NATO to surveillance Libyan air space. Lays out plans to establish no-fly zone

E-3A AWACS (NATO)

NATO has decided to step up surveillance by its AWACS systems “to have a better picture of what’s really going on in Libya.”

A North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting on the situation in Libya agreed to a proposal by the U.S. envoy to have a round-the-clock operation by the alliance’s big airborne coordination surveillance aircraft.

This and the option of a no-fly zone over Libya will be discussed in-depth during a two-day NATO Defense Ministers’ conference scheduled for later this week.

Briefing the media on the outcome of the NAC discussions, the United States’ Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder said “the NATO surveillance planes are really looking for aircraft and ground traffic in Libya” as well as off the coast of the North African country “to find out what’s going on in terms of traffic patterns.”

He made it clear that the NATO-AWACS capability is “not looking for individuals.”

Under NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor, which is an operation for many years, AWACS planes are flying around the Mediterranean for ten hours a day. And as the situation develops in the regions, the surveillance will be increased to 24 hours a day, and “we may redeploy our assets in that way,” he added.

Known as NATO’s ‘Eye In The Sky,’ the alliance operates a fleet of Boeing E-3A ‘Sentry’ Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) aircraft, which equips it with immediately available airborne command and control, air and maritime surveillance and battle-space management capability.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, NATO AWACS had proven to be a key asset in crisis-management and peace-support operations.

The United States suggested setting up of NATO command-and-control capability to help coordinate humanitarian relief efforts; re-tasking some of the ships that are now engaged in an exercise in the Mediterranean to support any humanitarian sealift; supply of food and other kinds of aid to the country by sea, and if necessary, to help evacuate people.

Daalder said, “Generally, this was well received within the NAC,” and it agreed that “we would look at these issues a little closer over the next few days so that when defense ministers meet on Thursday here in Brussels, they may be in a position to make a decision.”

He said although NATO was “looking at all the options… in a pretty focused way, the most immediate options that are now most available and that we’re really looking at is how can NATO support the humanitarian effort that is ongoing by the international community.”

He also clarified that “there really isn’t a sense that we need to get involved into the internal politics of Libya at this point in order to provide the kind of humanitarian relief support that we’re seeking.”

NATO secretary-general Angers Fogh Rasmussen has announced that NATO will be increasing the presence of its maritime assets in the central Mediterranean, and to “direct NATO military authorities to begin detailed planning with regard to supporting humanitarian operations”, as well as more active work on enforcing an arms embargo.

Plans to establish a no-fly-zone over Libya will be presented on March 15.

A plan aimed at establishing a no-fly zone over Libya will be presented March 15 to NATO, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.”We are continuing to plan for the full range of possible options including a no-fly zone,” Clinton told a press conference, declining however to indicate who would present the plan on Tuesday.

US civilian and military officials have been debating with their allied counterparts the idea of a creating zone in which NATO warplanes would ground Colonel Moamer Kadhafi’s air power to prevent him from attacking his own people.

“I know how concerned people are, I share that concern,” Clinton said.

“But we have a lot of experience in this kind of circumstance, from Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere, and we know how challenging it is to do any of the things that a lot of people are calling for.”

She was referring to no-fly zones imposed over Serbia and Iraq in the 1990s.

The top US diplomat has stressed that any decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya should be taken by the United Nations and not the United States.

If a no-fly-zone was to be established, what would be the risks of enforcing it? Retired U.S. Major General James “Spider” Marks looks at possible scenarios of such an act.

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General George Joulwan talks about NATO’s options.

Clearly the time has come to completely isolate Gaddafi, and the sooner the better. The problem is nobody knows how exactly to go about it. This indecision may be the key that allows Gaddafi to remain in power.

Europe has been dedicating almost all of its attention to Libya in the past few days. EU foreign ministers and NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on March 10, and an EU summit is scheduled for March 11. The focus of these meetings is the same: how to remove Gaddafi from power without provoking a backlash against the West.

A NATO or U.S.-led invasion of Libya would inevitably stir up anti-Western sentiment. The Arab masses might see it as an effort to hijack their popular revolutions. And the heavy toll exacted by a military intervention would inevitably lead to widespread anger. No one wants another Kuwait, Afghanistan or Iraq. This would only fuel suspicions that the West sees itself as a global government, with NATO acting as the world’s police force.

President Barack Obama cannot afford this turn of events, especially given the uncertainty in Egypt and Tunisia; their revolutions are far from over and stability is still a distant goal. For Obama, a Western military intervention would fly in the face of his overtures to the Arab world and his vow to abandon the unilateral approach of his predecessor. But Obama cannot wait for the fighting in Libya to run its course. Both Republicans and Democrats are urging a proactive course that would begin with a no-fly zone over Libya. This was the United States’ first step in Kuwait in 1991, Yugoslavia (Kosovo) in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

There would still be some things to figure out. For instance: How much of Libya do you want to restrict? (All of it? Just the Mediterranean coastal area? Just the eastern territories?) What are the rules of engagement? (Do we shoot down all aircraft that enter the zone, fixed-wing and helicopters? What if a Libyan pilot fires back? Do we destroy their air defenses ahead of time or just when they turn on their radar? If Qaddafi’s planes keep flying, do we bomb his runways? If the planes are down but Qaddafi sends in tanks, do we bomb their tanks?) Will other nations send their planes, too, or just their blessings, if that? How long do you want to keep this up?

Imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would not be terribly complicated. The United States and NATO have the necessary technical means. Secretary Gates’ warning about the dangers of a no-fly zone was probably a cunning attempt to scare off overzealous congressmen.

But maintaining a no-fly zone is an expensive undertaking. It requires regular patrols by fighter jets, AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft, refueling in the air, aircraft carriers, auxiliary warships, helicopters for rescuing downed pilots, etc. It cost the United States $1.5 billion to maintain a no-fly zone over Iraq for almost a year. In Kosovo, flights were banned for three years. And in both cases there was a risk of foreign planes (Iranian or Serbian) flying into the protected airspace. Fortunately, there were no incidents.

Libya is a different matter. None of its neighbors has any sympathy for Gaddafi, and so he cannot expect any outside air support. NATO military experts maintain that Libya has no more than 300 fighter jets, mostly Soviet MIG-23s and MIG-25s, more than half of which are inoperative. The Libyan air force is simply unable to offer any meaningful resistance to NATO aircraft.

The bigger challenge will be Gaddafi’s ground forces. Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery will have to be destroyed, and using aircraft in a desert for this purpose will be much more difficult.

These questions, and many more, have to be answered before the military can even begin to plan a campaign.

But even before any of these questions can be asked, there’s a more basic question still: What is the desired goal of this action? Is it to pressure Qaddafi to stand down? Is it to provide air cover to the rebels, so they can fight Qaddafi’s ground forces on more equal footing? Whatever the goal, if the no-fly zone doesn’t get us there, should we try other means? And if not, why not? As Clausewitz wrote, war is politics by other means. War is fought for a political objective. If that objective is important enough to justify one form of military intervention, why not another form? What is the goal? How far are you willing to go to accomplish the goal? How important is the goal?

These issues take a while to sort out, especially if you’re not Leon Wieseltier or you think that it might be a good idea to go into this conflict as part of a group—that is, with a patina of international legitimacy. That way, it wouldn’t look like the Americans were just trying to take over Libya’s oil (Qaddafi is far from the only person who would suspect as much), and if things were to go badly, we could spread the risk. A U.N. Security Council resolution would be nice. If that’s not possible (due to the prospect of a Russian or Chinese veto), an alliance with the Arab League, even if just in name, might be better.

This concern, by the way, has nothing to do with legal niceties or mamby-pamby multilateralism. It stems from deep pragmatism. Moral justification is a poor excuse for doing something badly. Or, as Andrew Exum (one of the smartest military bloggers out there, a former Ranger special-ops officer and fluent Arabic speaker besides) put it: “If you are morally justified to intervene but do so incompetently, the incompetence itself amounts to immoral behavior.”

The United States did successfully enforce two no-fly zones in Iraq for 12 years, between the 1991 cease-fire following Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Baghdad. But that was an elaborate business, involving more than 200 airplanes patrolling the skies—160 in the south to protect the Shia, about 50 in the north to protect the Kurds. Also, as Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out, the Clinton administration kept a unit of special-operations forces on the ground in northern Iraq—and, after Saddam started attacking Shia on the ground, tacked on a no-drive zone in the south.

A no-fly zone over Libya might not have to be as complex as the one over Iraq. Since most of the fighting is going on near or around the northern coastal towns and cities, the zone itself could be smaller. Qaddafi’s air force is also smaller, and less capable, than Saddam’s was. Another intriguing possibility: Defense analysts James Thomas and Zachary Cooper propose in today’s Wall Street Journal that the United States enforce a no-fly zone with long-range air-to-air missiles, which could be fired from planes patrolling the waters outside Libyan airspace (and thus beyond the reach of Libya’s surface-to-air missiles).

There are other possible military options. (Who knows, Obama may have ordered some of these already.) We could provide rebel forces with intelligence, supplies, small arms, maybe a handful of special-ops advisers—though this list should be regarded as an increasingly risky progression. The weapons that the CIA supplied to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, for instance, wound up in enemy camps, as did, for that matter, many of the mujahedeen.

Which, of course, leads to another question: Who are these rebels? Mahmoud Jibril, of the Libyan rebels’ Interim Transitional National Council, is appealing for aid from European countries. But who is to say whether he or this group really represents a lot of Libyans or their aspirations? He and other rebels admit that they have no experience with politics; Qaddafi’s iron-grip rule of four decades has (deliberately) assured that. If they do overthrow Qaddafi with our help, will they also want—or require—our help in setting up a political system or a civil society? Doubtful. Whose help will they attract? That’s a worry.

There may be—there probably is—a good way to help the rebels militarily. The United States does not have vital interests in Libya; that’s usually a solid argument for staying out of trouble. But we might well have an interest in demonstrating that we can, and will, help brutalized people in that part of the world. Other countries, such as Britain and Italy, have more tangible interests still. It may be that the Obama administration has spent some time these past two weeks persuading them to do something, too.

But if they’re smart, Obama and his aides have spent most of the time figuring out, first, what they want to see happen, and only then, whether the United States has any leverage to help that come about, and only then, what’s the best—or the most feasible—course of action.

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