March 1, 2011 — As violence in Libya increases, US officials have promised that the administration is exploring “all possible options for action” against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Yet Pentagon officials emphasize that they are also weighing the adverse risks of US military action aiding rebels, such as the possibility that Mr. Qaddafi could galvanize support in the name of anti-imperialism.
What are steps the US military could take to aid rebels, and how feasible are they?
1.Create a no-fly zone
One of the more frequently mentioned scenarios is to establish a “no fly” zone over Libya – an option that the White House says is under consideration. The idea would be to prevent Qaddafi from using aircraft to attack rebels or civilians.
But establishing a no-fly zone would be “challenging,” Gen. James Mattis, head of US Central Command, told Congress Tuesday. US forces would first “have to remove” Libyan air-defense capabilities, including difficult-to-detect antiaircraft missiles.
Also on Tuesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen called such a no-fly operation “extraordinarily complex…. We’d have to work our way through doing it in a safe manner” in order to “not put ourselves in jeopardy.”
While the Libyan Air Force “is not exactly the Luftwaffe” – a reference to the formidable German air force of World War II – it does have air defenses, says Tom Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
But there are options short of an air war. US or NATO aircraft could conceivably “neutralize fixed wing [airplanes] relatively simply with a couple of well-placed craters on a runway,” says retired Col. Dwight Raymond of the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. “You could put in those craters and not hurt anybody in the process,” he adds.
But Libyan helicopters, which could be used to shoot at civilian protesters, are more difficult to detect by aircraft patrolling no-fly zones, says Mr. Raymond.
Equally tricky are the diplomatic considerations surrounding the establishment of a no-fly zone. The Pentagon has already said that if a no-fly zone were to be established, it “would be more than just the US” enforcing it. Italy has said that it would allow the use of its bases, but only under the auspices of a United Nations resolution. Yet the chances of Russia and China supporting such a resolution are uncertain, says Richard Fontaine, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
Also unclear is whether Russia could “get comfortable” with the idea that NATO would likely lead such an endeavor. The United Kingdom has already pointed out that its bases in Cyprus could be used to help enforce a no-fly zone.
The point would be to try to contain Qaddafi’s forces and options. “You’re not so much trying to destroy perpetrators as you are to try to influence their decisionmaking process” and encourage them not to harm their people, says Raymond.
US forces are likely to debrief two Libyan fighter pilots who recently defected to Malta with their jets. “Those two would be fantastic sources of intelligence, especially if we’re trying to establish a no-fly zone,” says Raymond, who adds that they would also be able to provide information on the morale within the Libyan military.
2.Move in a Navy carrier group
The Pentagon is, in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “looking at a lot of options and contingencies.” But it has already put one plan into motion, moving “several” US Navy ships closer to Libya. The ships “will be entering the Mediterranean shortly,” Mr. Gates said in a press briefing Tuesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has tried to ratchet down the threats, saying, “There is not any pending military action involving US naval vessels.” Gates, too, emphasized that the ships heading towards the Mediterranean would help provide “capability for both emergency evacuations and humanitarian relief” in Libya
But simply moving a US Navy carrier strike group “in the direction of Libya is a very, very powerful signal,” says Raymond of the US Army War College. “Maybe it’s not going to launch a single aircraft, but the fact that it’s moving there and is on-station and able to do so can be a significant message.”
3.Send in drones
The Pentagon can also move unmanned drones to the region to collect intelligence, jam communications between Qaddafi and his forces.
Using electronic equipment to jam communications between Qaddafi and his followers seems like a no-brainer move for the US military, but there is a risk associated with that, too. “Because you don’t have a perfectly clear picture of who’s who, you could end up jamming and disrupting people you don’t want to disrupt” – namely rebel groups fighting Qaddafi, says Raymond of the US Army War College.
There are also intelligence assets to pick up Qaddafi’s chatter with his forces, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) drones to gather video to be used as evidence for war crimes prosecutions at the International Criminal Court, says Mr. Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security.
“One of the threats that we should be making right now is saying, ‘Look, you’re going to be held accountable for every single thing that happens, including targeting protesters – that’s where our ISR capabilities can come into play in a major way,” he adds.
Indeed, intervening in crimes against humanity is a role that the US military is increasingly willing to take on, according to the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which for the first time emphasizes the Pentagon’s role in being able to respond to crimes against humanity.
The Pentagon has also established a new mass atrocity prevention and response operations (MAPRO) office, which could conceivably help to establish humanitarian corridors for fleeing Libyan refugees, perhaps in partnership with Egyptian forces, says Raymond. “I think it may be worth exploring.”
The Obama administration must be wary, though, of the perception of the US military in the region – particularly “if Qaddafi says, ‘Ah, American imperialism once again,” and tries to rally supporters, says Mr. Donnelly of AEI.
For this reason, US officials are determined to work with international partners on any actions involving Libya. Yet US officials must also be wary of appearing passive in the eyes of Libyan rebel forces, who have already won large swaths of land along the Mediterranean coast, says Donnelly.
“One of the things we have to start looking at is how it’s going to look to the rebels [who will weigh], ‘Did you help us, hurt us, or just watch?' ” he adds.
Gates said Tuesday that the US has not received any requests from rebel forces for air strikes against Qaddafi. But reports suggest that Libyan rebel leaders in Benghazi were considering asking the United Nations to back air strikes against key military targets.
The other question Pentagon planners must ask themselves is to what extent time is of the essence.
If Qaddafi decided to increase his control and ramp up oppressive measures, including killing, then it is better to intervene more quickly, says Raymond of the US Army War College. Yet Pentagon planners must also consider that if Qaddafi “thinks he has a closing window of opportunity, then it could accelerate the decision to do widespread killing, because if he doesn’t do it today, next week may be too late,” says Raymond. “So there’s a very fine balancing act here.”
What is clear, Gates said, is that Qaddafi has no intention of leaving voluntarily. “All I can say is that sometimes you have to actually listen to what people say,” Gates told reporters. “And he’s saying he’s not leaving.”