By Anthony Loyd
Eyes in the sky have given both sides a lethal new weapon that is impossible to hide from.
After 30 seconds of wheel-spinning acceleration, three sharp zigzags and two hard turns down the narrow streets as we sped from the front line under cover of darkness, it seemed logical to assume danger had passed.
Then the detonations began to chase the car. Block by block, among the ruins of Tripoli’s southern war zone, they exploded. “They can see us from above!” exclaimed the skinny fighter at the wheel, stabbing a finger skywards.
This was a practical demonstration of how drone warfare is shaping Libya’s conflict. Our speeding car should have been clear of danger as soon as it left the frontline forces loyal to the UN-recognised government.
Instead a machine in the sky was tracking us and for the next few minutes, as the explosions blasted around our car, no matter how fast we drove or how quickly we changed course, we remained speechless with fear and incredulity.
In the ten months since Marshal Khalifa Haftar began his assault on Tripoli, the conflict has been revolutionised by drones. One costing a few thousand dollars can relay live targeting footage to foreign advisers — Turkish, Russian or Arab — operating laser-guided artillery that can pursue cars such as ours.
When we eventually got to safety, my driver said: “Now the war can chase us through the night.”
The fighters had shot down a drone and wanted to show off a trophy seized from its remains. I was curious to see what. Yet in the enthusiasm, among the ghostly urban carcass of Tripoli’s front line at night, the abandoned buildings and tumbled rubble silhouetted by the waxing moon, we had forgotten one of war’s essential rules: be careful what you wish for.
In previous eras of Libya’s war, the darkened drive to the front at Salaheddin in southern Tripoli — where units loyal to the government of national accord (GNA) confront those of Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) — would probably have been a relatively carefree experience. Neither side, with their stocks of low-grade Cold War weaponry, would have had the ability to spot one another beyond their immediate line of sight.
Yet in recent months, drones have become not only a ubiquitous entity in Libya’s increasingly high-tech war, but are shaping the battlefields in a way that has no modern military precedent, such is the regularity and aggression of their use by both sides.
Taking hundreds of lives among the combatants, Libya’s escalating drone war has caused fighters from the opposing armies to recalibrate their strategy, as the hidden eyes above them strike at positions, vehicles and personnel that would previously have been shrouded from view.
So the night drive to the front was without headlights, in a civilian car that seemed little suited to the wreckage-strewn alleys cratered by shellfire.
Stopping at one position Mustafa, a skinny 25-year-old GNA fighter from Misrata who preferred to be known only by his first name, pointed out the effect of Marshal Haftar’s new drone fleet, which includes the Chinese-made Wing Loong (the UN believes it has been supplied to his forces by the United Arab Emirates).
“See!” Mustafa exclaimed at his enemy’s handiwork, gesturing towards the blast-buckled remains of a GNA Toyota. “Drone!”
We were still far from the front and there seemed little to worry about. Yet every detail of the destroyed vehicle, hit during daylight last month, suggested it had indeed been struck by a drone.
A low-yield missile impact was visible at the back, penetrating the car from above to leave a small, deep crater, less than a foot in radius, in the ground beneath it. An ambulance parked beside it had also been burned by the explosion.
“We used to drive around at night in Toyotas, headlights on,” Mustafa added. “But these days it’s headlights off and we move to the front in civilian cars. Too many losses.”
He stepped behind the wheel of the car and we headed off towards the front.
Since May last year, Turkey is known to have supplied the GNA with more than a dozen Bayraktar TB2 drones, in response to Marshal Haftar’s Chinese Wing Loongs.
Briefing the UN Security Council in November, Ghassan Salamé, the special envoy to Libya, estimated that over 800 drone strikes had been conducted in support of Marshal Haftar’s forces in their attempt to seize Tripoli, while around 240 strikes had been undertaken on behalf of the Tripoli government.
“The use of air power and precision technology has become a dominant feature of an otherwise low-intensity conflict,” Mr Salamé said, accusing foreign forces of deploying specialist teams to Libya to pilot the rival armies’ drone fleets.
Foreign fighters and advisory teams are present on each side: Turkey and Syrian mercenaries with the government, the UAE and Russia supplying personnel to the LNA. “It is our judgment that the drone infrastructure and operations are facilitated by external parties to the conflict,” Mr Salamé added.
The drone war has intensified even after nations gathered in Berlin last month to urge respect for the ragged nine-year-old arms embargo on Libya. Both sides use them for surveillance and long-range strikes, as well as for close-air support to units fighting on the front.
Some of the recent drone attacks have caused mass casualties in areas far from the fighting. In a long-distance strike that caused revulsion on both sides, a drone supplied to the LNA hit a group of cadets at a military academy in Tripoli, miles behind the front.
Fifty-two new recruits, many of them teenagers and all unarmed, were on parade for a roll call when a missile — which weapon experts say was likely to be a Blue Arrow 7 fired from a Wing Loong drone — exploded in their ranks.
The impact, caught on security camera, leaves little to the imagination. Twenty-six cadets were killed and 14 seriously wounded.
Anthony Loyd is among the most experienced war correspondents of his generation. He began reporting for The Times during the Bosnian war in 1993 and since then he has reported from a series of major conflict zones, including those in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.