1986 Libya Operation: Why did Italy/Spain/France refuse airspace?

In the 1986 US air attack on Qaddafi’s Libya, France, Italy, and Spain refused airspace for the attack. (Only the UK allowed it). This required the US planes based in the UK to fly around continental Europe, adding greatly to the time and difficulty of the mission.

They were NATO allies, probably not Qaddafi supporters, so why did they refuse it?

What would have happened if the US simply ignored them and flew directly over France & Spain? If France wouldn’t have attacked US planes, why worry?

Well, one possible thought is that not everyone believes in jumping from “not Qaddafi supporter” to “supporter of indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Tripoli for attacks which they had absolutely nothing to do with.”

France wouldn’t have tried to shoot them down, but the diplomatic fallout would have been massive.

Quite. Lots of Europeans thought Reagan was playing cowboy. Lots of people in the UK as well (and not all Leftists in Labour and the like).

The French could have intercepted the over-flight and engaged in blocking manoeuvres, etc., which itself is dangerous. One does not do outrageously stupid things like that with Allies. They say " no sorry mate, we’re taking a pass on this" and you move on.

What kind of diplomatic fallout would there have been?

You mean France might ban US imports? (We would just ban theirs)

Would they withdraw from NATO entirely? Seems unlikely.

Withdraw their ambassador? We would reciprocate, no biggie.

Would they even have tried to intercept our F-111Fs? ReallY? Mess with the US Airforce/Marines/Navy?

I’m not trying to defend the bombing itself, this question is about the diplomatic issues of airspace, but from the information I’ve seen, the bombing was directed against ‘terrorist’ facilities, and great care was taken to avoid civilian casualties, to the point where several bombs could not be dropped.

Ceasing to share intelligence with the Americans (French are reputed to have one of the best Human Intel networks out there, esp. in Africa, hot in those days re the Sovs)


Freeze contributions of joint forces, bunch of other items - also could have started vetoing all kinds of UN and other international coop things the US wanted. You lot are not the only ones with Sec. Council veto power mate.

I hate smileys normally, but: :rolleyes:

Yes, the French airforce is actually one of the world’s leading airforces.

Are you really serious?

You’re not trying to offer a defence of the bombing… so you offer the standard American defence of the bombing.


wmfellows has made it pretty clear the type of fallout there would have been. The world isn’t quite as you view it - actions have long term consequences, and an armed incursion into a supposed allies airspace is about as serious at it gets in the diplomatic world, short of an actual shooting war starting. One thing the French could (and I think might have done) would have been to warn Libya of the attack.

As for great care to avoid civilian casualties, that turned into a complete load of bollocks. 15 civilians were killed. I am not sure if that number includes the 15 month old daughter of President Qaddafi or not, but she died in the raid. And as an example of actions having consequences, a bunch of Western journalists and other hostages died in reprisals, and it is commonly thought that the Lockerbie bombing was in retaliation.

Let me ask you this. What do you think the US response would be had the United Kingdom sent in SAS hit squads to Boston and Manhatten to take out IRA terrorists the US refused to allow to be extradited? Do you think the US might have had a few issues with the UK over that?


Sam Kinison intones about the Libyan bombing from his album Louder Than Hell,

“We only fucked up one place, we accidentally dropped a bomb on the French embassy. ‘Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa! Aw, sorry about that fellahs. I’m sure we would have had better aim if we had more FUCKING SLEEP! Thanks for those 6500 extra air miles, you fuckheads, BUILD A NEW HOUSE!’ BLAM!!!”


IIRC, Time magazine had some blurb about the Soviets being warned about the bombing–they had their boats in the harbor “lit up like Xmas trees”.

Giving the ferocity of the air defense in Tripoli, and the above reference in Time, it seem to me that Qaddafi been warned by other parties to be on guard. OTOH, with his adopted daughter getting killed, I can’t imagine that he’d be so ruthless as to allow that to happen. I’ve often wondered if we’d been better off quietly capturing and bringing to trial the responsible parties rather than inflame the rest of world with the attack. Or more darkly, assassination of said parties.

Villa, with events of so long ago, my mind is mush–which journalist(s) are we talking about?

From reading Wiki…

Journalist John McCarthy was kidnapped (not killed - my bad).

Killed were Leigh Douglas, Philip Padfield, Peter Kilburn, Paul Appleby and Alec Collett. I don’t know if it is my memory playing tricks on me or if some of them were journalists.

From Wiki, here is what the Libyan’s copped too:

To answer the OPs question, I think that Europeans, especially at that time, were reluctant to rock the boat or use force against places like Libya, and especially wild cowboys like the US who might do all sorts of things that the average European would find distasteful (like violence). They just wanted to go along to get along.

My guess is that the governments who refused the US to use their air space for the strike were both wanting to bow to their public opinion as well as not wanting any retaliation or whatever to splash on them or to be seen as cooperating with the wild cowboys across the ocean. I doubt the leaders of Italy, Spain or France were all that broken up about the US bombing the crap out of Libyan facilities or trying to off Gaddafi (or however it’s spelled), even if their citizens were all worked up about it…as long as it didn’t splash on them and we took the rap for doing the dirty work.


Uhuh, yeah everyone secretly approves of Americans every action, so long as they don’t have to take the rap for it.

There is not a bit of GQ responsive to the OP in that reply.

A GQ response without nationalist “speculation” was already given I think:
The fly over countries were unconvinced by the operation, saw it as too risky to civilians, and unconvinced by the American argument on responsibility of actors (I believe this as regarding Berlin - anyway 90% of what the chest thumper cites is post raid…) / utility.

Since the French had not been shy about military use themselves at that time, it’s risible to assert that stereotypical narrative about Europeans afraid of violence. Tiresome and boring. Speculation about hidden approval has no place in GQ.

Good thing this is in Great Debates instead then.

Yeah I just realised that.

My apologies.

I was sure I had GQ open.

If the US wants our allies to respect the US’ desires and positions on some topics, it would make sense to respect their desires, too. We were able to carry out the raid anyway, so there is no gain to be had pissin’ them off.

Oh, and here is another reason. Had the plan been to violate French or Italian or Spanish airspace, then the attack couldn’t have happened. Thatcher was willing to bend over and spread them from the US to pretty great extents, but even she would have been unable to swallow permitting British airspace to be used to violate fellow EU members to that degree.

This is it in a nutshell.

There is really no downside for the French and others to refuse. The US is going to bomb anyway, so the French get the benefit of Ghaddafi being taught that terrorism against the West is not risk-free, as well as the benefit of appeasing terrorists.

The French in particular are good at that sort of thing. They call it being non-aligned. Sometimes it just works out where they behave like assholes because they want to show their independence.


Ah, the American far right has spoken, so the argument is over.

It’s Europe appeasing terrorists, and Europe being assholes, as God forbid Europe might have its own interests, and might have its own opinions on the best way of dealing with terrorism. It wasn’t as if Europe actually had a better idea on what was actually happening in the Middle East. I wasn’t as if European countries, including Italy, had suffered pretty brutally from terrorism themselves, aimed at a civilian population which the US hadn’t experienced, and often funded by US civilians or even the US government.

No, the Europeans were cowards and appeasers. Because the US far right says so.

Why would you imagine the diplomatic fallout would be limited to France? Just for starters we’d have pissed the holy hell out of the UK for using airbases on thier soil from which to pull such cowboy antics, so there goes another security council vote. They would likely also do other fun things like insist upon the removal of the USAF bases from its territory to prevent a repeat performance. Then there’s the fallout from the loss of trust from the rest of NATO and other US allies, who knows what might happen there.

Cite for any evidence this was a foregone conclusion and also known to the French (or as I expect this is purely made up assertion).

:rolleyes: You clearly know nothing about what the French were doing against the Libyans in Chad at this very time. Jaysus what tripe. Hint again, one of those facts above was Libya lashing out at the French for confronting them militarily.



(Hint French were not part of the non-aligned movement)

Apparently definition of asshole for the chest-thumpers is " don’t do what I want "

Other people call it having a spine and not being slavish gits.

Perhaps because being an ‘ally’ never has meant that one is obliged to follow another’s military adventurism. Napoleon was under the impression it did until the moment his forced allies turned and helped overthrow him.

To argue that America is in some way ‘special’, as in the ‘short-bus special’, and deserves more consideration given to it’s requests than it gives to others — as in it would not allow American airspace to be used for France to bomb Mexico City were France to request it — is not diplomatically recognised and if it happens is more a function of present size than of requirement.

France wasn’t even in NATO.

I can’t imagine the French being deterred by the quality of American military, just by the quantity. The French Armed Forces are excessively tough and always have been.

Yup: 4-yr-old girls.