Before policymakers rush to implement a no-fly zone over Libya, several first-order questions must be addressed: Why? What? Where? When? Who? All of these precede the question of how, and must be answered in the context of another question: What is the desired end state? Unclear thus far in the debate is what a no-fly zone would achieve, the specific objectives of the mission, and whether military action in Libya is in America’s vital national interest.
Leaders must determine the primary purpose of any no-fly zone. Would it be to protect civilians, to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, or as part of a larger effort of regime change? Would it be a shared responsibility among allies or nations? What would be the opportunity cost of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya — specifically, what Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force capabilities would be required for success and what assets would be diverted from other vital national interests?
Washington must know that there is risk involved in moving forward with a no-fly zone, including unintended consequences of military action. There will also be a bill for the taxpayers that must be openly discussed before launch.
If all of these questions are answered clearly and the administration determines that a no-fly zone is of vital importance, the U.S. military has the ability to carry out those orders — primarily with assets the nation did not possess in the early and mid-1990s.
Employing a squadron of stealth fifth-generation F-22s along with other select capabilities would help reduce the need to expend significantly more resources while reducing operational risk. Coercive diplomacy backed by naval presence, decisive air power, and accurate weapons in the region would allow the U.S. and others to negate Libyan air defenses and air forces. The world-class capability inherent in the F-22 also bears a psychological-intimidation factor that sends a clear message that no Libyan aircraft will fly without consequences.
Simply talking about a no-fly zone should highlight the urgent need to recapitalize the U.S. Air Force with modern aircraft (in addition to upgrades of the legacy fleets). Using fifth-generation F-22 aircraft for a no-fly zone mission would allow the Air Force to operate above the Libyan skies with impunity. An F-22 Raptor does not need to destroy enemy air defenses first, because it is not vulnerable to this threat, unlike some fourth-generation aircraft.
To employ military power in an effective manner that supports U.S. interests, the administration should articulate a strategic plan that engages with the Libyan opposition, garners international support, and utilizes appropriate military resources. The bottom line: We must define the purpose before we define the action.
— David Deptula is a former U.S. Air Force deputy chief of staff and commander of the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.