What if Libya had submarines?

The Libyan Navy’s primary mission was to defend the coast of the country. To accomplish this mission is was equipped with:

  • 2 Koni-class missile frigates;
  • 2 Nanuchka-class missile corvettes;
  • 9 Combattante II-class fast attack missile boats;
  • 12 Osa-class missile boats;
  • 2 Polnocny-class landing ships; and
  • 9 minesweepers.

The Libyan Navy had seven naval bases, which seems too many for a country and navy of that modest size, but actually makes sense because of its defensive role and small, short-range vessels. The bases were located at Derna, Tobruk, Benghazi, Misrata, Khoms (sometimes spelled Al-Khums) Tripoli and Sirte.

The Libyan Navy also had six Foxtrot-class submarines acquired from the Soviet Union in 1982. They quickly fell into a state of serious disrepair and no submerged submarine patrols were conducted after 1984. Two submarines were written off, one was reported accidentally sunk in 1993, and another one was abandoned in Lithuania when international sanctions prevented it from returning home. There were reports that one of the two remaining submarines was being refitted in 2003, but this may not have been completed. Surface patrols by submarines were noted as recently as 2008. By the time of the uprising, it is likely that neither of the submarines was operational. But, what if one or both of them had been?

When protests began on 15 February, two of the seven naval bases, Derna and Tobruk, were in areas immediately under rebel control. If a submarine had been in either base, it would have been captured. However, a responsible commander would have sailed and either remained at sea or headed for a safer port.

The first of the UNSCRs was passed on 26 February and shortly afterward, on 01 March, Benghazi came under opposition control, at which point one of the two Koni-class frigates plus one of the two Nanuchka-class corvettes were captured. A submarine here would likely have suffered the same fate. But, this left four naval bases still under the government’s control.

The UNSCR establishing the No-Fly Zone was passed on 17 March and Operation Unified Protector came under NATO control on 31 March. An ‘odd delay’ ensued, while NATO provided air support and forward ground control capabilities to the rebels until mid-May, when things began to ‘heat up’ again on the naval front. HMCS Charlottetown’s skirmish with two armed boats took place off Misrata, one of the remaining naval bases, on 12 May. Misrata came under opposition control on 15 May.

The brief exchange of fire between Charlottetown and the Libyan boats seems to have ‘awakened’ NATO air campaign planners that remaining naval targets needed more attention. On 18 May, the three remaining naval bases at Khoms, Tripoli and Sirte were attacked and eight ships were hit. The Koni-class frigate Al Ghardabia and the Nanuchka-class corvette Ain Zaara were sunk in Khoms and this removed the last of the larger surface craft from consideration. A British defence staff spokesman, Major General John Lorimer, said RAF Tornados also successfully attacked a facility in the Khoms dockyard constructing fast inflatable boats, which Libyan forces have used several times in their efforts to mine Misrata and attack vessels in the area. Both the facility and a “significant stockpile of the boats” were destroyed, which “will reduce the regime's ability to sustain such tactics.” The Osa-class missile boats did not rate a mention anywhere in the coverage, suggesting they were all under rebel control or accounted for otherwise. Interestingly, a video clip on YouTube showing one of the sunken warships at Khoms also shows an undamaged Polnocny-class landing ship in the background. Apparently they were not rated as high priority targets.

Khoms came under opposition control in mid-August. Another ‘military boat’ was destroyed by an air attack on 18 August, by which time a NATO report tallied the number of air sorties flow at 19,383 sorties, including 7, 349 strike sorties. The naval base at Tripoli came under opposition control on 28 August, and Sirte followed on 20 October.

If one submarine was operational and had evaded capture or destruction, the window of opportunity to do something major was around mid-May when NATO naval forces were trying to get relief ships into the port of Misrata and when Charlottetown was engaged. By August, NATO air attacks would have eliminated the probability of a coordinated submarine activity. However, with a patrol endurance of 50 to 70 days, it would have been possible for a submarine to remain at sea, avoiding contact, until necessity forced the NATO naval forces to the vicinity of land at mid-May. The ‘odd delay’ I referred to earlier was possibly, in my opinion, a prudently cautious waiting period while the intelligence community made sure submarines were not in the equation and that, if they might be, they were coming to the end of their endurance. With their support facilities destroyed or in rebel hands, they would soon become an ephemeral problem.

Submarines, because of their endurance, firepower and stealth, can give even a minor naval power the ability to confront a greater naval power on a level to parity. The presence of a submarine, or the perception that one may be present, is sufficient cause for concern that it can induce extreme caution and slow the pace of operations. Even though the Libyan Navy’s submarines were old, obsolete, and probably not even in service, it is possible the smallest grain of doubt played a role in the conduct of that operation. If there had been greater doubt, the effect would have been multiplied enormously.

My last observation is that joint targeting planners always undervalue the importance of naval targets when strike planning. It never seems to fail that the naval view is given less credence when making priority lists and that a ‘rude awakening’ is required to bring some sanity back to the process. In this case, Charlottetown was lucky their adversary was not more capable and more determined. In the event, they performed reliably and sent the boats off after a brief exchange of gunfire. I can imagine the strained tension of the morning briefing the next day when the action report was read and how the priorities for the next 48-hour planning cycle were rearranged. The timeline seems to indicate that was the case.

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