Tuesday 3 January 2023

Gaddafi’s Massive Artillery Force That Kept On Fighting A Year After His Death

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

"All of the great prophets of modern times have come from the desert and were uneducated: Mohammed, Jesus and myself." (By Muammar Gaddafi)

Rumours of organised pro-Gaddafi resistance have persisted since the end of the First Libyan Civil War in late 2011. With the exception of a number of attacks and car bombings in 2012 to 2014, an organised resistance movement never truly materialised however. Instead, the second son of the late Libyan leader Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is seeking to regain his father's power through political means, and in November 2021 attempted to register as a candidate in the 2021 Libyan presidential election but was rejected. [1] This decision was overturned less than a month later, reinstating him as a presidential candidate for the elections that are now scheduled to take place at some point in 2023. [2]

The situation could well have been different hadn't it been for a series of car bombings in Tripoli in August 2012. Investigations into the bombings led authorities to a militia in control of a military storage facility in Tarhuna, near Tripoli. [3] Their control over the facility since the revolution in 2011 had apparently gone unnoticed with authorities, which were still busy with forming a government and disarming rebellious armed groups. The militia known as Katibat al-Awfiya (Brigade of the Faithful) had successfully posed as anti-Gaddafi forces all the while plotting for a return to Gaddafi's system. In fact, the militia was internally referred to as the 'Brigade of Martyr Muammar Qaddafi'! [3]
The military storage facility the brigade controlled was not just any storage facility, but actually the largest of its kind in Africa, housing hundreds of field-guns, self-propelled guns (SPGs), multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) and even Scud ballistic missile launchers. Hadn't it been for the car bombings and even a temporary takeover of Tripoli International Airport in June 2012, the activities of the 'Brigade of Martyr Muammar Qaddafi's' at the military complex might have gone unnoticed long enough for it to build up the necessary strength to launch a coup d'etat. Indeed, stored at the complex was Africa's fourth largest artillery arsenal, surpassed only by the arsenals of Algeria, Egypt and Morocco!

Even though most of the rocket artillery systems present at the complex had been stored here for at least two decades with little maintenance (after the exodus of foreign contractors in the 1990s), their protective hangars and fabric covers ensured most remained in excellent condition. Some of the stored artillery pieces had suffered damage after Coalition aircraft struck 40 of the 46 hangars belonging to the complex during the 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya. The 'Brigade of Martyr Muammar Qaddafi' had already restored numerous artillery guns back to operational condition and was in the process of repairing many more by cannibalising other systems for spare parts.

One of the Scud launchers encountered at the complex. The emblem reads 'Direction of Artillery and Missiles' and was applied specifically for the 30th anniversary of the revolution parade in 1999.

The Tarhuna complex had originally been constructed in the late 1970s or early 1980s to act as a storage, repair and maintenance facility for military equipment. During the 1970s, Gaddafi embarked on a massive buying spree to turn Libya into ''The Arsenal of Islam''. As part of this ambitious undertaking, he acquired military equipment in quantities far exceeding the needs of his own military. Many of the weapons systems acquired would immediately be placed in storage after their arrival to Libya, and while some of this equipment was later donated to friendly countries in the Middle East, South America, Africa (as well as North Korea), others would never leave the storage depot they first arrived in. In fact, when rebels overran a massive tank storage complex in Sukna in 2011 they encountered countless T-55 MBTs, MTU-55 bridgelayers, BMP-1 IFVs and BTR-60PB APCs that had never even been issued to units. Having been purchased in the 1970s to partake in a global war with the United States and Israel that never came, they were instead pressed into service with rebel forces as these sought to finally end Gaddafi's 42-year long reign.

The last time many of the SPGs and MRLs stored at the complex had been driven was in 1999 when they took part in the 30th Anniversary of the Revolution parade in Tripoli. To strengthen his bid to launch the African Union and to show the world that Libya was still a country to be reckoned with even after 10 years of crippling sanctions, Gaddafi organised a gigantic parade that featured nearly every type of weapons system acquired by the Libyan Army. [3] Ironically, many of these systems had already been condemned to long-term storage and had to be reactivated specifically for the parade. Gaddafi's efforts to impress his audience went so far that he ordered the Libyan Air Force to reactivate one of its retired Tu-22 bombers to conduct a flyover over the parade ground. Not having been flown for more than 10 years, the aircraft vibrated so much during the flight that its pilots kissed the ground after landing at Tripoli Mitiga air base and refused to fly it again to its home base Jufra. [5] The Tu-22 was subsequently abandoned at Mitiga. The artillery and MRL pieces that took part in the parade were driven back to Tarhuna and immediately placed in storage again, having fulfilled their function of making Libya's military look stronger than it actually was.

The Tarhuna military storage complex before its destruction at the hands of Coalition bombs in 2011. The complex was completely demolished between 2016 and 2017.

The 'Brigade of Martyr Muammar Qaddafi' had sought to turn several of the artillery pieces present at the complex into stationary bunkers covering the entries into the complex. Nonetheless, their defences eventually succumbed, leading to the killing and arrest of the militia members present. [3] After their forced eviction from the Tarhuna complex, the brigade effectively ceased to exist, putting an end to its dream to return to the days of the Jamahiriya.

A 122mm 2S1 Gvozdika SPG and a ZU-23-armed Toyota techincal that guarded the main entrance of the complex.

Technicals and a North Korean 122mm BM-11 MRL used by the 'Brigade of Martyr Muammar Qaddafi' in defence of the complex.

155mm Palmaria SPGs encountered in one of the 46 storage halls. Note the roof, collapsed as a result of Coalition bombs.

Dozens more Palmarias had already been moved outside of their storage halls. As Libya's most advanced (tracked) SPG, nearly all of these would see use again with Libya Dawn (which later became the GNA) against Islamic State and the Libyan National Army.

2S1 Gvozdika SPGs. Along with the Palmaria, the 2S1 was the only type of SPG still in widespread use with Gaddafi's army in 2011.

Four 152mm 2S3 Akatsiya SPGs. Most of these were phased out in the 1990s and the 2S3 remains a rare sight in Libya even today.

MT-LBu command vehicles used by batteries equipped with the 2S1 and 2S3.

Czechoslovak 152mm SpGH DANA SPGs. All of these had been retired in the 1990s. For reasons unknown, no Libyan faction has ever attempted to bring any of the DANAs back to operational condition, despite these being the most capable SPGs in Libya.

Rows of Czechoslovak RM-70 MRLs. Like the DANAs nearly all of these had already been retired by the 1990s. No attempts have ever been made to restore these to active service, though at least one of the RM-70s encountered at Tarhuna was converted to an APC while another was used as a makeshift SAM/Rocket launcher.

An insignia on the door of one the RM-70s that reads 'Victory or Death'.

The RM-70 came equipped with a 40-round launcher and could carry 40 additional 122mm rockets as reloads.

North Korean BM-11 MRLs. Most of Libya's BM-11s were donated to other armies, with the Polisario Front and Sudan among the recipients. A few continue to see service in Libya as well.

A Chinese 130mm Type 63 MRL (not to be confused with the ubiquitous 107mm Type 63) is parked next to two BM-11s. Interestingly, the BM-11 on the left has been converted to a water tanker.

Chinese-made 130mm Type 63 MRLs seen dumped outside one of the destroyed hangars. The Type 63 proved highly unpopular in Libya and saw very limited use. Nonetheless, the 'Brigade of Martyr Muammar Qaddafi' attemped to restore several of them.

130mm M-46 field-guns as far as the eye can see. While boasting a far superior range to that of the 122mm D-30 (27km vs 15km), the Libyan Army stored both its M-46s and North Korean 152mm field-guns during the 1990s.

Several Scud launchers (but no missiles) were also present at the base.

The Libyan Army had received several M109s from the U.S. shortly before Gaddafi came to power by a coup in 1969, and these too were encountered in one of the 46 hangars.

The spoils are taken away by Libyan government forces. While the discovery and takeover of the Tarhuna complex brought an end to the Gaddafi loyalists' hope for a coup d'état, it would only be the beginning of their career for some the pictured weapons systems, many of which continue to see use to this very day.

[1] Libya election commission says Saif Gaddafi ineligible to run https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/24/libya-election-commission-says-saif-gaddafi-ineligible-to-run
[2] Libyan court reinstates Saif Gaddafi as presidential candidate https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/2/libya-court-reinstates-gaddafis-son-as-presidential-candidate
[3] Libya seizes tanks from pro-Gaddafi militia https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-19364536
[4] LIBYA. Military parade https://youtu.be/TIGehN-6JgU