Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Rejecting the No-Fly Option

For now at least, there won't be a NATO-led no-fly zone over Libya. From the U.K. Guardian:

The Obama administration has played down a proposal to establish a no-fly zone over Libya, describing it as militarily challenging and diplomatically difficult. The lack of enthusiasm in Washington contrasts with London, where David Cameron has spoken explicitly about the use of military force.


General James Mattis, the commander of US Central Command, giving evidence to a Senate hearing, stressed that, in spite of the air superiority of the US, policing a no-fly zone would be tricky and would require an attack first on Libyan air defences, including ground-to-air missiles.

"My military opinion is that it would be challenging. You would have to remove air defence capability in order to establish a no-fly zone. So no illusions here. It would be a military operation, not just telling people not to fly planes," Mattis said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concurred with General Mattis's assessment In her testimony before the same Senate panel, Ms. Clinton suggested that military intervention might be "counter-productive."

The U.S. position puts it at odds with two of its closest allies (Britain and France) which favor a no-fly zone, to prevent Libyan dictator Mummar Qaddafi from using combat aircraft against his own people. British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke forcefully in favor of the proposal yesterday, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy voiced his support as well--despite private misgivings among his nation's senior military officials.

Without American support--and resources--the proposed no-fly zone is a non-starter. While Britain and France have their own fighter aircraft and AWACS platforms, they would be hard-pressed to sustain 24-hour coverage. Additionally, the Brits and French would need basing rights in other countries (read: Italy) to conduct missions over Libya, since most of the aircraft would be shore-based. Currently, the Royal Navy and the French fleet have only two carriers, with very small air wings.

Further complicating matters, the Harrier attack aircraft on Britain's only operational carrier are extremely range-limited. Without extensive air refueling support, the Harriers' presence over Libya would be measured in minutes. And, as you might have guessed, both the RAF and the French military would need significant assistance from the U.S. tanker fleet to mount even limited no-fly zone operations. Given the mood in Washington, that support is currently unavailable. Other considerations include logistics and intelligence support, areas where the U.S. has long "carried the ball" for its NATO partners.

And, from a military perspective, the no-fly zone would do little to help Libyan rebels fighting in the streets. The number of sorties flown by the Libyan Air Force has been rather small, and
the skills of Libyan pilots are unimpressive, at best. Qaddafi's air squadrons have never been much more than a high-speed flying club for regime loyalists; the force hasn't improved significantly since the U.S. Navy splashed a couple of SU-22 Fitters over the Gulf of Sidra 30 years ago. Indeed, we might be better off by broadcasting "safe passage" rules of Libyan pilots and encouraging more of them to defect.

As for the "complexity" of no-fly zone operations, the comments of General Mattis and Secretary Clinton are true--up to a point. Preparations for no-fly patrols, backed by necessary support elements, takes both time and coordination. But NATO (and the U.S.) aren't lacking for experience in that area. We maintained no-fly zones over Iraq and Bosnia for years, and there are plenty of officers and senior NCOs with experience in that type of military operation.

Truth be told, we could probably implement an "initial" no-fly zone operation in a matter of days, using fighters from the USS Enterprise and the Aegis surveillance radars of its escort vessels. AWACS support would be drawn from the NATO AEW force at Geilenkirchen AB, Germany, along with British and French AWACS squadrons (a total of 28 aircraft). The necessary rules-of-engagement could be adapted from those used in Iraq and the Balkans. And, there are still plenty of pilots in the various NATO air forces with experience in no-fly zone enforcement. Participation by ISR and tanker aircraft--most of them American--would round out the operation.

Additionally, Libya's ground-based air defense system doesn't pose much of a challenge, either. It's essentially the same network that shot down only one U.S. F-111 during the 1986 bombing raids against Qaddafi's personal headquarters and elements of his armed forces. U.S. capabilities have improved both quantitatively and qualitatively since that time; Libya's IADS has slowly declined thanks to shortages of trained personnel and erratic maintenance. Suggesting that Libyan SAMs, radars and AAA pose a significant challenge is something of an insult to U.S. and NATO personnel who train for the SEAD mission on a regular basis.

Truth be told, the U.S. is rejecting the no-fly zone for reasons more political than military. President Obama's "partners" in Beijing and Moscow don't like the idea--in fact, they've threatened to veto any UN measure that authorizes such an operation. Additionally, the reluctance to use force is consistent with Mr. Obama's world view, which puts a premium on consultations and negotiations, even as the situation on the ground goes from bad to worse. There's also the on-going rift between London and Washington; President Obama really doesn't care for the Brits and since the no-fly zone proposal originated in the U.K. (and not the U.S.) the administration is disinclined to support it.

Still, at least Prime Minister Cameron displayed a degree of vision and leadership in dealing with the Libyan crisis--qualities currently lacking in our own government. It was Mr. Cameron who dispatched a British warship to a Libyan port to evacuate his citizens, a large Union Jack flying prominently from its bow. Mr. Cameron also okayed a daring SAS raid into the Libyan oil fields to rescue oil workers from that region.

Meanwhile, the State Department hired a ferry to transport Americans from Libya to Malta, but the vessel's departure was delayed for several days due to high seas. True, the ferry eventually accomplished its mission, but the approach was viewed as a sign of weakness, particularly with a U.S. carrier battle group and amphibious group steaming only three days away, in the Red Sea.

Mr. Obama would have been better-served by rejecting the no-fly zone for sound military reasons, while proposing a solution for the real problem--a handful of Libyan helicopters that have rocketed and strafed crowds of protesters. Neutralizing that threat would require a handful of interdiction sorties, aimed at destroying the choppers and their support facilities. Strike aircraft would be supported by SEAD packages, AWACS and ISR support. With the choppers destroyed--or afraid to leave the ground---the Libyan air threat would (essentially) dissipate.

Instead, the U.S. is now sending the Enterprise and the Kearsarge amphibious group back through the Suez Canal, to assist with evacuation operations from Libya. At this point, we're not sure who's left to evacuate, but it does show the United States is now engaged militarily. Better late than never, we suppose. Besides, a carrier group in the central Med has a certain deterrent value and it does put our assets much closer to the action--assuming we ever decide on a coherent military strategy for Libya.

1 comment:

Nancy Reyes said...

Your comment about who to evacuate is a few days old, but the UN just figured out that there are over 100 thousand foreign workers there, including 25thousand Filipinos, most in the west or central part of the country so they couldn't make it to ports or airports.

Just include a few Fil Ams in the rescuers, and say it's a joint operation with the Philippine military to rescue their folks, and voila, pick up them, the Bengalis, the Egyptians, and whoever those Chinese frigates left behind.