Odyssey Dawn: Looking Back at the Air Campaign


2015-07-19 Recently, RAND published its study of the air campaign which the US called “Odyssey Dawn.”

The report is entitled “Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War.”

This was the “lead from behind” effort from the US point of view, but an important moment for a number of allied air forces as well exploring their approaches and their limits in a coalition airpower campaign.

The report is more important for its look at the latter than the former.

What it provides is snapshots of how a number of allies involved in the air campaign approached the operation, and sorted out their sweet spot moving forward.

Separately treated are the UK, the French, the Italians, the Canadians, the Belgians, Danish, Dutch and Norwegians, the Swedes, and the Arab Air Forces.

This campaign has been important in preparing for the current air campaign over Iraq and Syria as well as preparing the Nordics for approaching Baltic defense and to deal with the Russians in the region.

We will focus here on the findings of the report with regard to some of those air forces.

The UK

For the UK, this began with Operation Deference, which proved to be an almost textbook example of crisis response undertaken at long range. Airpower was the only feasible means of quickly and safely evacuating several hundred UK civilians from sites deep within the Libyan desert.

The way in which the RAF Regiment 35 The Brimstone variant used in this case is referred to as “Legacy Brimstone,” the older variant of the weapon. provided organic defense to aircraft and to the evacuees also is noteworthy, and reinforces the importance of having a dedicated force-protection element within the air force.

Then, when the main campaign began, airpower achieved the decisive effect of removing most of the regime forces’ advantages, especially in airpower and heavy weapons.

RAF Typhoons prepare for take off at Gioia del Colle airbase, Italy,
RAF Typhoons prepare for take off at Gioia del Colle airbase, Italy,

This helped to even the playing field, and bought the anti-Qaddafi forces sufficient time to achieve a minimal level of organization, training, and equipment (pages 175-176).

A lesson which should have been learned by the US was the impact of the Brimstone missile which continues to play a unique and significant role in the current Middle East air campaign.

As noted in an RAF briefing in 2011:

Two-man crews operate the Tornado, with the pilot in the rear operating the weapons systems.

The first squadron of Tornado operated first in 1982.  The Tornados operated in the longest strike UK operation since World War II.

The initial strikes operated from the UK and involved three air refueling en route to Libyan targets.

 They also operated a mixed formations whereby the Eurofighter operated with the Tornados on some of the operations.  According to the RAF pilots, the Eurofighter provided the situational awareness, which the Tornado lacked.

The Storm Shadow cruise missile was used as the initial strike weapon and had a very high level of success and hits on targets.

The Brimstone was used as well in follow up operations in destroying Libyan armor.

This was the first operation in which the UK used the ASRAAM missile.  The AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile is an infrared homing (“heat seeking”) air-to-air missile, produced by MBDA.

It is currently in service in the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force, replacing the AIM-9 Sidewinder in those services.Target sets included air, armor, garrisons, surface to air missiles.

Their key role was battlefield air interdiction or BAI.  And the typical load carried by the Tornado included mixes of LITENING targeting pod, Paveway IVs, Brimistone missiles, an integral gun, ASRAAMs, Storm Shadow, and counter-measure pods.

The Brimstone was the weapon of the choice for urban targets in the operation.

So why no Brimistones in the US inventory?

Is this the tanker example all over again?

The Italians

In 2011, the ITAF was on par with its coalition partners in terms of equipment (platforms, systems, and ordnance), procedures, and training.

The ITAF destroyed 534 (86 percent) of its 618 Designated Mean Points of Impact (DMPIs) and 97 percent of engaged targets.

Its shortcomings were circumscribed or were shared with most of its partners, and were balanced by areas of unique expertise or equipment.

Two Italian Air Force F-16 jet fighters fly over the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani on the southern Italian island of Sicily March 23, 2011.
Two Italian Air Force F-16 jet fighters fly over the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani on the southern Italian island of Sicily March 23, 2011. 

Coupled with the provision of coalition-enabling logistic support and the difficult political and budgetary circumstances, the overall assessment was one of success and satisfaction.

The “lessons identified” and “lessons learned” process was launched immediately after the end of operations, with the closed-door airpower workshop held in November 2011. It included a “Lessons of Libya” panel that was chaired by Gen. b.a. Gabellini, the original head of the targeting division.

The first broad lesson that the ITAF drew in public from the Libyan crisis was the need for interdiction, air defense and SEAD, the very capabilities that protracted counterinsurgency engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan had sidelined.

This, in fact, merely underscored the long-held ITAF belief in the need for a balanced service centered upon an effective capability to carry out complex operations throughout the aerial domain, beyond the grand-scale logistics requested (or implied) by surface forces.

Air superiority’s enabling role with regard to surface operations is often forgotten or misunderstood by services whose use of aircraft is limited in quantity, breadth, and scope (pages 231-232).

Whatever the challenges facing airpower, it is the strategic process of leveraging airpower, which is crucial as well.

Among Italian analysts, little doubt exists that the prevalent conclusion is deep skepticism about these issues, regardless of their political or military background.

Italian Eurofighter jets prepare to land at Trapani-Birgi airbase in Sicily.
Italian Eurofighter jets prepare to land at Trapani-Birgi airbase in Sicily.

This consensus arises partly from practical considerations, such at the disappearance of a huge number of Libyan surface-to-air missiles, and the contrast between the “responsibility to protect” invoked in February and March 2011 and the bloody post-conflict anarchy.

Perhaps more importantly, it reflects a nearly universal Italian reading of the motivation and prospective outcome (versus Libya, domestic issues, other coalition partners). Gani best summarized the former view, saying: “It is evident that the cavalier and aggressive penetration in Libya aims to replace the Italians in terms of influence, trading position and energy and construction projects.”

Tani cynically described the latter as replacing the “consolidated kleptocracy of the Qaddafi family with a new pervasive kleptocracy” and “a stable lay autocracy with an Islamic-flavored chaos whose outlines cannot be mapped yet.”

Even the official SMD magazine concluded its analysis of the post- Qaddafi prospects with an eloquent “Inshallah” (“God willing”).

The Italian operational success, in other words, is not considered to have contributed to the overarching goal of stabilizing NATO and the Mediterranean; in fact, quite the contrary.168 If it were proved that the governments substituted action for analysis, the implication of the Libyan campaign would be that airpower is shaped by history (and, therefore, politics) rather than the contrary (pp. 237-238)

The Danes

Earlier this year, Second Line of Defense participated in and published a report based on a Copenhagen Airpower conference co-sponsored by the Williams Foundation of Australia and the Copenhagen-based Centre for Military Studies.

A key presentation at that conference was by Col. Anders Rex who underscored how the Danish Air Force was punching above its weight.

According to Col. Rex, coalitions are about solidarity and burden-sharing in dealing with shared tasks and missions.

Being a good coalition partner takes practice.

We have a core group in the Danish Air Force, which has done several coalition operations, and when we are not doing that we participate in multinational exercises.

This is a core competence that the Danish Air Force has developed, and as we do so we work to find the gold in each coalition operation.

Clearly, for the 30 operational Danish F-16s in the Danish fleet to have impact they need to work effectively with those of other Air Forces, especially the countries in the region who also fly F-16s.

A Danish F-16 aircraft are being prepared by his departure to Sicily, to participate in Operation Dawn Odyssey against Libya. (Photo: Jesper Kristensen)
A Danish F-16 aircraft are being prepared by his departure to Sicily, to participate in Operation Dawn Odyssey against Libya. (Photo: Jesper Kristensen)

Of course, the USAF is a much larger force than that of Denmark’s.

But Col. Rex underscored that “it’s so big that if you look at the rate of coalition training opportunities per airman I’m sure it’s a lot lower than an air force like the Danish one.”

For the operations which we undertake “It’s really important to know and understand how to make the most out of a coalition, how to dig out the gold.”

Airpower is the essential element to any kind of rapid response coalition operation.

Look at the Libyan operation as an example.

The Libyan mission was decided and less than 12 hours after the political decision, six Danish F16s took off from Denmark and flew down to Sigonella (in Italy); and less than 30 hours after we landed down there we flew our first combat mission in the operation.

That is fast.

Col. Rex highlighted that the Danes are able to do that because of their rapid decision making cycle.

The Danes have clear responsibilities and a tightly knit force.

One of the good things about being small is that you know everyone, especially when you get to the colonel level, for instance, there’s very few of us.

I think there’s about a hundred, so it’s easy to know a hundred people.

He also argued that coalitions are about diversity and being able to combine different forces that provide different capabilities into an integrated whole.

But of course, to do that you have to train, train, and train together.

According to the RAND report:

The European F-16 operators punched significantly above their weight. Despite their small defense expenditures, they made a disproportionate contribution to the campaign. In particular, the RDAF accumulated a strike volume approaching those of the French forces and of the RAF.

The latter was reported to have dropped approximately 1,400 PGMs (including air launched cruise missiles) by October 24 and French Air Force and Navy aircraft in excess of 1,140 PGMs (including air-launched cruise missiles) by the end of September.

While—among the EPAF nations—Denmark came out on top in terms of strike missions conducted and PGMs dropped….

Examining the costs of the various national contributions, the European F-16 forces provided good value for money. The RDAF’s total cost for the operation was 621 million Danish kroner ($109 million). Of this amount, 297 million kroner ($52 million) would have been spent on training, salaries, and maintenance in any case.

Thus, the added cost for the RDAF’s Libya operations was 324 million kroner ($57 million). This added cost primarily covered the munitions expended.182 In January 2012, the Norwegian Minister of Defence stated that the cost of Norwegian Libya operations amounted to approximately 320 million Norwegian kroner ($55 million), which turned out to be lower than a May 2011 estimate (pages 301-302).


Second Line of Defense focused on a number of issues emerging from the campaign earlier, namely, how the USMC and the French approached the operation.

The coalition challenge inherent in the operation highlights how important working through better coalition C2 and ISR as the US and its allies work through 21st century air operations.

Royal Air Force Tornado GR4's during a refueling mission over the Mediterranean Sea  during 2011 combat operations in Libya. USAF Photo
Royal Air Force Tornado GR4’s during a refueling mission over the Mediterranean Sea during 2011 combat operations in Libya. USAF Photo 

We focused as well upon key aspects of C2 and other key tool sets to conduct such a campaign.

The operation underscored the challenge of “dynamic targeting.”

The shift from destroying identifiable military equipment being used by the Libyan forces supporting Gaddafi to engaging forces on the ground countering the rebels required “dynamic targeting.”

And this can only be done by situational awareness which allows aircraft to target elements blended with the population and this requires aircraft flying low, with close proximity weapons, with forces on the ground able to identify targets in a fluid situation.

As a French officer put it: “We had difficulty getting authorization to fly low, we had limited close proximity weapons and we had severe limitations of forces on the ground able to identify accurate targets.”

For one senior officer the problem was clear: “Going forward we have to augment our capability to do dynamic targeting.

If we are going to intervene in situations where we are supporting contested space and need to support either local or our own forces, we need better capabilities to influence the situation on the ground.

Air systems can clearly do this, but in coordination with ground targeting elements. And the pilots need to be granted more authority.

We have to stop believing that some far-away command authority has better SA or moral authority than the pilot over the target.

And the notion that unmanned systems are going to replace the pilot is ludicrous in a dynamic targeting situation.

If we are reluctant to give a guy with SA in the pilot’s seat authority, why are we going to give some guy in Nevada or Paris looking through a soda straw the authority to do dynamic targeting.”


And the coming of age of the Osprey, including the extraordinary rescue of a downed Air Force pilot.

Cpl. Sean Moberly with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 266, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, runs preflight checks on an AV-8B Harrier on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in preparation of Operation Odyssey Dawn missions. In OD, the Osprey was used as rapid mover of parts from Sigonella to the Kearsarge and tripled th expected sortie rates for the Harriers. Credit: US Sixth Fleet Public Affairs,
Cpl. Sean Moberly with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 266, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, runs preflight checks on an AV-8B Harrier on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in preparation of Operation Odyssey Dawn missions. In OD, the Osprey was used as rapid mover of parts from Sigonella to the Kearsarge and tripled th expected sortie rates for the Harriers. Credit: US Sixth Fleet Public Affairs.

Clearly, Odyssey Dawn was a learning experience and a step towards reworking how to do joint and coalition operations.

More effective US organizational coherence is clearly a key challenge going forward in coalition operations.

The RAND study provides an important contribution looking back and forward on the process.

But it is not just about the challenges of the Alliance going forward; it is shaping more effective objectives, and approaches to joint operations as well.

The operation also showed the limits laid down by the political leadership, and the absolute significance of reworking how civilians approach the use of airpower in the period ahead.

The US military is more capable of conducting insertion operations than the political and civilian leadership is of determining the objectives.

Indeed, one can argue that the greatest strategic gap is shaping a strategic elite, which actually is one.

Editor’s Note: We would like to thank our partner Hans Tino Hansen of Risk Intelligence for bringing this report to our attention.

RAND summarized its report as follows:

Between March and October 2011, a coalition of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states and several partner nations waged a war against Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan regime that stemmed and then reversed the tide of Libya’s civil war, preventing Qaddafi from crushing the nascent rebel movement seeking to overthrow his dictatorship and going on to enable opposition forces to prevail.

The central element of this intervention was a relatively small multinational force’s air campaign operating from NATO bases in several countries, as well as from a handful of aircraft carriers and amphibious ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

The study details each country’s contribution to that air campaign, examining such issues as the limits of airpower and coordination among nations. It also explores whether the Libyan experience offers a potential model for the future.

Key Findings

Airpower Prevented an Early Regime Victory

  • The air campaign enabled the opposition to survive Qaddafi’s offensive in March 2011.
  • Imposition of the no-fly zone and the continuation of coalition air strikes had a profound effect on the Libyan rebels beyond the protection those strikes provided from air and ground attacks.

Airpower Enabled Rebels to Go on the Offensive

  • Aerial intervention made possible not merely a victory against Qaddafi, but a Libyan victory.
  • The availability of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, especially of developed targets, was central to the conduct of the air campaign.

Intervention Was Done Cheaply and Effectively

  • No coalition personnel were killed, or even seriously wounded, carrying out operations over (or in) Libya.
  • Target planners and aircrews generally succeeded in their considerable efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
  • The war is estimated to have cost the coalition several billion dollars, a relatively low figure compared to other conflicts.
  • Several nations’ air forces were stretched to the limit of their abilities to sustain aircraft deployments.

Airpower Was Intertwined With Politics

  • The Libyan aerial intervention was unusual in having a rationale that explicitly revolved around a mandate to protect civilians.
  • The Arab states’ most important strategic contribution was in the political domain and in providing assistance to the Libyan rebels.
  • The United Nations’ endorsement of the intervention heavily influenced the participation of some countries.
  • Applying the “Libya model” of using airpower to enable victories by indigenous ground forces to other settings is potentially powerful but will often be more difficult, especially where political conditions are less favorable than in Libya.


  • Develop provisions among NATO countries to enhance their ability to operate as an alliance within ever-changing coalitions, anticipating that it will be hard to predict the roster of players in some future endeavors.
  • Prepare to deal with the unanticipated absence of significant allies.
  • Build capabilities for cooperation with indigenous forces, which is all-important in cases such as Libya and should be first among many areas of further investigation into improving strategies and techniques for aerial interventions.
  • Develop standardized procedures and templates for information sharing (to include classification protocols) with “‘NATO-plus”‘ partners to ease transition and integration issues.
  • Invest in munitions with limited kinetic effects, such as Brimstone, which demonstrated their worth in Libya.
  • For non-U.S. members, plan to address shortfalls in available capacity for air refueling, suppression of enemy air defenses, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance collection and analysis, and other “enabling” functions that the United States predominantly contributed to the Libya campaign.
  • Recognizing what airpower cannot do — and communicating this effectively to national leaders — is as important as envisioning what it can do.

Earlier Second Line of Defense and partner pieces on Odyssey Dawn:















The first four photos are credited to the following website: