Skip to content

Airpower and the ‘Global War on Terror’: Can lessons be learned from Operation El Dorado Canyon over Libya in 1986?


Over the course of the 1970s and ‘80s, the threat posed by state-sponsored international terrorism to the United States grew exponentially. The Gaddafi regime, which seized power in Libya in 1969, was intimately linked to the ever-increasing number of attacks on American targets by providing funds, materiel and asylum to a broad range of terrorist organisations across Europe and the Middle East. Of particular concern to the Reagan Administration was the growing unease of the public as news reports broadcast images of the bloodied bodies of American civilians in living rooms across the nation.

The Administration’s response remains one of the most dramatic and impressive displays of airpower in recent decades. In an operation lasting a mere eleven minutes, the nature of the fight against state-sponsored international terrorism was radically transformed by a unilateral military strike in April 1986: Operation El Dorado Canyon. The raid was successful in bombing several key targets associated with Libyan terrorist infrastructure and caused extensive damage. This clearly demonstrated the ability of airpower to strike effectively against targets located at great geographic distance from the United States. The bombastic bluster of the seemingly impervious Gaddafi was shown to be empty rhetoric when confronted with the reality of American bombs falling through his roof.

Are there lessons to be learned from El Dorado Canyon for the use of airpower against international terrorism today? It is clear that the character of conflicts and of counterterrorism operations has changed dramatically since the bombing of Libya in 1986, particularly after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’. In this new international context many elements in Operation El Dorado Canyon appear somewhat ‘outdated’. As a state sponsor of terrorism, Libya had vulnerabilities that non-state actors such as Al Qaeda generally do not: it could be coerced by a shock attack on assets of value or importance. There was a great deal of intelligence available to the Reagan Administration regarding static terrorist infrastructure in Libya, and it was therefore possible to target both these assets and Gaddafi’s self-perception as invulnerable and influential. Disregarding the material damage, an important result of the operation was that Gaddafi’s credibility was hit hard. Today, air operations against terrorist targets are increasingly challenged by the asymmetric warfare tactics employed by both state and non-state actors. Small, mobile and camouflaged assets/personnel movements are hard to isolate in comparison to the five targets attacked in Libya. The limitations of the conventional use of airpower in this new era of irregular warfare have in turn necessitated greater use of joint operations, and increasing reliance by air forces on up-to-date intelligence provided by informants and special forces on the ground.

It has also become a lot more difficult to establish and identify individual ‘terror’ states post-1986. Following the airstrikes, Gaddafi’s support for terrorism was no longer an open policy for as long as he remained the leader of Libya. Perhaps precisely in order to avoid becoming the target of retaliatory military strikes such as El Dorado Canyon, states hostile to the United States now tend to be discrete about their support for terrorist organisations. In this respect, one of the operation’s key successes has perhaps become a weakness. In view of this, counterterrorist operations today are increasingly making use of drones in strikes against non-state actors operating on the territory of nominally friendly or neutral states, such as Pakistan or Yemen. This clandestine use of drones for targeted killings has proven to be highly controversial and provoked much international criticism. While Gaddafi’s position on the periphery of the international community meant that he was unable to reap propaganda benefits from the 1986 airstrikes and from the collateral damage they caused, it may be difficult to enact similar operations in the future, especially if drones are used, without losing the battle for worldwide public opinion.

Having said all this, in trying to identify lessons from El Dorado Canyon for contemporary air operations against terrorism we should not focus on military effectiveness alone. After all, although Operation El Dorado Canyon was widely seen as a ‘success’ it did not represent the final blow to Libyan state-sponsored terrorism. Sure enough, the number of terrorist attacks and their lethality decreased in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. In 1986, there was a fall of 50 percent in terrorist attacks conducted by Middle Eastern groups in Western Europe compared with 1985, while the number of American fatalities in attacks worldwide declined dramatically from 38 to 12. Yet the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people, was later unambiguously linked to Gaddafi’s regime.

The point is that the operation was never intended to cause total paralysis in the Libyan terrorist system. Instead, it sent a message to Gaddafi and the world that a state that continued to support attacks on American targets would no longer go unpunished. From this point of view, perhaps the most important consequences and lessons of Operation El Dorado Canyon were the less tangible psychological and political effects it achieved. First of all, it established an important precedent. As Parks noted in his comprehensive discussion of the raid, it signalled that force ‘could and would be used against those who support, plan, or finance terrorism, or who use their sovereign territory to harbour or train terrorists’. In doing so, the operation also served to encourage cooperation against state sponsors of terrorism by galvanising America’s European allies to take collective action against Libya in the form of economic and political sanctions. The visible shock of a humiliated and cowed Gaddafi and the demonstration of U.S. military prowess and technological superiority served a purpose that went far behind the actual physical damage caused. The operation was a show of strength that was intended, just as the terrorist attacks to which it reacted, to induce psychological repercussions that would spread far beyond the initial targets. Operation El Dorado Canyon is therefore most useful as an example of how airpower against terrorism can be used not only for military but also for propagandistic and psychological means.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the raid had a significant political effect in the domestic sphere in demonstrating to the American public that state sponsorship of terrorism would not be allowed to continue without retaliation. El Dorado Canyon was overwhelmingly popular with the American people and did much to restore their confidence in the foreign policy of the Reagan Administration. And indeed, it has been argued that so too in the post-9/11 world, one of the most important contributions airpower can make to counterterrorism is to ‘provide a visible and timely response to an act of terrorism that can help placate a public outcry for some form of action to be taken’. We can again look to Libya, and the 2011 intervention of NATO, for a recent example of how airpower can be deployed in response to public opinion.

Airpower is not just about the size of the crater it can leave in the ground on enemy territory. It is just as much about the psychological and political effects it can cause at home by demonstrating decisive action to counter a threat with no immediate solution. The extent to which such use of airpower against international terrorism makes sense from the point of view of achieving long-term strategic goals is, of course, a matter of great debate.

 Michael Carré is currently studying for an MA in Diplomacy

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons 

Published inConflict & Security

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.