UPDATE//7:30 pm EDT, 19 March// The U.S. portion of "kinetic operations" against Libya began a few hours earlier than the previously announced Sunday start. Officials at the Pentagon announced that American and British naval units, including at least one attack submarine, unleashed a barrage of at least 110 cruise missiles against Qaddafi's air defense and command-and-control nodes late Saturday evening (local time). The strike was aimed at neutralizing Libyan defenses, making it easier for allied warplanes to enforce a no-fly zone over much of the country.
Previously, U.S. military officials said that American jets would not commence their operations until Sunday at the earliest, although they gave no timetable for the expected cruise missile strike. Among the Libyan installations hit by the missiles were long-range SA-5 SAM batterys and surveillance radars.
File this under "sights we never thought we'd see."
French military resolve and tenacity are often the butt of international jokes, but not this time around. While the U.S. and NATO work out the details of the Libyan No-Fly Zone, French combat aircraft are already enforcing the mandate, approved yesterday by the United Nations.
According to various media accounts, French fighters are conducting combat air patrols over the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and may expand their operations later today, by conducting strikes on forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Libyan tanks and other armored vehicles are reportedly advancing towards Benghazi and the rebels may not be able to halt their attack without air support. From the Associated Press:
Mirage and Rafale fighter jets are flying over Benghazi and could strike Gadhafi’s tanks later Saturday, a senior French official told The Associated Press.
The official said the jets are flying over the opposition stronghold and its surroundings. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.
Meanwhile, the cease-fire announced by the Libyan government on Friday proved to be nothing more than a head fake, as Fox News reported:
Libyan forces struck Saturday at the heart of the rebellion against Muammar al-Qaddafi, shelling the outskirts of the rebel capital and launching airstrikes in defiance of international demands for a halt to the fighting.
The fighting galvanized the people of Benghazi, with young men collecting bottles to make Molotov cocktails. Some residents dragged bed frames and metal scraps into the streets to make roadblocks.
As of early Saturday afternoon (EDT), U.S. military forces were not yet participating in combat operations over Libya. Indeed, some early reports suggested American forces would play only a supporting role, providing logistical support and additional E-3 AWACS aircraft to the coalition effort.
But, as the French began air patrols over Benghazi, the outline of U.S. support began to change. Officials in Washington said that Air Force F-16s from Aviano AB, Italy would be ready to join the enforcement effort by Sunday. Sources also told Fox News that U.S. Navy vessels in the Mediterranean were planning a cruise missile strike against Libyan air defense and command-and-control nodes. There were suggestions that initial American involvement would be limited to reduce chances of a "friendly-fire" incident with French aircraft already operating over Libya.
But such claims seemed to be little more than a smokescreen. Truth be told, prospects for a "blue-on-blue" engagement were decidedly slim. As we've noted in the past, the number of Libyan fixed-wing aircraft sorties against the rebels has been low, and there were no reports of Qaddafi's jets leaving the ground after one was shot down by opposition forces on Saturday afternoon (it was later confirmed that the fighter, a MiG-23 Flogger, belonged to the rebels and not the Libyan Air Force). That event, coupled with the arrival of French jets, was enough to keep the Libyan Air Force on the ground. As of this writing, the only combat aircraft flying over Libya belong to the French, not Qaddafi's regime.
Additionally, there were no reports of the Rafales and Mirages being engaged by Libya's ground-based air defenses, raising some questions about the need for a massive cruise missile strike. Most of Qaddafi's radars and surface-to-air missiles are systems dating from the 1960s and 70s, easily countered by aircraft jamming pods and anti-radiation missiles. If the French are flying with impunity over Libya, it's a safe bet that Qaddafi's air defense crews are unwilling to illuminate their radars, and risk an early meeting with Allah.
Truth be told, it's painfully apparent that the U.S. is following--not leading--in Libya. Less than two weeks ago, American officials warned about the complexities of establishing and sustaining a no-fly zone. Never mind the fact that our military has decades of experience in running those operations over Iraq and Bosnia, and the need for American support platforms (read: ISR and tankers) to maintain a no-fly zone for any length of time. Apparently, the French weren't bothered by our initial reluctance and Nicholas Sarkozy sent his jets into action just hours after the U.N. approved no-fly operations. That statement alone speaks volumes about the current state of U.S. foreign policy and its architect-in-chief, Barack Obama.
To be fair, a No-Fly Zone is no substitute for a final diplomatic or military solution. Saddam Hussein remained in power during a decade of no-fly operations over Iraq, and in the Balkans, countless atrocities were committed on the ground while NATO jets loitered at 30,000 feet.
Speaking from personal experience, I can testify that the No-Fly Zone over Bosnia was almost worthless in many respects. With rare exceptions, Serb aircraft remained on the ground and the approval process for strikes against ground targets was almost comical. It went something like this: the request from air support went from a tactical air control party (TACP) on the ground, to an airborne command element on AWACS or ABCCC. From there, it was relayed to the allied tactical air force headquarters in Vicenza, Italy, then on to the U.N.'s senior diplomat in Zagreb, Croatia. After he mulled it over, the airstrike request went on to New York for final approval, then back down the chain for execution. On a good day, you could get a response in 45 minutes; on a bad day, it took hours. In the interim, you could imagine what was happening on the ground.
But when NATO began a systematic targeting of Serb ground assets in 1995, the No-Fly operation took on a new dimension, and the air operation became much more effective. Based on early French actions in Libya, it appears that Paris has learned the lessons from Bosnia and their jets are going after the real threat--Qaddafi's tanks and artillery on the ground. And, as the ground attacks begin, readers should remember there are two basic schemes for conducting air strikes. You can establish a "kill box" around enemy forces and anything inside that zone is fair game.
The other option is putting a TACP or special forces team on the ground, to "call in" air strikes and brief pilots on their targets. Obviously, there are advantages to this latter approach, particularly in a situation like Libya where government and rebel forces are operating the same types of tanks and armored personnel carriers. We're guessing that French commandos are already on the ground, and directing strikes on Qaddafi's forces.
It will take several weeks to determine the effectiveness of allied military action in Libya. But
the French credit, along with their British allies (after all, Prime Minister David Cameron was one of the early advocates for a No-Fly Zone). In the absence of American leadership, they filled the void and spurred the vaunted "international community" into action.
Too bad we can't say the same thing for the supposed Leader of the Free World.