Posts tagged ‘no-fly zones’

Libya: What next?

Last Thursday in the Telegraph, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP – formerly Defence Secretary (April 1992 to July 1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995 to 1997) in the Major administration and currently chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee – wrote an opinion piece, at the end of which he concluded that we should be arming the Libyan opposition.

His opening statement

So far so good in Libya, but what about the endgame? Gaddafi can no longer use his air force because of the no-fly zone. His navy can no longer bombard towns because of the naval blockade imposed under UN authority. His army is losing tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons because of bombing and precision missiles. This is not just a no-fly zone. It is almost a no-combat zone, and all the better for it.

sums up the situation perfectly as it stood up until the opposition forces started advancing once again. A stalemate situation, reached only because Gaddafi’s forces are no match for Western air-power and cruise missiles. Where though is the end game? Plenty of people, including myself, were asking this a week ago when we first got involved.

What possible endgames exist?

1. A long term stand-off a la Iraq and the no-fly zones there;
2. Gaddafi wins; or
3. The opposition wins.

The truth of the matter at the moment is options 2) and 3) are not viable. Gaddafi can’t attack because his forces would be destroyed from the air and his opponents, as demonstrated by their Italian like progress before UN 1973 was enforced, haven’t got the fire-power. That then leaves option 1) – and with the Americans doing their best to at the very least lessen their involvement, if not get out altogether do the European countries have the wherewithal to keep up an indefinite air and naval embargo? I would say no. And when it falters the conflict will reignite and Gaddafi will probably win.

Rifkind is generally in agreement:

A divided Libya would be inherently unstable, as conflict could break out at any time. It is therefore difficult to see how the no-fly zone could be lifted while Gaddafi remains in charge. Otherwise, he would be in a position to resume unrestrained attacks on Benghazi and the east of the country as soon as the allies had withdrawn.

So what is to be done? Withdraw and let Gaddafi get back to doing what he was doing, force him out ourselves as has been suggested or move from conflict prevention to openly aiding the opposition?

Rifkind suggests the latter. He believes that we should be openly negotiating and advising those opposed to Gaddafi on how to form a westernised method of government. He doesn’t use those exact words but

… advice and help on how to create the institutions of government, the rule of law and a free media. That is not only urgently needed, but would help ensure that the ultimate replacement for Gaddafi would be a new government supportive of democratic reform, rather than one willing to install a new secular or religious tyranny.

can mean little else.

Haven’t we tried this before recently, in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Neither of those can be said to be a success story even if Iraq is just about on an even keel albeit with underlying tribal and religious tensions. Afghanistan though is a failure where central government has little or no meaning outside of Kabul and tribal loyalty – to one’s warlord – rules.

The talking however means nothing given the current stalemate so he suggests that we break it by arming the opposition. Again, haven’t we tried that before somewhere? Ah yes, Afghanistan when we were using the natives there as proxies in Cold War against the USSR. I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of precisely how well that turned out.

What do we know of the opposition forces? Wikipedia lists over half a dozen disparate groups which suggests that they themselves are fragmented. Their goal might be clear but if they manage to fulfil it then what happens? A stable government or ethnic and tribal warfare such as has been seen in various hotspots around the world for the last twenty plus years? The former would be nice, the latter more likely as various sides, with ‘victory’ achieved use the vacuum created to settle old scores and create new ones. If somehow a government is formed, then what manner will it take? The competing outside interests of Western, Arabic, Islamic (not always the same thing) and African states will all no doubt try to influence the outcome.

Arming these groups may lead to a short term ‘win’ in the shape of removing Gaddafi but are we just storing up pain for the longer term? If we do arm them sufficiently that they are able to go toe-to-toe with the loyal forces then should we interfere with the ground campaign? If we do we will be actively assisting the opposition in their stated goal of over throwing Gaddafi, creating an unequal playing field and probably causing even more resentment in certain parts of the Middle East and Islamic world. If we don’t and their inexperience leads to them being crushed then we will no doubt have to intervene again to stop the opposition from being utterly destroyed – and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Obviously we should never have interfered in the first place but, since political grandstanding means that we have, the question of where do we go from here needs answering – and quickly. Unfortunately I don’t think it can be and certainly not in any way that can be deemed to be satisfactory.

Politicking whilst Libya burns

Less than a day into enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya and cracks are apparently appearing in the 2011 edition of the coalition of the willing with the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, reported to have said the following:

“What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians.”

Western governments have been quick to respond, knowing that without Arab backing they could find themselves in yet another quagmire. A spokesman for Barack Obama told Reuters:

“The resolution endorsed by Arabs and the UNSC (United Nations Security Council) included ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians, which we made very clear includes, but goes beyond, a no-fly zone.”

The difficulty of course stems from the fact that for the coalition to be able to operate a no-fly zone safely, air defences have to be destroyed. Easy enough to do without collatoral damage if they are sitting in the middle of nowhere but as Gaddafi has been taking a leaf from the book written by the Palestinians and embedding them into civilian areas, the chances of non-combatants being killed in suppression raids become almost a near certainty.

Precision guided weapons are designed to be accurate but they are also full of explosive. The warhead on a Tomahawk missile contains 1,000lb of muntions whilst each bomb dropped from aircraft can be double this. All of which adds up to a very large explosion come detonation time. Why make bombs that large? Because when accuracy is measured in meters rather than millimeters, a large explosion makes up for not quite pin-point perfect accuracy.

However I am getting off topic. Back, therefore, to Amr Moussa.

Moussa is an Egyptian and before he became SG of the Arab League he was, from 1991 to 2002, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Mubarak government. He is also, if opinion polls are to be believed, the current front runner to become the next President of Egypt and, although reports of his candidacy are not confirmed at this time, he has not ruled out standing.

Given that Qatar and the UAE have sent aircraft to support the no-fly zone it would seem at this time that Amr Moussa is guilty of gross politicking. But if so, he isn’t the only one. I’m looking at you, David Cameron, and you, Nicolas Sarkozy.

To fly or not to fly

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.