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Libyan Civil War: A reality check through VHR satellite imagery

Oil & Gas-rich Libya has been in chaos since the Arab spring movement and NATO bombing campaign that toppled Gaddafi in 2011. Attempts to build a democratic state after Gaddafi fell disintegrated into a new Libyan Civil War between rival governments in 2014. Since then the fighting has mainly been between the UN and western countries recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftars eastern based Libyan National Army (LNA). While GNA’s main allies are Turkey, Qatar and Italy. The LNA enjoys the support of Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, France and Jordan. The conflict is intensified over the control of three major airbases, Al Watiya, Al Jufra and Al Khadim. These airbases are the main link between the involved foreign countries and the already troubled region of Sahara.

There are contradictory reports in the media from the conflicting parties, however, Very High Resolution (VHR) Satellite Imagery comes to the rescue — giving an in-depth knowledge of the ground reality. European Space Imaging, through their ground station at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have monitored these war torn areas with the WorldView constellation and have partnered with experts in geospatial intelligence, Geo4i, to analyse the imagery.

Al Watiya Airbase

Libyan Civil War
Satellite Imagery © 2020 European Space Imaging and Geo4i

In May 2020, after six years under the control of LNA, the Al Watiya Airbase was taken back by the GNA with the support of Turkey. Turkey has been supplying military support to GNA, including the supply of both drones and Syrian mercenary forces as a result of Ankara’s desire to secure its energy supplies. Satellite Imagery captured with WorldView-2 on 10th June 2020, does not show any visible activity of construction having begun by Turkey at the Al Watiya Airport. However, the lack of significant presence and aerial operations does suggest that the airbase has been secured by Turkey. When compared to historical data over the same area, it is clear that significant areas of land have been cleared and parts of the north-east dispersal area appear to be active. A building has been refurbished to include 6 parabolic antennas for communications, additional defensive protection has been erected and the runway is partially non- operational.

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Al Jufra Airbase

Libyan Civil War
Satellite Imagery © 2020 European Space Imaging and Geo4i

 

Libyan Civil War
Satellite Imagery © 2020 European Space Imaging and Geo4i

The Al Jufra Airbase is controlled by forces aligned with the LNA and has served as the main air and logistics hub for the army’s advances into western Libya. In May, the US accused Russia of sending warplanes to Libya to support General Khalifa Haftar, specifically MIG- 29 and SU-24 aircrafts to bolster the army’s efforts. In satellite imagery of this airbase captured on 13 June 2020 with GeoEye-1, there were no signs of either MIG-29 or SU-24 present on the airbase, as previously observed. Despite this, the imagery did highlight a strong Russian presence at the airbase. Several Russian made operational combat vehicles are easily identifiable. The presence of these vehicles at the airbase suggests the Russian are conducting basic flying, working on proficiency and gathering situational awareness. There appears to be an area under construction in the vicinity of the navigation aids (2D EW P-18 / Spoon Rest and GCA) covered by tarpaulin to conceal the structure from overhead imagery. Analysts at Geo4i proposed that based on the proximity to the Spoon Rest and size of the concealed area, it could suggest a Ground Control Approach. Ground activity in the form of several vehicles located next to the north and south dispersal areas parked alongside the aircraft hangars can also be observed. When compared to previous imagery taken just days prior, the number of tents and military vehicles have dramatically decreased indicating that the number of personnel at the airbase has significantly reduced.

Al Khadim Airbase

Libyan Civil War
Satellite Imagery © 2020 European Space Imaging and Geo4i

Al Khadim Airbase has been widely reported to be under the control of the UAE since 2016 in support to LNA. From the analysis of the VHR satellite imagery captured with GeoEye-1 on 13th June 2020, it is hypothesised that this airbase is used by the LNA as a logistics hub for personnel and their equipment. Several operational combat SU-24 Fencer aircrafts are visible under a hangars and other transport military vehicles that could be identified included AnN24/26, IL-76 Candid, AN-12 Cub and MI-7 / 17 Hip. A transport bus was clearly visible on the tarmac. From the imagery it is not possible to determine UAE support or presence, however, the identification of numerous Russian military equipment indicates that there is an active Russian involvement at the airbase.

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