Analysis - Libyan No Fly Zone - what next?

Added on 23 March 2011 by Tim Robinson

A preliminary assessment of the Operation Odyssey Dawn/Ellamy air operations against Gaddafi’s Libyan regime – and the challenges it faces.

RAF Tornados made the first 3000m strikes direct from a British base since 1945. (RAF/MoD)

A week after air strikes began it is instructive to offer some early thoughts and analysis of this air campaign as it develops – highlighting the key issues. Though the situation is extremely fluid and highly complex, there are already some salient points to consider.

An extremely broad RoE

Cruise missile launch by US Navy warship off the Libyan coast, (US Navy).

First, it is clear that the UN Security Council resolution 1973, decided late on 18 March, has granted allied planners extremely broad Rules of Engagement (RoE) to protect civilians in Libya. Whereas previous no-fly zones have seen coalition jets play ‘cat and mouse’ with Iraqi SAM operators and with strict RoEs only allowing the air defences to be whittled away bit by bit, here the ‘any means necessary’ has allowed the coalition to strike hard and fast immediately, with a wide range of target sets.

Partly this seems to have been granted due to the pressure of Gaddafi’s threat of a final assault on rebels in Benghazi and worries of a civilian massacre unless quick action was approved.

Reading between the lines it also may be that commanders argued that the only way to deal with this is a quick, destructive campaign to completely destroy Gaddafi’s air force, SAM network and disrupt comamnd and control. They would be aware of the ongoing commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and even relief work in Japan that are stretching forces worldwide. Neutralising the air defence threat completely (apart from AAA/MANPADS) may have been judged more cost-effective to swiftly release key assets back into readiness. The US in particular has indicated it is keen to hand over operations to allies once the heavy lifting of destruction of enemy air defences has happened.

Who’s war is it anyway?

French Air Force Rafale (French AF).

However the Libyan regimes’ command & control capability has not been the only one in dissarray - with allied nations it seems, begining military action before a clear chain of comand was set-up.   

Initial strikes by France, independently of any coalition plan, left the US-UK fuming, while other countries have called for it to be designated a NATO action. France, meanwhile, mindful of Arab public opinion, has disagreed with this NATO operation in all but name. Ironically this comes from a France that under President Sarkozy has been more transatlantic than any of his predecessors and who returned France to the NATO chain of command.

Luckily for the coalition the years of combined operations, joint procedures and hard-earned battle experience has meant that although politically damaging, first raids and air strikes have not led to any blue on blue/fratricide events.

This, and the dilapidated state of Libya’s air force and AD network, has meant that the allies have managed to wing it – effectively starting military action and then ironing out command and control responsibilities. At the time of writing it now seems that NATO will take over the no-fly zone  action from coalition nations. 

Yet this early confusion in C&C and who is in command has worrying implications for the future. It shows that a US hands-off approach to leading military operations causes major squabbling. While many complain of the US running the show in past campaigns, it is still the pre-eminent military power that command naturally gravitates to.

For the UK in particular which in recent months has sought rapprochement with France, its oldest rival, this unilateral showboating must be particularly galling. Having set out a course in co-operation in missiles, UAVs and shared aircraft carrier operations, some may well be wondering whether this is now a good idea. Can Europe without a firm US lead, fight and conduct a major military campaign without national interests pulling it apart?

Next gen combat aircraft test range

Operation Ellamy is the first combat deployment for the RAF's Typhoon. (RAF/MoD)

This No Fly Zone action has also been significant in getting a wide range of countries to immediately commit assets and support to the cause – and the combat debuts of several new types.

French involvement includes FAF Mirage 2000s and Rafales leading the strikes. The French Navy with the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier is also deploying with its air wing of Rafales and Super Etendards. A Rafale also notably was reported to have scored a ground ‘kil’l against a Libyan Galeb trainer/light attack aircraft that had violated the No Fly Zone and then landed.

The UK MoD, meanwhile, reported that the first night of air strikes saw it mount the longest raid since the Falklands War with Tornado GR4s flying from RAF Marham to attack air defences with Storm Shadow cruise missiles. In addition a RN Trafalgar-class submarine launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets over two nights.

The air campaign is also notable in that it is the first combat deployment for the Eurofighter Typhoon – with the RAF deploying the fighter to take part in operations. Though it is unlikely to get the chance to engage any remaining Libyan combat aircraft after the first night’s blitz – its participation is a major boost for the programme. Its inclusion in this type of conflict may also spur the Eurofighter partners to accelerate development of AESA radar and full multirole capability for the fighter.

New weapons used in anger include France’s MDBA SCALP-EG cruise missile (Storm Shadow in RAF service) and the RAF’s Brimstone anti-armour missile.

Meanwhile the USAF committed three B-2 stealth bombers which flew directly from Whiteman AFB, along with F-15Es and F-16CJs. The US Navy flew missions with the F/A-18G Growler and the US Marines AV-8B Harriers. This was the first combat deployment for the Growler electronic warfare/jamming aircraft which is replacing the Prowler in US service.

However the USAF has already lost one aircraft when an F-15E crashed due to mechanical failure. One crew member was immediately recovered, while the other was rescued using a MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor. While not the first combat deployment for the type, (it has served in Iraq and Afghanistan) this is the first combat rescue involving the V-22 – a role it was designed to excel at.

Italy, for its part, has deployed its aircraft carrier with Navy AV-8Bs, while the Italian Air Force has flown SEAD missions with Tornado ECRs. Though the air defences of Libya were not considered first tier (TV footage of one SA-2 site showed extremely rusted missiles) the fact that only Italy and Germany have dedicated SEAD aircraft means once again Europe had to rely on massive firepower of the US.

Other nations involved also include six CF-18s from Canada as well as Royal Danish Air Force  and Belgium Air Component F-16s. Spain meanwhile has contributed F-18s to the operation. Significantly, there have also been combat aircraft deployments from Arab nations such as Qatar (Mirage 2000s) and the UAE (F-16s and Mirages 2000).

Additionally latest reports say that the Swedish Air Force has offered ten Gripen fighters to help patrol the no-fly zone – another fighter that could make its combat debut over Libyan skies.

Finally, as well as the pointy jets, air operations have also included a number of support and ISTAR aircraft to provide tanker, airlift and surveillance. The RAF, for example, has deployed the Nimrod R1 (ironically to have been retired early under SDSR) the Sentinel R1 (again under a stay of execution until the end of Afghanistan operations) as well as VC10 and TriStar tankers. Assets from the US side included EC-130 Commando Solo PsyOps aircraft and the in-demand Global Hawk UAV for battle damage assessment. Italy too is flying its Predator UAVs in support of operations. 

Interestingly, one aircraft not to make an appearance is the F-22 Raptor. Reasons for this have ranged from it being overkill, to its air-to-ground capability not yet being fully mature, to its lack of network capability with legacy aircraft. If, perhaps, the RoE had been stricter and a full scale take-down of Libya’s air defences been ruled out, it is possible that a stealthy air superiority fighter, able to penetrate at will, could have been an option. However, with the Libyan fighter force rendered and the coalition now enjoying a permissive environment (at least over the northern part of the country) the Raptor it seems will have to sit this one out.


V-22 Osprey carried out its first combat search and rescue in recovering an F-15E crewman.

However, while initial attacks have gone well, with only one allied aircraft lost, and minimal (or no) civilian collateral casualties reported, there are a few challenges going forward. (Interestingly, the accuracy of allied air attacks and low civilian casualties is another fact now taken for granted yet represents years of technology, training and operational hard work).

1) What is the endgame?

As noted above, while this initial air campaign is the result of years of training, shared experiences and lessons in combat – the first strikes to wipe out Gaddafi’s remaining air force and destroy his air defence system may, in fact, be the ‘easy’ bit.

After airstrikes on airfields, SAM sites and command bunkers the remaining threat for allied aircraft will be from low-level AAA, MANPADS and, perhaps, a couple of mobile SAM batteries that have remained quiet and on the move to escape destruction.

However, this brings the next question – after subduing Gaddafi’s air power – what next? But does protecting civilians mean that mission creep will see coalition aircraft effectively become the anti-Gaddifi rebels ‘air force’? What happens if the rebels go on the offensive – will allied forces be impelled to provide top cover? If so, this is a significant political widening of the UN’s mandate which may fracture the fragile unity. Already the Arab League has voiced its unhappiness at the scale and range of targets hit – presumably because it thought coalition forces would be happy to keep loyalist aircraft grounded – without actually needing to destroy them and Libya’s entire AD system.

If close air support for rebels does become a mission – this also raises another issue – that of boots on the ground. In Afghanistan JTACs (Joint Terminal Air Controllers) provide target identification and positive control over strike aircraft – ensuring accurate strikes and minimising collateral damage. To provide this level of close air support to the rebels (especially in urban areas and with both sides using similar or identical equipment) will potentially mean that special forces or JTACS will need to be embedded. This raises the prospect of capture or death of ground troops - escalating the war. But if not done – then this runs the risk of a potential blue-on-blue collateral incident by allied air forces (for example the refugee convoy that was attacked in Kosovo in 1999) which may turn opinion against this action.

In short, after Libya’s air defences are removed and its air force taken out of the equation – what is the endgame? Will the coalition act as an airborne referee? Or throw its weight behind the rebels to guarantee a decisive win? Each has its dangers and pitfalls.

2) Can defence budgets take it?

RAF Typhoons forward based at Gioia Dell Colle airbase, Italy. (RAF/MoD)

Another issue is the cost. While tracer over Tripoli, and nightime missile launches have grabbed media attention, one under-reported issue may be the financial cost of this operation.

Before this crisis UK defence was almost a daily succession of bad news as aircraft and personnel were given the heave-ho to balance the budget. One might then well ask, whose budget is this latest adventure coming out of? Each Tomahawk cruise missile costs some $700,000 and thus this No Fly Zone has been estimated it could cost some $30m - $100 per week. The intial cost according to one think-tank could be as high as $1bn. 

Though a No Fly Zone is significantly cheaper than a full on combined air, land and ground war, what happens if it drags on and becomes another enduring campaign? It is noteworthy that a RAF commander was reported as saying that Typhoons are deploying to enforce a no-flt zone over ‘coming weeks’. This suggests that a long campaign rather than a short one is already envisaged.

With UK armed forces already facing a defence budget black hole, what affect will another concurrent campaign have on the already tight budget? Will yet more future procurement programmes have to be cancelled to help pay for current operations out of an every smaller contigency budget?

This issue, too, is also not just confined to the UK – with other countries such as France and even the US facing defence budget squeezes of various degrees of severity.

3) Yet more overstretch?

Though the type of weapons used so far (Tomahawk/Storm Shadow) are not needed by the UK in Afghanistan it is instructive to ask – what missions aren’t getting done because of this? It is well known that at times the UK has been stretched to the limit with operations in Afghanistan. These enduring operations use up aircraft hours more quickly and, more importantly, break harmony guidelines for deployed forces. Forward basing fighters, even at such well equipped NATO bases as in Italy, means that valuable transports are tied up moving groundcrew, munitions and equipment to support this.

Even before Libya, commentators warned that the RAF and UK armed forces were dropping below critical mass and that cuts imposed by SDSR would reduce military flexibility and capability. Will Libya be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – not from enemy action – but from overstretch of the UK’s hard-pressed forces?

Politically, after the initial jingoistic headlines die down, the British public too may quickly tire of another open-ended military operation in the Middle East. Commentators too have already drawn parallels with other pro-democracy movements that were suppressed elsewhere in the Middle East – asking where a ‘Bahrain no-fly zone’ is.

4) U-turn on SDSR?

RAF Nimrod R1s were due for early retirement until Libya occurred.

This leads into the final question as regards Libya and the UK’s recent Strategic Defence & Security Review. Will current military action mean that defence cuts will be reversed or that SDSR be reopened and reviewed in the light of events?

Some would argue that, in echoes of the Falklands, that events in Libya show that recent defence cuts (Harrier, Ark Royal, Nimrod R1 and 2 x Tornado GR4 squadrons) were based on false assumptions and that the SDSR should therefore be reviewed. This, of course, would still leave the UK MoD procurement budget black hole – but as some critics might say, if politicians want to influence events on the world stage – then they need to fund it.

Will this succeed? Significantly the broad RoE which also includes ground strikes gives weight to those who argued against the axing of the Harrier – a type that, because of its first descriptions of a pure ‘no-fly zone’, many analysts and observers quickly ruled out. The fact that both the USMC and Italian Navy have deployed AV-8s may therefore strengthen those who believe that the aircraft could still be recovered and put back into service – but that would be a major embarrassment to the Government and MoD.

However, an alternative, more cynical view might say that if the Libya No Fly Zone does come to successful conclusion, then decision makers will be able to say – “we removed the carriers and Harriers and we were still able to fight two wars simultaneously – what are you worried about?” The end result may not be SDSR revoked, but its cuts confirmed.

In short, then, in a lot of ways we are in uncharted waters with this latest conflict. Though once again coalition forces have demonstrated their ability to quickly achieve air supremacy - the difficult bit has just started.

Check back on for more analysis and follow the Editor @RAeSTimR

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