Under the auspicies of the United Nations (UN), an unelected body whose only legitamacy is derivied from the member states that atually pay attention to it, we find ourselves with an ‘offically’ sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, the theoretical goal of which is to stop those last remaining opposition strongholds falling to the country’s undemocratic leadership.
Such zones are usually the preserve of national governments and exist in a number of countries for the purposes of keeping unauthorized aircraft away from facilities that are deemed to be sensitive. They are not always however and previous to the the decision of March 17th 2011 there had been two no-fly imposed upon countries (Iraq and Bosnia) following activity at the UN.
The legality and morality of such decisions aside (I’ll leave you to the read the opposing views of Mark Wallace and Anna Raccoon amongst others on this), it is the practicality of enforcing the gradiose ideas of our politicans which is worrying. Just keeping a plane in the air takes a staggering number of people in all fields from maintenance to kitchen all of whom will be replaced over time as tours of duty end.
The 12 years of the two Iraqi no-fly zones collectively saw over 231,000 sorties flown in total for both the northern and southern zones and involved something like 50,000 personnel over the period between the two Gulf Wars.
The 32 month no-fly zone over Bosnia in the mid-90s resulted in 100,420 sorties flown by 239 aircraft and required all told 4,500 personnel from 12 countries and they operated out of five bases plus carriers. The result? Reasonably successful in preventing flights by fixed wing aircraft but not so much by helicopters – partly due to Serbs and Croats disguising them in order to sow doubt in the minds of the pilots enforcing the zone.
Logisitically a no-fly zone is, like all military operations, a resource sink and some of the considerations that the planners would have taken into account for this operation include:
1. How much of Libya is this no-fly zone going to cover? Libya is the 17th largest country in the world by area and four times the size of Iraq, although a lot of it is desert and most of the populations centres are on the North African coast.
2. If bombers are to be used, Libya’s air defences will need to be suppressed – either by the bombers or by cruise missiles. Use of the latter however will require good intelligence and a lack of ground movement unless real time data from Predator drones can be fed to the Tomahawks post launch. The good(-ish) news however is that the deal to upgrade to current Russian tech was squashed by the Russians themselves.
3. Whilst it was once said that an army marches on its stomach, the currency of this operation will, after personnel, be fuel. The closer the staging area, the longer planes can remain in the air, which cuts down on the number of aircraft needed. Libya might not be far away but when dealing with aircraft with ranges of less than 2,000 miles (and much less if involved in prolonged combat or flying at low level) then every mile is precious.
4. The end goal. So far as I can see from reading the text of the UN resolution there isn’t one which means that if the situation in Libya isn’t resolved quickly, all of the nations involved are going to be looking at rotating new forces in to replace those already there. In some cases, such as with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, no like for like replacement exists so there exists the potential for a reduction in the number of assets available to be used as time goes by.
As always when it comes to military interventions, the easy bit is the talking. The difficulty starts with turning the flowery language so beloved of politicians and diplomats into action and once the bodies start mounting up things will only get harder.