There have been calls and suggestions, or what Secretary of Defense Bob Gates describes as "loose talk," for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, similar to that imposed over Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. That no-fly zone was in place until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Could a no-fly zone be successfully imposed over the vast expanses of Libya? Yes, but not without cost. It is one thing to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution declaring a no-fly zone; it is quite another to enforce it. Demanding that the Libyan air force stop flying in its own airspace does not mean that they will comply. There will have to be credible military force available to impose such a zone.
The major component of that "credible military force" will almost certainly be aircraft and pilots of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, operating from carriers in the Mediterranean (the USS Enterprise is en route) and air bases in "friendly countries," most likely Egypt but possibly Italy as well. No doubt there will be participation from other countries to put an international face on it, but in the end, most of the serious flying will be done by young Americans.
What are the considerations involved with enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya? The obvious consideration is the capability of the Libyan air force and air defense system. Given the rhetoric emanating from Tripoli in a series of rambling nonsensical speeches, it is doubtful that Libyan leader Mu'amar al-Qadhafi will order his aircraft to stand down, nor will he order his air defense units to refrain from engaging foreign aircraft operating in Libyan air space.
On paper, Libya's air and air defence forces appear to be formidable, but in reality are not. While the fighter aircraft inventory tops 200, most are older Soviet jets such as the MiG-23 (NATO: Flogger); most are likely no longer in service. There are possibly a few French-built Mirage F-1 fighters operational as well. Two of these were flown to Malta by pilots who chose to defect rather than launch air strikes on their own citizens. There are dozens of heavily-armed Russian Mi-24 (NATO: Hind) attack helicopters that can inflict massive casualties on civilian populations, as we well know from Iraq's use of these very effective weapons platforms to put down the Shi'a rebellion in 1991. It is these helicopters that need to be grounded, or if the pro-Qadhafi forces insist, destroyed.
Neither the aircraft nor pilots of the al-quwat al-jawiyah al-libiyah, the Libyan Air Force, are capable of taking on state-of-the-art American F-15, F-16, F-18 and F-22 fighters flown by well-trained, combat-experienced pilots. The Americans can sweep the skies of any Libyan aircraft whose pilots are foolish enough to attempt a challenge. That is not the issue. The issue is first destroying the Libyan air defense system.
Like most former Soviet client states, Libyan air defenses are multi-layered, dense and redundant, combining long and short range missile systems integrated with anti-aircraft artillery guns under a centralized command and control system fed by a network of surveillance radars. The first task of imposing a no-fly zone is to neutralize that air defense system. Although it is possible to jam radars and some communications systems using non-lethal means, that is only a temporary solution. To provide the security the pilots will need to conduct effective no-fly zone enforcement, the air defense system needs to be crippled.
Those who favor the imposition of a no-fly zone need to understand clearly that it will begin with air strikes on Libyan air defenses. When that happens, there will be images beamed all over the Middle East and Muslim world by media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and al-'Arabiyah of American aircraft dropping bombs on an Arab and Muslim country. Arabs and Muslims will die at the hands of American pilots; the media in the Arab and Muslim world will make sure it is well covered.
For the record, I am in favor of a no-fly zone. I am in favor of anything that hastens the removal of Mu'amar al-Qadhafi from power. I am in favor of protecting any Libyan with the courage to face al-Qadhafi's armed forces in hopes of freedom and a better life. We just need to make sure we know what we are getting ourselves into.