History Book Reviews

The RAF’s Air War In Libya: New Conflicts In The Era of Austerity – Dave Sloggett

The NATO-led forces that overwhelmed Gaddafi’s regime in the spring of 2011 achieved what can only be described as a model victory. Unlike the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns which, though initially militarily successful, led to unsatisfactory outcomes, the Libyan war ended without recrimination and without the loss of a single British life in combat. Yet, following David Cameron’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which included severe cuts in the UK’s defence capability – most notably the axing of the Harriers – the potential for disaster was all too obvious.

Dr Sloggett documented the conflict as it unfolded, following the daily reports from the MoD and other sources, which enabled him to produce this book so soon after the end of the fighting. This also gives the book a feeling of pace and immediacy as he describes the events as they unfolded.

The RAF’s Air War in Libya is actually a far greater book than its title might indicate. It explains the background to the Libyan conflict, the regional and historical tensions between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and the rise to power of Colonel Gaddafi. Sloggett then provides a set by step account of the transition to conflict and the final launch of the Arab Spring.

As would be expected, the main body of the book details the RAF’s campaign. Interestingly, it includes summaries of all the RAF’s air attacks over Libya, detailing the aircraft used, the location and nature of the targets, the weapons used and the results of each strike.

Sloggett also provides the Order of Battle of the Coalition forces committed to the campaign at the outbreak of the war and those of the Libyan Armed Forces, which were not inconsiderable. Gaddafi’s Libyan Air Force, for example, numbered 23,000 personnel and comprised 10,000 regulars and 13,000 conscripts. Its aircraft included the MiG 21, MiG 23 (NATO code name Flogger), Mirage F1, Su 24 (NATO code name Fencer) and Su 22 (NATO code name Fitter). These could have presented a threat to the RAF and Cameron undertook the war in Libya knowing the potential of these aircraft. As it transpired the Libyan’s did not try to take on the NATO aircraft, as they would undoubtedly have been defeated. Nevertheless, Cameron took a considerable risk. The credit though, for the almost clinical effectiveness of the UK’s aerial involvement, goes of course to the RAF.

As Dave Sloggett makes clear in this comprehensive study, the Libyan war has provided a blueprint for future operations, and this might be its lasting legacy for Britain and its armed forces. He also observes that however successful the RAF’s air operations were, the naval aspect of the Libyan conflict should not be ignored.

“The sea blindness that seems to affect political leaders in the United Kingdom is still a vexing question,” Sloggett remarks. “From a SDSR viewpoint Operation Ellamy confirmed that if a British Prime Minister wants to deploy military force against a coastal country, and there are many of them in the world, that he or she will need to be capable of manoeuvring in the littoral and over the horizon into the hinterland of the country. To do that, the United Kingdom’s government needs a substantive naval presence.” Until the Royal Navy acquires its Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers that capacity remains unfilled.

Because of the comparatively brief duration of the Libyan conflict, Sloggett is able to encompass the entire war within the pages of a single book and it is hard to believe that anyone else would attempt to write another book on this subject. It is likely, therefore, that this publication will become the standard work on Britain’s involvement in this part of the Arab Spring.

Sloggett ends his absorbing book with the warning that “to make the success in Libya the altar on which to shape the United Kingdom’s armed forces in the future would be to disavow the one crucial aspect that rarely comes through the kind of numerical analysis that goes to the heart of political decision making – that is the way UK’s armed forces go about fighting wars. They are simply very good at it.”

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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