A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

No-Fly Zones and Other Military Options

The debate over na No-Fly Zone over Libya is intensifying, and some are calling for more direct military intervention. So much of the rhetoric appears to be occurring in a vacuum that it may be worth returning to a few first principles and home truths. (For the moment, I'm going to leave aside the blowback from playing into Qadhafi's hands by making it look like the rebels are Western puppets: I'm just going to look at the practicalities.)

You cannot commit forces you do not have. I have heard few if any of the advocates of increased US involvement call for 1) a military draft or 2) massive tax hikes to support a huge increase in our military forces, already committed to two wars. I, too, would like for Clark Kent to slip out of the Daily Planet, change into Superman, fly to Libya, and, oh, let's say throw Qadhafi into the sun with a single heave. But I can't find the area code for Metropolis, or even for Gotham City to ask Commissioner Gordon to crank up the Bat-Signal. Absent those solutions, we're stuck with an overcommitted US Armed Forces, many of whose front-line troops are on their fourth or fifth deployment, or worse, with dwindling budgets and massive stress, and they're a volunteer force, so the longer this goes on, the harder replenishment will be. And we don't even have one carrier in the Med. Not one, save a recently deployed helicopter carrier. Take on MiGs and Sukhois with helicopters? You go first, please. Where will we run our No-Fly Zone from? Europe?

Libya is big. Sure it doesn't have many people, and most live near the coast, but the air bases are scattered inland, and by many accounts the African mercenary troops are being flown into desert air bases like Sabha, and a no-fly zone would presumably want to stop that. So you really want to deny the whole airspace. Libya is 679,359 square miles in area; or 1,759,541 square kilometers. The whole of Iraq (and even when the northern and southern no-fly zones were both in place, the whole country was never included) is 169,234 square miles, or 438,317 square kilometers. (Numbers are from Wikipedia.) Or, for the mathematically challenged, Libya is four times the area of Iraq, and some of its key airfields are deep in the Sahara. And we never enforced a no-fly zone over all of Iraq.

You need either carriers or bases nearby. We may be able to dispatch B-2s from Missouri or B-52s from Diego Garcia to make the rubble bounce in troubled regions, but a no-fly zone requires continuing combat air patrol to deny the skies to the bad guys, and that requires fairly close-in bases, large deployments, and high sortie rates. For the Iraqi northern no-fly zone we had NATO bases in eastern Turkey, and for the southern we had carriers in the Gulf and bases in Kuwait, Qatar and, with a wink and a nod, probably Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Now let's look at the options in Libya.
  1. Carriers.We would have to bring the USS Enterprise from its current Gulf deployment, and it's due for retirement soon anyway, and is supposed to be supporting those other two wars. Of other NATO allies in the Mediterranean, France has one active carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, homeported in Toulon, and some older ones in mothballs. Italy has two, Garibaldi and Cavour, both short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) carriers, homeported in Taranto and La Spezia, respectively. Spain also has two STOVL carriers, Principe de Asturias and the new Juan Carlos I, only just commissioned in September, both homeported in Rota. These STOVL carriers, sometimes called "Harrier carriers," embark AV-8B Harrier aircraft, which have limitations in speed and range against frontline fighters, and helicopters. Britain has one STOVL carrier still in service, HMS Illustrious, homeported in Portsmouth and not, so far as I know, in the Med. That's it for NATO, unless they can get Russia or India to join the party.
  2. Land Bases. One could wish that Egypt would be willing to commit its western air bases or even its Air Force itself nto operations over Libya, but in the present revolutionary situations there and in Tunisia (which has a minuscule armed forces), this seems unlikely, and even offering to host Western forces would be difficult if not impossible. Right now the Egyptian Armed Forces are not only running the country but trying to provide police functions as well, with the State Security Forces somewhere between dissolved and in opposition. Similarly, though the rebel forces are apparently in control of the old British airbase at Tobruk and other Libyan airbases in the east, they seem unlikely to host foreign air operations there. Other nearby land bases could include a) Malta, with a number of bases that served well for the RAF in World War II, but aren't terribly current; b) the British Sovereign Bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia on Cyprus; c) various NATO and Italian airfields in Italy, Sicily, and offshore islands. The closest to Libya would be an airstrip on Lampedusa, apparently just a civil airfield, but I don't think it could sustain combat aircraft operations. A bit farther away is Pantelleria, from which bombers operated during World War II, but neither is exactly ready, so far as I know at least, for modern air war. For all I know there may be covert bases in some of these places, but if so, they're still covert from me.
  3. A Regi0nal Operation.There are reports that the Arab League has suspended Libya's membership, OPEC is moving to increase production, etc. If this all proves to be both true and somehow substantive. the possibility of some sort of regional collective action, unprecedented as it might be, could increase, and that could allow a figleaf for, say, the Egyptian Air Force to step in. Experience suggests pigs will fly before this happens, but I must note that experience has not been the most reliable guide lately.
Having noted these obstacles to a No-Fly Zone, need I discuss the problems of a ground force intervention?

1 comment:

David Mack said...

How ironic that the acronym for Interim National Council is the same as Iraqi National Congress.