As his regime collapsed, Qadhafi’s forces fired a Scud-B missile at the advancing rebels. This was same type of missile that Qadhafi agreed to eliminate as part of his renunciation of weapons of mass destruction.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. So, how did Qadhafi’s Scud force outlast Qadhafi himself? That’s an interesting story,
Initially, Qadhafi only pledged to “modify” Libya’s Scud-B missiles to comply with the MTCR. According to an April 2004 article by Judy Miller, Libya “had decided to convert the missiles so that their range was less than 185 miles with a payload of less than 1,100 pounds.” Libyan and US officials, according to Miller, were discussing a monitoring arrangement to ensure that the conversion was “irreversible.” If that sounds odd to you, it certainly sounded odd to Paul Kerr who got a US official to admit that “the United States is ‘not sure’ the plan is feasible.” (Apparently, the Libyans considered reducing the fuel tanks or adding weight to the missile.)
Eventually the United States persuaded Qadhafi to just eliminate the Scud-B force. In September 2004, the US, UK and Libya signed a Trilateral “Agreement on the Disposition of Scud-B Missiles” that committed Libya to eliminate its Scud-Bs by a generous September 2009 deadline.
The US offered to take 10 Scud-B missiles off Qadhafi’s hands, according to a February 2005 Yedi’ot Aharonot article (full text in the comments), but “the Libyans seized the opportunity to demand from them to buy all the 417 missiles in their possession at the astronomic total of $834 million.” The US does, on occasion, use live Scuds in missile defense tests, but wasn’t willing to part with more than $800 million for a Scud force that was ” aging and suffers from maintenance problems.”
Once Libya agreed to eliminate, rather than modify, the Scud-B force, Libya began seeking a replacement. Qadhafi, as Alex Bollfrass reported in 2007 in Arms Control Today, eventually settled on the Russian Iskander-E. Libyan officials may have believed that the United States was obligated to help Libya procure a replacement. They appear to have been upset to learn that the United States objected to the Iskander sale, instead suggesting shorter-range Russian and Ukranian alternatives that Libya deemed unacceptable. Washington was also not enthusiastic about Libya’s bid to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, which Tripoli believed would ease future missile procurement.
It seems the United States relented on the issue of the Iskander-E after a few months, but by then the Russian price had doubled. The Libyans were incensed — or at least acted incensed — by all this and refused to eliminate the Scud-B force until a replacement was procured, preferably the Iskander-E at the original purchase price. The September 2009 deadline came a went. A pair of cables released by Wikileaks pick up the story at this point and fill in some of the details outlined by the two articles in Arms Control Today.
There are any number of interesting cables that document the broader Libyan disillusionment with the United States, including a standoff over the removal of some highly enriched uranium that Max Fisher detailed in The Atlantic.
The most detailed cable on the Scud-B issue is an account of a February 2010 meeting between General Ahmed Azwai, the head of Libya’s Scud-B destruction program, and Gene Cretz, the US Ambassador in Tripoli, entitled, “Libya Insists Ball in U.S. Court on Scud B Alternative.” Azwai recounts the torturous negotiations over the Scud-B missiles following the 2004 trilateral agreement, ultimately arguing somewhat melodramatically that “I will not allow 12,000 Libyan soldiers to remain unarmed and vulnerable. If I give up their weapons before I have a replacement, they will turn on me.”
Obviously, they may have had other reasons for turning on him.
A second cable adds an interesting wrinkle to this story. While the US, UK and Libya were formally haggling over the Iskander-E issue, Saif al-Qadhafi approached the US Ambassador in Tripoli in September 2009 and suggested that France might sell Libya the SCALP air-launched cruise missile. (I have discussed SCALP sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in a pair of previous posts.) France separately, however, told the US that selling SCALP to Libya was “too sensitive.” In the February 2010 cable, Cretz speculated that the “the proposal may have been an independent move by Saif.”
This is, as far as I can tell, basically where we were when the Arab Spring hit, Qadhafi’s grip faltered and allied aircraft started a noncooperative threat reduction program aimed at eliminating the remaining Scud-Bs. The initial launch of a Scud-B prompted speculation about an impending “blitz” of Scud missiles that never materialized.
There are any number of really interesting aspects to this story.
The most interesting aspect to me is Libya’s insistence on getting as close to the MTCR threshold as possible. It seems likely that Libya intended to reduce the amount of conventional explosive in the warhead of any replacement system, as Iraq did with the al-Husayn missile, to maintain a conventional deterrent at ranges significantly in excess of 300 km. I had forgotten that, after the 1986 US-led bombing raid on Tripoli, Libya fired two conventionally-armed Scud-B missiles at US naval facilities on the Italian island of Lampedusa. “If we had a deterrent force of missiles able to reach New York we would have directed them at that very moment,” Qadhafi explained.
I am always struck at how much value certain Middle Eastern potentates place in conventionally-armed ballistic missiles. I have never really understood the Saudi decision to purchase medium-range ballistic missiles from China because such missiles are simply too inaccurate for a conventional warhead to offer much military utility. Perhaps, however, I might feel differently about the political value of such weapons if I had, as the Saudis did, a front row seat for the War of the Cities. Saddam certainly decided that 190 kg of explosive was enough as long as it got there.
This is, in a way, the question that Brian Palmer at Slate attempted to answer in his essay “Why Do So Many Dictators Use Scud Missiles?“ Palmer’s conclusion is that a Scud is “the easiest way to terrorize nearby enemies.” It is easy to forget that the first use of ballistic and cruise missiles — the V weapons — were Nazi efforts to terrorize the British during World War II. It seems Middle Eastern leaders value being able to shoot back, if only for the sake of reprisal. Libya’s interest in SCALP — a very expensive air launched cruise missile — as a replacement for the relatively low-tech SCUD-B casts recent cruise missile purchases by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in this somewhat different light.
Perhaps there is a missile race underway in the Middle East, but we just haven’t noticed it.
Late Update | August 23, 10:33 am A colleague objected to my “assumption that the NKs had provided Scud-B” force. I don’t think I assumed that, but just to be clear I was under the impression that Libya’s Scud B purchases were a mid-1970s acquisition from the Soviet Union, while North Korea supplied the Scud C program.