squadron executive officer, as pilot in command, received the final mission briefing. I copiloted, handling radios and navigation.

The XO, a senior aviator and respected leader, was an obvious choice for the mission. I may have been selected because I spent 1975 at the U.S. Army Defense Language Institute, studying Turkish and some Arabic, and had spent two years in a pilot exchange program with the Turkish naval air force (where I earned the call sign “Turk”), teaching pilots in the Grumman S-2E Tracker. Apparently our carrier air group commander thought my language skills might be helpful that day. I hoped he wasn’t assuming that if we ended up having to parachute into Libya, I’d win over the locals with my language skills: I was fluent in Turkish, but the extent of my Arabic would have probably landed us in a bar or a bathroom.

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