Politics & Policy

No-Fly Zone: How Hard Is It?

We can, and should, help the Libyan rebels.


There is just one question to answer: Does the United States desire the rebels or Qaddafi to win in Libya?

If we want Qaddafi to win or are ambivalent, then the correct policy is to do nothing. In a few days or weeks, Qaddafi’s armored formations will overrun the rebel strongholds and annihilate the defenders. If we want Qaddafi gone, which remains President Obama’s stated goal, then we have to support the rebels with military force. Just keep in mind that whenever military force is used, the course of events will almost always take trajectories never anticipated. In this regard, Victor Davis Hanson last week laid out a number of cogent reasons for thinking twice before using military force. But after weighing his arguments, I still believe intervention is worth the risks.

Qaddafi has proven over 40 years that he is a foe of the United States and a continuing danger to us and much of the rest of the world. He is a brutal tyrant who has ordered terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds of Americans. It is past time for him to depart the stage, preferably in a box. Some say that he is the devil we know, and we cannot be sure what kind of government the rebels will establish. It is hard to imagine they could set up one as inimical to our interests as Libya has been these past decades. If they do, one might assume it will be thrown down also, as we are only on the cusp of the changes sweeping the region.

The chief arguments favoring delay are that our military is already overstretched; that the United States does not want to be seen as acting unilaterally; that creating a no-fly zone is harder and more costly than most people think; and that if we act and Qaddafi hangs on, we will be forced to undertake another multi-year commitment.

First off, it is the Army and Marine Corps that are feeling the most ruinous effects of a decade at war. The Navy and the Air Force are under strain, but they can relatively easily meet the requirements involved in establishing a no-fly zone (plus).

As for going it alone, we already have the Arab League calling for Qaddafi’s overthrow, and a host of other nations ready to support action. Most, though, are waiting for the U.S. to take the lead, and not just in rhetoric. Waiting for approval from the Security Council or the unanimous consent of NATO before taking action is irresponsible. It gives nations with no concern for our future wellbeing a veto over actions we deem in our interest. For instance, unless paid off in other ways, Russia will never support our quest for a stable democratic peace in the Middle East. Why should she? Continued turmoil brings them an economic bonanza, as they rake in the profits of $100 oil.

That leaves only the cost and difficulty still of concern. The Qaddafi regime was on the verge of collapse at the risings’ onset. It would be foolish to believe it could survive long if its military machine were halted. Unable to pump oil or access overseas bank accounts, Qaddafi will soon find it impossible to pay his mercenaries or buy the army’s loyalty. With a viable rebel force in the field, Qaddafi’s doom is all but assured, as long as U.S. resolve remains strong.

Any military operation is going to cost a lot of money. However, it is the incremental cost that concerns us. Under any circumstances, the U.S. was going to keep a number of aircraft-carrier battle groups at sea, and the Air Force was still going to do a lot of flying. The true cost of our involvement then is how much additional cost is involved in the conduct of operations against Libya. I do not have an exact number, but it will certainly be a fraction of the costs of the no-fly zones we maintained in Iraq for over a dozen years.

So, how hard will it be to accomplish? In relative terms, probably not very. The first thing to note is that every day brings evidence that the Libyan Air Force is not very good, and from the number of attacks it makes, it does not appear capable of sustaining much more than a few sorties a day. One must also wonder how many Libyan pilots are brave enough to take off knowing there are American F-15s lying in wait for them.

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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