Strikes on Libya – a military perspective

The talking is over, now the hard part begins as air power once again goes it alone.

libya uss preble tomahawk missile

International forces, with Arab League approval, launched airstrikes on Libya on Saturday [Reuters]

The international meeting in Paris has concluded; French warplanes are already conducting reconnaissance overflights; and by the time you read this airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces may already have begun.

In many ways it is astonishing quickly we’ve moved from a no-fly zone to an operation where ground forces will clearly be the priority target, especially given the stance of most major powers just a few days ago.

This is therefore the time when we will once again put Western air power to the test. Despite hugely advanced technological capabilities, the track record is not fantastic.

Assumptions of what air power alone can achieve against ground forces have usually turned out to be overrated; witness for example the relatively small amount of damage done to Serbian armoured forces by NATO in 1999.

Results in Afghanistan in 2001 were better, but in that case the integration of Special Forces allowed air power to be targeted in the most efficient way.

Serious challenges

Despite the rhetoric there are serious practical challenges ahead. Interoperability will be the first, as air forces from many different countries – not all experienced in operating together – will have to work in a coordinated fashion.

This can be overcome through careful operational planning, and it is almost certain that the first operations will be carried out by NATO allies who have a practiced operational framework. Nonetheless, this factor will increase the friction of war.

The second aspect is dealing with the air environment over Libya. Gaddafi’s air force uses old technology, which poses only a small challenge to the advanced planes being deployed against it.

However, assuming that liaison with the rebels is as limited as it appears to be, stunning photographs earlier today of a rebel MiG-23 downed in flames by Gaddafi’s forces emphasise how both sides are flying similar aircraft.

Gaddafi supporters form a human shield on a wall at his house in Tripoli as airstrikes were launched [Reuters]

The possibility of an error is therefore enhanced, with potentially serious PR consequences, although the fact that the rebels have comparatively few aircraft does mitigate slightly.

The air defence environment is also an important factor. Many of the long-range weapon systems in the east appear to be in rebel hands, and the system – although once the second most comprehensive in Africa – is old and relatively incapable.

Indeed, in 1986 its performance against the US Air Force’s Operation El Dorado Canyon was so poor that the Soviets sent a general to investigate why. This should therefore pose little more than a speed bump, especially to Western air forces, even in its most concentrated and effective parts around Tripoli.

However, at low level the picture is very different – as at least one rebel pilot has found today, from the look of things. Whilst old, some of the ex-Soviet kit being used by Gaddafi’s forces remains lethally effective.

For example ZSU-23-4 armoured mobile anti-aircraft guns have been near the forefront of his advance, supporting the T-72s of the Khamis Brigade. This system can put up a hail of guided shots that can make a pilot very uncomfortable.

Similarly, SA-6 surface-to-air missiles are capable and there are a plethora of man-portable devices. Add to that the vast array of heavy machine-guns mounted on trucks and one can see why low level might be an uncomfortable place to be: indeed, the only US loss in 1986 was one F-111 believed to have been downed by exactly this sort of ground fire.

Of course at high altitude a pilot need not fear these aspects, but here’s the rub: similar limitations in Kosovo are believed to have seriously impacted the ability of allied pilots to find and hit targets. That was in an environment where only one side was using tanks.

In Libya, both sides are using pretty much the same equipment and front lines are blurred. The situation is even more confused in towns and cities, where most of the fighting is taking place. Clearly identifying who is who, and striking the right targets accurately without help from trained forward observers on the ground, will be an immense challenge that should not be downplayed.

Gaddafi knows this and will no doubt be seeking to move his units closer to the rebels in order to maximise this difficulty.

Air power may not be enough

With this in mind the promise of no “boots on the ground” may eventually have to be revisited, despite the potential repercussions, if only to put Special Forces observers in amongst the rebels. Otherwise it is hard to see how this campaign will be effective, at least within built up areas where most fighting is taking place.

Fortunately, the movement of convoys on roads and through the vast open spaces of Libya will be easier to observe and engage, but such indiscriminate targeting may raise issues of its own.

Equally, a lack of intelligence could raise issues when attempting to target Gaddafi’s strategic air defence assets – many of which are in built-up areas. With the 25th anniversary of Operation El Dorado Canyon rapidly approaching, the effects of collateral damage would probably only help Gaddafi’s cause.

Air power is therefore not a panacea and will almost certainly not suffice to tip the balance firmly against Gaddafi, at least without great political risks being taken. At best therefore one suspects it can only bring about an uneasy truce and the de facto partition of Libya into two states.

This is in line with the UN mission to protect civilians, perhaps, but it is already clear that the West wants nothing less than the total removal of Gaddafi.

Amongst those who met in Paris, the main hope must therefore be that the morale boost to the rebels will be large enough to convince them to redouble their efforts, and drive further desertions from the regime.

This will require rapid results in Benghazi, and so the pressure is on.

Justin Crump is the CEO of Sibylline, an international security risk and intelligence consultancy, and a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English. He formerly served as a British Army officer, with operational experience in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a consultant to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is an alumnus of King’s College London and the University of Durham.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.