Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme

Libya's aerial refuelling programme has only been rarely reported on since its inception in the late eighties, and suffered from a series of setbacks that ultimately led to the abandonment of the programme. Nonetheless, this ambitious project has definitely left its traces within the Libyan Air Force, and aircraft once playing a key role in the in-flight refuelling programme are still flying amidst the increasingly deteriorating security situation inside the country today.

The former LAAF (Libyan Arab Air Force) has been split into two air forces for several years now, each operating various types of fighter aircraft and helicopters. While a unity government is supposed to act as Libya's new government, the division of the country between several warring factions effectively continues. Libya Dawn, once loyal to Libya's unrecognised parliament, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), fighting for Libya's internationally recognised government are the strongest forces on the ground.

Although both are mainly focused on fighting Islamic extremism such as the Islamic State, sporadic clashes and bombings between the two continue at an increasing rate. This is an unfortunate result of the chaos that followed after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, mainly caused by a greed for power on the side of Libyan factions and a lack of support on the side of NATO, which played a major role in the ousting of Gaddafi but provided inadequate support in helping Libya to develop itself into a functioning democracy.

With a limited number of operational airframes divided between two air forces, both Libya Dawn and the Libyan National Army have scrounged the divided country for aircraft that could be made operational with relatively little effort or by cannibalising other airframes. Aircraft previously thought to have found their final resting place are now repurposed and restored to operational status and with Libya's lax rules when it comes to photographing sensitive equipment on most Libyan airbases, images of these airframes leak regularly. This peculiar situation provides the ideal footage for a review of Libya's ill-fated aerial refuelling programme, which has remained unknown to many until this date.

Libya's large surface area makes aerial refuelling tankers a coveted asset that allows aircraft to cross long distances to reach their targets without frequent stopovers or forward deployments to airbases closer to the target. This was especially true during the Gaddafi-era, when Libyan aircraft frequently struck targets in Chad, Sudan and even Tanzania in support of Libyan forces deployed to Chad and Uganda, or simply as an act of retribution.

Libya's shadow war in Chad can be seen as a defining period for the Libyan Air Force, facing off against not only the Chadians but also the French, which deployed to Chad in support of Hissène Habré fighting against the Libyans and proxies present in the country. As most Libyan airbases were located in the North of the country, the LAAF forward-deployed its aircraft to the remoteness of Southern Libya or even in Northern Chad. Both locations would prove to be extremely vulnerable to strikes by the French Air Force and Chadian incursions, the latter raiding Maaten ar-Surra airbase in Southern Libya and even capturing Wadi Doum airbase in Chad, leading to severe losses on the Libyan side.

It is likely that the experiences gained in Chad and monitoring the developments worldwide were decisive factors in Libya's decision to acquire aerial refuelling tankers. Although by the mid-eighties the Soviet Il-78 was already in production, Libya instead turned to the West to help set up an aerial refuelling project of its own in a similar way Iraq would. Although the reasons for this decision remain unknown, it is possible that Libya was simply not permitted to acquire the Il-78 at the time.

In 1987, Libya contracted the West German company Intec Technical Trade und Logistic (ITTL) to set up an in-flight refuelling programme in Libya itself. Despite being a staunch opponent of the West, Libya had no problems contracting Western companies for all sorts of deals, including defence-related ones. On the delivering end Western companies, eager to profit from Libya's oil wealth, had no problems working for Libya either. Interestingly, ITTL began with acquiring in-flight refuelling (IFR) probes from France in addition to designing one of their own, which were subsequently installed on at least three MiG-23BNs and a single MiG-23UB.

Despite having bad experiences with the MiG-23MS, and also encountering more of the same problems with the MiG-23BN, the MiG-23BN proved to be a valuable asset for it sturdiness and weapon payload in Libyan service. Therefore, the decision to install in-flight refuelling probes on this fleet in particular so as to expand their range was not surprising. In addition to adding IFR-probes to its MiG-23BNs, the Libyan Arab Air Force could also count on the remainder of sixteen Mirage F.1ADs it had previously acquired from France; arguably the most capable aircraft in the Libyan inventory and already capable of being refuelled in mid-air.

ITTL proceeded with converting one of the LAAF's C-130s to the in-flight refuelling role by installing aerial-refuelling pods under both wings, which would have allowed for the refuelling of two aircraft at a time. Unfortunately, the C-130 proved less than ideal for this task when attempting to refuel the MiG-23, which was unable to adjust to its relatively slow operating speed. Although the Mirage F.1AD was capable on refuelling from the C-130, Libya already operated a far more suitable platform at this time: The Il-76.

As such, Il-76TD '5A-DNP' from Libyan Air Cargo (itself a de-facto part of the LAAF) was modified for the in-flight refuelling role by ITTL technicians. Despite their efforts, ITTL was forced to abort its operations in Libya when their involvement in Libya's in-flight refuelling programme became publically known. While their withdrawal would ultimately herald the end of this ambitious programme, it is believed that Libya continued the project for several years on its own, eventually ceasing all further efforts in the mid-nineties. Interestingly, footage of the project was documented on film and can be viewed online.

Around the same time as ITTL commenced work on Libya's in-flight refuelling programme, Libya entered negotiations with the Soviet Union to replace its fleet of Tu-22 bombers with up to 36 Su-24MKs supported by a fleet of six Il-78 tankers. This combination of Su-24s and Il-78s was to act as the LAAF's long arm, replacing the Tu-22 in this role. While the Tu-22s were able to cross long distances from their base at al-Jufra, the operational career of these aircraft was coming to an end at the late eighties, and they had to be replaced.

The Su-24MK brought with it a wide array of air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs that allowed for precision strikes, a capability the Tu-22 lacked. Indeed, during a bombing sortie against a target in Tanzania, the Libyan Tu-22 crew not only missed the target, but the entire country as well, with the bombs landing across the border in Burundi instead! Unfortunately for Libya, disagreements over payment and the UN arms embargo in effect since 1990 prevented the LAAF from receiving the desired amount of aircraft, and only six Su-24MKs and one Il-78 would eventually find their way to Libya.

It remains unknown however if this sole Il-78 was ever used in the in-flight refuelling role since its inception in 1989 or 1990, although it is certain that the aircraft spent the majority of its career as a cargo aircraft, still equipped with its three UPAZ pods aerial-refuelling pods attached. Wearing commercial Jamahiriya Air Transport (Libyan Air Cargo) titles, the Il-78 was first seen in early April 2005 coming in to land at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (IAP) after having been overhauled at the 123 ARZ repair plant in Staraya Russa, Russia between 2004 and 2005.

Due to its extremely rare sightings, the Il-78 is perhaps the most elusive aircraft to have ever entered service with the Libyan Air Force. Only rarely sighted throughout its career, the aircraft became even more elusive after the conlusion of the Libyan Civil War, resulting in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Remaining grounded at al-Jufra airbase, Libya's sole Il-78 was thought to have met its final resting place before the aircraft resurfaced at Misrata airbase in late 2015, confirming the ill-fated aircraft had re-entered service.

Forgoing the sophisticated capabilities that are its raison d'être, the aircraft continues its short career in the cargo rol. In accordance with its new owners, the Gaddafi-era Jamahiriya titles in English and Arabic were painted over, and the new Libyan flag applied over the Jamahiriya green. The aircraft bears heavy traces of wear on the aircraft's windows, and the front windows have likely been replaced.

As the Libyan Civil War continues with no cessation of hostilities in sight, military equipment is brought back to operational conditions in an effort to reinforce the arsenals of the warring factions wrestling for control over Libya and its resources. Although the dreams of a dedicated aerial refuelling fleet to support a long-gone professional air force capable of undertaking international sorties have faded from memory long ago, Libya's skies remain abuzz with the remnants of this past age, as the aircraft that played a vital role in the programme are slowly consumed by the unabating demands of war.

Special thanks to Tom Cooper from ACIG.

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Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme Reviewed by Defense Alert on 12:14:00 Rating: 5

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