ORIGINS OF THE MODERN ARMED FORCES
The roots of the contemporary Libyan army can be traced to the
Libyan Arab Force (popularly known as the Sanusi Army) of World
War II. Shortly after Italy entered the war, a number of Libyan
leaders living in exile in Egypt called on their compatriots to
organize themselves into military units and join the British in
the war against the Axis powers. Five battalions, which were initially
designed for guerrilla warfare in the Jabal al Akhdar region of
Cyrenaica, were established under British command. Because the
high mobility of the desert campaigns required a considerable
degree of technical and mechanical expertise, the Libyan forces
were used primarily as auxiliaries, guarding military installations
and prisoners. One battalion, however, participated in the fighting
After Britain succeeded in occupying the Libyan territories,
the need for the British-trained and -equipped Sanusi troops appeared
to be over. The Sanusi Army was reluctant to disband, however,
and the majority of its members arranged to be transferred to
the local police force in Cyrenaica under the British military
administration. When Libya gained its independence in 1951, veterans
of the original Sanusi Army formed the nucleus of the Royal Libyan
Until the discovery and exploitation of oil, beginning in the
late 1950s, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world.
Limited available natural resources and a small population provided
little basis for viable defensive strength, and the new state
was militarily insignificant during its early years. King Idris
deliberately divided the security forces into a regular army and
a variety of armed police forces. The primary mission of the armed
police was to counterbalance dissidents within the faction-torn
armed forces and thus preclude a coup against the monarchy.
With substantial British assistance, the army was slowly enlarged,
and by September 1969 its strength was estimated at roughly 6,500--about
half the size of the armed police. The police forces, composed
mainly of conservative tribal elements that the king considered
more reliable than the regular army, were extremely diverse. They
ranged from several lightly armed territorial forces to the mobile
National Security Force, which was equipped with helicopters and
armored cars. Units of the prestigious Cyrenaican Defense Force,
assisted and advised by British military specialists, were garrisoned
at several places in Cyrenaica.
The small naval and air components were not developed until later.
The air force was formed in August 1963, and the navy was established
in November 1962. Consisting initially of only a few aircraft
and two pilots, by 1967 the air force had increased to about 250
American-trained personnel and a few jet trainers and piston-engine
transports. After the June 1967 War, demand for more sophisticated
aircraft resulted in the purchase of ten American F-5 fighter-bombers
in 1968 and 1969. Throughout this early period, the British were
influential in the development of the Libyan navy, which, however,
grew extremely slowly and even by the time of Qadhafi's coup in
1969 consisted of just over 200 men.
Partly because of the limited resources in trained personnel
locally and partly because the monarchy was suspicious of the
professional military, the idea of purchasing a sophisticated
air defense missile system and training a few specialists in its
operation gained popularity among the king's nonmilitary advisers.
In 1968 the government entered into a contract with Britain for
the installation of an air defense system to be delivered over
five years at a cost of almost US$300 million. Under the contract,
the British agreed to supply a complex antiaircraft missile system
and radar detection and control equipment and to train Libyans
to operate them. The high priority assigned to this project and
the unprecedented expense involved were reflected in an accompanying
decision to postpone the introduction of the monarchy's second
five-year development plan until April 1969. Idris, however was
unwilling to disrupt the balance between the army and the police
by providing the military element with tanks, artillery, and armored
personnel carriers, recognizing that such equipment could be employed
against his regime as easily as against a hostile external force.
Ironically, when Qadhafi and his Free Officers Movement mounted
their overthrow of the monarchy, the ostensibly reliable police
did not interfere.
Assuming power after the 1969 coup, the new Qadhafi regime integrated
major elements of the police into the army. Although he cancelled
the British air defense project, Qadhafi began to build up the
country's military strength through large equipment purchases
from foreign suppliers. In 1970 the government contracted to buy
110 Mirage jet fighters from France. Thereafter, the air force
grew rapidly and became an important component of the armed forces.
Similar purchases provided tanks and artillery for the army and
vessels for the navy.
Within a year after the coup, the size of the military establishment
was estimated at about 22,000 men--over three times the figure
immediately before the coup. Although this increase followed a
major recruitment effort, it was primarily the result of the merger
of the regular army with most of the former National Security
Force and the Cyrenaican Defense Force, which between them had
comprised about 14,000 troops.
In 1971 the government announced the creation of the Popular
Resistance Force, a militia that was under the operational control
of the chief of staff of the Libyan armed forces. Initially, the
primary mission of the force was to guard government buildings,
oil installations, and other important facilities in the event
of war or internal disorders.
Less than a year after the 1969 coup, Qadhafi and his fellow
Free Officers assumed control of British and United States bases
in Libya and began to sever military supply links with those countries.
France, politically less objectionable to Qadhafi, became the
leading source of arms but, in 1974, Libya reached agreement with
the Soviet Union for the purchase of equipment on a scale well
in excess of France's production capacity, even if France had
not been deterred by Qadhafi's increasingly radical and irrational
behavior. Tremendous quantities of modern Soviet armaments were
delivered beginning in 1975, and the flow was continuing in 1987.
In spite of the fact that thousands of advisers from the Soviet
Union and other communist countries helped with manning, maintenance,
and training in the use of the new equipment, the sheer quantity
overwhelmed the ability of the Libyan armed forces to introduce
it into operational units.
Prodigious importation of new weapons systems was accompanied
by a rapid buildup of manpower. When voluntary enlistments proved
inadequate, the government invoked a conscription law calling
for three to four years service for all males between the ages
of seventeen and thirty-five. Consequently, the armed forces more
than doubled in strength between 1974, when the first arms agreement
with the Soviet Union was concluded, and 1986, when the total
manpower of the three services was estimated at over 90,000. In
addition to creating the most highly mechanized army among the
Arab nations, by the late 1980s Qadhafi had procured a fleet of
submarines, corvettes, and missile boats that constituted a significant
new naval force in the Mediterranean. The Soviet Union had also
supplied Libya with modern fighter aircraft, a bomber and transport
force, and a sophisticated air defense system.
Data as of 1987