Flying half-blind in Libya

Rescue of downed US F-15 crew near Benghazi shows risks of identifying friend from foe in aerial war.

fighter jet crashes
A Libyan rebel in full military kit scans the skies at a checkpoint in Brega [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]

On the night of March 21, just 48 hours after the coalition air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi began, an F-15 Eagle crashed in east Libya after suffering what the US military has described as a mechanical failure.

As the plane went down, its pilot and weapons officer ejected, opened their parachutes and drifted through the dark sky into the flat, Mediterranean scrubland around 40km southeast of Benghazi, a port city of nearly 700,000 at the heart of the rebellion against Gaddafi.

They were deep in friendly territory, and with the help of local residents, both would be rescued within hours. The problem: They didn’t know it.

Two US warplanes – responding to a call for help from the downed pilot – swooped in and bombed the ground several hundred metres from approaching civilians. According to the Telegraph newspaper, as many as eight residents who came to help were shot by Marines sent to recover the stranded airman after the bombing run.

The reported civilian casualties haven’t stirred outrage in Benghazi, where residents are more concerned with the rebels’ tenuous advance and news of mass killings in western towns such as Misurata and Zintan.

But Libyans’ affection for foreign air strikes depends on their success in routing Gaddafi’s troops and saving civilian lives. Another mistake like the F-15 rescue, especially if it leaves dead civilians, could reverse the goodwill evidenced by the cheering crowds who lauded French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Benghazi’s main square after his country’s jets were the first to hit Gaddafi’s armour columns.

“I’m not gonna hold the French flag and kiss it,” said Libyan-American Yaseen Kadura, who returned to Benghazi in late February to stay with his extended family. “Because I do know that these countries act in their own interest. But what is the alternative?”

Six trucks and men with dogs

According to an account given to Al Jazeera by a spokesman for US Africa Command who asked not to be identified by name, the pilot first made contact with the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship in the Mediterranean, at 11:50pm. After landing, he saw six trucks and men with dogs moving nearby.

Few people on the front, whether “rebels” or “civilians,” wear uniforms [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]

For the next hour, the pilot snuck southeast, trying to find a place to hide. Local men appeared to have seen the jet crash and were searching the area. They probably didn’t know whether the plane belonged to Gaddafi or the coalition.

Coalition planes circling above observed the scene but couldn’t tell whether the men were friendly rebels or Gaddafi’s troops, the spokesman said.

“Right now, in hindsight, we probably think they were friendly, but it’s difficult to say that at one o’clock in the morning, especially for a pilot who’s had his airplane fall out from underneath him,” he said.

Neither the pilot nor the circling jets saw weapons in the group, but the pilot believed he had been spotted by the search party, now one kilometre away.

At 12:50am, the pilot requested a “show of force” from the Kearsarge. Two Harrier ground-attack jets on board the ship took off in response.

Forty minutes later, they reached the pilot and dropped two GBU-12, laser-guided, 500-pound bombs into the brush around 500 metres from the unidentified men, halfway between them and the pilot. No one seemed to be injured in the blasts.

The attack was meant as a deterrent and had no “lethal intent,” the US military spokesman said.

Somewhere nearby, the weapons officer suffered a sprained knee in his parachute landing and never had the chance to hide. He was reportedly found immediately by friendly Libyans who greeted him warmly and took him to safety in Benghazi.

Meanwhile, two Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft carrying a Marine search-and-rescue from the Kearsarge reached the pilot at 2:30am. According to residents who spoke with the Telegraph, Marines on board the Ospreys sprayed them with gunfire, injuring eight people. Hospital sources told British reporters who arrived on the scene the next day that one man might need his leg amputated.

American officers have denied the account, saying no one opened fire.

‘No way of knowing what’s friendly territory’

In a rescue scenario, the US spokesman said, the downed pilot typically gets the benefit of the doubt when asking for help, though the responding aircraft ultimately decides whether to fire. In Libya, with Western governments loathe to be seen as aggressors against another Muslim nation, the rules of engagement are reportedly tight.

“The pilots are under fairly stringent orders that if there’s any doubt about the identity of the target, then they break off the attack,” the spokesman said, adding, in blunt terms: “It’s not a free-for-all like Iraq.”

But in Libya, coalition forces often don’t know what they’re looking at.

“There’s no way of knowing what’s friendly territory or not,” the spokesman said. Front lines change hour by hour, and the military doesn’t receive that information immediately, nor are commanders “100 per cent” certain where friendly forces are positioned, he said.

The coalition’s method of targeting Gaddafi’s troops seems comparatively unsophisticated, relying not on vehicle markings or on-the-ground intelligence sources but on simple behaviour, a “sure sign of intent”.

Even the rebels have tanks, and they rarely behave like a disciplined military [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]

“First of all, they watch them for a while, they can see [the unit] and observe it, they can see where they’re going and coming from, they can watch tanks… if they turn north toward the fighting and fire toward what is known as a civilian target, [we] would attack them,” the spokesman said. “But it’s a pretty high burden of truth.”

In Iraq, US air forces used radio technology to identify whether vehicles were friendly, but in Libya discerning opposing sides is extremely difficult, said David Hartwell, a UK-based Middle East security specialist for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

The problem stems from a lack of education and a fluid battle with ill-defined front lines that leave pockets of opposition and loyalist forces scattered throughout the country, he said. Since the air campaign began only recently, it’s possible that crews don’t fully understand the political attitudes on the ground in Libya.

“There perhaps hasn’t been time for the education process,” Hartwell told Al Jazeera. “Clearly these pilots, these guys in these situations have to think on their feet, and to some extent you’ve got be a bit of a diplomat.”

The military’s default reaction to a downed pilot is to expect the worst and defer to the opinion of the man on the ground, he said, but since the UN resolution was specifically meant to protect Libyans from harm, there is a “huge onus” on avoiding civilian casualties.

Ultimately, the life-or-death choice over the proper response lies in the hands of the responding pilot, improvising his reaction based on information provided by an anxious airman who doesn’t speak Arabic and just ejected into unknown territory.

Not knowing whether the approaching trucks were friendly or loyal to Gaddafi, “The [rescue] pilot may well have sort of reviewed the situation [and] said, ‘Well yes, I can stop the convoy, but I don’t necessarily have to blow it up,” Hartman said.

The conditional love for intervention

In Benghazi, the opposition’s Transitional National Council hasn’t made any statements on the incident or expressed dismay at the possibility that as many as eight civilians were wounded by US gunfire. At a press conference on Monday, a spokesman said the council was investigating accounts of civilian casualties in the past two days and hoped to provide more information “in due course.”

As rebels drive westward, reclaiming ground recently occupied by regime troops and closing in on Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, Libyans in the east are still jubilant. Benghazi residents say they’re sure the coalition air strikes saved them from a massacre.

“People were on edge all day (before the strikes), like not even able to smile, being absolutely sick to our stomachs,” said Kadura, the American who returned to Benghazi, where his large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins lives. “I don’t think we would have stood a chance.”

Civilians in east Libya are happy with foreign bombing raids, for now [Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]

For weeks prior to the rapid diplomatic push for a resolution at the Security Council, Libyans had been pleading for international help. Their call for foreign air strikes was loud, unqualified and came from a broad swath of society. English teachers, bankers, and Islamists who had supported the insurgency in Iraq all said they would welcome US attacks on Gaddafi’s forces.

Once French warplanes began striking Gaddafi’s armor columns west of Benghazi, the population rejoiced. But Kadura’s reaction has been more restrained.

Kadura said he read about the F-15 crash on Asad Abu’Khalil’s Angry Arab blog but that it hadn’t sparked much discussion among his group of friends, who are more concerned with the fight against Gaddafi.

“We assume that they have the technologies, that they’ll be able to differentiate from the sky,” he said. “That was obviously an exceptional situation … What we discuss is Ajdabiya, Misurata, Zintan.”

South of Benghazi, on the road toward Ajdabiya, where Gaddafi’s forces had assembled in anticipation of a push on the city, dozens of vehicles and the corpses of regime troops littered the desert. Kadura and his friends were impressed by the accuracy of the strikes: One truck appeared to have been hit by a missile while pulling a disabled vehicle – only the functioning truck was damaged.

“We were all like, ‘Holy crap,'” Kadura said.

For now, the air strikes are worth their potential price.

“In any other context, it would pain me to see the US intervening like this,” he said. “The idea of having foreign powers in my country, in isolation from what is happening … is unimaginable. (But) after years of total dictatorship, I for one have had enough of Gaddafi and his total destruction.”

Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

Source: Al Jazeera