Libya eyes a new arsenal

July 22, 2009 at 5:43 PM
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TRIPOLI, Libya, July 22 (UPI) -- The Libyan coast guard is now operating Croatian-built patrol boats in the western Mediterranean as Russia and Western governments elbow each other for substantial orders for new equipment to update Col. Moammar Gadhafi's armed forces.

The 120-foot PV30-LS fast patrol craft were built by the Zagreb-based Adria-Mar Shipbuilding yards at Kali and Bakar Bay.

Deliveries began in August 2006, and the Croatian company was reported to be discussing further orders, including a modified design known as OPB31 to meet a Libyan requirement for more coastal patrol vessels.

The PV30-LS craft, designed for anti-smuggling and search-and-rescue missions, are powered by two Deutz TBD630 marine diesels and have a maximum speed of more than 30 knots.

According to Jane's Navy International, Adria-Mar officials say that Tripoli has shown "strong interest" in the company's proposal for a 200-foot patrol vessel with longer range and capable of carrying a light helicopter.

Underlining Libya's international rehabilitation following Gadhafi's 2003 decision to abandon Libya's clandestine nuclear weapons program and renounce terrorism, Tripoli has been establishing military links with the United States in expectation of buying advanced weapons systems.

Although full restoration of U.S.-Libyan relations had to wait until Tripoli fulfilled an agreement to compensate victims of terrorist attacks blamed on his intelligence service, such as the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, U.S. officials say Libya's cooperation on counter-terrorism is "one of the positive sides of the relationship."

Both countries have a common interest in combating Islamic extremism, and the U.S. response to Gadhafi's appointment of his longtime intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, as Libya's foreign minister in March was instructional.

Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Tripoli who took his post in January, described Moussa's appointment as Libya's diplomatic chief as "a very good choice" and diplomatically described the spymaster as "a well-versed versatile individual. … He's an impressive man and we'll look forward to working for him."

Not bad for someone the Americans not so long ago would have happily bumped off. (In April 1986 Ronald Reagan actually tried to get rid of the man he once called a "mad dog.")

But it may be some time before the Americans start selling Gadhafi, their enemy for four decades, stealth fighters or precision-guided weapons or submarines capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Leading U.S. defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon have been sending emissaries to Tripoli to open discussions.

David Hamod, president of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, noted in March: "Libya is going to seek defense articles from somebody. And I think it's in America's interests to be the provider … It's an integral part of the growing relationship."

Initially, it is likely that the Americans will supply Libya with transport aircraft and systems for coastal and border security. But eventually the flamboyant Gadhafi is going to want the payoff, big-ticket killer machines commensurate with his vision of himself as "King of Africa."

The Libyans expected the Americans would reward them for ditching their nuclear program and are unhappy that these have not been forthcoming, particularly in the defense sector.

The Russians, who were Gadhafi's main arms suppliers during the Cold War and have done some business with him more recently, are eager to provide upgrades of systems the Libyans already have.

But France is making a determined bid to get a big slice of the action. The French want to sell Libya 14 Rafale multirole combat aircraft as well as missiles.

So far the Rafale, built by Dassault Aviation, has still not found a foreign buyer, and Dassault needs to sign somebody up to keep the production line going for France's air force and navy, Rafale's only customers so far.

Gadhafi's first son, Saif el Islam, has suggested that Libya and the United Arab Emirates -- another potential Rafale customer -- jointly acquire 100 of the aircraft, 40 for Libya and 60 for the United Arab Emirates.

But that poses all kinds of problems that are unlikely to be easily resolved, particularly since the two proposed partners want different systems and weapons in the aircraft.

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