Libya: More on no-flight zones

With the military situation in Libya possibly drifting towards a stalemate, there seem to be increasing numbers of calls for the imposition of a no-flight zone — particularly as now Libyan rebels themselves are calling for outside help. General James Mattis addressed the issue a few days ago, and it’s been highlighted by Abu Muqawama and a few others, but the implications of what he said really don’t seem to have sunk in. That’s a pity, because it goes a long way to show exactly why military intervention is such a messy business, in Libya and everywhere else.

I have never served in the US or any other military. However, I did spend a fair amount of time accompanying US units in Iraq, and learned something about the doctrine and the philosophy of the military. I would invite anyone who has served to correct any of the points I’m making here.

The US military places a very high emphasis on “force protection” — specifically, on allowing US units to take what immediate steps are necessary to defend themselves. A commander would feel extremely uncomfortable encouraging his or her men and women to hesitate, and by hesitating to allow any of their buddies to be killed. In practice, however, this means that there are going to be a lot of civilian vehicles which are mistaken for suicide bombers, or journalists with cameras mistaken for militiamen with rocket launchers, etc. There is a direct link between the freedom of US troops to protect themselves, and the amount of civilians around them who will be killed. Even though this is fairly well-recognized, we’ve seen in Afghanistan that troops in harm’s way will deeply resent any attempts to place limits on how they can deal with potential threats.

This is how it works in ground combat. In aerial operations, there may be less “clutter”, but it can be just as hard to interpret data and decide what may or may not be a threat. You’re going to see radar spikes that might be associated with a surface-to-air missile battery. This is particularly true as the rebels now have some anti-air assets, and they are going to be keeping an eye out for Qaddafi aircraft.

But Mattis testimony goes a step further — not only will US aircraft be keeping an eye out for threats, but it is US doctrine to pre-emptively destroy the other side’s anti-aircraft capabilities. All the evidence we have suggests that Libya’s military is still largely uncommitted — pro-rebel officers refraining from mutinying because their families may still be in Tripoli, for example. Mattis’ testimony suggests that these officers would be bombed prior to the imposition of a no-fly zone, because there is no way of knowing whether a given unit is pro-regime, wavering, divided, or even rebel-leaning until it shoots at you.

Unless this doctrine can be modified, in other words, applying a no-fly zone is likely to make the US, and the rebel cause, a lot of unnecessary enemies.

My experiences in Iraq notwithstanding, I would support the use of US military force in some circumstances — to prevent the collapse of the east were it seriously threatened, for example. Essentially this would mean a long-term military alliance with Benghazi, similar to the US alliance with the Iraqi Kurds. It could produce any number of complications down the road, and the circumstances now do not seem to call for it — when this article was written, rebel forces based out of Ajdabiya had just won a battle in the nearby oil terminal town of Brega. But wars are unpredictable, and Qaddafi could consolidate control over enough units to threaten the east again.

But for now, I think that there is little that can be done militarily that would not cause more harm both to US interests and to the rebels than it would avert. Providing humanitarian aid however is a different issue.

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3 Responses to Libya: More on no-flight zones

  1. althea says:

    It does seem to me that the point of “no-fly zone” is to keep planes out of the air, and that more should be done NOW to send a strong message to Libyan air force generals that they are at risk of losing their shiny fleet of weaponry if they even think about flying — unless it is to Malta.

    Also, everyone should be pitching in to offer foreign mercernaries incentives for NOT flying to Libya. They are mercernaries, after all. Let’s pay them to stay home. Many Tauregs also want things other than money — like environmental protections for their historic homelands — and we could offer assistance and improvements in their lives, ameliorating the things that make the young look for employment as hired killers.

    The Libya ambassadors who resigned from the UN are asking to recognized as the legitimate representatives of the interim government of Libya — surely that is a “low-risk” operation the world could undertake to send a signal that the post-Ghaddafi era is now officially underway, and the time to get on board is NOW if you are a Libyan military officer or policeman. We should be making it clear the world is putting “limited-time” offers for amnesty and defection on the table, with deadlines for drawing up indictments instead for those who don’t abandon the regime. And of course we should offer a huge reward to a group willing to arrest Ghaddafi and hands him over to international authorities.

    Why these measures have not been taken is puzzling.

  2. james Raper says:

    All the world knows the the US objective is the Libyan oil. Just like the US seized Iraq for its oil, on a manufactured and false premise of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It now has the effrontery to call Iraq an “ally”. Notwithstanding that the ruination of Iraq, a cradle of civilization, ensures that Iraqis will one day exact their revenge.

    In the case of Iran, they refused to bow to the US, and so the same tactics are used again, the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It worked with Iraq, why not with Iran.

    Now its Libya. Lies and deceit, concealing that under Gadaffi literacy has risen from insignificance to nearer 100 %. That Arab women in Libya can attend university and obtain responsible jobs. That the standard of living is one of the highest in the Arab world. That extensive investments have been undertaken to further enhance the Libyan standard of living, for example by initiating refineries. But the OIL is what the greedy US is after, and no lie will be unused. Lets watch the US machinations and if their greed will be satisfied again.

    James Raper

  3. mike says:

    The Libyan civil war has reached stalemate. Both sides have dug in and further progress would result in massive death. However this doesn’t mean the war is ended, it’s just resting. The bulk of Ghaddafi ‘s army is made up of foreign mercenaries. This has the advantage of they don’t care about war crimes or killing civilians. It also has the drawback that they are not loyal to anything but a paycheck. Given that the Libyan economy is shut down or in rebel hands (including the oil) this means he’s funding the war from his bank vault. Once that money runs out so will the mercenaries, leaving him hopelessly outnumbered. At this point the oil is the war, who has control of that wins. Ghaddafi knows he’s going to lose if he doesn’t get the oil back so he’ll throw everything he’s got at getting it, regardless of how many die (including his own men, after all they are just foreign mercenaries). The americans are posturing to win influence with the rebels, so as to control the country after the war ends. I don’t expect any actual fighting by US troops/aircraft but they will probably hand out anti-aircraft missiles and bullets while flying aircraft in the vicinity of rebel towns.

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