March 10, 2011

The Libyan Crisis: Grounding No-Fly Talk

If it comes, America’s next war will begin not with a bang, but a resolution. That is the unmistakable message emerging from two days of intense consultations over the crisis in Libya, including a White House gathering of Obama’s national security team on Wednesday and a Thursday defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Both suggest that an unlikely sequence of diplomatic maneuvers will have to occur before there is any realistic possibility of the United States and its allies intervening to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.

Libyan rebel groups battling the forces of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi have repeatedly requested a no-fly zone to counter aerial bombardments unleashed by the strongman. Their entreaties will almost certainly have to be endorsed by the Arab League and the African Union and formally presented to the United Nations Security Council, where Russia and China remain extremely cool to the idea of outside interventions into the affairs of sovereign nations.

Even if the Security Council passes a resolution authorizing the use of force, NATO is unlikely to intervene as an alliance because of its overtly Western symbolism, never a popular selling point in the post-colonial Middle East. However, a resolution could free hawkish European countries like Britain and France, and preferably an Arab nation or two, to join the United States in a “coalition of the willing.”

“The position even of European countries who theoretically support a no-fly zone is clear that it would require the full support of the Arab League or African Union, and a U.N. Security Council Resolution, which we don’t think is out of the question,” said a knowledgeable diplomat from a major European ally. “Even then, a no-fly operation might be coordinated by NATO, but it would most likely not carry a NATO flag because it is seen in the Arab world as too Western.”

Barring such a groundswell of international support, the White House seems highly unlikely to act unilaterally. The Obama administration has built its foreign-policy brand with an emphasis on international legitimacy andmultilateralism. Top officials also see huge risks in opening up another military front in the Muslim world at a time when the focus is on indigenous “people-power” revolts in the region, and on reducing U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as a prelude to tackling a crippling debt.

“Given that a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of military force in Libya remains unlikely, and thus so is NATO’s support, it’s hard to imagine the Obama administration happily leading a small `coalition of the willing’ or unilaterally intervening militarily to back rebels trying to overthrow a Middle East dictator,” said Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s safe to say that’s probably not what Obama administration officials looked forward to during their transition planning.”

Enforcing a No-Fly

If Qaddafi continues actions that so assault the conscience of the international community that those misgivings are overcome, however, enforcement of a no-fly zone will likely begin with cruise-missile and precision-bombing strikes from U.S. ships and perhaps stealthy bombers to begin dismantling his integrated air defense network. Experts say that an air-defense suppression campaign could take as long as a week. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stressed, such an operation is tantamount to an act of war.

The fact that Libya’s major cities are situated along its Mediterranean coastline is a potential advantage for allied air forces, but experts stress that a no-fly operation would likely require hundreds of Air Force and naval aircraft, to include electronic jammers, AWACS command-and-control aircraft, mid-airrefuelers, search-and-rescue aircraft, as well as fighter-bombers.

“Libya has an integrated air-defense system that would have to be dealt with, and that would require a significant effort,” said retired Gen. John Jumper, former chief of staff of the Air Force. On the other hand, U.S. air forces could use the coast to their advantage by launching attacks from the sea, where they are not subject to the air-defense threats that flying over land entail. “From a practical and procedural point of view, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been in the no-fly business for a long time, so if given the order they certainly know how to do this.”

From a strategic point of view, however, the U.S. experience with no-fly zones is sobering. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for instance, the Air Force began enforcing a no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq that lasted more than a decade, failed to topple Saddam Hussein, and ended only with the U.S. invasion with ground forces in 2003. Similarly, NATO implemented a no-fly zone in the Balkans in the early 1990s that failed to stop the slaughter inflicted by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and nearly a decade later was drawn into a shooting war.

“While there is tremendous pressure on the Obama administration to do something about the situation in Libya, I would urge great restraint and caution in terms of applying military force to establish a no-fly zone, thus putting ourselves in the middle of what is clearly a civil war,” retired Gen. RonaldFogleman, former chief of staff of the Air Force, told National Journal. As the Air Force discovered in enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq, such operations are easier to begin than to end, and they often lead to deeper military involvement.

“These kinds of mission can be a very slippery slope, and I haven’t heard anyone advocating a no-fly zone in Libya adequately explain our geostrategic interests that justify it, the specific objectives we hope to achieve, or the off-ramps in case things don’t go well,” said Fogleman. “As our experience of the last 10 years should have taught us, these kinds of military interventions can become quagmires that put great strain on our economy and our military forces.”