March 8, 2011

Libya: No Fly Zone or Qadhafi

(This should be read in conjunction with my earlier No-Fly Zone Libya - some considerations.)

The situation in Libya is deteriorating into a civil war. Unless Libyan leader Mu'amar al-Qadhafi relinquishes his position and accedes to the demands of the opposition, the fighting shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Such a move by al-Qadhafi is unlikely, especially now that his forces have mounted what appears to be a coordinated counteroffensive.

What appeared to be a wave of earlier opposition successes has slowed to a stalemate. As the pro-government forces now begin combined arms military operations against the opposition, the tide may actually be turning against the rebels. Untrained rebels fighting with unfamiliar light weapons are no match for tanks and aircraft operating in concert, especially in the open desert terrain of northern Libya.

Key to al-Qadhafi's forces military operations is complete control of Libyan airspace. The opposition forces have only older anti-aircraft artillery and possibly some shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Both systems are limited to relatively low-altitude coverage. When these systems are manned by poorly or untrained operators, they are fairly easily avoided by fighter bombers. While the heavily armed and armored Mi-24 helicopter gunships are more vulnerable to these systems, Libyan air force pilots are making devastating strikes on rebels in the oil refinery and port city of Ra's Lanuf to the west of Tripoli, and in Az-Zawiyah to the east of Tripoli, in each case forcing the rebels to give up hard-gotten gains.

If the Libyan air force continues these effective air strikes against the lightly defended opposition forces in combination with armored assaults, the pro-al-Qadhafi forces will likely be able to push the rebels further east to Banghazi. If Banghazi is retaken by government forces, the rebellion is over.

It may come down to this. Either the United Nations authorizes the imposition and enforcement a no-fly zone over Libya, or Mu'amar al-Qadhafi remains in power.

The most likely organization to enforce a proposed no-fly zone is NATO, of which the United States in the key member. NATO has experience conducting integrated air operations - it did so effectively in the Balkans - and member nation Italy has air bases within range of Libyan airspace. As I said in my earlier piece, if and when NATO begins these operations, the bulk of the flying will probably be done by American aircrews, including the reconnaissance, refueling and logistics sorties.

NATO's normally timid political leadership and cumbersome military command structure may make the whole issue moot. NATO is not scheduled to meet until Thursday to even discuss enforcement of a no-fly zone, and will not consider it unless there is a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing it. Libyan government forces are not waiting for that resolution or NATO's decision. They will continue to mount their coordinated air strikes, helicopter attacks and armored assaults, hoping to end the rebellion before the outside world can act.

President Barack Obama has invested some political capital in the removal of Mu'amar al-Qadhadi. The President and British prime minister have both called for the removal of al-Qadhafi. Refusal to support or participate in no-fly zone imposition or enforcement negates that investment and likely ensures the survival of the regime in Tripoli.

It's another 3:00am phone call. What's your answer going to be, Mr. President?