With the international community finally agreeing to take military action against Gaddafi, former Army Captain Patrick Bury looks at what assets are available in the Mediterranean and how these may be employed in the coming days.
With the international community finally agreeing to take military action to reverse the recent momentum of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, former Army Captain Patrick Bury looks at what assets are available in the Mediterranean and how these may be employed in the coming days
After the UN Security Council passed resolution 1947 on Thursday night authorising member states to “take all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”, militaries in the US, Britain, France, NATO and some Arab states began enacting their Libyan contingency plans. Meanwhile, as Libyan officials announced an end to military operations on Friday, reports suggested continued shelling of the rebel held town of Misurata.
The wording of the resolution allows for a broader spectrum of military action than just a ‘no-fly zone’, including a ‘no-drive’ zone to counter advances by Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery, and the possible targeting of Libya’s small navy if it attempts to bombard rebel-held coastal towns. However, to launch air strikes on Libyan soil requires careful synchronisation between a wide range of air and sea assets.
Firstly, and following the blueprint from the Iraq invasion, ‘decapitation’ missile strikes could be used against Gaddafi’s reinforced command bunker in the Bab Al Azizia area of Tripoli, something the rebels have called for. These could be delivered by Tomahawk missiles fired from a US submarine stationed off the coast. However, the recent ceasefire called by Gaddafi may make this an unlikely course of action for political reasons.
Before committing their air forces, the military will aim to suppress Gaddafi’s limited air defences, including launch sites and radar facilities. These include old, but long ranged, Soviet built SA-2 and SA-5A missile batteries and mobile, shorter ranged SA-6s and SA-8s. While modern ground attack fighter aircraft are equipped with an array of missile counter-measures, the destruction of these air defences will pave the way for strikes on the Libyan air force.
These strikes are usually synchronised to attack immediately after the destruction of the surface-to- air missile threat, and will concentrate on destroying the bulk of the Libyan air force on the ground.
They would most likely be launched by squadrons of F-18 and Rafale ground attack fighters operating from the US aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and the French Charles De Gaulle, supported by aircraft flying from US bases on Sicily, and French bases in the Mediterranean. British Tornado and Typhoon jets could forward-mount in these bases and their own in Cyprus and possibly Malta’s airport.
Facing them are probably about 150 combat effective Libyan aircraft, including French built Mirage F-1s and Soviet-era MiG variants. If, as seems likely, the French and British are first to strike, their superior pilots and technology should easily outclass the Libyan air-to-air threat.
Once air superiority has been secured, Gaddafi’s artillery pieces and tanks could be attacked with relative impunity, but is not yet clear if these would have to be engaging civilians, or rebels, to allow pilots to fire. The ceasefire declaration could further complicate pilots’ rules of engagement and raise questions about the definition of civilians. Threats would remain from loyalist attack helicopters, which are harder to detect, and from shoulder-launched missiles.
As such, a no-fly zone, or air strikes, will need considerable support from specialist radar aircraft, air-to-air refuelling platforms and search and rescue helicopters in case pilots are downed. Ground-air tactical teams may also be deployed, pushing the boundary of the “no ground forces” resolution.
The Gaddafi administration’s spectacular volte face in announcing an immediate end to military operations may have been specifically designed to stall these plans to buy time for loyalist forces. Having said on Thursday night that he would show “no mercy, no pity” to the people of Benghazi, in a rapidly changing political and military situation on Friday, Gaddafi’s Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa stressed Libya’s “great interest in protecting civilians”.
It is more likely that Gaddafi has “great interest” in protecting the military assets from which he draws his power. Moreover, a ceasefire based on the military situation at present would see Gaddafi continue to control much of Libya’s oil revenues, territory and population.
On Friday it appeared that loyalist concentrations of artillery and tanks had grouped around Benghazi in the east and Misurata in the west, before entering the cities. Such an investment of forces before an urban assault presents a very juicy target to air forces, and Gaddafi could have called this ceasefire to allow him to disperse these forces and politically complicate efforts to attack them.
While his commitment to this ceasefire remains to be seen, loyalists also now face a tactical dilemma: if they enter the urban environment they will face grinding a-symmetric attacks from the rebels, but will benefit from fighting in close proximity to civilians, thereby protecting themselves somewhat from air strikes. If they stay in the desert and continue their bombardments they face the wrath of superior air power, which, even if they cease operations, could still be used against them.
As Bosnia proved, despite its obvious impacts, air-power is not a magic ‘fix it’ tool in conflicts. While its use allows nations to intervene quickly and sometimes decisively with relatively little risk of military casualties, it cannot prevent low-level battles and street fights, nor ethnic cleansing.
Depending on the decisions of Gaddafi’s forces in the coming days, the rebels may have to fight again to re-capture the towns they have lost over the last week. If this happens one would expect Gaddafi to pursue a ‘scorched earth’ policy, destroying the oil infrastructures around Ros Lanuf and Brega to deny them to the rebels. The rebels will be loathe to accept Gaddafi’s ceasefire offer as acceptance would signal the de facto partition of Libya and would abandon much of the population.
Continuing the fight, even with supporting air strikes, will most likely be bloody and lengthy.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.