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Published on Sep 16, 2008
After years of occasional skirmishes with Libya over Libyan territorial claims to the Gulf of Sidra, and years of vulnerability to Libyan-supported terrorism, especially the Abu Nidal group behind the Rome and Vienna airport attacks of December 27, 1985, the United States contemplated a military attack to send a message about support for international terrorism. In March 1986, the United States, asserting the 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) limit to territorial waters recognized by the international community, sent a carrier task force to the region. Libya responded with aggressive counter-maneuvers on March 24 that led to the destruction of Libyan radar systems and missile attack boats. Less than two weeks later on April 5, a bomb exploded in a West Berlin disco, La Belle, killing two American servicemen and a Turkish woman and wounding 200 others. The United States claimed to have obtained cable transcripts from Libyan agents in East Germany involved in the attack.
After several days of diplomatic talks with European and Arab partners, President of the United States Ronald Reagan ordered the strike on Libya on April 14. Eighteen F-111F strike aircraft of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying from RAF Lakenheath supported by four EF-111A Ravens of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing, from RAF Upper Heyford in England, in conjunction with twenty-seven A-6, A-7, F/A-18 attack aircraft and EA-6B Prowler Electronic Warfare Aircraft from the aircraft carriers USS Saratoga, USS America and USS Coral Sea on station in the Gulf of Sidra struck five targets at 02:00 on April 15, in the stated objective that their destruction would send a message and reduce Libya's ability to support and train terrorists. Commander TJ Coughlin and his strike group of A-6 Intruders caused considerable damage to the Libyan Navy by sinking 2 Combattante missile boats. Cdr. Coughlin is credited with the sinking of both of these ships.
The United States was denied overflight rights by France, Spain and Italy as well as the use of European continental bases, forcing the Air Force portion of the operation to be flown around France, Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles (2,100 km) each way and requiring multiple aerial refuelings. The attack lasted about ten minutes. Several targets were hit and destroyed, but some civilian and diplomatic sites in Tripoli were struck as well, and the French embassy was reportedly only narrowly missed, when a number of bombs missed their intended targets.