A Moment in Air Force History:
El Dorado Canyon

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing History Office

April is the 19th anniversary of Operation El Dorado Canyon. While several factors led to it, the final precipitating event was a terrorist attack on the La Belle Discotheque in West Berlin. Frequented by Americans, a bomb set off April 5, 1986, killing two Americans and a Turkish woman and injuring 230 others, including 79 Americans.

U.S. intelligence intercepted telephone conversations between the Libyan embassy in East Berlin and Tripoli that called for attacks on Americans “to cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties.” Another intercepted Libyan communiqué outlined an attack planned in West Berlin.

Based on the intelligence information at the time, President Ronald Reagan authorized the attack on Libya in what became Operation El Dorado Canyon. Five targets were selected. Four were identified as terrorist supporting facilities, while the fifth target was a fighter airfield targeted to prevent Libyan fighter intervention.

To attain surprise, mission planners chose to attack all five sites at the same time during the hours of darkness. The only aircraft in the U.S. inventory at the time capable of conducting a precision night attack were the Navy A-6E Intruder and the Air Force FB-111 Aardvark. The aircraft carriers the USS America and the USS Coral Sea were in the Mediterranean, but with only 10 A-6s each, they lacked the capability to carry out the attack alone. Consequently, FB-111s based in England were drawn into the operation, which greatly added to the mission’s complexity.

In the mid-1980s Europe was battling frequent attacks from an assortment of terrorist organizations. Concerns over retaliatory terror attacks led France and Spain to deny use of their airspace for the operation. Their decision doubled the roundtrip for the F-111s to about 6,400-miles (14-hours) requiring up to 13 air refuelings. To accommodate the complex mission more than 100 aircraft were used to support and conduct the attack.

The first attack aircraft left the United Kingdom in the early evening of April 14 on what was later described as the longest fighter combat mission in history. The first actual combat began 2 a.m. April 15 in an attack that lasted less than 12 minutes and dropped 60 tons of munitions.

While one F-111 was lost in the raid, Libya’s sophisticated Soviet air-defense system was overwhelmed by the attack. Resistance outside the immediate target areas was nonexistent, and their air defense aircraft never launched – this despite being on high alert for a pending attack. Though not immediately understood, El Dorado Canyon demonstrated a retaliatory capability that did help reduce state-sponsored terrorism in Europe.

The world has changed since 1986. In 2003 Libya announced abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction program and they have reportedly agreed to pay $35 million in compensation to the victims of the La Belle Disco bombing. The process of normalization of relations has begun. What has not changed since 1986 is America’s resolve.

As President Reagan said to the nation April 14, 1986, “There should be no place on Earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills … I said that we would act with others, if possible, and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere.” A quest we still pursue to this day.