Beginning in early August, the US Marines aboard the USS Wasp have conducted airstrikes against ISIS’ Libyan stronghold of Sirte from the Mediterranean. This has forced the group to retreat to a point where the Marines can now use the big guns: AH-1W SuperCobra attack choppers.
While drones and Harrier jump jets launched from the deck of the USS Wasp helicopter carrier had been attacking ISIS targets in Libya for weeks, the use of the SuperCobra represents a change in tactics.
Because helicopters can hover, loiter, and maneuver easily, they are ideal for seeking out hidden targets in urban areas. ISIS has been forced to retreat as Libyan and US forces drive the group into the “densest, most built-up part” of Sirte, a Defense Department official told The Washington Post. The birthplace of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte is an important port city in the divided nation.
But the SuperCobras are vulnerable to rocket fire, and shoulder-fired antiaircraft platforms have become common in North Africa and the Middle East. The choice to use manned helicopters suggests that the Marines are confident they have weakened and chased down ISIS fighters in the city.
The SuperCobra attack choppers are guided by US Special Forces on the ground in Libya along with other allied and Libyan forces aligned with the Government of National Accord, a UN-backed government that has requested US assistance in riding the country of ISIS.
The Libyan parliament, however, recently passed a vote of no confidence on the GNA, further complicating the situation.
Before the US air campaign, ISIS was estimated to have 6,000 fighters in Libya, mainly massed around Sirte.
Sirte’s position in the Mediterranean means it could be a staging point for ISIS looking to mount attacks in Europe. The power vacuum left over from the death of Gaddafi in 2011, as well as internal disagreements in Libya, has caused the country to become a hub of crime and human trafficking.