Friday, 12 February 2021

Al-Watiya - From A Libyan Super Base To Turkish Air Base


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
 
Al-Watiya. An airbase few had ever heard of until it became a symbol in the fight of the internationally-recognised government of Libya (GNA) against Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) that seeks to overthrow it. While its capture on the 18th of May 2020 temporarily managed to put the spotlight on the severely underreported Libyan conflict, not the least because of the destruction and capture of two Russian Pantsir-S1 missile systems supplied by the UAE, the full implications of the capture of al-Watiya have gone mostly unnoticed.

More than just a local success story for the Government of National Accord, al-Watiya was a major stronghold in the LNA's offensive line around Tripoli. Tasked with protecting and supporting the Western flank of the LNA's military thrust into Tripoli, what was left of Haftar's prospects of capturing Libya's capital crumbled with the loss of this key airbase. The freeing up of GNA forces as a result of the capture and the subsequent increase in pressure on other fronts around Tripoli made the LNA's and Wagner PMC's position in this part of the country untenable, leading to a chaotic retreat from Western Libya and ending Haftar's long-held dream of capturing Tripoli and installing himself as self-proclaimed president of Libya.

Faced with this new reality, the LNA's foreign backers (Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, France and Russia) scrambled to prevent further GNA advances into LNA-held territory, deploying ever more mercenaries to the country and even reinforcing Wagner's contingent with Russian Su-24 and MiG-29 fighter aircraft. Hell-bent on succeeding in its quest to install Haftar as the sole ruler of Libya, the UAE has gone to great lengths in order to achieve its strategic objectives in the country. Mirroring the UAE's lack of a cohesive strategy in Yemen, the resulting policy has achieved little result on the ground however. Having invested billions into securing a victory in the Libyan conflict over a period of more than six years, the UAE might consider its stakes in the conflict simply too large to back down now, instead doubling down in an attempt to secure an unlikely victory.
 

For Turkey, its highly efficient use of drones in Libya has boosted its growing foreign policy assertiveness to shape an entirely new foreign policy: that of Bayraktar Diplomacy. Based around small-footprint interventions that seek to maximise both political and military impact at low financial and humanitarian cost, Bayraktar Diplomacy essentially constitutes a new type of warfare that is uniquely well-suited to the characteristics of modern-day conflicts. Although the drones through which it is typically effected are relatively cheap, and actually expendable, Bayraktar Diplomacy is in fact so effective that it can be said to have decided the fate of nations: without the Bayraktar TB2 the GNA could well have been wiped out in Libya.

On the ground, Turkey restructured GNA forces in Tripoli, allowing them to mount an effective defence of the city's suburbs and eventually take the fight to the LNA. Doing what the UAE failed to do, Turkey actually began to train local forces rather than merely supplying them with arms and equipment. This approach paid off tremendously, and now armed with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), anti-materiel rifles and supported by artillery fire and drones, GNA forces could now turn streets into killzones for anyone brave enough to contest them.
 
In the long run, the capture of al-Watiya provides Turkey with the perfect opportunity to increase its support to the internationally-recognised government at a moment's notice. In this sense, al-Watiya acts as a guarantee for the continued survival of the GNA, as the airbase could be used to quickly reinforce the GNA or even deploy a Turkish military contingent if hostilities flare up again. Indeed, the fact that al-Watiya has already been prepared for the deployment of F-16s shows that Turkey's commitment to the GNA is unlikely to abate soon.
 

But before continuing with the recent spate of developments, it is insightful to consider the history of the airbase. Al-Watiya was originally constructed by French contractors during the 1970s, and housed a large part of Libya's Mirage fleet before their gradual withdrawal due to a lack of spare parts in the 1990s. The layout of al-Watiya was subsequently used to construct several similar airbases throughout Libya, most notably al-Bumbah near Tobruk, and its size would only ever be triumphed by the massive Ghardabiya airbase located near Sirte, which with its whopping 80 hardened aircraft shelters is still the biggest airbase in Africa.  
 
The number of hardened aircraft shelters is of little relevance if you do not have the aircraft to fill them however. While there had been plenty of types to justify al-Watiya's size during the Cold War, political isolation and negligence took a severe toll on the Libyan Air Force. Even though the arms embargo on Libya was lifted in 2003, Gaddafi made little effort to rebuild his air force, and by 2011 al-Watiya was home to just a half-dozen operational aircraft: three Mirage F1s and at least three Su-22 fighter-bombers. This was a far cry from the hundreds of combat aircraft operated by the Libya during the 1980s and 1990s, yet the six aircraft at al-Watiya ironically still made up roughly one-third of the Libyan Air Force's combat strength.

 
Located relatively far away from the main events of the 2011 revolution, the Mirages at al-Watiya were nonetheless quickly ordered in action against crowds of protestors. But rather than unleashing their deadly payload on civilians in the streets, the two Mirage F1s tasked with doing so immediately defected to Malta after taking off from al-Watiya on the 21st of February 2011. With the loyalty of the air force now in doubt, al-Watiya played no further serious role until the NATO intervention several weeks later. Located high on NATO's target list, all remaining operational aircraft at al-Watiya were swiftly neutralised by precision-guided munitions. Four Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) with the aircraft still inside and one Su-22 and two helicopters parked outside were targeted at al-Watiya. Also hit were several munition depots, the detonations of which were so severe it left crates as wide as forty metres.
 
Tasked with protecting al-Watiya were five surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, comprising two S-75 (NATO designation: SA-2) and three S-125 (SA-3) batteries. Three batteries were still active in 2011, but were quickly rendered useless after their radar systems were taken out by NATO precision strikes. The firing units of the SAM sites were then removed by rebel forces in June 2011, leaving al-Watiya defenceless against any future incursions by air.
 

When the two Mirages that escaped to Malta finally returned to Libya in February 2012, they began to operate from Mitiga airbase located in Tripoli proper, leaving al-Watiya with no aircraft assigned to it. Still, the airbase remained of some importance for the fledgling democracy. This was not just for the strategic location it occupies, but rather for the many Mirage F1s found stored in the forty-five hardened aircraft shelters located on the base. These aircraft could still be overhauled with foreign help, allowing the country to slowly rebuild its air force at little cost.

 
Although originally under the control of Libya Dawn (which handed over power to the GNA in January 2016), following the effective split of Libya into two separate zones in 2014 al-Watiya was quickly captured by the Libyan National Army on the 9th of August that year. The LNA immediately set out to restore several aircraft found at the airbase to operational condition, a task that was not to be underestimated given that all the aircraft stored here were originally decommissioned because of a lack of spare parts. 
 
That the LNA was now attempting to bring back several aircraft to operational condition so close to Tripoli (the seat of Libya Dawn) must have been a thorn in the eye of Libya Dawn, which made every effort to hinder this process. Unfortunately for Dawn, it possessed no weaponry that could accurately and effectively target the hardened aircraft shelters and thus disrupt the work that was going on inside of them. Not to be deterred, Dawn began flying reconnaissance sorties close to al-Watiya in an effort to gather intelligence on the airbase and so hopefully see where work on these aircraft was taking place. One if its Schiebel Camcopter S-100 rotary UAVs crashed close to the airbase in January 2015, and it's unknown if these sorties ever provided Dawn with any kind of useful intelligence. [1]
 
A more hands on approach (possibly prompted by such intelligence) at stopping the LNA from overhauling aircraft became available to Dawn in early 2015, using a MiG-25PU two-seat conversion trainer converted to a makeshift bomber. The newly overhauled aircraft seemed to have only one weapon pylon on each side, each carrying just a single FAB-500T for a total of two of the 500kg general purpose bombs, limiting the operational capabilities of the aircraft. However, a more significant problem it may have faced during bombing runs arises from the terrible accuracy usually associated with using aircraft that were never designed for this role and ordnance. As such, it would already have been a small miracle if any of the maximum of two bombs dropped from the aircraft would have hit the airbase, let alone the hardened aircraft shelter it was originally targeting.

Not that any of this really mattered, as the MiG-25PU already crashed on its first operational sortie near Zintan (a city located close to the airbase) in May 2015. Some four years later, in April 2019, the sole remaining Mirage F1ED of the GNA crashed under similar circumstances near al-Watiya. The pilot managed to eject from the ill-fated aircraft and miraculously avoided LNA search parties scouring the area for him. Finding shelter with a shepherd that was willing to shelter him, he hid for several days before being extracted by a GNA team sent to rescue him. [2]


Following a brief period of frequent but highly ineffective attempts at challenging the LNA's control over al-Watiya, Libya Dawn (and later the GNA) largely gave up contesting the LNA's ownership over the airbase save for sporadic clashes in the vicinity of the base. The LNA could from then on operate undisturbed at al-Watiya for some four years, and it made good use of this time by bringing three Su-22s and two Mirage F1s (one F1ED interceptor, the other a F1AD fighter-bomber) back to service. During this period, the airbase also saw frequent deployments of MiGs and helicopters in support of LNA offensives in the region, and cargo aircraft regularly brought in reinforcements and supplies for the same reason.
 

But this was all about to change when Turkey intervened on behalf of the internationally-recognised government in the summer of 2019. Supplying the GNA with a small fleet of Bayraktar TB2s, its forces could now target any structure at al-Watiya with pinpoint accuracy using MAM-L (fitted with a thermobaric warhead) and MAM-C (fitted with a high-explosive warhead) munitions. That the LNA and UAE had never anticipated this development is putting it lightly, as both had failed to install even a basic air defence capability to the vicinity of the base. Even when increasing number of Emirati Pantsir-S1s began to arrive in Libya, almost all of these ended up southeast of Tripoli, where they would ultimately prove incapable of tackling the drone threat overhead. The hunter soon became the hunted, and at least six of them were destroyed by Bayraktar TB2s.

With no threat of air defence systems to speak of, TB2s could operate over al-Watiya with complete impunity. The LNA woke up to this new reality on the 19th of June 2019, when one of its Su-22s was targeted while parked on the taxiway. [3] Where Libya Dawn had previously struggled to effect even a minor hinder to operations at al-Watiya, the GNA could now spot and target anything that moved on the ground while remaining completely unnoticed. Continued air operations at al-Watiya became all but impossible as a result, and activities on the base came to a grinding halt. This also appears to have a put an end to the overhaul of several aircraft still stranded at the airbase, as any signs of activity near one of the hardened aircraft shelters could have alerted a TB2 possibly flying overhead, which could then target the HAS and the aircraft undergoing overhaul in it. In effect, al-Watiya was in lockdown since the summer of 2019, with Bayraktar TB2s enforcing the rules.
 

Even in the face of this constant aerial threat, neither the LNA, the UAE nor Wagner made any attempt to reinforce the local garrison with air defence systems. This situation persisted until the 16th of May 2020, when the LNA finally deployed two of its Pantsir-S1s to al-Watiya. Though a prudent decision, it did so in the middle of a GNA offensive that sought to capture the airbase. This offensive was of course supported by Bayraktar TB2s, which must have quickly spotted the systems (that had their radars turned on) as they entered the grounds of the airbase. Of course, the fact that the soldiers escorting the convoy filmed themselves while underway to al-Watiya airbase can't have been benificial to operational security either. Even the operators of the TB2 must have watched in amazement as the LNA drove the Pantsir-S1s into two hardened aircraft shelters without being aware of the drone flying overhead.

One of the two systems was targeted immediately after entering the HAS by a missile that aimed for the open entrance rather than the HAS itself, presumably because the operators weren't sure if the munitions would penetrate the concrete-reinforced structure. Although this turned out to be the Pantsir-S1's saving grace, the LNA would not be able to reap the fruits of its survival, as it only meant the GNA would later capture this sophisticated piece of equipment intact. The other system was destroyed a day later after a MAM-L had struck the doors of the hardened aircraft shelter, possibly trapping the Pantsir-S1 inside. The HAS was then hit again by some type of precision-guided munition, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that blew out half of the reinforced structure. One day later, on the 18th of May, al-Watiya fell to the GNA, whose fighters immediately drove to the targeted shelters to find one of both Pantsir-S1s parked inside mostly unscathed. Deploying these valuable Pantsir-S1s in the midst of an offensive was a risky move, perhaps wrought from desperation at the onslaught caused by drone warfare. Whether it was calculated or not, it is certain taking this risk did not pay off in the end.
 
With several Bayraktar TB2 drones giving chase, it is entirely understandable that LNA forces had little appetite for recovering the damaged Pantsir and taking it with them on their retreat from the airbase. Nevertheless, there is little excuse for their failure to destroy the system to prevent it falling into enemy hands. This painful loss highlights the inherent risk of passing such advanced weaponry on to forces that have little idea of their importance of the systems they're operating, or the underlying political game they've unwittingly become part of.
 
 
You might be surprised to hear that the stationing of Emirati Pantsir-S1s in Libya was once a well-kept secret, with its Emirati crews successfully adhering to strict operational security (OPSEC) rules. This changed when the UAE started training LNA soldiers on the systems, which even filmed themselves during their training. This incident was perhaps indicative of what was to come, and further digital trails left by the crews of these systems may well have led the GNA to locate and strike a Pantsir-S1 on more than one occasion. At the same time, the fact that the Pantsir-S1s were passed on to the LNA in the first place is believed to have been a direct result of the Bayraktar TB2's appearance in this theatre of war. Rather than risk the lives of its own soldiers, and by now all too aware of the deficiencies of the Pantsir-S1, the UAE instead passed on the burden of operating these systems to the LNA. Seen below, a LNA soldier proudly posing in front of his new mount.
 
 
Following the capture of al-Watiya, the intact Pantsir-S1 (complete with an operator's manual) was quickly taken away and paraded through Tripoli. Having come to symbolise a turning point in the Libyan Civil War, its arrival to the capital was celebrated extensively. Although it was initially believed that the captured Pantsir-S1 was shortly thereafter moved to Turkey to analyse its inner workings, the lessons of which could then be used to counter the system in future conflicts, in February 2021 news instead came that the system had been handed over to Turkey only after a weeks-long international struggle with the US over the ownership of the system. [4]

Unbeknownst to most, GNA forces in fact recovered several Pantsir-S1s left behind on the battlefield. While some of these were extensively damaged by the MAM-L munitions that hit them, others escaped with relatively minor damage to the operator's cabin and radar. In any case, the Pantsir-S1 has at this point been completely compromised to Western intelligence and militaries. Ironically, this is thanks to the efforts of the UAE, which by its liberal deployment and donations of the system helped the US and NATO to an opportunity to acquire the once dreaded asset, with operator's manual and all.

 
Other losses were mitigated more successfully, and all operational aircraft had already been flown out from al-Watiya long before its capture. Still, there were several aircraft stranded at the airbase that couldn't be evacuated owing to technical defects. This included a Su-22 that appears to have been involved in a collision with an object on the ground. Su-22UM3K '16' had been returned to flying condition in February 2016, and flew for some two years before its career-ending accident. Likely requiring a new nose section, the extent of the damage to the aircraft may have made any effort at repairing it prohibitively costly. The fate of the two remaining single-seater Su-22s isn't much better, as a lack of spare parts (a direct result of the loss of al-Watiya) has meant that these are now stored at Benina airbase in Benghazi.

 
Libya's older Su-22 variants were also found stored in some of the remaining forty-one Hardened Aircraft Shelters. Note the thick layer of dust covering the aircraft, which appear to have been left untouched since their retirement in the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, no attempt was made by the LNA at restoring any of these aircraft. Given their old age and a lack of spare parts, this would have been a nigh impossible task to begin with.

 
The only other type of aircraft encountered at al-Watiya in significant numbers was the Mirage F1. Libya had originally acquired 38 Mirage F1s in the late seventies, comprising 16 Mirage F1AD fighter bombers, 16 Mirage F.1ED interceptors and six Mirage F1BD trainers. [5] These aircraft entered service with 1011 and 1012 Squadron based at al-Watiya airbase, and saw intensive use over Chad and the Gulf of Sirte. In the latter case they were pitted in dogfights against U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats that sought to challenge Libya's claim over the Gulf of Sirte, which Gaddafi had claimed in 1973 as Libyan territorial waters.

The late nineties and the beginning of the 21st century saw the pool of operational airframes continuously dwindling, which forced 1011 Squadron (flying the Mirage F1AD) to eventually stand down, with its aircraft joining the Mirages already in storage. Although Libya was interested in bringing a part of the fleet back to operational condition after the lifting of the arms embargo in 2003, and plans for their overhaul were indeed made, these never came to fruition. As a result of Gaddafi's reluctance to properly fund his military, Libya was left with only two Mirage F1EDs interceptors and one Mirage F1BD trainer at the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.
 
The two Mirage F1EDs were quickly sent off to attack protesters in Benghazi. As mentioned earlier in this article, the pilots, not interested in causing a bloodbath, instead diverted to Malta and asked for political asylum here. These two Mirages later returned to Libya in February 2012, and once again, plans were laid out for the resurrection of the Mirage F1 fleet, with a number of airframes in storage destined to be overhauled at Mitiga airbase. Although several airframes were indeed transferred here, the unrest in Libya put an end to these plans.
 

Following the split of Libya in two separate zones, Libya Dawn inherited the two remaining operational Mirage F1EDs, the overhaul facility at Mitiga airbase in Tripoli and up to twenty-one inoperational Mirage F1s at al-Watiya. But after losing al-Watiya to the LNA, it now had an overhaul facility but no access to airframes to cannabilise, while the LNA now had some two dozen Mirage F1s but no access to an overhaul facility. Nevertheless, each party attempted to make the most out of the situation, and soon more Mirages would take to the skies than in the entire preceding decade.

The GNA, faced with a chronic shortage of pilots, would recruit a total of four foreign mercenary pilots to fly the Mirage F1s for them. Ironically, only one of them had actually flown jet fighters before, with the other three (an airline pilot, a cropduster pilot and a former USAF mechanic) merely seizing the opportunity for an adventure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of them quickly crashed their aircraft, resulting in the death of the cropduster pilot and the capture of the USAF mechanic. For those seeking rhyme or reason behind the hiring of three completely unsuitable candidates; the hiring process was handled through intermediaries who cared about little but the money the deals awarded them.

Meanwhile at al-Watiya the LNA succesfully managed to restore one Mirage F1ED and one Mirage F1AD to operational condition, and actually found Libyan pilots to fly them. Nevertheless, they saw little use under the new ownership and were now without access to spare parts as a direct result of losing control over al-Watiya. As a result, the two Mirages along with the Su-22s were put into storage at Benina (Benghazi). By capturing al-Watiya airbase, the GNA thus nearly halved the LNA's air force's operational strength. In the process of doing so, it encountered several Mirage F1s stripped of their radars, avionics and engines by the LNA to serve whatever airframes were still deemed salvageable.

 
Also found at al-Watiya airbase were several other types of aircraft, including at least two MiG-23s (or more accurately, sections of two MiG-23s). While the identity of the seemingly abandoned MiG-23 standing in the background is unknown, the tail section seen in front belonged to the most active MiG-23 in LNA service: MiG-23UB '8008'. This aircraft was used on nearly every front the LNA was fighting on, operating from Benghazi and later Tamanhint and Brak in Central Libya as the LNA began a series of offensives here. '8008' was also used to intercept a Libyan Airlines CRJ900 flying from GNA-held territory, and despite lacking any weaponry to actually bring the aircraft down with, forced it to land at a LNA-controlled airbase. The aircraft was last seen operating from al-Watiya in April 2019, where it would later be fitted with a new tail section. The old one was dumped in this HAS and discovered in its current state.
 
Owing to a lack of spares as well as the age and complexity of the MiG-23, the LNA has faced great difficulties in keeping these aircraft (safely) in the air. Although it initially secured a steady supply of spare parts by taking apart other airframes, the LNA soon began to ran out of airframes that could still be cannibalised. In response, Russia delivered at least one MiG-23 to serve as a source of spare parts, but that could only temporarily relieve the situation. The LNA then began to combine those parts of different airframes that were in the best condition, resulting in instances where a single MiG-23 was actually composed of sections of three different aircraft. It might not come as a surprise that the MiG-23 in Libyan service suffers from very high attrition rates, so far resulting in the deaths of numerous pilots.


Arguably less imposing than the Sukhois, Mirages and MiGs is a SF.260 light (attack) aircraft that was also encountered in one of the HAS. Covered in a thick layer of dust, and with its Gaddafi-era roundels still present on the fuselage, it is likely that this aircraft had been left here prior to 2011. In the back, a destroyed Mi-24P, clearly showing its tail end partly disintegrated.
 
 
A machine that saw more recent use was Mi-24V '852', a machine already operated by Libya before the events of 2011. In an effort to strengthen the combat capabilities of the LNA, the UAE acquired several Mi-35Ps from Belarus on behalf of the LNA in 2015. [6] At least one Mi-24V seems to have been sourced in similar fashion, their country of origin unknown but also likely Belarus. '852' was undergoing repairs at the time of its capture, although a flat tire and the layer of dust on the cockpit windows might indicate that work on it was halted some time before the capture of al-Watiya. Also note the bullet holes in the tail section of the helicopter.

 
This lonely Mi-24V is a sad reminder from the helicoper operations that once took place at al-Watiya: the airbase once was a major hub for Libya's fleet of Mi-25 attack helicopters (an export variant of the Mi-24D). When most of these were decomissioned in favour of more modern Mi-35s (the export variant of the Mi-24V) acquired from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the fleet was stored at al-Watiya. 
 
Before their decommissioning, the Mi-25s saw intensive use in Libya's military campaigns in neighbouring Chad, where Libya maintained an almost continuous detachment of aircraft and helicopters. When the Chadians inflicted a series of military defeats on the Libyans, eventually leading to the expulsion of the Libyan military from the country, it also captured huge amounts of military equipment and even aircraft and helicopters. This included at least two Mi-25s (one intact and one damaged), which were taken to the US and France respectively in 1988. [7]

 
Arguably the most interesting yet least useful spoils of war were at least six Mi-24A attack helicopters (as well as at least one Mi-24U training variant) found in one of the many storage halls on the airbase, and at least one more in a HAS (for a total of at least eight). Like the Mi-25s, the older Mi-24A/Us entered service with Libya in the late-1970s, operating alongside the Mi-25 until eventually relegated to the role of advanced trainer before they were finally decommissioned and stored at al-Watiya.  
 
While the Mi-24A has been largely forgotten in the face of the introduction of the Mi-24D and subsequent variants, it appears that Libya was quite pleased with the type, even outfitting them with box-shaped filters to protect the helicopters' engines against sand, dust and foreign object damage (FOD). Also note the huge drop tanks for the Mirage F1 lying around in one of the storage halls in the second image.
 


Also found at al-Watiya were the remains of the few aircraft that were actually operated by the LNA out of the airbase, including a single Su-22 and one Mi-24P. Although no detailed information regarding the loss of the Mi-24P is available, the Su-22 was destroyed by a Bayraktar TB2 drone on the 19th of June 2019. While it remains unknown whether the Su-22 was specifically targeted or rather a target of opportunity, its loss made it painfully clear to the LNA that aerial operations out of al-Watiya had become nigh on impossible.


Several other wrecks appear to be leftovers from the NATO-led airstrikes during the 2011 Libyan Civil War. These include several Su-22s that could have challenged the United Nations Security Council approved no-fly zone in Libya before their destruction by precision-guided bombs.


Two more badly damaged Su-22s were found in a Hardened Aircraft Shelter that had clearly been consumed by fire, presumably after having been struck by a MAM-L munition fired from a Bayraktar TB2 drone in March 2020. [8] While it appears that both aircraft were inoperational at the time of their destruction (even still sporting the Gaddafi-era green Jamahiriya roundel), it is possible that the GNA acted on intelligence indicating that both aircraft were to be overhauled or cannabilised for spare parts by the LNA, which the strike obviously prevented.


As could be expected, much of the equipment once used for operating aircraft and helicopters was also captured. Although all show serious signs of wear, some of these will surely be put to good use in restarting operations from the airbase if the GNA is to deploy some of its aerial assets to al-Watiya in the future.


A significant amount of ordnance could also be seen littered around the airbase, including several types of unguided rockets, general purpose and cluster bombs of Soviet and French origin waiting for the Su-22s, MiG-23s and Mirage F1s that never got to deploy them. As the GNA's own air force only operates a few aircraft that are capable of carrying these bombs, it seems likely that most of the ordnance will continue rusting away, or will be detonated in a remote corner of the airbase for safety reasons.
 


 
In addition to huge amounts of (derelict) aircraft and helicopters, al-Watiya also provided its conquerors with at least three 122mm RM-70 multiple rocket launchers, a single 107mm Type-63 MRL, one T-55 tank, a UAE-supplied TERRIER LT-79 Infantry Mobility Vehicle (damaged), a STREIT Group Spartan IMV, a STREIT Group Armoured TLC-79 (damaged) and numerous technicals. Despite the capture of a Pantsir-S1, this is certainly underwhelming compared to captures elsewhere in Libya, and lends credence to the LNA's claim that they achieved a timely evacuation of the airbase, taking with them everything that could be easily moved. [9]


Footage of massive stashes of crates are a good indicator of the size of the munition stockpiles left behind by the LNA. In the munition-hungry environment of the Libyan battlegrounds these new supplies will surely be very welcome to the GNA.

Much of the captured ammunition was quickly taken away by at least 30 pickup trucks loaded to the brim with crates, presumably for distribution between the various fronts the GNA is fighting at, or to be sold on the black market. Although certainly less glamorous than the aforementioned rows of aircraft and helicopters, it is sure to serve its capturers more effectively.

 
At least one Russian-delivered ammunition crate was also discovered in one of the depots. Markings on the crate indicate that it belonged to a batch of forty crates consigned by the KBP Instrument Design Bureau. KBP is a Russian armament manufacturer that produces a wide range of weapon systems, including several types of cannons, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and perhaps more importantly, Krasnopol laser-guided artillery shells and the 9M311 series of surface-to-air missiles used by the Pantsir-S1. Although the presence of Pantsir-S1 systems in Libya was confirmed long ago, evidence of Krasnopol artillery rounds in use in Libya has only recently come to light. [10]

 
Shortly after the capture of al-Watiya, Turkish military convoys were already spotted heading in the direction of the airbase. The airbase would soon become a major hub for Turkish activities in the country. Before any sort of activity could take place at al-Watiya however, the area first had to be cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). Considering the enormous size of the base, this was a daunting task.
 

Turkish forces then began the arduous process of sorting out the scores of aircraft and helicopters found in the many hardened aircraft shelters and hangars on the base. While most of these will likely be dumped in a disused part of the base or even scrapped, some aircraft might be retained for future use by the GNA. However, since they are already out of spare parts and with little opportunity to purchase new examples in the case of all aircraft but the L-39, even the restoration of several Mirage F1s would only provide the Libyan Air Force with a maximum of two years of operations. By now rendered of little use in the air-to-air role and only capable of delivering dumb bombs and unguided rocket with little accuracy, bringing these aircraft back to operational condition is unlikely to be worth the effort.


To enable flight and ground operations at a considerably higher safety standard than previously administered by the Libyans, the runway and several roads running in between the hardened aircraft shelters were (re)paved. After years and sometimes decades of disuse, most Libyan airbases have bushes or even small trees growing out of their taxi- and runways. Luckily for the personnel now serving at al-Watiya, continued operations by several Mirage F1s and Su-22s meant that the growth of vegetation on the taxiways was 'limited' to small bushes.

Turkey also found a new use for many of the HAS, and it is likely that many of these now shelter materiel such as anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and other equipment used during day-to-day operations on the base. Once safe operations at the airbase were ensured, C-130 and A400M cargo aircraft that previously landed at Misrata could now land at al-Watiya to bring in supplies and equipment for the GNA. The airbase was also readied for the stationing of Turkish F-16s in case hostilities in the country flare up again. Although preparations for such a deployment were undoubtedly ongoing for some time, the first indication of this only appeared in late 2020 when the aprons on each side of the runway received markings for six fighter aircraft each. Of course, when not in use the F-16s can also be housed in the just under 30 HAS that still remain intact.
 

To protect the airbase against Wing Loong UCAVs operated by the UAE or even a random LNA airstrike conducted by a lone MiG, Turkey deployed a wide array of air defence systems on the grounds of the airbase, including two Hawk XXI medium-range surface-to-air missile batteries, Korkut self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and 35mm GDF-003 anti-aircraft guns. Their readiness was quickly put to the test when unidentified aircraft made a surprise attack on one of the newly-deployed Hawk SAM sites on the night of July 4, 2020. [11] The airstrike was likely conducted outside the range of the Hawk systems, and appears to have achieved little in terms of damage. Nevertheless, the goal of the attack might have simply have been to send a signal to Turkey that its activities were still within the targeting range of the countries supporting the LNA.
 
Although the nationality and type of aircraft used in the attack is still a matter of (public) debate, it is highly likely that the attack was carried out by Egyptian or Emirati Mirage 2000 multirole aircraft operating from Sidi Barrani airbase just over the border in Egypt. In what is unlikely to be a coincidence, several Mirage 2000s stationed at this airbase operate with their (national) markings painted over, making them logical candidates to have been responsible for this attack.


Although al-Watiya is sometimes speculated to be a potential deployment site for a Turkish S-400 battery, it is unlikely that such a deployment will take place in the foreseeable future, at least not until enough systems have been acquired to fulfill Turkey's domestic requirement for long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Until that happens, the protection of al-Watiya will be in the hands of several layers of short-to-medium range air defence systems that could prove deadly to any aircraft entering their range. Although the UAE, Egypt or Russia could attempt another strike outside of the range of Turkish air defences using standoff munitions, such a move would likely provoke retaliation strikes or even the deployment of F-16s to al-Watiya this time, a possibility the countries opposing Turkey in Libya are unlikely to be willing to risk.

 
Although the capture of the Pantsir-S1 was celebrated as almost a bigger victory than that of al-Watiya, and certainly garnered media attention, the strategically much more significant outcome is that Haftar's LNA lost a major base of operations, and with it its only chance to take Tripoli. Nonetheless, the Pantsir perhaps best symbolised this drastic turning point in the now six-year long Libyan Civil War a turning point almost entirely brought about by the merits of Bayraktar Diplomacy. At the same time the LNA's foreign backers will be forced to reevaluate their commitment to the LNA. Continuing to invest large sums of money into a conflict might become less palpable with a successful result in doubt, potentially bringing them to the negotiation table to bring an end to the Libyan conflict. Whatever the outcome may be, it is certain that this decisive period of time will be used by Turkey to further strengthen its presence in Libya.
 
[1] Austrian-made Schiebel camcopter over al-Watya airbase by Libyan Army https://asian-defence-news.blogspot.com/2015/01/austrian-made-schiebel-camcopter-over.html
[2] Haha like we're going to reveal our source ;) 
[4] Libya: How the US and Turkey agreed to share a captured Russian defence system https://www.theafricareport.com/68186/libya-how-the-us-and-turkey-agreed-to-share-a-captured-russian-defence-system/ 
 
Recommended Articles:
 
 

No comments:

Post a Comment