Category Archives: Operation Unified Protector

"Some NATO air strikes in Libya may have violated the law of war" report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya says

According to a report published in these hours by the UN Commission of inquiry on Libya, the coalition of NATO and non-NATO members, operating within Operation Unified Protector to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, may have violated the law of war in some air strikes that caused the death of civilians.

Nothing comparable to the international crimes, both crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed by Gaddafi forces and including unlawful killing, individual acts of torture and ill-treatment, attacks on civilians using prohibited weapons (cluster munitions and anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines), and rape;  nor the “serious violations” committed by the thuwar (anti-Gaddafi forces aka “rebels”), that included unlawful killing, arbitrary arrest, torture, enforced disappearance, indiscriminate attacks, and pillage.

NATO told the Commission that it had a standard of “zero expectation” of death or injury to civilians and that no targets were struck if there was any reason to believe civilians would be injured or killed by a strike.

The vast majority of NATO airstrikes did not cause collateral damages, even where there was a significant potential for civilian harm: for example, on May 24-25 when NATO aircraft struck the Bab-al-Aziziyah facility, the headquarters and residence of Gaddafi in central Tripoli numerous security buildings, located less than 300 meters from civilian apartment buildings, (close enough to be at risk of collateral damage), were destroyed without civilian casualties.

However, “on limited occasions, the Commission confirmed civilian casualties and found targets that showed no evidence of military utility. The Commission was unable to draw conclusions in such instances on the basis of the information provided by NATO and recommends further investigations.”

Indeed the conclusion is:

The Commission found NATO did not deliberately target civilians in Libya. For the few targets struck within population centres, NATO took extensive precautions to ensure civilians were not killed.

However, there were a small number of strikes where NATO’s response to the Commission has not allowed it to draw conclusions on the rationale for, or the circumstances of the attacks. The Commission is unable to conclude, barring additional explanation, whether these strikes are consistent with NATO’s objective to avoid civilian casualties entirely, or whether NATO took all necessary precautions to that effect.

NATO’s characterization of four of five targets where the Commission found civilian casualties as “command and control nodes” or “troop staging areas” is not reflected in evidence at the scene and witness testimony. The Commission is unable to determine, for lack of sufficient information, whether these strikes were based on incorrect or out-dated intelligence and, therefore, whether they were consistent with NATO’s objective to take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties entirely.

The Commission has investigated numerous strikes in Libya, especially those where civilians died. And although it determined that NATO did not commit any human right violation, nor used  prohinited weapons, found some oddities.

As the use of “miscellaneous Precision Guided Munitions”, four of which were employed along with 3,644 LGBs, 2,844 GPS-guided, 1,150 precision-guided direct-fire weapons (such as Hellfire missiles), or the use of expired materials.

For instance, in one of those air strikes, the one in the town of Majer in the area of Al Huwayjat on Aug. 8 that resulted in the single largest case of civilian casualties from a NATO airstrike NATO dropped a GBU-12 bomb whose guidance kit was more than five years past its warranty date (2005).

GBU-12 guidance kit debris with warranty expired in 2005

Even if this is not “ethical” nor safe, there are still some reasons to explain the use obsolete components that might turn a smart weapon into a dumb one. Usually, a laser designator past its warranty expiration date would not be used whereas a tail kit of a PGM, used for bomb guidance, could be used past warranty date, after being checked to see if the fins deployed according to military sources.

In fact, NATO’s answer was that “the fact alone that an expiration date has been passed does not mean that a weapon is no longer reliable.”

Nevertheless, the usage of such old parts indicates that NATO partners were probably running very low on bomb (as pointed out in my final report on the Libya Air War).

But, what’s really amazing in the report is that NATO did not answer to all the UN Commission’s requests; requests aimed to determine the legitimacy of few air striks. On the contrary, it officially affirmed to be concerned if  some incidents (as the above) were included in the final report, “as on a par with those which the Commision may ultimately conclude did violate law or constitute crimes.”

That’s what emerges from a series of letter (last of which dated Feb.15) sent by NATO’s legal adviser to Judge P. Kirsch, Chair of the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, to answer questions about the way the air campaign was conducted, specific targeting procedures, type of munitions used, etc.

[Annex II pag. 12 of the report]:

“We would accordingly request that, in the Commission elects to include discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.”

Earlier NATO had already explained to be not “persuaded that examination of conduct of parties to the Libyan internal conflict implies expansion of the Commission’s work to include “investigation” of NATO’s actions giving effect to the mandate contained in UN Security Resolution 1973.”

Anyway, the Commission’s report contains lots of interesting things (number and type of weapons used, maps, satellite imagery, and so on) so I suggest you to read it at this link.

Air strikes over Libya

At a few minutes past midnight on November 1st, 2011, after radioing a “thank you” to the Malta ATC controller, ‘OUP 355’, an E-3 AWACS of the NATO Airborne Early Warning Component, began an en-route descent to Trapani airbase, in Sicily.

Since the beginning of the NATO operation at 06.00GMT on March 31st, over 26,500 sorties were conducted, including more than 9,700 strike sorties. These figures do not take into account the first part of the war, from March 19th until the Transfer Of Authority to NATO, when assets flew a significant number of missions under their respective national commands within the U.S.-led Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Eventually, the air war in Libya was able to end the systematic violation of human rights and the repression of demonstrators, bringing the declaration of the full liberation of Libya by the National Transitional Council and the consequent stabilization of the region. However, the involvement of some weapon systems over Northern Africa became so well known (and, in some cases, overrated) that many have seen the use of air power over Northern Africa as a way to promote various forms of technology; a sort of really expensive marketing operation spurred by the desire of visibility rather than the need to achieve a quick military objective.

But, beyond the advertising slogans of the manufacturers eager to get export orders and the statements of the high rank officers involved in the air campaign always struggling to preserve their budget from cuts imposed by the global financial crisis, which were the truly decisive weapon systems in Libya?


Capable of silently flying for several hours carrying a wide array of sensors, well above the ceiling of the anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) played an important role in Libya. The first drones to operate in the Libyan airspace were the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the US Air Force, based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily, the main operating base of the NATO Air Ground Surveillance Global Hawk program. The Global Hawks were the first UAS to be deployed at the beginning of the war when they were used to perform high altitude battle damage assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat.

On April 21, President Barak Obama authorized the Department of Defense to use armed Predators in Libya and MQ-1s began flying strike sorties in the areas of Misratah and Tripoli. During the air campaign, U.S. Predators launched 145 air strikes firing hundred AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and also took part in the operation that led to the capture and killing of Gaddafi in Sirte, when an MQ-1 teamed up with a mixed flight of a Mirage F1CR and a Mirage 2000D and attacked the huge convoy used by the Libyan dictator in his attempt to flee the city. Also conducting some shorter range ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) activity from U.S. Navy ships off the coast were some MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, one of which was lost (for unknown reasons) during a reconnaissance mission over Northern Libya on June 21.

Alongside the US drones at Sigonella were the French Harfang (a modified version of the Israeli IAI Heron drone) of the Escadron de drones 01.033 “Belfort” from Cognac, while Italy committed to perform unarmed ISR missions using two Italian Air Force Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) drones that were remotely controlled from the Mobile Ground Control Station at Amendola airbase in southeast Italy. Belonging to the 28° Gruppo of the 32° Stormo the Italian drones flew their first OUP sortie on August 10 and were mainly used to conduct sorties deep inside Libyan territory, over targets that could not be easily reached by other assets.

In Libya-like scenarios and, generally speaking, in Crisis Support Operations where they do not face numerous high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles, drones have proved to be both effective and cheap: they ensure the coverage of a vast area of interest with the same amount of weapons as a manned aircraft, but at about a fifth of the cost per flight hour. This is of significant advantage in a period of financial crisis, as some nations could divert their ever shrinking budgets from expensive noisy manned fighters to cheaper silent unmanned aircraft.

Aerial tankers

Even if the majority of tactical planes involved in the enforcement of the No-Fly Zone and in the air strikes in Libya were stationed in either Southern Italy or Greece, each fighter sortie in support of OUP averaged 8 hours and required five air-to-air refuelings. As a result, at least 6 or 7 tankers were orbiting in the airspace off the Libyan coast at any given time during the war, without taking into consideration those flying to and from their home bases.

[Read the rest on Global Aviator]

Image credit: France MoD


Vipers, Growlers, Prowlers, Eagles and Hogs: U.S. combat planes at Aviano airbase during Libya air war. With heart background.

Although the U.S. involvement in Libya was scaled down few days after NATO took control over the air campaign on Mar. 31, 2011, American tactical aircraft (“tacair”) played an important role during the opening stages of the Washington-led Operation Odyssey Dawn (for more details I suggest you reading the first debriefs of my Libya Air War series).

Even if U.S. planes also operated from other deployment base (RAF Mildenhall, Moron, Souda Bay, Istres), Aviano airbase, in northeast Italy, and Sigonella, in Sicily, were the two main hubs used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps assets. In particular, Aviano was mainly used by the tacair component, while “Saigon” was used by support planes (PSYOPS, tankers, etc.) and drones (both Reapers and Global Hawks).

Among the aircraft on temporary deployment to Aviano (that is the permanent base of the 31st FW’s F-16s) there were: VAQ-132 EA-18G Growlers, VAQ-140 and VMAQ-1 EA-6B Prowlers, 494FS F-15E, 81FS A-10s and 480FS F-16CJs. A Jordanian Air Force detachment operated from Aviano throughout the duration of Operation Unified Protector.

The following pictures, taken by Simone Gazzola, show some of the most interesting aircraft taking off or landing at Aviano.

Note also the “heart” shape on the background of some pictures. It’s a land-art project called Lumacuore (an Italian word formed by combining the words lumaca= snail and cuore = heart) and made between 2009 and 2010 on the side of Piancavallo mountain by the Italian artist Laura Trevisan with the aim of “spreading a cultural message on human rights, love and respect for nature as well as the environmentally friendly development of the territory.”

Special feature: the most interesting pictures of the aircraft involved in Libya air war (Part 2)

After publishing the first Special Feature to celebrate the end of the war in Libya with the most interesting aircraft involved in Operation Unified Protector, many photographers sent me more images depicting some of the planes and helicopter that, for various reasons, visited Luqa airport as a consequence of the Libyan uprising and the subsequent air campaign.

Here you can find a gallery of images taken at Malta International Airport from February to October by Franco Debattista, Malcolm Bezzina, Mario Borg Olivier and Trafford Vella.


Special feature: the most interesting pictures of the aircraft involved in Libya air war

On Oct. 31, at 23.59 Libyan Time, exactly 7 months after it began, NATO Operation Unified Protector has come to an end. Since the beginning of the Uprising and especially from Mar. 19, the Day 1 of the war (then named Odyssey Dawn), this site has provided an unmatched analysis of the air campaign with special reports, previously unreleased information, detailed debriefings, infographics and pictures.

I’ve already written the first part of the Lessons Learned during the war in the post titled Operation Unified Protector (was Odyssey Dawn) explained: Final Report (part two will follow in the next days….so stay tuned, I’ve still something to say about the air war in Libya). However, to celebrate the official end of the air campaign, I’ve collected some of the most interesting pictures of the aircraft involved in the operations in Libya taken by unofficial sources (whose name are listed at the end of this post) since February 2011.

Most of them were taken at Malta International Airport that, although not being directly involved in the allied operations, was a hub for all the civil and military aircraft involved in the humanitarian airlift in the aftermath of the Uprising (when Libya was evacuated) and, during the war, was often the preferred alternate airfield for all the OUP aircraft experiencing mechanical failures or fuel shortage.

This post will not show you all the technologies that took out Gaddafi but will probably show most of those that played a critical role in the “victory”.

Each image’s filename contains where and when the picture was taken.

Images by: Estelle Calleja, Matthew Scerri, Trafford Vella, Brendon Attard, Roderick Agius, Giovanni Maduli, David Cenciotti and a couple of anonymous contributors.