The defense of Libya is based on selective military duty with an initial service of 12-24 months and comprises (2008) 76,000 men. To see related acronyms about this country, please check ABBREVIATIONFINDER where you can see that LBY stands for Libya. It has 1 elite brigade, 44 stand-alone battalions, 2 submarines, 3 larger battleships, 18 patrol boats, 4 landing craft, 375 fighter jets and 35 combat helicopters. The reserves, the militia of the people, amount to 40,000 men. The defense equipment is relatively modern and of mainly Soviet/Russian origin but with elements of French and British material. In 1992, the UN imposed sanctions on Libya, including implied a ban on all arms sales to the country. The sanctions are assertive.
Defense costs amounted to 15% of GDP in 1980-87 and decreased in 1996-2006 from 5.0% to 1.1% of GDP. Libya participates in one of the UN peacekeeping efforts with observers in Sudan.
Libya was under Muammar al-Gaddafi one of the supposedly strongest military forces in Africa. The defense force was well equipped with modern weapons, but poorly staffed, trained and practiced. This was also evident during the war in 2011, when Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown after a riot supported by a foreign intervention.
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After the regime change in 2011, Libya has been politically divided, with two centers of power and rival parliaments and governments. The country thus has hardly any government force, on the other hand, departments that are loyal to one of the two governments (in Tripoli and Tobruk respectively), as well as a number of militia groups. Insurgent forces in the east, based in Benghazi and led by General Khalifa Haftar, have received military aid from several countries and have sought to occupy the capital Tripoli. Also the Islamic State (IS) established a strong position in Libya.
The overall strengths of the military departments under the control of rival governments are unknown. It is unclear whether Libya can be said to have an air force or a navy.
The strength of the Libyan army is unknown. Materials are believed to include a smaller number of tanks (T-55 and T-72), storm tanks, armored personnel vehicles, armored fighters and heavy artillery.
The existence of the Air Force is unclear and its personnel is unknown. The material is stated to comprise two fighter of a MiG-23, one attack aircraft and about eleven trainer that can be used as light attack aircraft. In addition, a smaller number of helicopters, of which a few combat helicopters are of the Mi-24 type.
The navy’s existence and personnel are also unclear. The fleet is said to include one frigate, about three patrol vessels, one landings vessel, and two supply and auxiliary vessels.
Libya’s foreign policy Military
Libya’s foreign policy is characterized by the fact that Libya as a state is about to cease to exist after Muammar al-Gaddafi was deposed as a result of the 2011 war. Rival governments have subsequently received political, economic and military support from various countries in and outside the region.
Under the Gadaffi regime, Libyan politics was largely influenced by the country’s relationship with the outside world, and foreign policy helped shape Libya’s perception of the international community.
Foreign affairs constituted a major part of the basis for the military coup which abolished the kingdom in 1969 and initiated the military dictatorship led by Muammar al-Gaddafi. The deposed King Idris had, ever since, fought against Italian rule against Britain, with which he allied himself during World War II. After Libya’s independence in 1951, the king strengthened relations with Britain as well as with the United States, both of which maintained military bases in the country. At the same time, there was a national awakening in the Arab world in the 1950s. Radical currents, not least among younger officers, targeted conservative, Western-oriented leaders, including the kingdoms of Egypt, Iraq and Libya.
Under King Idris, Libya was still a poor country that did not pursue any active foreign policy. Relations with the outside world were dominated by relations with the neighboring countries, especially Egypt, then Algeria – and with the Allied, Western powers of the Second World War. Idris particularly supported the United Kingdom as well as the United States, which became the largest contributors of financial and technical assistance to Libya.
The rent for the use of military bases were significant sources of revenue for the country before oil revenues. In 1953, Libya and the United Kingdom signed a 20-year agreement to maintain the El Adam base. A similar agreement was signed with the United States the following year, which allowed access to continued use of the Wheelus airbase, which the country had taken over in 1943. In 1955, a friendship agreement was signed with France that gave limited right to transit by military forces in Fezzan, but this was discontinued the following year. In 1956, an agreement was signed with Italy that cleaned up the middlemen, and which allowed the transfer of Italian property back to Italy, while Italian financial assistance came to Libya. Relations with the Soviet Union were made in 1955.
At the same time, Libya participated in the Arab cooperation, and in 1953 the country joined the Arab League. With the liberation war in Algeria from 1954, Libyan territory was tacitly used to bring weapons from Egypt and Turkey to the rebels.
After oil revenues increased in the 1960s, the need for foreign aid declined, and the country could allow for a more active policy. This was expressed after the Six Day War in 1967, when Libya opened up more to the Arab world. Libya did not even participate in the war against Israel: a battalion was being prepared, but when it was ready, the war was already over.
While foreign policy was low priority by King Idris, this became a major concern for the military regime that took power in 1969, and above all for Muammar al-Gaddafi personally. He was politically and ideologically inspired by Egypt’s revolutionary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and sought cooperation with him and the Arab world at large. Gaddafi offered to make Libya’s resources available to Egypt and the Arab cause, but he was largely rejected as young and naive, and never got the leadership role he envisioned after Nasser’s death in 1970.
With the regime change came a more radical policy, including in the oil sector, first with demands from foreign companies that a higher proportion of revenues should accrue to the Libyan state, then through nationalizations. This led to a somewhat more strained relationship with some western countries.
Under Gaddafi, Libya led an active – and in the West’s eyes – partly unpredictable foreign policy. For Gaddafi, politics was more consistent, and largely consistently confrontational, anti-imperialist and pro-Arab, and not least: pro-Palestinian. The Palestine issue was central to the Libyan regime’s pan-Arabism, and was in the process of deciding how to relate to other states and actors.
In trying to put his pan-Arab visions to life, he sought to form unions with other countries. In addition to the Arab world, he provided political and financial support to liberation movements and rebel groups in various parts of the world. Thus, in some cases, Libya also supported terrorism, and even supported terrorist actions, including against its own citizens in exile. But Libya also supported several African liberation movements as well as radical groups in Latin America. This led to Gaddafi being bullied by Western leaders, and above all by the United States – especially after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. In the 1980s, both the EU and the US imposed financial sanctions on Libya. The country became, next to Iraq, the country that became the target of political, and partly military, attacks from the West.
In the 1990s, Gaddafi effectively abandoned the pan-Arab case, turning more towards sub – Saharan Africa, where Libya had been involved in various conflicts for several years. He became a driving force for political and economic rally through the African Union, of which he was an initiator.
Following a normalization with Western states in the 2000s, they again turned to the Libyan regime when the war in Libya broke out in 2011. The Libyan leadership that took power in 2011 after the Gaddafi regime developed close ties to European states and to the United States.
Libyan foreign policy under Muammar al-Gaddafi marked a significant turnaround from the time of the kingdom, with an anti-Western policy characterized by a settlement with the colonial era and a strong Arab nationalism; ideological roots in panarabism as well as Islam, and an involvement in regional conflicts.
In the 1970s, Libya began cooperation with the Soviet Union, which most of all involved the acquisition of weapons – and thus brought the country into the Cold War.
Arab unity was a political-philosophical goal in itself for Gaddafi, but also a means in the fight against the West, opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians. As a practical part of the policy, he repeatedly tried to establish unions between Libya and other states. In 1969, Libya joined Egypt and Sudan in a front, but a merger was not carried out. Instead, a confederation between Libya, Egypt and Syria was formed in 1971: The Federation of Arab Republics. Neither this nor agreements with Egypt (1972), Algeria (1973, 1987), Tunisia (1974), Syria (1980), Chad (1981) and Morocco (1984) led to integration. Gaddafi also proposed merging with Malta. In 1985, he advocated a union between all Arab states. The collaboration in Maghreb was strengthened following a summit between the leaders in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia in 1988, with the establishment of L’Union du Maghreb Arabe (UMA) the following year.
Middle East conflict
Libya became a player in the Middle East conflict after the coup in 1969, and Muammar al-Gaddafi was one of Israel’s most uncompromising opponents and strongest supporters of Palestinian liberation. In 1970, he argued for a coordinated Arab campaign against Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian government in exile. During the planning of the October war in 1973, Libya was kept out and the country did not even participate in the war against Israel. Libya, on the other hand, provided extensive political, military and financial support to the Palestinians, including military training camps for Palestinian guerrillas.in their territory. At the same time, Libya took part in the internal struggle of the Palestinian liberation movement and supported groups and leaders who opposed Yasir Arafat’s leadership in the PLO, including George Habash, Naif Hawatmeh, Ahmed Jibril and Abu Nidal. Gaddafi wanted influence over the Palestinian revolution, playing different actors against each other.
From the late 1990s, Gaddafi shifted his focus from Arabic to African unity. One reason was that he felt the Arab leaders had not adequately supported Libya when the country was hit by international sanctions – and that attempts at Arab gathering had stalled. Gaddafi had for many years been involved in African affairs and made contact with both groups and states, and was central to the work of establishing the African Union (AU). The foundation for the establishment of the AU was laid during the summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), in the Libyan city of Sirte in 1999. AU followed the OAU in 2000 with Gaddafi as leader. In 1996, Libya was admitted to the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
Libya’s relationship with the West gradually deteriorated after 1969. The new regime wound up in 1970 the military bases that the United Kingdom and the United States leased, but continued to import weapons in 1974 substantially from Western countries, especially France. Then Libya made major military acquisitions from the Soviet Union – followed by about 4,000 foreign advisers, half of them Soviet. Equally, Libya did not become a distinct part of the Soviet sphere of interest during the Cold War; until it was al-Gaddafi for self-sufficiency and Libya for independence.
Libya, under al-Gaddafi, sought to unite the countries of North Africa, as well as to form unions with individual countries in both North Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, Libya ended up in conflict with Algeria, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Tunisia. With Egypt, a short-term border war was fought in 1977, and in Chad Libya engaged militarily for a long period, into the 1980s. Libyan soldiers were sent to Uganda in 1972 and 1979 to support President Idi Amin, then in 1999 to support Yoweri Museveni. In 2001, soldiers were sent to the Central African Republic to assist President Ange-Félix Patassé. Prior to this, in 1976, Libya had supported its dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the same country.
Libya supported a number of liberation and rebel movements in sub-Saharan Africa, including those who later joined the likes of Namibia (SWAPO), South Africa (ANC) and Zimbabwe (ZANU and ZAPU). As a result, al-Gaddafi benefited from the support of, among others, Nelson Mandela, as he was otherwise far from politically isolated, especially in the late 1980s. The opposition to the Libyan leader was mainly due to the support of organizations that sought to fight sitting regimes, not least in West Africa. Among other things, the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia are partly attributed to Libya’s original support for Foday Sankoh respectively and Charles Taylor.
Libya also used its financial resources to invest in African countries through the Libya Arab African Investment Company. Agreements on economic, military and cultural cooperation were signed with several African states, and in 1997 al-Gaddafi proclaimed that Libya’s borders were open to all Africans who would come to the country. This helped make Libya a main country for transit of illegal immigrants to Europe.
Libya repeatedly switched sides in conflicts; At the outbreak of the Iraq- Iran war in 1980, Libya first supported Iran, then from 1985 Iraq. The initial support for Persian Iran over Arab Iraq was partly due to Gaddafi’s sympathy for the anti-Western stance and Islamism of Ayatollah Khomeini, and partly to rival Saddam Hussein. Another example of a change of line was that Libya was involved in the coup in Sudan in 1985 and supported the new regime – having previously supported the liberation movement in South Sudan, which was at war with the Khartoum government. In the 1980s, Libya used Darfur the province of Sudan to its operations in Chad, and contributed to the first Darfur war in 1987-89, and to the establishment of the Janjaweed militia. Libya was also involved after the new conflict in Darfur broke out in 2003. After first supporting the Polisario guerrilla in Western Sahara, Libya condemned it while trying to establish a union with Morocco – which occupied the territory. Libya also supported the EPLF guerrilla in Eritrea, but switched side after the military coup in Ethiopia in 1974, when Gaddafi allied with dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Libya condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but did not join coalition forces during the Gulf War.
Libya has cooperated with neighboring countries in joint efforts to curb the rise of the Islamist movement in North Africa. Gaddafi also sought to help resolve conflicts in Congo and Sudan, in the Eritrea- Sudan relationship, and between Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as Congo and Uganda.
Egypt: Libya’s relationship with Egypt under King Idris was tense after the revolution there in 1952. After the coup in 1969, Libya sought close cooperation with Egypt, but the regime of Gaddafi was by far rejected. After the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1971, Gaddafi became a strong critic of developments in Egypt, and especially after the peace agreement with Israel in 1979. In 1977, a four-day border war between Libya and Egypt came after Egypt attacked as a result of Libyan strengthening at the border. The relationship improved from the late 1980s. Egypt was an important ally in the fight against the sanctions, and Gaddafi again came to regard Egypt as Libya’s most important supporter of the Arab world. During the uprising in Libya in 2011, the previous uprising in Egypt was a source of inspiration, and between the liberated parts of Libya and Egypt the border was opened.
Tunisia: Politically speaking, Libya under Gaddafi was far from Tunisia, but just as fully sought to establish a union between the two in 1974. When that failed, the relationship deteriorated somewhat, and even more after a rebellion against the Tunisian leadership, with a military action in Gafsa in 1980, in which Libya was suspected of involvement. An tense situation in 1985 created fears of a border war, which was averted after mediation from Algeria. During the Libya war in 2011, many Libyans sought refuge in neighboring Tunisia.
Chad: Libya’s most extensive military involvement was in Chad. In 1973, Libya occupied the mineral-rich Aozou Strip in the north, effectively took control of much of northern Chad, and engaged in the civil war there. This led to military confrontations with France, which also sent forces to the country, and in 1987 Libya suffered military defeat. Libya gave up its claim on the territory in 1994 after the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued a ruling in favor of Chad.
From the 1970s onwards, Libya supported radical groups in a number of countries; also terrorist groups. US President Ronald Reagan ordered a halt in 1986 in the country’s economic dealings with Libya, and the United Nations and the EU followed the United States in imposing sanctions following alleged Libyan participation in terrorist attacks. When Libya refused to extradite two suspects for the Lockerbie bomb in 1992, the UN imposed sanctions that were only lifted after the two suspects behind the 1999 action were extradited and brought to trial in the Netherlands. Thereafter, international relations with Libya were gradually normalized.
Geographically, politically and economically, Libya is closely linked to Europe. Several European states have had significant economic relations with Libya. In 1995, the EU invited Libya into the Mediterranean cooperation program. Then, through the political normalization of the 2000s, and even more so after the regime change in 2011, relations have been strengthened. One dimension of Libya-Europe relations is also Libya’s role as a transit country for migrants (economic refugees) especially from African countries illegally entering Europe from Libya, through Italy..
United States: Libya’s relationship with the United States gradually deteriorated from the mid-1970s. In 1973, two US military transport aircraft were shot down by Libyan fighter jets. In 1977, Libya was put on a list of possible enemies. From the 1980s, the United States considered Libya one of the most actively supporting international terrorism, and diplomatic relations were broken in 1981. Under President Reagan, the political conflict between the two countries led to more military confrontations: In 1981, two Libyans became fighter jets shot down by American aircraft over the Gulf of Sirte. US bombed targets in Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, and in 1989 the US shot down two Libyan fighter jets over the Mediterranean. The situation also worsened as a result of the terrorist campaign against the US passenger plane which in 1988 crashed over Lockerbie in Scotland, and for which Libya was held responsible. Libya’s condemnation of the terrorist actions against the United States in 2001 contributed to a normalization, with Libyan and US authorities having a common interest in curbing the rise of radical Islamism. Another obstacle was removed in 2003 when Libya offered to run its WMD program. The United States lifted most of its sanctions in 2003 and reestablished diplomatic relations from 2004. In 2006, Libya was removed from the United States list of states that support terrorism.
During the Libya uprising in 2011, the United States provided early political support to the rebels, but President Barack Obama was reluctant to engage militarily. The first military intervention, Operation Odyssey Dawn, was just as fully led by the United States, before NATO took command of the subsequent Operation Unified Protector.
United Kingdom: A large part of Libya (Kyrenaika, Tripolitania) was under British military administration from 1942, and King Idris established close relations with Britain even before the war. After the war, Libya was a member of the money cooperation in the stirling area for several years. Libya leased military bases to Britain after independence; a deal that was wound up in 1970. The situation worsened during the Cold War, also as a result of Libya’s support for the IRA, and especially after a British police constable was killed by a shootout by the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984. Britain then imposed sanctions against Libya. During the Libya uprising in 2011, the United Kingdom was among the first countries to support a military intervention and made the earliest contributions to Operation Odyssey Dawn.
France: Part of Libya (Fezzan) was under French military administration from 1942, and the country retained certain rights there after World War II. During the reign, relations with France were not extensive, but after the coup, close commercial relations were developed related to arms purchases. Libya also signed an agreement with France on the construction of nuclear power plants. The situation worsened in the 1980s, partly after the Soviet Union took over as the main arms supplier, and partly as a result of the conflict in Chad – where French and Libyan forces supported each other in combat; secondly because of France’s approach to Israel. In 1989, Libya was held responsible for a bomb attack on a French passenger plane over Niger. During the Libya uprising in 2011, France was the leading Western state to support the rebels and international recognition of the transitional council. France was then a driving force in launching a military intervention, and was itself the first country to launch attacks on targets in Libya after the adoption of UN Resolution 1970.
Italy: Libya normalized relations with Italy under King Idris, but the new regime forced remaining Italians out of the country. A confrontation arose in 1973 when Libya fired an Italian naval vessel that had come to the rescue of fishing boats from Sicily after being brought in by the Libyan authorities. The relationship with Italy after 2000 was marked by the significant influx of illegal migrants from Africa, who crossed the sea from Libya. The Libyan regime used this as a means of pressure, but the two countries carried out joint patrols at sea as a confidence-boosting measure. A friendship and cooperation agreement was signed in 2008, through which Italy over 20 years would invest USD 5 billion in Libya – to remove all balances between the two countries, with reference to the colonial past.
USSR: Libya established extensive military cooperation with the USSR during the Cold War, but essentially as a business relationship. Revolutionary Libya represented a form of Islamic socialism, but Gaddafi distanced himself from atheistic communism, and he also viewed the Soviet Union as an imperialist state. In 1972, the two countries signed an agreement on technical cooperation. After supplying the first weapons in 1970, the Soviet Union became the most important weapons supplier for Libya’s defense from 1973, and a large number of military advisers from there and from other eastern bloc countries came to Libya. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Libya and Russia became measured, both for political and economic reasons; Russia believes to have outstanding debts from the Soviet era. The situation improved after President Vladimir Putin visited Libya in 2008. Russia was critical of the international military intervention in the war in 2011. Towards the end of the 2010s, Russia became more involved in the ongoing war in Libya, supporting rebel leader Khalifa Haftar.
China: Libya has traditionally had no close relationship with China, but from 2001-2002, when Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, visited Libya, several economic agreements were made in infrastructure development, and access was granted to Chinese companies in the Libyan oil sector. China was critical of the 2011 international military intervention in the civil war.
After the regime change
After Gadaffi’s removal as head of state during the Libya war in 2011, Libya has come a long way in disbanding as a state formation, and various groups have fought for power. They have sought – and received – support from different countries.
The national unity government in Tripoli is supported by the UN and several Western countries, as well as Turkey and Qatar. In 2019, the government signed an agreement with Turkey on gas extraction in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has sent military advisers in support of the Libyan government and plans to deploy regular forces in 2020. During a UN summit on the situation in Libya, held in Berlin in January 2020, the participating countries, including Turkey, joined an agreement to respect the UN arms boycott of Libya, adopted in 2011.
The rebel leader Khalifa Haftar, who supports a rival government in Benghazi, has received financial and military assistance especially from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Russia.