Looking Back at Operation El Dorado Canyon: Sovereign Strike and Crisis Management

By John Conway

For Colonel Muammar Gadaffi and the Libyan military, a ten-minute window in the early hours of April 15 1986 would have been complete chaos. With radars and communications being jammed and command and control systems paralysed, there was little that could be done to prevent 60 tonnes of precision ordnance raining down from the night sky.

Although it happened over 30 years ago, the US raid on Libya –dubbed Operation El Dorado Canyon – provides some enduring themes that are relevant to contemporary strategic circumstances, especially when examining the real-world constraints that combine to add significant difficulty to the planning of long-range strikes.

In modern parlance, Gadaffi had been operating in the grey zone. He was not formally at war with the US, but was sponsoring terrorism and radical anti-government organisations. He had established a sophisticated anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capability, and was not afraid to work outside the rules-based international order.

Yet despite widespread state-sponsored terrorist attacks by Libya across Europe over many years, the US was left to act unilaterally in sending a message to the persistent and menacing threat posed by Gadaffi; and that message was sent via a long-range precision strike.


It is not difficult to imagine a future scenario in the Indo-Pacific where Australia may be challenged by a regional actor or becomes a victim of state-sponsored terrorism. To protect Australia’s interests, the ADF must develop and retain the ability to conduct precision strike in pursuit of limited strategic objectives against a military target. This strike must also be conducted in a way that retains the element of surprise and avoids or minimises collateral damage.

In a crisis management situation – falling short of full-scale war involving actors with highly integrated economic and trading relationships – a strike mission takes on additional complexity and requires a co-ordinated whole-of-government effort.

The ability and capacity to generate a sovereign strike is beyond the means of most foreign military forces, especially when the mission involves targets at strategic distances. Without capability and mass, it is not possible to demonstrate combat power at the scale necessary to signal strategic intent.

As the US demonstrated during El Dorado Canyon, ingenuity and sophisticated planning can overcome many operational constraints, provided there is appropriate force structure, a well-trained military and, crucially, the political will to act unilaterally.


Sovereign strike refers to the ability to recognise a strategic opportunity, then use deception and surprise to act decisively and with precision in space and time, without dependency on other states.

For a maritime power, sovereign strike is akin to a commando raid by the joint force through air, sea and space – including cyberspace – that exploits a limited window of opportunity and at a speed that forces a belligerent adversary into a defensive mindset.

It must avoid reliance on others to provide access, basing and overflight permission, and must maintain the element of surprise by avoiding the large-scale forward deployment of forces. It must have overwhelming firepower to penetrate sophisticated defences and reach a target beyond the horizon. And it must conduct battle damage assessment that provides factual evidence to further isolate an adversary and prevent revision of history through the exploitation of information.

Electronic warfare played a central role during mission execution of the raid on Libya. Yet, a sovereign strike capability must now consider cyberspace and the information domain. Fighting the information battle alongside the physical domains can prevent an adversary undermining the international legitimacy of a sovereign strike and retaliating at the strategical level. The sovereign strike must have a coherent narrative and a defensive cyber plan alongside EW, strike, tanker and other plans.


In the years leading up to the Op El Dorado Canyon raid, Libyan leader Gadaffi had provoked the US by illegally claiming Libyan territory to the south of a “Line of Death” on the 32° 30′ N latitude, which included all of the 560km wide Gulf of Sidra.

In response, the US Navy conducted freedom of navigation exercises in the disputed territory, and on March 24, a Libyan S-200 (SA-5) fired at F-14A Tomcats flying combat air patrol (CAP). The F-14s, supported by EA-6B Prowler aircraft, survived the attack but US Government patience had now run out. President Ronald Reagan issued an ultimatum to Gadaffi to cease supporting international terrorism and withdraw all extra-territorial claims.

But Gadaffi called Reagan’s bluff. The tipping point was on April 5 1986 when a terrorist bomb destroyed the La Belle night club in Berlin, a discotheque popular with Americans. The explosion killed a US soldier and his partner, and injured over 200 civilians including 75 US citizens. Communications intelligence unequivocally linked Gadaffi to the bombing, thus giving President Reagan the justification to retaliate with a limited air strike on Libya.

Launching a full-scale military campaign against Libya involving land forces was out of the question, with economic and political risks and interdependencies impacted by disrupted Libyan oil supplies and the ongoing commitment to the Cold War.

he US was also unable to rely upon the universal support of some of its Cold War allies, with France, Spain, Italy and Germany all denying access, basing and overflight rights for the operation. Only Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would agree to the use of UK bases for the raid, on the condition that it would minimise civilian casualties and only strike targets directly associated with terrorism. Like many other western countries, the UK had expatriate workers living in Libya employed by multi-national oil companies.

The consequences of this agreement would be to constrain planners and result in highly restrictive rules of engagement for the aircrew who were required to positively identify their assigned target on multiple systems, and abort if weapon-guidance or navigation systems were not fully functional.


Nine days after the Berlin bombing, at 17:36 on April 14 1986, 24 US Air Force F-111F fighter bombers launched from RAF Lakenheath in the UK accompanied by five EF-111A Raven electronic warfare variants from nearby RAF Upper Heyford. In radio silence they completed the first of 12 air-to-air refuelling brackets 90 minutes into the 13 hour, 10,000km roundtrip mission.

Despite the strategic distances flown in the raid, it is considered a tactical strike mission, as the five targets were military in nature and did not target Libya’s civilian infrastructure.

The only strategic assets used in the raid were 28 air refuelling tankers launched from RAF Mildenhall and RAF Fairford, with many arriving from the US mainland and elsewhere in the two days preceding the strike. Intelligence and targeting support to the tactical planners was provided by the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Six spare F-111Fs and one EF-111 returned to base after the first tanker bracket. The remainder switched off their IFF transponders and flew in close formation with the KC-10 and KC-135 tankers to deceive and prevent detection by ground-based radar controllers.

The F-111s flew around the Iberian Peninsula and entered the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, taking a starboard turn at Malta to attack the Libyan capital Tripoli at 02:00 on April 15 at low level, employing terrain-following radar, the AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack electro-optical targeting pod and GBU-10 2,000lb laser-guided bombs.

Ten minutes before the attack, the four EF-111 Raven and 14 US Marine Corps carrier-based EA-6B Prowler electronic attack aircraft began jamming Libyan radars and communications. As Libyan air defences came online they were hit by 48 anti-radiation missiles. Over a dozen systems were destroyed during the raid.

Meanwhile, US Navy and US Marine Corps aircraft from the US Mediterranean 6th Fleet, USS Saratoga, USS America, and USS Coral Sea, simultaneously attacked the city and surrounding area of Benghazi on the eastern side of the Gulf of Sidra. According to the American Intelligence Journal, the raid involved 18 A-6E Intruders and A-7E Corsairs, and six F/A-18A Hornets carrying a mix of 500lb bombs and anti-radiation missiles (ARM). Air defence coverage was provided by F-14A Tomcats and E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, while numerous helicopters provided combat search and rescue support.

All five targets were hit, and later confirmed by three USAF SR-71A Blackbird sorties from RAF Mildenhall which conducted battle damage assessment (BDA) of the targets on April 16, flying through Libyan airspace at Mach 3.5 and more than 80,000 feet.

Gadaffi survived the raid because he was personally notified half an hour earlier by an official from Malta who provided early warning of multiple unidentified combat aircraft heading towards Libya. He would go on to avenge the attack with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people.

Operation El Dorado Canyon was a highly synchronised joint operation, and the longest tactical fighter combat mission in history. New technology played a key role: the mission was the combat debut for the Pave Tack pod and the AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and demonstrated the increasingly sophisticated integration of intelligence into air operations which accelerated during the latter stages of the Vietnam War, especially in regards to the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD).

With only tactical precision guided bombs available at the time (systems such as the JASSM Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile only entered service around 2009) a purely kinetic attack would have been extremely high-risk generating a requirement for the suppression of the IADS for long enough to allow the penetration and egress of the strike aircraft.


The mission had been originally conceived with a much smaller number of F-111Fs, as senior planners were concerned that such a large formation would limit the element of surprise. In human factors terms, the element of surprise was an essential planning consideration because it would trigger an emotional rather than cognitive response from the adversary.

However, a balance needed to be struck since the reliability of the Pave Tack system and President Reagan’s stringent ROE requirements were such that there was a risk the mission would fail due to insufficient serviceable aircraft able to penetrate the IADS and reach the targets.

Furthermore, Libya had developed one of the world’s most effective integrated air defence systems based upon technology and technical support from the Soviet Union. They employed long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) such as the SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, SA-6 and SA-8, and advanced anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) such as the ZSU-23-4.

The Libyan IADS introduced additional complexity since it was not a purely Soviet ‘red’ system. The introduction of ‘blue’ radar systems from UK, France and Germany added ambiguities and, in doing so, created a ‘grey’ IADS which resulted in significant jamming problems for both the EF-111 and EA-6B aircraft, whose threat databases were optimised for ‘red’ threats.

To counter the Libyan IADS more convincingly, the USAF would have ideally employed its specialised ‘Electronic Warfare Triad’ which routinely trained together and shared command, control and intelligence arrangements.

The triad formed the basis of the USAF SEAD capability in Cold War Europe employing the EF-111, the F-4G Wild Weasel, and the EC-130H Compass Call communications jammer. However, the Wild Weasels were based at Spangdahlem and the Compass Calls at Sembach, both USAF Europe air bases in Germany, and were therefore unavailable for the raid.

Furthermore, the F-4Gs would have introduced an additional air refuelling burden and, even if they had been flown to the UK for the raid, from a counter-intelligence perspective their redeployment could have signalled US intentions. The Compass Calls would also have been useful from a base closer to Libya, but their comparatively slow speed would have compromised the need for a high-speed transit and attack.

n the end, the UK-based EF-111s combined with the EA-6B Prowlers and other HARM shooters from the 6th Fleet to meet the SEAD requirement for the strike despite doctrinal and training differences. Electronic warfare system interoperability was ensured by each platform operating the ALQ-99, a modified and updated version of which is still used today by the US Navy and RAAF EA-18G Growler.

The joint task force achieved the mission with the loss of only a single aircraft – F-111F ‘Karma 52’ and its crew – despite the relative lack of prior integration and different single-service concepts of operation. It also demonstrated further progress in the development of SEAD as a core element of offensive counter air (OCA) operations.


The US sovereign strike on Libya in 1986 stands in time as an example of combat agility. With an overwhelming ‘need to do something’ to meet a strategic Government policy objective, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff provided President Reagan with five targets and a brilliant plan, despite extraordinary real-world constraints and a narrow window of opportunity to strike.

Without first-choice aircraft and basing options available, and in the face of a sophisticated and networked Libyan IADS, the US joint task force employed SEAD tactics to deceive, deny, disrupt and degrade Libyan decision-making capacity to the point where it exposed its vulnerability to a high-speed attack.

In the years since Operation El Dorado Canyon, technology has further transformed the potency of conventional strike capability, with the introduction of long-range stand-off weapons, advanced sensors, and the increasing integration of command and control and ISR systems. Information-related technologies have also introduced new opportunities and new threats. The introduction of systems such as the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) to replace the ALQ-99 system on the EA-18G will be a major step forward, but perhaps the biggest transformation will come in the form of next-generation unmanned systems that will add mass and capacity to a sovereign strike capability.

However, some things have not changed, especially the constraints introduced by access, basing and overflight requirements, and the willingness to act independently and alone without a broad base of international support. Thus, the raid demonstrated the importance of ensuring a sovereign strike capability avoids being defined by a single service, platform, or weapon system. Instead it must be considered in terms of its attributes and utility to operate in war and, more likely, in a crisis management situation.

Above all, sovereign strike capability must continually evolve and develop within a joint force mindset and drive integration across the entire defence enterprise to execute a ‘kill chain’ in the tightest possible time window while maintaining the element of surprise.

This article proposes some general criteria for a future sovereign strike capability, but it still requires a central idea to add potency and lethality.

New ideas will come with the arrival of new technologies and platforms, and traditional concepts such as the ‘EW Triad’ and SEAD can be given a new lease on life based upon networked joint capabilities and manned-unmanned teaming.

John Conway has worked in the Australian Defence Industry for almost a decade and specialises in the design, integration and implementation of command, information warfare and human factors at the enterprise level.

He is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, and his experience as a senior joint air warfare commander and air combat aviator includes Cold War Europe in the Second Allied Tactical Air Force, the Balkans, Middle East, and Eastern Mediterranean theatres of operation.

This article was published by ADBR in its November-December 2019 edition.

In our work with The Williams Foundation, we have focused on the challenges of being able to conduct full-spectrum crisis management operations in the context of the rise of 21st century authoritarian powers.

The Williams Foundation held a seminar which focused specifically on sovereign strike and the report can be found here: