No-Fly Zone: How Hard Is It?
We can, and should, help the Libyan rebels.


Jim Lacey

Libya is also displaying another serious Achilles’ heel: Its logistics are wanting. Libya has the tanks and helicopters to wreck the ragtag rebel force in short order. That it has not done so indicates that it’s having trouble moving the required assets to the troubled areas. It takes a lot of fuel and support assets even to move a small armored force a mere 200 miles. The Libyans are demonstrating that they either are not up to the task or are finding it very difficult.

The U.S. has an entire carrier battle group in the nearby Red Sea, which should have received orders to head for the Mediterranean over a week ago. Once so ordered, it can be there in a couple of days with a full strike package (over 40 F/A-18Fs and F/A-18Cs) capable of taking on anything the Libyans can put into the air. Still, it would still be nice to have a second carrier in the vicinity. Moreover, the rest of the ships in the battle group carry a significant cruise-missile punch. While a carrier or two may be sufficient, it is never a good plan to launch a military operation on a shoestring. Just enough is never enough, and it is always a good idea to send a man’s-size force to do a boy’s-size job. That is what gets the job done rapidly and, in the long run, at far less cost in human lives.

With that in mind, an F-15 or F-22 wing could deploy from the United States to Sigonella air base in Sicily, and be up and running in a week. Sigonella or bases in other NATO nations could also support heavy bombers capable of carrying large amounts of smart munitions or cruise missiles. Moreover, F-22s, with their stealth characteristics, are probably impervious to any air-defense threat the Libyans could mount. If NATO joins in, which is likely if we take the lead, substantially more attack and support assets become available.

I would also advocate finding a way for the Arab League to take a role. In fact, I would ask for several of their ships to join our carriers, and even go so far as to put one of their naval officers in strategic charge of the naval operation. American officers would still run all of the operational details. Moreover, if NATO joined us, I would not be reluctant to consider placing one of their admirals in charge of the entire effort. By all means, let’s put an Arab and European face on this. If possible, the U.S. should even help transport and provide logistical support to an Arab air wing to assist in maintaining the no-fly zone.

So, how would it be done? First, with a barrage of cruise missiles and smart bombs. We know where the Libyan air bases are, and we know how to turn them into useless collections of rubble: crater their runways, smash their maintenance facilities, and blow up their fuel-storage tanks. What aircraft survive the initial onslaught are going to have a hard time getting off the ground. Patrolling aircraft can easily vector F-15s, F-18s, or F-22s onto any Libyan jet that does venture forth. Within 24 hours, the U.S., with its allies, will have achieved air dominance.

Some say that this will not be enough. Even without air support, Qaddafi’s heavy armor will continue down the coast road, crushing all before it. That is why I said above that we need a “no-fly zone (plus).” The “plus” includes the assets required to make sure the rebels are not overrun by tanks. Here, I would advocate the Afghanistan 2001 model. Send in well-trained Special Forces units to join the rebels. This force will be able to call in precision munitions on any threat approaching rebel defense. The key here is the coastal zone. Southern Libya is mostly a desert wasteland. Anything heading east, toward the rebels, has to come through a very narrow corridor. We can dominate that corridor with minimal risk. While the option exists to place a sizable American (or even Arab) force on the outskirts of Benghazi, I do not believe it necessary. In recent weeks, the Libyan army has failed to demonstrate that it is a dedicated professional force. It is unlikely to stand up well when things start going badly. Moreover, coordinating an offensive takes a lot of communications. The U.S. military is extremely good at snuffing out communications centers. Under such a pummeling, the Libyan offensive will rapidly grind to a halt as its logistics and communications facilities are destroyed.

This is not a fight against hidden guerrillas and terrorists. We are going to take on a mechanized force, sitting out in an open desert. This is Iraq 2003, not Iraq 2006. It took a long time to master how to fight a counterinsurgency. We have, on the other hand, always been good at tearing apart heavy forces in the open. The Libyans are fighting the kind of war we are best at, and when ordered, the American military can make them pay heavily for that mistake.

In war, everything is hard, risks abound, uncertainty is everywhere, and there is a constant danger things will go terribly awry. I do not in any way want to minimize the risks involved, particularly to the men and women tasked to accomplish this mission. But if saving the rebel force and toppling Qaddafi is in the best interest of the United States, it’s also true that doing so is within our immediate power.

— Jim Lacey is the professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College and the author of the forthcoming book The First Clash. The views in this article are the author’s own and do not in any way represent the views or positions of the Department of Defense or any of its members.


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