A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Image: skeeze (CC0 1.0)
The western military intervention in Libya in 2011 led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi regime and precipitated the country's collapse into disorder and insecurity. Years of factional fighting ensued, which continues to this day.
One element of a chaotic situation was the spreading influence of Islamist ideas. Several Islamist-leaning militias were active in Libya, and elements among them would be greatly influenced by the rise of ISIS. After the Gaddafi regime's overthrow and the setting up of weak successor governmental bodies, militias supported by Washington and backed by United States airpower forced ISIS-leaning Islamists in Libya onto the defensive. At the same time, the US-led air-war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria was making the Libyan front all the more significant for ISIS and its affiliates. The west's military strategy, by treating the various Islamist groups as a unified adversary even when local circumstances were different, actually strengthened connections between them (see "Libya's war, history's shadow", 24 March 2011).
ISIS's declaration of a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria in June 2014 threw the region's conflicts into a new stage. Islamists in Libya around the town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast midway between Tripoli to the west and Benghazi to the east, were especially active. By early 2015, now aligned with ISIS itself, they had infiltrated the town and then taken full control. Soon the movement was using it as a base from which to help expand its influence across north Africa (see Frederic Wehrey, "When the Islamic State came to Libya", Atlantic, 10 February 2018).
In the environs of Sirte, US airstrikes pummelled ISIS-held areas and helped ensure the killing of many of the group's fighters. In the aftermath of the town's fall to US and government forces in late 2016, hundreds managed to survive and relocate to other areas across Libya. But a group of a few score chose to stay in the vicinity, and set up two camps in arid countryside about fifty kiolmetres from Sirte.
The United States military in principle had many instruments to deal with this threat: carrier-based airpower, sea-launched cruise-missiles, armed-drones, even strike-aircraft operating from bases in southern Europe. The Pentagon decided on another route, however. And its strikingly disproportionate plan says much about how the US still exemplifies its power in the pursuit of global full-spectrum dominance.
From the United States homeland itself, Sirte's local problem was the occasion of a major military operation whose cost most likely ran into millions of dollars. It has been tracked in revealing detail by an experienced journalist and himself a former pilot (see William Langewiesche, "An extraordinarily expensive way to fight ISIS", Atlantic, July-August 2018).
Bombing without thinking
When it was built in the 1990s the B-2 stealth-bomber was by far the most expensive warplane ever built, at $2.1bn for each model. Only twenty-one were built and nineteen are now in service, based at Whiteman airforce base in Missouri. The plane, intended for use mainly as a nuclear-bomber invisible to an opponent’s radar systems, can also carry a substantial load of conventionally-armed bombs and missiles (see "A war-promoting hydra", 25 May 2018).
The B-2 is very demanding to keep in service – its features including the need for specialist climate-controlled hangars – to the extent that only three other bases anywhere in the world can handle it: Guam, Diego Garcia, and RAF Fairford in the UK. Even with specialist facilities, the B-2 requires huge efforts to maintain, with as much as 100 hours of work needed for every hour it spends in flight.
In the early morning of 17 January 2017, six B-2s were prepared for an attack on this band of lightly-armed paramilitaries in Libya, 6,000 miles away. Three of the planes were fully prepared and ready to go, as were the backups in case of malfunction – though when the attack-flight took off successfully, these were stood down. The three remaining planes met up over New England with four KC-135 tankers to refuel: one for each B-2 and one for backup. They then flew on over the Atlantic, refuelling over the Mediterranean from more KC-135s flying from a US airforce base in Germany.
Eventually, as William Langewiesche describes in detail, numerous precision-guided and individually targeted bombs were dropped to kill the ISIS fighters, with MQ-9 Reaper armed-drones already in the vicinity to spot and then kill any who escaped. One of the three B-2s was a backup: just two planes actually dropped the bombs, using over eighty 225 kilogram weapons. They then began the long flight back across the Atlantic to Missouri, which involved yet another air-to-air refuelling (see also Joe Pappalardo, "To Libya and back: inside a stealth bomber strike against ISIS", Popular Mechanics, 8 February 2017).
In short, three vastly expensive bombers flew over 19,000 kilometres in a thirty-hour operation, with up to a dozen tanker-aircraft involved, in order to destroy a small group of ISIS paramilitaries in the Libyan desert. From the Pentagon’s viewpoint it was a success. An ISIS danger was neutralised, and the remarkable capabilities of the US airforce and its B-2s demonstrated – the target here doubtless being as much Moscow and Beijing as ISIS.
The sheer cost of the attack is almost beyond comprehension. But the thinking behind the operation appears equally outlandish, for it must assume that dealing with the likes of ISIS by such methods will work. True, this scale of operation may be rare, but it “takes out” the enemy and therefore serves a purpose.
It will do one more thing, however: provide ISIS and its inevitable successors with additional experience, to be fed into future strategy and tactics. The United States airforce and diverse US and European intelligence agencies will fully assess the operation and results of the raid and these will inform their own future planning. But it would be foolish not to be aware that ISIS is already doing the same, and to doubly potent effect.
First, ISIS will employ a combination of sources – revised manuals, web reports, and even word of mouth – to reshape the dead fighters' story. Their unpreparedness for such an attack will be seen as significant, with much greater care taken in future to prevent such a concentration of people in isolated but observable locations. Second, the movement will emphasise the backgrounds of those killed and their noble sacrifice in face of the aggressive crusaders, and make efforts to gain more recruits from the friends and relatives of those killed – who probably number several thousand (see "Libya: the view from where you are", 21 March 2011).
This particular global B-2 raid may be aimed partly at the Russians and Chinese, who will no doubt take note as they too assess the B-2's capabilities. That is normal in serious military behaviour, of course. But will anyone of significance in the Pentagon be ready to explore the B-2's impact on ISIS and its affiliates, treating it as a learning experience for the future? The answer to that question will say much about the entire "war on terror".