ISSN 2330-717X

Libya Military Profile And WMD Disarmament


By Christopher M. Blanchard and Jim Zanotti

Libya’s mostly conscripted military forces are small relative to the large amount of weaponry at their disposal. Most outside military analysts regard the training and leadership of Libyan forces as poor and identify a lack of combined arms and joint service planning as factors that limit their overall effectiveness. The Qadhafi government historically has made the acquisition of weapons and equipment a higher priority than training or creating high quality military support infrastructure.

Libya’s army, navy, and air forces are equipped with a broad range of aging Soviet and Eastern Bloc equipment, although the country’s poorly maintained inventories also include some U.S. and Western European arms, including French Mirage fighters and U.S. C-130 transports.85 Libya’s exorbitant military spending in the late 1970s and early 1980s yielded an unmanageable crop of diverse weapon systems from various sources and manufacturers. Purchases declined significantly during the 1990s because of international sanctions, which limited the revenue available for defense spending. Libya’s current military leadership presides over a largely stored and surplus catalogue of weaponry with poor maintenance records.86 The military also lacks sufficient numbers of trained personnel to operate the military equipment currently in its possession.

Arms Sales87

The subject of renewed arms sales to Libya remains a sensitive subject in the United States and some European countries whose citizens were killed in Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks during the 1980s. The European Union lifted its arms embargo against Libya in October 2004. The U.S. ban on export of defense articles lapsed at the end of a 45-day congressional notification period, on June 30, 2006. Qadhafi reportedly has expressed interest in procuring U.S., European, and Russian weapon systems. France, Spain, Ukraine, and Russia are among the countries reportedly interested in refurbishing and replacing Libya’s weapon stocks.88 The United Kingdom’s Defense Export Services Organization (DESO) reportedly has labeled Libya a “priority” market in documents promoting exports by UK arms manufacturers, and press reports have detailed meetings between DESO representatives and Libyan authorities since 2004.89


In August 2007, the European aerospace and defense group EADS signed a contract to provide Milan anti-tank missiles to Libya in the wake of a visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to negotiate the release of imprisoned Bulgarian medics. Both sides denied any quid pro quo arrangement. France is upgrading several 1970s era F1 fighters in Libyan possession.90 In conjunction with a state visit by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin in April 2008, a number of potential arms sales were discussed by the Russian press, including fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines, and sophisticated air defense missiles.91 In return, Russia agreed to cancel Soviet-era Libyan debt. A November 2008 visit by Muammar al Qadhafi to Russia did not produce any publicly announced weapons sales, creating speculation that the Libyan leader was seeking other sources of new military equipment. A January 2010 visit to Moscow by Libyan military leader Abu Bakr Younis Jaber revived speculation about Libyan purchases of Sukhoi Su-35 and Su-30 fighters, along with advanced air defense systems.

WMD Programs and Disarmament92

Nuclear, Chemical, and Ballistic Missile Programs

Despite Libya’s membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhafi made several efforts to acquire nuclear weapons related technology assistance, beginning in the early 1970s. The most renowned was his reported unsuccessful request for a working nuclear weapon from China in the 1970s. Other unsuccessful attempts to acquire nuclear energy technology useful to the development of nuclear weapons were subsequently made through contacts with the Soviet Union, the United States, France, India, Pakistan, Japan, and Argentina.93 Nonetheless, most experts agree that Libya never had a dedicated indigenous nuclear weapons program. Over the next 25 years, Qadhafi made several public statements in which he argued that Arab states were compelled to develop their own nuclear weapons capability in response to Israel’s development of nuclear weapons.94 Libya established a small nuclear research reactor at Tajura in 1979 with Soviet assistance, and entered into several rounds of negotiations with Soviet and French authorities for the construction of large nuclear power facilities that were never concluded.

According to several press accounts, Libyan officials reached an agreement with Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan in 1997 for Khan and his illicit proliferation network to provide the Libyan government with a nuclear weapons design and the uranium enrichment technology it desired. These accounts and International Atomic Energy Agency reports describe how, over the next six years, a complex network of companies and individuals in Malaysia, Switzerland, Pakistan, Spain, Turkey, South Africa, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates supplied Libya with uranium enrichment components.95

Libya’s chemical weapons programs were more advanced and independent than its nuclear weapons development activities. In 1986 and 1987, U.S. officials suspected Libya of using Iranian-supplied chemical weapons against military forces in neighboring Chad and provided the Chadian military with protective equipment to guard against further Libyan attacks.96 During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Libyan government developed chemical weapons production facilities at Rabta, Sebha, and Tarhuna with technology acquired from a number of Western European and Asian firms.97 The plants produced large amounts of chemical weapons and components, including 23 tons of mustard gas. Libya’s ballistic missile program relied on foreign technical assistance to produce Scud-B and a limited number of Scud-C missiles but was limited by a lack of indigenous technical skill and ineffective management.98

Termination of WMD and Missile Programs

In 1999, Libyan officials approached the Clinton Administration and offered to dismantle Libya’s chemical weapons programs in exchange for a loosening of U.S. terrorism sanctions. The offer was rejected in an effort to maintain pressure on Libya to comply with U.S. and United Nations demands in the Lockerbie airliner bombing case. Following the Lockerbie settlement, Sayf al Islam al Qadhafi and intelligence chief Musa Kusa re-engaged with U.S. and British intelligence authorities beginning in March 2003 regarding Libya’s weapons of mass destruction programs.

The October 2003 naval interception of the freighter BBC China, which was carrying centrifuge components to Libya, accelerated negotiations and led to assessment visits by U.S. and British personnel later that month and in early December 2003.

On December 19, 2003, Foreign Minister Abd al Rahman Shalgam read a statement on Libyan national television announcing the government’s decision to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and long range missile programs and to invite international inspectors to Libya to remove materials and perform verifications. Qadhafi publicly endorsed the statement, paving the way for the removal of WMD-related equipment from Libya in January and March 2004.99

Subsequent reviews of seized material and interviews with Libyan officials indicated that Libya remained far from developing a nuclear weapons capability, although A.Q. Khan sold Libya a crude nuclear weapons design and some components necessary to begin a uranium enrichment program. However, as of late 2003, Libya had not obtained key pieces of equipment, such as a sufficient number of high-precision rotors to power its enrichment centrifuges.100

Motives for Disarmament

Officials and independent observers have attributed Libya’s decision to end its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction to a number of factors. Administration officials have argued that U.S. military action in Iraq in 2003 demonstrated to Libya the resolve of the Bush Administration to eliminate perceived threats to U.S. security posed by states associated with terrorism and in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, Libyan officials have denied that external pressure or threats influenced their government’s decision making processes and have characterized the decision as a sovereign initiative to restore Libya’s ties with the international community and improve its security and economy. Most independent observers have argued that Libya’s decision was a calculated move designed to extricate the country from the international sanctions regime that was limiting its economic activity and contributing to the deterioration of its vital oil and natural gas infrastructure. Libyan officials have pointed to the financial and economic rewards associated with its international re-engagement, although, prior to and following the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the United States, Qadhafi has stated his belief that Libya should be more directly and substantively rewarded for its decision to disarm and re-engage.

International Controls and Inspections

Libya acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1975. Libya’s nuclear research facility at Tajura has been subject to IAEA safeguards since 1980. Since Libya announced its intent to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have monitored and assisted in ongoing disarmament activities. Libya signed an “additional protocol” agreement in March 2004 granting IAEA inspectors greater access to its nuclear facilities.

The IAEA continues to evaluate Libyan disclosure statements related to the scope of its uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons development activities, particularly with regard to the sources of the materials Libya acquired from the proliferation network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. As a result of the 2003 WMD disarmament decision, Libya signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2004. Libya also committed to eliminating all its ballistic missiles beyond a 300-kilometer range with a payload of 500 kilograms and agreed to abide by Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines. Libya, the U.S., and the UK established a Trilateral Steering and Cooperation Committee (TSCC) to oversee the elimination of Libyan WMD and MTCR-related missile programs in September 2004.

As of October 2005, all materials and components associated with Libya’s nuclear weapons development program had been removed and all associated activities had stopped. Libya returned highly enriched nuclear fuel assemblies weighing 17 kilograms from its Tajura research reactor to Russia in 2004, and Russia replaced them with low enriched uranium fuel in December 2005 as part of a program co-sponsored with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy.101 During the summer of 2006, Libya returned a further 3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from the Tajura reactor to Russia.102

Libya has signaled its desire to continue its nuclear energy and materials development plans under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). France signed a nuclear energy agreement with Libya in July 2007 that could result in the construction of a nuclear reactor to fuel water desalinization plants. In August 2007, Libyan officials confirmed that they were negotiating with unspecified foreign governments for the sale of 1,000 tons of uranium yellow cake ore stored at a former nuclear facility in Sebha.103 Libyan officials also reportedly have signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia and Canada.

Libya has submitted an inventory of its chemical weapons and related activities to the OPCW and has destroyed over 3,600 munitions designed to disperse chemical agents. The OPCW has verified Libya’s inventory of 23 metric tons of mustard gas and over 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals and approved the conversion of a chemical weapons facility into a pharmaceutical plant for the production of HIV/AIDS and malaria medication. In December 2009, the OPCW stated that only 2% of Libya’s chemical weapons stockpiles had been destroyed as of December 31, 2008.104 Libya requested a stockpile destruction deadline extension in August 2009 citing logistical, financial, and political challenges. In its request, Libya proposed to begin its chemical agent destruction by October 25, 2010, following the addition of additional equipment at its chemical weapons destruction facility.105 The OPCW Conference of State Parties considered the Libyan request at its December 2009 meeting and amended Libya’s intermediate deadlines, extending the new final deadline to May 15, 2011.106

Christopher M. Blanchard
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs
[email protected], 7-0428

Jim Zanotti
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs
[email protected], 7-1441

This article is a portion of a longer February 18, 2011 Congressional Research Service Report “Libya: Background and U.S. Relations” (PDF)

84 Polya Lesova, “Gazprom seeks to buy all of Libya’s oil, gas exports,” MarketWatch, July 10, 2008.
85 Facts on File World News Digest, “U.S. Bars Libya Planes, Training,” September 20, 1975; and Washington Post, “Libya’s Qaddafi Praises Carter, Urges Closer Ties,” June 13, 1977. In 2004, Libya sold 40 of its aging Mirage fighters to Pakistan.
86 Senior Middle East security analyst Anthony Cordesman has described Libya as “the world’s largest military parking lot.” For a more detailed profile of the Libyan military, see Anthony H. Cordesman, The Military Balance in the Middle East, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 15, 2004, pp. 79-85.
87 For a detailed account of Libya’s recent military procurement activities, see Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment – North Africa, “Procurement – Libya,” June 22, 2009.
88 AFP, “French Defence Minister Holds Talks in Libya,” February 5, 2005; Andrew Borowiec, “Paris Strengthens Military Ties with Libya,” Washington Times, February 17, 2005; and Flight International, “France Eyes Libyan Deal,” August 1, 2006.
89 Antony Barnett, “MoD targets Libya and Iraq as ‘Priority’ Arms Sales Targets,” Observer (London), September 24,
2006; and, Independent (London), “MoD targets arms deals with Libya,” March 9, 2007.
90 “Under the negotiated deal, France would supply Libya with 14 Rafale aircraft as part of a larger arms package
valued at between $5.7 billion and $6.4 billion. Forecast International Defense Intelligence Newsletters, “Deadline for Libyan-French Arms Package Negotiations Likely to be Extended,” June 12, 2008; Reuben Johnson, “Dassault denies sale of Rafale to Libya is imminent,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, March 26, 2009.
91 Tor-M1 air defense missiles were reported as part of the potential package along with MiG-29SMT fighter interceptors and Su-30MK multi-mission fighter aircraft. ITAR-TASS World Service (Russia), “Russia-Libya military cooperation increasing,” April 17, 2008.
92 For a detailed discussion of Libya’s WMD programs and disarmament see CRS Report RS21823, Disarming Libya: Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Sharon Squassoni.
93 John K. Cooley, “Qaddafi’s Great Aim for Libya is a Nuclear Capability of its Own, Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 1980; New York Times, “Nuclear Energy Aide And Foreign Adviser Appointed in Tripoli,” January 8, 1981; Joshua Sinai, “Libya’s Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Nonproliferation Review, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 92-100; and Associated Press, “Japan Company Sold Atomic Plant to Libya,” March 12, 2004.
94 In 1987, for example, Qadhafi said that, “Now that the Israelis possess the atomic weapon, the Arabs have nothing before them except to work day and night to possess the atomic weapon in order to defend their existence.” Reuters, “Gaddafi Urges Arabs to Develop Nuclear Weapons,” September 2, 1987. See also San Francisco Chronicle “Khadafy Wants Arab A-Bombs,” June 23, 1987; and Agence France-Presse, “Libya Urges Arabs to Get Nuclear Arms,” January 27, 1996. Qadhafi made similar remarks in a March 2002 interview: “We demanded the dismantling of the weapons of mass destruction that the Israelis have … Otherwise, the Arabs will have the right to possess that weapon.” John Bolton, Remarks to the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, May 6, 2002.
95 The IAEA does not directly identify Dr. Khan or Pakistan as a source for nuclear weapons designs or enrichment equipment disclosed by Libya. Leslie Lopez, “Libyans Got Nuclear Training at Malaysian Company, Police Say,” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2004; Stephen Fidler and Mark Huband, “Turks and South Africans ‘Helped Libya’s Secret Nuclear Arms Project’,” Financial Times, June 10, 2004; Craig Whitlock and Shannon Smiley, “Germany Arrests Man in Libyan Atomic Case,” Washington Post, October 12, 2004; Douglas Frantz and William C. Rempel, “New Find in a Nuclear Network,” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2004.
96 Elaine Sciolino, “U.S. Sends 2,000 Gas Masks to the Chadians,” New York Times, September 25, 1987.
97 Joshua Sinai, “Libya’s Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Nonproliferation Review, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 92-100; Anthony H. Cordesman, Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1999; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) et al., “Educational Module on Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation: Case Study: Libya,” 1998-2001.
98 Andrew Koch, “Libya’s Missile Programme Secrets Revealed,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, August 18, 2004.
99 Statement of Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Paula A. DeSutter Before the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Human Rights, September 22, 2004; and, Douglas Franz and Josh Meyer, “The Deal to Disarm Kadafi,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2005.
100 William J. Broad, “Libya’s Crude Bomb Design Eases Western Experts’ Fear,” New York Times, February 9, 2004; David Crawford, “Libya Was Far From Building Nuclear Bomb,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2004; and William J. Broad, “Arms Control Group Says U.S. Inflated Libya’s Nuclear Bid,” New York Times, March 25, 2004.
101 International Atomic Energy Agency, Staff Report: Removal of High-Enriched Uranium in Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, March 8, 2004; RIA Novosti (Moscow), “Russia Supplies 14kg of Low-Enriched Uranium to Libya,” December 23, 2005.
102 William C. Mann, “U.S. Says Libya Has Returned 20 Kilograms of Weapons-grade Uranium to Russia,” Associated Press, July 27, 2006; U.S. National Nuclear Safety Administration, “NNSA Secures Nuclear Material from Libya,” July 27, 2006; and Associated Press, “Oak Ridge Workers Assess Uranium in Libya,” July 29, 2006.
103 Katherine Griffiths, “Libya Stalls on Pledge to Destroy Stock of Uranium,” Daily Telegraph (UK), August 13, 2007; BBC Monitoring/Al Jazeera (Qatar), “Libyan Official Slams UK Paper’s Uranium Allegations, Says Supply ‘Known,’” August 13, 2007.
104 According to the OPCW, “Destruction levels remained at 0% of Category 1 chemical weapons and 39% (551 metric tonnes) of Category 2 chemical weapons.” Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction in2008, Fourteenth Session C-14/4, December 2, 2009.
105 The facility is known as the “Rabta Toxic Chemical Disposal Facility and Ruwagha Chemicals Reloading System.” The Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Request for Extension of the Intermediate and Final Deadlines for the Destruction of its Category 1 Chemical Weapons, OPCW Executive Council, EC-58/NAT.5/Add.1, October 14, 2009.
106 OPCW Conference of State Parties, Decision: Extension of the Intermediate and Final Deadlines for the Destruction by the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya of its Category 1 Chemical Weapons, C-14/DEC.3, December 2, 2009.

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One thought on “Libya Military Profile And WMD Disarmament

  • March 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Whether ill equipped or well equipped militarily, Gaddafi must quit. Enough is enough Libya is not a monarchy where all leaders must come from Gaddafi’s family. Just imagine a country with the largest oil reserves on the continent but Libyans are among the poorest in the world yet the Gaddafis leave luxuriously. He must go to hell.


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