British Army Apache gunship helicopters operating from the Royal Navy amphibious ship HMS Ocean sank two Libyan patrol boats and destroyed a Libyan anti-aircraft gun this week, according to a Royal Navy announcement. The engagements were the latest in NATO's expanded campaign using attack helicopters, and they reinforced British commanders' belief that Army helicopters could prove useful flying from a warship and adding naval targets to their repertoire.
An allied warship spotted Libyan boats bound for the rebel-held city of Misrata, according to a Royal Navy announcement Monday, which did not make clear exactly when the engagement happened. It wasn't the first time allied commanders had observed vessels loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi on that same course. Officials say pro-government Libyan special forces units have been attempting to mine Misrata's harbor. When the two boats in Monday's announcement were sighted, British commanders sortied Apache helicopters from the Ocean.
"The Apaches found the craft, destroying two using their 30mm cannon," the announcement said. Then the helos flew inland for another target, according to the Royal Navy: "The helicopters then closed in on a ZSU-23-4 Shilka – a light-armoured radar-guided anti-aircraft vehicle – near Zlitan, 30 miles up the coast from Misrata. It too was eliminated."
Once the helicopters crews dealt with the naval and anti-air threats, they continued with an attack against more traditional ground targets: "In addition to the latest attack against the speedboats, Ocean’s Apaches were also dispatched to destroy a government communications installation and multiple rocket launcher around Misrata," the announcement said.
Although British commanders clearly are pleased with the results so far of using attack helicopters in Libya, it isn't clear whether they, or helos from other allies, will push Qaddafi any closer to stepping down or finally give the Libyan rebel alliance a decisive advantage. But they're not the only ground attack craft that have been repurposed to deal with lingering elements of the Libyan fleet: In late March, a U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II used its Gatling gun to destroy two Libyan vessels.