The Ministry of Defence confirmed Stormshadow missiles were launched from Tornado GR4 fast jets, which flew 3,000 miles from RAF Marham in Norfolk and back, the longest range bombing mission conducted by the RAF since the Falklands conflict.
As part of a co-ordinated strike, a barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles – some of them British – was also fired at Libya to knock out the dictator’s air defence systems at more than 20 coastal locations.
A Royal Navy Trafalgar-class submarine stationed in the Mediterranean took part in the co-ordinated assault, which also involved forces from the US, France, Italy and Canada under the operational control of US Africa Command.
The missiles targeted radar systems and ground-to-air missile sites around the cities of Tripoli and Misrata in what was described as “the first phase of a multi-phase operation”, clearing the way for allied planes to take control of the skies.
Shortly afterwards, at least three Tornado jets took off from RAF Marham.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: “This operation was supported by VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft as well as E3D Sentry and Sentinel surveillance aircraft.
“Our capable and adaptable armed forces are once again displaying their courage and professionalism.
“This action has provided a strong signal – the international community will not stand by while the Libyan people suffer under the Gaddafi regime.”
The onslaught on Gaddafi came after an emergency summit in Paris agreed military action to enforce United Nations resolution 1973, which authorised “any necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to defend Libyan civilians.
President Barack Obama, making a visit to Brazil, said the US would contribute its “unique capabilities” to enable the enforcement of a no-fly zone which will be led by its international partners.
Repeating his pledge that no US ground troops would be sent to Libya, Mr Obama said the “limited” use of force was “not an outcome the US or any of our partners sought”.
But he added: “We can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”
US defence officials said it was too early to fully gauge the impact of the onslaught, but said they believed Libya’s air defences had been heavily damaged.
Countries including Canada, Denmark, Spain and Norway announced they were sending planes, while Italy said it would permit the use of air bases such as Sigonella in Sicily and Aviano in the north to launch sorties. A naval blockade is to be established in the Mediterranean to prevent movements from Libyan ports.
Nato’s governing North Atlantic Council was meeting in Brussels last night to decide whether to take on a formal command role, amid some misgivings that this might discourage Arab involvement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has called on all sides in Libya to abide by the principles of humanitarian law, particularly by distinguishing between civilians and fighters.
NATO TO DECIDE ABOUT ACTION
Nato’s top decision-making body is set to decide whether the alliance will join in the strikes on Libya.
Diplomats said Nato’s military planners are due to present final action plans to the North Atlantic Council before deciding whether the alliance will join the coalition operation or just provide logistical and intelligence support to the nations taking part.
Several Nato governments have indicated they would not participate in aerial attacks, with the alliance already heavily engaged in the war in Afghanistan.