In my previous posts on Benghazi I’ve detailed:
- The timelines of deteriorating security and requests for additional security in the months preceding the attack.
- The timeline of the attack itself.
Today I want to continue this investigation into the attacks on Benghazi by asking the question: Where was the air support?
Basis for the Question
The surprising lack air cover should, I hope, be a fairly obvious question for any critical thinker looking at the attack timeline. After all, the attack unfolded over a period of eight hours and, in the midst of the events, there was no way of knowing precisely when the attacks would end. Had the attackers been more determined it’s entirely possible that this attack could have dragged on for substantially longer than it did – even days.
Indeed, one must conclude that the Department of Defence (DOD) concurred with this assessment given that their response to the situation was the mobilization of three different teams none of which could even hope to arrive in Benghazi before the afternoon or evening of September 12th nearly 24 hours after the start of the attack.
So, given that the DOD’s own response implied an understanding that the attacks may continue for a protracted period, the question stands: Why was there never an attempt to bring air power to bear? Why would DOD mobilize three fully equipped ground response teams (by air transport) and yet not mobilize available close air support assets?
This simply doesn’t make sense.
And It’s Not Just Me
No, it’s not just me asking this obvious question. Importantly, some of the key people on the ground in Benghazi during the attack, notably the man in charge of security in Libya (Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom) and the man who became the lead State Department official in Libya upon Ambassador Steven’s death (Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks) have the same question. When these men were asked during testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the lack of air cover, both questioned the reasons given by DOD officials. I have included the relevant short excepts of this testimony in Appendix A – I highly recommend reading these excerpts.
The Official Story
The official word on this question is that it wasn’t possible to get air-cover in Benghazi due to a lack of tankers available to refuel F-16 from the nearest air base in Aviano, Italy. And, since Benghazi was beyond the combat radius for an F-16, this became the limiting factor which prevented F-16s from being launched.
Again, I would refer you to Appendix A for the relevant House Oversight Committee testimony.
The Tactical Reality
Now that we’ve got the official story on record let’s take a look at the tactical reality of the situation (click for a sharper image):
The distance from Aviano Air Force Base (AFB) in Italy to Benghazi is 1044 miles. Aviano AFB is home to the 510th and 555th fighter squadrons both of which fly F-16s.
The combat radius of an F-16 depends on its payload but, even with a standard payload of a couple of sidewinders and two 1000 pound bombs (and no external tank), 500 miles would be a conservative estimate for the combat radius of this aircraft. Cruising speed for an F-16 is around 577 mph.
Then there’s the red mark on the above map: Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella – a scant 468 miles from Benghazi and 610 miles from Aviano AFB. During the ‘liberation’ of Libya, almost 4000 combat sorties were flown out of NAS Sigonella. While Sigonella does not have a permanent fighter presence, it is a well established air base and is in constant use as a hub in the Mediterranean for U.S. military aircraft.
The Obvious Solution – Pit-Stop Sigonella
Now that we have an understanding of the tactical constraints facing the DOD, there is a (hopefully) obvious solution that more alert readers probably picked up on.
- Hour 0-1. While the F-16s at Aviano are not on strip alert, given the genuine emergency it’s reasonable to expect that within an hour of the order being given a sober pilot or two could have been located, an aircraft fuelled and in the air with a minimal default loadout. In this scenario the aircraft may have had only ammunition for its 20mm cannon and pilot would be given a simple briefing on the way to the plane: Get to NAS Sigonella.
- Hour 1-2. Given that the distance from AFB Aviano to NAS Sigonella is only 610 miles, the pilot would be able to quickly attain altitude and cruise at above the standard cruising speed of 577 mph. The F-16 would be on the ground at NAS Sigonella within an hour of its departure from AFB Aviano. During this one hour flight two important things would happen:
- Via radio the pilot receives a more detailed briefing. The plan – a quick refuelling at NAS Sigonella and an immediate departure for Benghazi to fly a close air support (CAS) mission.
- NAS Sigonella is informed of the incoming F-16 and told to prepare for immediate refuelling of the aircraft upon its arrival.
- Hour 2-2.5. The F-16 arrives at NAS Sigonella and is immediately refuelled. While it’s possible to refuel an F-16 without even stopping the engines (hot-pit refuelling), it’s also possible that NAS Sigonella didn’t have a refuelling team available that was trained for this. Thus, let’s assume that the refuelling process takes a full 30 minutes before the F-16 is again airborne and enroute to Benghazi.
- Hour 2.5-3.5. Given it is only 468 miles from NAS Sigonella to Benghazi the F-16 is on station and providing close air support within 3.5 hours from the initial order.
And, of course, subsequent F-16s could follow the same route at intervals to ensure that continuous air coverage was provided from that time on.
What Difference Would This Have Made?
According to the people on the ground and knowledgable about such matters, the appearance of U.S. warplanes would have been a total game-changer (see their testimony in Appendix A). Basically, the consensus is that a single low altitude pass by an F-16 at full afterburner would have put the fear of God into the attackers – these men had all seen U.S. airpower in action during the Libyan campaign and would have tucked-tail and run as soon as air support showed up.
So, By What Time Could the F-16s Have Arrived in Benghazi?
Going back to our timeline of the attack (which started at 21:42), we can see that by 21:59 DOD had already redirected a surveillance drone to Benghazi. This quick response is important because is shows us how efficiently orders could get relayed through the DOD chain of command. By 23:00 it was clear to DOD that the attack involved U.S. casualties and was ongoing. In my mind, there is no reason not to have scrambled the F-16s at this point. After all, the worst case would be that the situation resolved and the F-16s would turn around and go home. There was simply no reason not to deploy the F-16s and, conversely, every reason to do so.
Using 23:00 as the departure time, this would have put an F-16 overhead by 02:30 on September 12 – nearly three hours before the attack on the Annex which killed two additional U.S. personnel. Had these F-16s been scrambled it’s very likely that the fatal attack on the Annex would never have occurred.
All this lays out some really troubling questions:
- Why were the F-16s never given orders to move? Nobody knew how long the situation would persist. Why on earth would DOD not even attempt to get air assets into place and chose instead to mobilize ground forces from distant locations (including continental U.S.)?
- Why has there been a conspicuous lack of testimony from DOD officials? I’ve read virtually every official report I can get my hands on and the only thing provided by DOD is a two page timeline of events from DOD’s perspective. Someone needs to directly ask the right people from within DOD why no attempt was made to put planes in the air.
The absence of tanker support did not prevent F-16s from being able to provide close air support to U.S. personnel in time to prevent the second attack. Despite the DOD decision to send three teams of ground personnel, none of whom would be able to arrive until the evening of September 12th, no attempt was ever made to move available fighters. This is completely nonsensical.
Clearly the official investigations into Benghazi need to take hard looks at these facts. This hasn’t happened. Either DOD was told to stand-down or there was supreme incompetence that resulted in the deaths of two Americans.
Appendix A – Testimony of Gregory Hicks and Eric Nordstrom Before House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee
Testimony of Gregory Hicks to Congressman Cummings' Questions
Congressman Elijah Cummings: In the interview with the committee staff you stated, and I quote, “In my personal opinion a fast mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night”. Is that right? Did you say that?
Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks: Yes, sir, I did.
Cummings: And you further stated, and I quote, “I believe that we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the Annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split”. Is that right?
Hicks: Yes, sir.
Cummings: At a hearing in February before the Senate Armed Services Committee General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether we could have deployed F-16s from Aviano air base in Italy, and he explained why we could not, and these are his words. We’re just trying to make sure we get the complete picture. For a couple reasons, and I quote, “for a couple reasons, one is that in order to deploy them it requires this is the middle of the night now. These are not aircraft on strip alert. They’re there as a part of our commitment to NATO and Europe, and so as we looked at the timeline, it was pretty clear that it would take up to 20 hours or so to get them there”. Mr. Hicks, I understand that you wanted planes to get to Benghazi faster. If I were in your shoes, I would have wanted them to get there yesterday. Yesterday. And that is completely understandable, but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they simply could not get there quickly. Mr. Hicks, do you have any reason to question General Dempsey’s testimony before the Senate?
Hicks: Again, I was speaking from my perspective.
Cummings: I understand.
Hicks: On the ground in Tripoli, based on what the Defense Attache told me. And he said two to three hours.
Hicks: But there were no tankers.
Cummings: All right.
Hicks: And I also was speaking with reference to conversations I had had with veteran Libyan revolutionaries, and other personnel who had experienced the Libyan revolution and who had told me that the Libyan people were very well aware of — sorry, that American and NATO air power had been decisive in their victory and I was also speaking to their view, again, that Libyans would not stand if they were aware that American aircraft were in the vicinity.
Cummings: I understand. So former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also testified in February, and he said this, and I quote – he says “Soon after the initial reports about the attack, the President ordered all available DOD assets to respond to the attack in Libya and to protect U.S. personnel and interests in the region. Some have asked why other types of armed aircraft were not dispatched to Benghazi. The reason is because armed UAVS, AC-130 gun ships or fixed wing fighters with associated tanking, armaments, targeting and support capabilities were not in the vicinity of Libya and because of the distance would have taken at least 9 to 12 hour if not, more to deploy. This was pure and simple a problem of distance and time”. Do you question his testimony?
Hicks: Sir, again, the Defense Attache said to me fighter aircraft in Aviano might be able to — would not be able to be over Benghazi before two to three hours. That’s what I’m going on – what the Defense Attache told me.
Testimony of Gregory Hicks to Congressman Chaffetz's Questions
Congressman Jason Chaffetz: Mr. Hicks, we typically need permission of a host nation government to fly military aircraft over their territory?
Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks: Yes, we do.
Chaffetz: And to your knowledge did we ever ask the Libyans for permission to fly over their country?
Chaffetz: Did we the night of the attack?
Hicks: The night of the attack?
Chaffetz: The night – once this incident started, did we seek permission from the Libyan government to do flyover?
Hicks: I think in the record there is a UAV was flying over Libya that night and it had permission to be there.
Chaffetz: Did we ever ask for permission to fly anything other than an unarmed drone over Libya during the attack?
Chaffetz: Would you have known that?
Chaffetz: Based on your extensive experience as a diplomat in dealing with the Libyan government, do you believe the Libyans would have grant the over flight rights if we had requested it?
Hicks: I believe they would have.
Chaffetz: Mr. Nordstrom, do you believe that would also be true?
Regional Security Officer Nordstrom: I think certainly in this situation. They were fairly, yeah.
Chaffetz: I think one of the unanswered questions here is if it is a possibility, if there is any chance that we can get military over flight, if we can get a military flight there, then we would ask permission in advance. My concern is there was never an intention, there was never an attempt to actually get these military aircraft over there. I think one of the hard questions we have to ask is not only about the tankers but what was the NATO response? We flew for months over Libya, months we conducted an air campaign, and we have assets. We have NATO partners. We worked for instance with the Italians. It is stunning that our government, the power of the United States of America, couldn’t get a tanker in the air? Mr. Hicks, when did you think that this was actually over? It was done, we were safe?
Hicks: Not until our personnel landed in Tripoli on the C-130.
Chaffetz: And then even then Ansar Al-Sharia posted that, there is a reason why you had to leave the facility in Tripoli.
Hicks: That’s correct.
Chaffetz: When did you actually return to the embassy in Tripoli?
Hicks: We returned I believe on the 14th.
Chaffetz: When did the FAST team arrive to help secure the embassy.
Hicks:They arrived on the night of September 12th about 8 or so.
Chaffetz: And there still was a potential fly over and the government never asked for permission. This is one of the deep concerns.
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