On Mar. 19, 2011, incidentally exactly 8 years since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a medium scale operation to protect Libyan people from attacks of forces loyal to Gaddafi in accordance with resolution 1973 of the Security Council of the United Nations, dubbed “Odyssey Dawn”, began, involving the forces of a coalition of the willing made by US, France, UK, Italy and Canada (according to the Pentagon, even if the actual and active participation of the Canadians and Italians in the first stages of the war in Libya has yet to be confirmed).
The entire operation developed into at least three phases:
1) build up phase (still in progress): the one usually preceding the beginning of the air operations, during which the various assets, belonging to the contributing nations, reach the forward operating bases. For instance, the Canadian Air Force deployed 6 CF-18 of the 425 Squadron of 3 Wing from Bagotville to Trapani via Prestwick, the USAFE (United States Air Force in Europe) moved some 10 F-15E of the 494FS and 12 F-16s of the 480FS to Aviano, the RDAF (Royal Danish Air Force) deployed 6 F-16s to Sigonella, the Spanish Air Force sent 4 EF-18 and 1 B707 to Decimomannu and so on. Even Italy relocated some of its assets in proximity of the area of operations: along with 4 Tornado ECRs of the 155° Gruppo based in Piacenza, an unspecified number of Tornado IDSs of the 6° Stormo of Ghedi and some Typhoons of the Grosseto-based 4° Stormo were deployed to Trapani, home of the F-16s of the 37° Stormo. The build up will continue in the following days, as new countries will join the coalition of the willing and will find a place on one of the 7 Italian bases rendered available by Italy (Aviano, Gioia del Colle, Trapani, Amendola, Sigonella, Decimomannu and Pantelleria) or by other countries like Greece, Spain or Cyprus.
2) operation Harmattan: in the early afternoon of Mar. 19, by order of the President Sarkozy, the French Chief of Defence Staff launched “Operation Harmattan”, name of the French participation to the Odyssey Dawn. Beginning at 12.30Z French aircraft flew into Libya to provide air defense missions to enforce the no-fly zone in the region of Benghazi (radius 150 km from the town) and to strike those military targets identified on the ground that could threaten the civilian population. 20 aircraft were involved in the first raid (8 Rafale, 2 Mirage 2000-5, 2 Mirage 2000 D, 6 C-135 tanker and 1 E3F AWACS images by Sirpa Air French Air Force and below chart made by http://rafalenews.blogspot.com/) and two frigates and anti-aircraft air defense (the Jean Bart and Forbin) positioned off Libya. Even though the press release later affirmed that “these French military forces were engaged in close coordination with our allies the time that the multinational coalition into place” some online newspapers reported that France’s first strike in Libya somehow angered some of the countries gathered at the afternoon Paris summit meeting. In fact, it is at least weird that the French Air Force decided to attack Gaddafi’s forces around Benghazi without support from partners. For sure the French intervention (claiming 4 Libyan tanks destroyed) stopped (or at least helped to stop) the loyalists forces’ advance to Benghazi but many saw this action as an attempt by President Sarkozy, that was criticised in the past for being too cautious, to give France a leading role in the North Africa crisis; others saw the warmongering behaviour as also a means to raise the profile of the Rafale by giving it visibility as a combat proven weapon system….
For sure the solitary attack made by the French contingent was at least unusual/unexpected, especially since French Air Force lacks some specialties (or, let’s say, has not in its inventory the proper kind of aircraft even if Rafale can on the paper somehow fulfil the tasks) and it’s not capable of autonomously performing those missions that are usually required at the beginning of a campaign, like SEAD and accompanying active kinetic EW. Usually, an air campaign starts with (cruise missiles) strikes aimed at the enemy Air Defence and Communication network, to give aicraft that will provide air superiority and will have to enforce the NFZ an airspace cleared of SAM launchers and radars. On the other side it must be noted that, according to the most informed sources, any SAM sites in the Benghazi area are not believed to be operational and, MANPADs aside, real threats to the French fighters were extremely limited in that area. For this reason, without much trouble a French attack plane (Mirage 2000D or Rafale) fired the first shot of Operation Odyssey Dawn at 14.45Z (using either a GBU-12 laser guided bomb or a AASM air-to-ground guided weapon). Some guessed the French were sent to Benghazi to invite Libyans to turn on their SAM site’s radars, unveiling their actual location for later targeting. Although possible, it sounds to me a bit risky considering also that a lot of SIGINT platform have been operating in the Libyan airspace with the specific task of gathering as much information as possible on the current status of the Libyan air defence network.
The fighters took off from Solenzara, Corse, while the supporting planes departed from Istres. Someone has speculated the attack could have originated from N’Djamena, Chad, where French Mirage F1 and 2000 have been operating since the early ’80s. However this option should be ruled out because of the distance and because the aircraft deployed there should be Mirage 2000 RDI. Libyan State TV claimed a FAF aircraft was shot down, but the news was denied by the French authorities.
3) the final part of the first stage of Operation Odyssey Dawn was a massive Tomahawk attack performed by US Navy warships and four submarines (three US and a British Trafalgar class one) around 19.30Z. More than 110 cruise missiles were launched by the Arleigh Burke-class, guided-missile destroyers USS Stout (DDG 55) and USS Barry (DDG 52) and submarines USS Providence (SSN 719), USS Scranton (SSN 756) and USS Florida (SSGN 728) participated in the strike. The TLAMs (Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles) were used to attack 20 targets of the Libyan air defense, surface-to-air missile sites and communication nodes. Following the wave of cruise missiles, the RAF launched Storm Shadow missiles from Tornado GR4 which flew direct from RAF Marham and back making the 3.000 miles trip, this the longest range bombing mission conducted by the RAF since the Falklands conflict. The operation was supported by VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft as well as E-3D Sentry and Sentinel surveillance aircraft.