No-Fly Zones: The Long Fix to a Quick Problem

A no-fly zone is underway in Libya

On March 19, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, issued a military interdiction upon the Libyan regime under Muammar Gaddafi.  Hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched by a coalition of US, British, and French frigates and fighter-bombers.  The initial attacks were precisely targeting Gaddafi’s rotted integrated defense systems consisting of Russian made surface to air missile sites and radar installations.  Most importantly for the coalition, was the naval blockade of Libya’s strategic Mediterranean ports, preventing supplies from reaching Gaddafi’s forces.  Surprisingly, French fighters led the air to ground attacks using their untested Rafale fighter-bombers.  Tactical targets included tanks, armored cars, and Gaddafi’s logistical supply lines.  This consortium of attacks is known as a no-fly zone.

In the opening stages, all of Gaddafi’s armor and defense systems were missile bait.  The now NATO backed Rebels were able to achieve massive land gains westward from their stronghold in the eastern city of Benghazi.  Videos began popping up across the internet of rebel forces capturing (and sometimes the appearance of torturing) forces loyal to Gaddafi.  Gaddafi has made himself a rich man since taking power in 1979.  With his aquired wealth, and promises of even more payouts when the rebels are crushed, the Libyan armed forces are consisted of many mercenaries from various tribes in the southern part of Libya and across the border in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic are a majority.  Most of these mercenaries are experienced fighters in various skirmishes from where they originate.  Even with all the bombs from above, their experience is beginning to show.  Adaptation.

If you leave a creature alive long enough in a particular environment, especially hostile, it is going to evolve.  This is what now, 19 days after the first initial strikes, we are beginning to see.  Not getting killed from the air works this way, don’t be seen, blend into your surrounding environment.  It appears now that Gaddafi’s forces are sending fully loaded jets, back to their bases, with all their bombs.  The coalition is having trouble acquiring targets.  Enemy use of reported civilian human shields are surfacing, swaying the coalition from firing on targets.  The Loyalist forces appear to be turning in their armored APCs for civilian Toyota trucks armed only with a .50 caliber machine gun.  They are now moving undetected and masking themselves from appearing hostile.  Loyalists may now engage the rebels, while appearing to be rebels.  A couple of days ago a rebel truck column was attacked for firing into the air in celebration of NATO aircraft flying overhead, resulting in the death of several rebel fighters.  Why are the Loyalists doing this?  They are doing what they have to do to beat a no-fly zone.   Government forces are currently retaking ground back from the rebels.  Rebels are complaining now that the airstrikes have scaled back and are becoming ineffective.  But how effective have no-fly zones been?

Let’s back track a bit shall we?  13 years ago the United States found itself in a similar situation.  On October 31st, 1998 President Bill Clinton signed an act that issued support for the anti-government forces of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Saddam was also charged for ceasing production of WMDs at facilities which he had been banned from doing after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Garnishing public support and US Congress to legitimize the attack, Operation Desert Fox was authorized. Assault from missile frigates launching Tomahawk cruise missiles along with Naval aircraft began on December 16th through the 19th wiping out Saddam’s interior defenses.  A ceasefire was reached after 4 days of heavy bombing.  Saddam remained in power.

The no-fly zone in Iraq

Before Desert Fox was underway, Operation Northern Watch began on January 1st 1997.  Coalition aircraft from the US, Britain, and Turkey were now responsible for attacking aggressive Iraqi units violating the terms of a no-fly zone that restricted Iraqi military aircraft to operate only between the 33rd and 32nd parallel.  Coalition aircraft were often fired upon by Iraqi SAMs, but they were unsuccessful in their attempts to down them, leading only to a counter-attack and the battery’s demise.  Operation Northern Watch would continue through Desert Fox and all the way up until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Saddam remained in power through this time.

Let’s go back a little bit further. (Lost yet?) In April of 1991, after the defeat of the Iraqi army following Desert Storm, a no-fly zone was implemented to protect the Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq and provide a clear airspace for humanitarian aid.  Operation Provide Comfort began.  The Kurds fleeing from the Iraqi military were protected by coalition aircraft.  Fresh in the minds of US officials was the 1988 chemical gas attack of Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein.  A similar situation wanted to be avoided.  Operation Provide Southern comfort would last until 31st of December, 1996 with Saddam still in control of Iraq.  Others major no-fly zone operations over Iraq were Operation Southern Focus, and Operation Southern Watch.

The giant picture we have overall is a 12 year no-fly zone over Iraq in a way to pacify Saddam Hussein and protect anti-regime forces.  It was not until the 2003 invasion of Iraq by coalition forces that a no-fly zone ceased to exist since the ceasefire in 1991.  12 years of lobbing in missiles, dropping bombs, gassing up fighter jets, maintaining those fighter jets,  and providing logistical support for bases operating in the area including Naval vessels.   The coalition literally carved two areas of the country out from Baghdad’s true grip.    During the 12 year no-fly zone, Iraq maintained a conventional military style of war machine.  Military and Paramilitary units still wore their service uniforms and operated in military combat specific vehicles(this of course all changed after Saddam’s fall.)  Identifying targets for US or allied aircraft was relatively simple.  Friendly fire was all that would make a pilot hesitate before pressing the trigger.  Two US military Blackhawk helicopters were mistaken as enemy targets and downed, resulting in the deaths of US servicemen.

No-fly zones appear to be a temporary and purely tactical operation.  How the no-fly zone implemented in Libya will evolve, is entirely up to NATO at this point and beyond that is pure speculation, or is it?  US citizen support for the operation is unpopular.  We don’t want another Afghanistan or Iraq on our hands.  Many Americans support an immediate withdrawal from both fronts.  How much American blood does an operation like this cost?  How long will it last?  What is our ultimate goal?  From what we can see now, the rebels are extremely unorganized and some have no military training whatsoever.  Reports are surfacing that US, UK, French and even Egyptian special forces are already operating on the ground.  Just as we saw at the beginning of operations in Afghanistan, CIA and special forces were the first on the ground to find out the who’s who of the rebels, and of course call in the airstrikes.  After we find out who the top dogs of the rebel forces are, only then can we truly begin supporting them.

Initially, people were urging instead of the US intervening the no-fly zone, to issue man portable air defense weapons to the rebels.  Heck, it worked in Afghanistan for the Mujahedeen fighting the Soviets, why not Libya?  It probably would have been a quick fix for Gaddafi’s air force, but Libya is not Afghanistan.  It is flat, and open desert with the majority of the 6 million people living near if not on the Mediterranean.  There is one major highway that links the north running from east to west.  With Loyalist forces now dressing as rebels, driving technicals (pickup trucks tricked out with a machine guns or AA guns) and use of human shields, is causing NATO to face a predicament that has brought operations down to a near standstill.

If the bookies in Vegas are taking bets on whether the United States has troops on the ground, versus maintaining  strictly on a no-fly zone,  the odds are becoming more and more likely on the US putting troops on Libyan sand.  Despite President Obama’s decree that no US forces will go ashore, one thinks of the line from the US Marine hymn, “the shores of Tripoli.”  US Marines along with local mercenaries, successfully stormed Tripoli during our war with the Barbary pirates marking the first time the American flag was raised on foreign soil.  Will this be the ultimate fix to ridding Libya of Gaddafi?  Though the first Barbary war gradually led to the second Barbary war, it did open the strategic shipping lines the young US relied on at the time.   Ensuring a tactical victory may be the Obama administrations ultimate goal.  If Gaddafi is killed, and his regime removed, who are his successors?  If rebel, could some possibly be Al-Qaeda sympathizers?  Governments in Iraq and especially Afghanistan installed following the overthrows, have been reported as being corrupt and embezzling state funds.  Upon succeeding in toppling the regime, will the rebels begin fighting amongst each other as we saw in Iraq?  The answer is simple, there is no such thing as an easy war.  When you fight a war, you best be prepared to put it all on the line, or nothing at all.  Why do we insist on entering wars(and that is exactly what this is, a war) that we fight at 10%?  Since the German blitzkrieg’s on the European theater, overwhelming an enemy into defeat is a combination of air, land, sea power and most importantly, communication.  Now that we have chosen to enter the Libyan campaign, we chose the rebels to side with, they are now our responsibility to take care of.  We cannot fail them.

Gaddafi is in talks with foreign leaders to negotiate a possible ceasefire.  With the possibility of the worsening stalemate, Obama may come to a compromise with Gaddafi, something similar with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a 12 year no-fly zone, that eventually would lead to his demise.  Or, Obama could open up a front with tanks, infantry, and air cover to destroy Gaddafi’s forces off the map.  The no-fly zone will eventually lead to one or the other.  A withdrawal or compromise would be a huge victory for Gaddafi, and would show other dictators around the world that NATO and the US have no backbone.  The one aspect that is on NATO’s side is time.  Stalemates do allow for well calculated decisions for both sides, but who does their homework is up to the belligerents involved.  This would leave NATO with the decision power to compromise or go “the shores of Tripoli” as we did in Baghdad, or have 12 years of a no-fly zone before the inevitable.

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