Gaddafi Gets Desperate: Ballistic Missiles Enter the Conflict

There are reports today that forces loyal Libya’s isolated leader Muammar al-Gaddafi launched a Scud missile against rebel forces. Al Jazeera reports that the launch took place 80km east of Sirte, a Gaddafi stronghold, and landed somewhere east of Brega, home to key oil facilities. Here’s my estimation of what this looked like:

As you can see at the bottom, it’s about a 230km shot, well within the range of Gaddafi’s Scud B missiles. (I estimated the launch and impact points based on reports.) It reportedly landed in the desert and didn’t kill or injure anybody. This isn’t a particularly surprising result–basic ballistic missiles aren’t very accurate, and their inaccuracy worsens at long ranges. They need a weapon of mass destruction in their warhead, a very large target (like a city), or a lot of luck to be effective. To give an example, I ran an estimate at work of a very similar shot with a derivative of the Scud B a few weeks ago (you can do this with Microsoft Excel if you know the formulas!) against a target that was about 2km by 2km in size. In 100,000 simulated launches, the low-end estimate was a 65% hit rate. Not very good. Brega looks to be about 6km by 1-2km, with an airport, water treatment plant, and outlying town outside that area. Not having hit any of that shows just how inaccurate Gaddafi’s missiles are–they may be even more errant than the derivative I ran my simulation with. (We also can be confident it’s inaccuracy, and not bad targeting, as targeting information is available online via Google Earth, and Gaddafi used to rule Brega anyway.)

Brega seen from space. Note the elongated shape of the city. Note also its key areas--to the south, a water treatment plant, to the southeast, an airport, at the center, the refinery. Sirte, where the missile was launched, is roughly in the direction of the little orange man above the zoom slider from the city center.

I went ahead and ran a few 5000-shot simulations on my home computer of firing a standard Scud B (probably a bit better in quality than the ancient ones Gaddafi has) at an area roughly the size of Brega–1.5km wide by 6km long. The hit rate seemed to stabilize around 74% (about 3700 of 5000 missiles). Here’s a screen grab:

You can click it to enlarge. As you can see, in this particular running, there was a 74.6% hit rate. The chart on the left shows the impact points of all 5000 Scud Bs, with the center of the coordinate system being the middle of the 1500m by 6000m area we call Brega. All of the shots not within 750m of the center on the x-axis and/or not within 3000m on the y-axis miss the city (and, to be realistic, some landing within that area would hit empty lots or abandoned buildings and thus also cause no harm). Almost nothing misses long, but lots of shots miss wide–that’s important to remember.

The chart on the right shows the impact points of the first ten missiles in the simulation, just to give you an idea of the spread. As you can see, two of them (leftmost and rightmost) are misses. Remember, though, they are all aimed at the center of the chart (0,0). The idea here is to show what a crapshoot an unguided missile launch is.

Now, considering this data, we can draw two possible conclusions: First, Gaddafi’s missiles might be significantly less accurate than an off-the-shelf Scud B. Why else would a shot against Brega land east of the city? Our expectation would be, because the city is so long and narrow, that it would miss to the north or south. Second, it is possible that Gaddafi was not aiming at the refinery, but at the water treatment plant–a change in targeting tactics, and an extremely aggressive move. Of course, this all hinges on where “east of Brega” the missile landed–if it was 5km east of anything, then it was either a warning shot or Gaddafi’s missiles are really inaccurate.

A Scud B, the basis for Gaddafi's missile force, being prepared for launch. (Image via Defense Update)

Benghazi is only about a 50km longer shot from where the missile was launched. Given how much Gaddafi would undoubtedly love to hit the rebel capital, we have to wonder if his missile force is seriously degraded.

I did some more measuring, and the Tunisian city of Sfax and Italy’s island of Lampedusa are on the edge of the missile’s 300km range. Lampedusa is another “small” target, so a launch against it would be chancy. It would also be extremely risky–it could easily provoke NATO escalation, and the only real escalation left is an unrelenting air campaign designed to quickly destroy Gaddafi’s forces and allow the rebels to take over. Hitting a city or water treatment plant in Libya might provoke increases as well. Of course, any of Gaddafi’s missiles could find their targets if he’s lucky. It’s an excellent illustration of Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s “Fascinating Trinity” (wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) theory of warfare. For Clausewitz, war is driven by three elements–reason (Vernunft), emotion (Gefühl), and chance (Zufall). Which element is dominant at a given time is unpredictable. A successful missile hit would be an example of the ability of chance events to direct the course of a war.

Parenthetically, there’s some talk that Gaddafi’s missiles could have better range. When Gaddafi dismantled his WMD program after seeing what happened to Saddam Hussein, there was a claim that he made changes to his missiles to limit their range to 300km with a lighter payload, and how that was done is unclear. There’s certainly a possibility that Gaddafi’s boys could hit targets 400km away, although that adds only Malta to the target list, and Gaddafi would really gain nothing from attacking the Maltese.

Gaddafi’s new tactic is a sign of vulnerability and desperation. The famous Gulf War Air Power Survey had a chart of how many Scuds Saddam Hussein launched each day during the 1991 war. There was a clear pattern–a lot of launches in the early days of the air campaign and a lot as the ground invasion drew closer. Given its inaccuracy, the ballistic missile is most useful as a weapon of terror. Hussein was clearly trying to dissuade his opponents from further advances by making them wonder what he would do if he were pushed into a corner. Gaddafi is doing the same thing, as Richard Weitz astutely points out in the video attached to the Al Jazeera article. He’s reminding the world–and especially the rebels–that he has significant nonconventional capabilities at his disposal, including terrorism and chemical weapons. The fact that he’s making this threat now highlights how truly precarious his position has become. The rebels are closing in from all sides. His defeat may be imminent (I’ve got a box of couscous I’ve been saving for the occasion). NATO might step up their operational tempo for a few days in order to counter the Scud and WMD threats (although as the GWAPS showed, to the surprise of many, Scud hunting can be very difficult). Time will only tell if Gaddafi’s last-ditch defenses are still effective, or if time and degradation have rendered them–and him–useless.

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