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Bringing aerial intervention down to earth

March 6, 2011

Shadi Hamid, among other commentators, has begun to highlight a shift in Libyan rebel opinion towards foreign intervention. Instead of simply decrying foreign intervention, and realizing that their disparate assembly of fighters may not win such an easy victory over Gaddafi loyalists, they are hoping Western air power will help them quickly, and easily wrap up their civil war.

Now, it’s a good time to reiterate that the Libyan opposition and Libyan rebels are nowhere near a unitary actor. It’s also a good time to reiterate that when people talk about Western or NATO military intervention from the air, they are really talking about American air power. As Jason Fritz bluntly points out, only the US has the aircraft carriers to keep up an effective no-fly zone around Libya. David Cameron, for all his grandstanding on the issue, is for want of a carrier. Nor could the other NATO states effectively assemble such an operation with their forces.

All that out of the way, Alex Harrowell notes that the actual combat capability and efficacy of the Libyan air force remains low. The real Libyan air assets are in the form of transport aircraft, which could be use to circumvent blockades, bring in mercenaries, or more supplies into Libya. However, it’s one thing to shoot down Libyan combat aircraft – it’s another to deal with civilian or commercial aircraft whose contents we cannot verify without grounding them at some friendly airfield. In any case, the potential for confusion and accidental shoot downs is quite high.

So, a no-fly zone would still be a primarily US burden, and deal with much stickier issues than simply shooting down hostile air craft. This was not a problem in Bosnia and Kosovo, sure, but Bosnia and Kosovo also didn’t have defecting members of the air force, nor were we concerned about civilian aircraft. Besides, even instituting a no-fly zone requires bombing Libyan air defense installations, with all the risks of collateral damage that entails. Additionally, consider what happens if a foreign aircraft goes down – we will need to send in ground troops, on some level, to respond. Even with a no-fly zone, avoiding collateral damage and ground presence is something Western states cannot promise.

That brings us to the next point – the so-called “surgical strikes” by NATO air forces  that will come without the presence of ground troops, which is all that the Libyan rebels “really oppose.” However, ordering an air strike is not like calling Domino’s or designating an air strike in a video game.  How many Libyan rebels would even have the proper radio equipment, along with the technical and language skills, to operate as Forward Air Controllers or spotters for combat aircraft? On top of that, the chain of command for the Libyan rebels is rather diffuse and they have no experience whatsoever operating along the kind of guidelines NATO military personnel would use for close air support.

The problem is that close air support will be useless or counterproductive without FACs and spotters on the ground. We won’t know whose trucks or building to shoot at. We won’t know when or where Libyans want their air support. Are we supposed to just bomb Tripoli based on sketchy intelligence? To what end? It’s a messy civil war. Bombing without people on the ground to designate targets and call in strikes will just result in us missing a lot. It does not matter how advanced a JDAM or some other air-to-ground munition is, how precise its GPS coordinates or any other form of targeting. If the intelligence and information which go into its targeting are bad, it will kill people we do not want it to. Bombs kill democrats and authoritarians, gunmen and civilians, with equal ability.

How long does anyone think Libyan goodwill towards these so-called “surgical” air strikes would last if, due to our lack of on-the-ground personnel, we start blasting rebel forces or civilians? Even if some are still behind it, we’d risk dividing the opposition. So what if we insert FACS, spotters, and probably some special forces types to operate with them? Surely the Libyans would not mind a handful of Western troops, right? Actually, as David Cameron and the SAS have found out, they might mind it quite a lot.

So, inserting even small numbers of troops may trigger major incidents, which are hugely embarrassing for both the Western government and the Libyan rebels, who most likely have a lot of legitimacy to lose if other, anti-ground forces members of the opposition find out that Western boots are on the ground. The situation for these Western forces would get even more problematic if they ended up missing a target, as they eventually would, because friction is an immutable element in warfare. Don’t expect everyone to write off a missed target as an honest mistake, either. The people mulling it are usually not people with military experience, and even the Libyan military may not accurately understand the limitations of NATO military technology. People will readily ascribe motive to military mistakes, because it seems impossible that NATO air forces, with all their advanced technology and “surgical” capabilities, could get their target wrong. Even military professionals who spend ample time analyzing US military actions, such as PLA officers, assumed the US had not erred, but intentionally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during 1999.

What purpose does the United States, or any NATO nation, have in undertaking a complex military operation in an area which many NATO members have no vital interests, when their resources are already limited? Why expose soldiers to the risk of being killed or captured – by the people we’re nominally trying to help along with the enemy – in the pursuit of goodwill, especially when that goodwill will evaporate with the first bomb that misses? Frankly, it does not matter if some opposition figures in Libya misunderstand the logistical and combat capabilities of Western nations and believe they can get a no-fly zone without the risk of accidental shoot downs, or air strikes without the risk of collateral damage or foreign troops on the ground. The people responsible for sending their countrymen to kill and potentially die in Libya need not share such illusions. NATO states have plenty to risk and very little to gain, perhaps with excepting a few of its Mediterranean members (who really didn’t mind Gaddafi in the first place) – from an intervention in Libya.

There may yet be other options – and Steven Metz (hopefully among others) will soon outline some other, regionally based responses for supporting the rebels in Libya. But the myth of the clean, easy, politically uncomplicated air war must end. It does not escape the friction and confusion of war, particularly a political civil war, and it cannot assuredly be waged without ground troops.

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