The Libyan Conflict through the Lens of Very High Resolution Satellite Imagery


The second Libyan Civil War has been a complicated ongoing conflict since 2014 between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftars eastern based Libyan National Army (LNA). In 2019, the conflict from this ongoing war heightened and at the centre of it was the control of three major airbases, Al Watiya, Al Jufra and Al Khadim. These important hubs act as Forward Operating Bases (FOB) as well as a main link between the foreign countries who are currently involved in the conflict and the already troubled region of Sahara.

European Space Imaging, through their ground station at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) are monitoring these war torn areas with the WorldView constellation on a daily basis and have partnered with experts in geospatial intelligence, Geo4ito analyse the imagery.

Al Watiya Airbase

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’s strategic involvement in resecuring the site, and thereby gaining control over the air space, was clearly guided by their need for Ankara to build their own airbase at Al Watiya. This would allow the country access to the significant oil and gas reserves of the country and further solidify its position in the Southern Mediterranean region. Following this victory, GNA now controls most of western Libya.

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.

Al Jufra Airbase

In satellite imagery of Al Jufra 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 (through the Wagner Group) at the airbase. Several Russian made operational combat vehicles are easily identifiable including SU-17/20/22 Fitter and MI-24/35, as well as training vehicles L-39 Albatros and transport vehicles MI-8/17. The presence of these vehicles at the airbase suggests that Russia are “conducting  basic flying, working on proficiency and gathering situational awareness” said US Air Force Col Christopher Karns, head of ARFICOMS public affairs office.

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 Jufra Airbase
Al Jufra Airbase

Al Khadim Airbase

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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