One thing that is perhaps being overlooked by people discussing whether or not it would be wise to impose a no-fly zone over Libya is exactly what such a zone would set out to prevent. When it was first suggested, it was inspired by the general horror that the Libyan government was having crowds of civilians strafed by its Sukhoi 22 close-support aircraft. However, especially since several Libyan Air Force crews defected to Malta and to the revolution, air activity has turned out to be much less significant in what is beginning to look like a classical West- or Central-African civil war, based around Toyota pickups and 23mm Russian anti-aircraft guns and mercenaries paid with the money from exporting some mineral or other. You know the one.
It’s fairly well known that Libya sponsored several of the key warlords of 90s West Africa – Foday Sankoh, Charles Taylor, and several others originally met up in Libyan-funded training camps. Interestingly, not only did one of the versions of Jetline International base itself in Tripoli and trade aircraft back and forth with two of Viktor Bout’s companies, but Gaddafi’s government maintains an impressive airlift capacity. As well as the two flag-carrier airlines, Libyan Arab and Afriqiyah, whose names track the changing priorities of foreign policy, the Air Force operates a semi-commercial cargo wing, Libyan Arab Air Cargo, with a fleet of Ilyushin 76 and even two enormous Antonov-124s, some of very few such aircraft owned outside the former Soviet Union.
I’ve put together a Google spreadsheet of transport-type aircraft with Libyan operators, sorted so that currently active aircraft are at the top, and generated URIs to look them up on Aerotransport.org, for subscribers, and on JetPhotos.net, in the two right hand columns.
There are a total of 180 airframes, of which 118 are active. It’s probably worth noting that there was a report that top managers at Afriqiyah had resigned rather than take part in Gaddafi’s war effort, and constant rumours of mercenaries being lifted into airfields in the southern deserts.
The upshot of this is that logistics, rather than tactical air power, might be the most important factor in Gaddafi’s efforts to defeat the Libyan revolution/win the Libyan civil war. Rather than engaging in combat, the aim might instead be blockade, as a complement to the international financial sanctions already in place. (A ship has recently been stopped in British waters carrying large quantities of freshly printed Libyan currency.)
On the other hand, it also adds complexity and risk to the whole issue. There are still plenty of people who want to leave Libya, and British government-chartered airliners are ferrying some of them from Tunisia to Egypt. It would be a bad business, to say the least, to shoot down an Il-76 full of refugees. It could be better to try to cut off the supply chain at source by grounding Libyan aircraft elsewhere in the world, although this requires the cooperation of those states who are still willing to let them recruit on their territory. Further, imposing a blockade also implies a responsibility for the survival of the civilian population. Sending aid to eastern Libya has already been suggested, of course.
For a little extra, the Russian Demography blog, venturing well out of its usual beat, notes that the Libyan Government’s Dassault Falcon 900EX business jet, 5A-DCN, took a trip to Minsk recently. Its ICAO identifier, useful with virtual-radar sites, is 018019. There are various things the regime might find useful in Belarus – mercenaries, again, small arms (although they don’t appear to be short of them), and perhaps least disturbingly, impunity. (Hat tip.)