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Bases and overflying: the facts

Libya's commitment to ending the bases agreements with the West has major implications for military air routes

Britain and the United States believe that the present Libyan government has no desire to break the bases agreements with the West, which are financially rewarding and militarily comforting. But in the separate negotiations they are having with King Idris's government, they were surprised to meet nearly as tough Libyan demands in private discussion as in the opening sessions of the formal talks. Both sets of these are now are now in temporary recess. Neither has got beyond the stage of preliminary skirmishing – the US talks lasted only one day.

The Libyan government is committed by its Parliament to seek a complete end to the bases, defence agreements and other facilities given to Britain and the USA. Therefore the public line of the negotiations (and even secret negotiations on such matters are soon public in North Africa) could not but help be tough. But the adamant stand in private contacts can be explained by:

1) The continued pressure from Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser; and by the fortunately timed assistance this has received from Mr Nikita Sergeyevich Krushchev's visit to the UAR [United Arab Republic, Egypt], where he has mixed praise for the cornucopia-bearing Aswan project with blasts against the British bases.

2) The situation in Aden – and particularly the use of British air-power there.

3) The recognition that it would be difficult to keep quiet any discrepancy between attitudes taken up in formal and informal talks.

The USA expresses more open concern at present than Britain. Wheelus Field, just outside Tripoli, brings Libya financial rewards but nothing else. For the Americans it has little combat value, the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and Turkey providing the striking arm. But Wheelus is extremely important in the US logistic chain. (It was heavily used during the maximum period of the air-lift to the Congo which the Americans carried out for the United Nations.) More important still to the Pentagon are the training facilities which Libya provides – above all, safe ranges for air-firing by planes, which are not available anywhere else. Most of the US squadrons in Germany are flown down for range practice. The Americans are therefore determined to take a tough line when their talks restart next month.

The British, who reopen talks probably at the end of May, feel more secure. But it is a slim security. It is a true claim that the treaty with Libya gives the latter considerable advantages: the British ground troops stationed there under it are more a protection for the King than for any direct British interests. But the order of priority of these interests in British minds is:

1) Preservation of overflying rights;
2) Retention of military landing and staging rights;
3) Continuation of the Treaty of Alliance;
4) Continuation of training facilities;
5) Retention of the British garrison.

The British government hopes to abandon the minimum of items on this list in order to retain the most important. In any serious defence planning, the first two are vastly more important than the others. We print below a detailed and expert analysis of Britain's North African air-corridor and its alternatives.

A military correspondent writes: Apart from the nuclear deterrent, there is probably no more sensitive issue in British defence policy than military air routes in and around Africa. British officials are not disposed openly to admit the importance of the present Anglo-Libyan talks. They feel it is better to keep quiet and hope that President Nasser's demands for a British withdrawal from North Africa will gradually be forgotten. But in fact the talks are regarded by Whitehall defence planners as a matter of prime concern. If the RAF were denied access to Aden and the Far East via North Africa, Britain would be obliged to take a completely new look at the possibilities of regular air-staging elsewhere in Africa. At a time when air transport has become the principal means of strategic and even tactical troop movement, the rights and privileges of air transit are being increasingly called into question.

North African route
The current 'standard' route for RAF aircraft commuting to the Far East is via North Africa. Planes of Transport Command regularly fly from airfields in Britain to El Adem (near Tobruk), Aden, Gan Island (Maldives) and thence to Singapore and Australia. The advantages of this route are threefold:

1) It is the shortest and safest, with conveniently spaced staging points.

2) Landing, servicing and take-off facilities are everywhere highly developed and fully manned throughout the year. In Libya, for example, the RAF even maintains a small secondary strip near Idris.

3) Overfly rights raise few difficulties. Under the 1953 treaty with Libya, Britain can claim a specific right to overfly Libyan soil, though in practice all flights are fully notified in advance. Planes then proceed across northern Sudan. Here the RAF exercises privileges, provided individual notification of scheduled flights is obtained through air attachés. This is described as mere 'rubber stamp' authorisation. As a concession to Sudanese feelings, troops flying over Sudan wear civilian clothing.

The North African route is heavily used by planes of Transport Command and also, though less frequently, of Bomber Command, which ferries Vulcan and Victor medium bombers to Aden and Singapore for training and dispersal flights. Transit frequencies through El Adem run at about 60 a month. This figure applies to touchdowns by scheduled service aircraft. It does not include flights of planes such as tactical transport, air-refuelled from El Adem by tanker aircraft. Air-refuelling can easily be performed on the North African route and El Adem has been specifically developed for this purpose.

It will be evident that a break in one link of the North African chain – such as the loss of rights over Libya – would destroy the route's value completely. The function of El Adem could be taken over in part by the Cyprus military airfields still controlled by Britain but this would not solve the overflying difficulties. Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia all expressly forbid British flights across their territory and so the RAF could not gain access to Red Sea airspace from the Eastern Mediterranean, even if Sudan made no change in its present tolerant position toward overflying.

West African route
If a breakdown occurred in North African air communications, contingency plans exist for rerouting via West Africa. This runs from Britain to Bathurst [now Banjul] in Gambia (with a possible halt at Gibraltar), then to Ascension Island, Windhoek, Pretoria and thence to Gan. About 20 RAF aircraft a year fly this route.

Viewed as a regular alternative or replacement for the North African corridor, it has severe disadvantages. Overfly and air-staging concessions are precarious and threaten to deteriorate. Over Bathurst, there is little difficulty but no one is prepared to say how the RAF will fare when Gambia achieves full independence and forms the expected union with Senegal. Despite the overfly provisions of the Simonstown Agreement, the RAF has little confidence that these would automatically be observed by future South African governments. Permission to land at Windhoek and Pretoria, both of which have airfields suitable for large RAF aircraft, is given without hesitation in nine cases out of ten, and no instance of downright refusal is on record. But future South African responses seem likely to be conditioned by British – and American – attitudes in the UN on such issues as South West Africa [now Namibia].

The most secure link diplomatically in the West African chain is Ascension Island (where, under an agreement with the US signed in 1962, the RAF can land single planes upon 24 hours' notice and larger numbers at 72 hours' notice). Although this is a British island, the main air facilities are American.

One of the most destructive blows to the viability of the West African route occurred in 1962 with the abrogation of the 1960 Anglo-Nigerian Defence Agreement. This deprived the RAF of air-staging facilities at Kano and, at one sweep, eliminated the chances of regular Libya-Nigeria flights or of a Nigeria-Sudan link.

At the technical level, the West African route has severe drawbacks. For example, the Bathurst airstrip is only 6,000 feet long and in a poor state of repair. It is equipped to take only three or four aircraft a day. The short runway would probably be inadequate for the RAF's new long-range VC 10 transporters.

Distance is also a major and more permanent problem. From Britain to Bathurst is 2,800 miles – a long hop for anything but strategic aircraft. Ascension Island, even worse served than Bathurst as far as its landing facilities, is a further 1,500 miles to the south. If for any reason Bathurst became unusable, only the big jet VC 10s or the Short Belfast freighters could reach Ascension without air-refuelling on the way, and a regular base would be required for air tankers anyway.

In these circumstances, ferrying tactical transporters of the short-to-middle range Argosy type would be a hazardous business. And even supposing that the new generation of RAF strategic aircraft could manage the Britain-Ascension hop, they would pay a serious payload penalty. (Carrying its maximum payload of 80,000 lbs., the giant new Belfast can only cope with a stage of slightly more than 1,000 miles. To achieve 3,000 miles, it must cut its payload by half.)

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