With NATO and American help, Libyan rebels recently defeated the armed forces of ousted strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi. Now they face the tough task of building a new military from the broken and demoralized remains of the old one.
Qaddafi used his military rank as his official title throughout his long reign, but spent decades systematically underfunding his country’s small armed forces. The Libyan military had less than 100,000 troops in uniform when rebels launched their uprising six months ago and was reliant on aging Soviet-made aircraft and tanks, many of which were subsequently destroyed by coalition airstrikes.
That leaves Libya’s new Transitional National Council with a pair of difficult tasks. First, the rebels will have to persuade the leaders and rank-and-file members of the Libyan armed forces—who were appointed to their posts by Qaddafi and remained largely loyal to him until the end—to now pledge allegiance to the country’s new government.
Second, the TNC, which expects to soon gain access to billions of dollars in frozen Qaddafi funds, will also need to start buying expensive modern armaments to replace the outdated weapons destroyed in NATO air strikes or fell into disrepair because of Qaddafi’s failure to properly maintain them. On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. had transferred $700 million in Qaddafi-era funds to the new Libyan government and expected to give them $800 million more in the weeks ahead.
“Essentially, the TNC will need to build a new military from scratch,” said Scott Johnson, a London-based analyst for IHS Jane’s, which researches militaries around the world. “It’s difficult to know how much of their weaponry survived the strikes, but the equipment was old and poorly serviced even before operations began.”
Take Libya’s aging T-54 and T-55 tanks, Soviet-made armored vehicles which Qaddafi had deployed against the rebels in the opening phases of the uprising. Qaddafi once had 1,600 of the tanks, but Johnson estimates that just 500 of the tanks were in use when the fighting began. NATO warplanes conducted hundreds of airstrikes on the tanks, and Johnson said it’s not clear how many of the vehicles survived.
The poor state of the Libyan armed forces is somewhat surprising given how completely Qaddafi once covered himself and his government in military trappings.
Qaddafi was a young Libyan army captain when he and a coterie of other military officers seized power in a largely bloodless coup on Sept. 1, 1969. The country’s new government, known as the “Revolutionary Command Council,” quickly promoted Qaddafi to colonel, the rank he used as his official title during his subsequent 42-year reign.
Once in power, Qaddafi went on a buying spree. In the 1970s, flush with oil money, he purchased thousands of Soviet-made tanks, helicopters, warplanes, submarines and ships. In 1979, Libya’s state-owned media proudly reported that the country had more military aircraft than Great Britain, an assertion London quietly acknowledged was correct.
But the Libyan military fell into disrepair in subsequent years because of the crushing sanctions imposed on Qaddafi’s government in the wake of high-profile state-sponsored terror attacks in the U.S., Germany and England. By the time of the rebel uprising, the Libyan military was a shadow of its former self—still dangerous, but no match at all for the modern helicopters, drones, and strike aircraft which NATO arrayed against it.
“You’re talking about a military which was still using Soviet-era equipment,” said Andrew McGregor, a military analyst at the Jamestown Foundation. “Its air force was only valuable when it was fighting an insurgency which lacked air cover. Once NATO stepped in, the Libyan Air Force was almost immediately irrelevant to the fighting.”
In the run-up to the NATO military campaign, multiple Western officials expressed concern about Qaddafi’s arsenal of shoulder-fired SA-7 and SA-7b antiaircraft missiles. The armaments were similar to the weapons the Afghan mujahedeen used to down hundreds of Soviet aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s, and some NATO officials feared that Qaddafi’s forces would be able to shoot down Western helicopters and planes as well. In the end, McGregor notes, none of the missiles appear to have even been fired at NATO aircraft, let alone to have succeeded in bringing one down.
“One of the biggest questions of the entire Libyan operation is why these systems weren’t deployed against NATO aircraft,” McGregor said. “Either it was a political decision by Qaddafi not to further antagonize NATO or in fact the systems had simply become inoperable because they weren’t properly maintained.”
Despite their lack of use, the U.S. remains concerned about the missiles. Last month, the State Department told Congress that it would be deploying contractors to Libya to track down and destroy the shoulder-fired missiles before they could be sold on the black market or given to terror groups. The Obama administration has also launched a quiet push to buy missiles that already made their way to neighboring Mali, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the effort.
McGregor, the Jamestown analyst, said the U.S. and its allies may have an even tougher time helping the TNC reintegrate former members of the Qaddafi-era Libyan military.
“There’s no reason to assume the existing Libyan military will just cross over en masse,” he said. “There’s still a lot of resentment within the existing Libyan military to coming under the command of the TNC, which they see as a Benghazi clique.”
The war in Libya may be over, in other words, but the two main combatants have not yet made their peace. Libya’s armed forces will play a key role in the country’s future, just as they did in its past. Whether their impact is positive or negative, however, remains to be seen.