Libya has been plunged into civil war again, with militia from the East mounting a campaign to seize control of Tripoli, and threatening to shoot down aircraft operating in western Libya. Risk remains high across Libyan airspace at all flight levels, and avoidance of all airspace and airports is strongly recommended.
In an escalation in the fighting around Tripoli, HLLM/Mitiga airport was hit by an airstrike on Apr 8, and was forced to close until the following day. Malta ATS have told us there are increased reports of aerial bombings and fighter aircraft operating outside designated conflict zones in the area.
Reaction from the U.S.
On Apr 6, the US FAA issued an emergency order prohibiting flights in the north-western part of the country (west of 17 degrees East and north of 29 degrees North) at all flight levels. For the rest of the country, the Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) issued on Mar 19 remains in place allowing overflights at FL300 or above.
The US FAA explain the reasons for these restrictions as follows:
“The FAA is concerned about increased tensions associated with the current conflict for control of the capital, Tripoli. Libya National Army (LNA) forces have begun operations aimed at seizing control of Tripoli, including Tripoli International Airport. The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), with support of militias, has conducted counterattacks, including tactical airstrikes on LNA forces. LNA has declared a military zone and is threatening to shoot down aircraft operating in Western Libya.
Both GNA and advancing LNA forces have access to advanced man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and likely anti-aircraft artillery. These ground-based weapon systems present a risk to aircraft, but only at altitudes below FL300. LNA forces have tactical aircraft capable of intercepting aircraft at altitudes at and above FL300 within the self-declared military zone in Western Libya, which may present an inadvertent risk to civil aviation operations in Western Libya. While the LNA tactical aircraft threat is likely intended for GNA military aircraft, an inadvertent risk remains for civil aviation at all altitudes due to potential miscalculation or misidentification. This risk necessitates an all-altitude flight prohibition for the geographic area specified in this Notam (A0012/19).”
Previously, the US had a blanket ban in place against all operations over Libyan airspace. The UK and France still have similar bans in place, but Germany has now implemented a restriction similar to that of the U.S.
Is it safe to overfly eastern Libya?
We’re not convinced. Libya remains politically unstable, with a fragile security situation across the country.
In its updated SFAR published on 19th March 2019, the US FAA claims:
“Extremist/militant elements operating in Libya are believed not to possess anti-aircraft weapons capable of threatening US civil aviation operations at or above FL260, and there is a lower risk of civil-military deconfliction concerns at cruising altitudes at or above FL300.”
However, there are factions on the ground in Libya which still possess weapons capable of targeting aircraft above FL300.
The U.S. is saying that the main threat to aviation at the lower flight levels stems from the widespread proliferation of man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) across the country. Those haven’t gone away.
But what about the surface-to-air missiles?
The LNA is one of many armed groups in Libya which continues to use various rocket systems looted from Gaddafi’s stockpiles at the end of the war in 2011. In May 2018, the LNA proudly displayed a refurbished Russian-made surface-to-air missile system at HLLB/Benina Airbase in Benghazi. This system has the capability to engage aircraft at altitudes up to FL450.
The opposing GNA forces have surface-to-air missile systems of their own. Some reports indicate that the GNA are in possession of the Russian-made SA-3 system, which has the capability to engage aircraft at altitudes over FL800.
With the current conflict between these and other rival factions on the ground in Libya now escalating, it’s not clear what level of control the main players hold over their missile systems.
Bottom line, there’s still a potential risk to aircraft at all altitudes and across all parts of Libya.
Even if you do want to overfly the country, there are now only two approved routes available, in the far north-eastern corner of the country, as per HLLL Libyan Notam A0063/17:
Northbound: LOSUL UP128 LAB UM979 RAMLI UZ270 OLMAX (even levels)
Southbound: RASNO UY751 LOSUL (odd levels)
Even on these routes, reliable ATC services cannot be guaranteed. The past few years have seen regular ATS and radar outages across the HLLL FIR airspace, and severe limitations in VHF capability, with operators having to communicate with Malta ATC for guidance.
Given the current security concerns, we continue to list the entire country as “Level 1 – Avoid” at safeairspace.net