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Foreign Policy

Few Options Short of Libyan No-Fly Zone

Few Options Short of Libyan No-Fly Zone

As the international community monitors events in Libya a military stalemate has become the new norm.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates fields questions during a Pentagon press briefing with Gen. James E. Cartwright on Libya and cuts to the defense budget

Qaddafi’s forces control a small portion of Libya and anti-government forces control the rest. Boundaries and the control of towns and villages ebb and flow. Pro-government forces control Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli, Qaddafi’s hometown of Surt and Tripoli. Rebels control Benghazi, Misurata, Ajdabiya, Baida, Derna, Tobruk and Salum Passage, the military border crossing between Egypt and Libya, which enabled Western reporters to gain access to the country shortly after the fighting began. During the events of the past several weeks there was growing frustration that the international community was either unwilling or unable to curtail the Libyan military from launching air attacks against civilians and rebel forces.

One option that has been widely floated is the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to ground, through force or by the threat of force, Libyan air assets. While the U.S. and NATO could unilaterally impose a no-fly zone, the Obama administration has made it clear that his administration wishes to pursue multilaterism. A number of NATO and UN Security Council member states oppose a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone, unilaterally enforced by the U.S. and NATO member states, or through a UN resolution would be a violation of Libya’s territorial integrity.

President Obama was pressed about military options during a press conference with President Calderón of Mexico. In response to the question, “is a no-fly zone something that you’re actively considering?” Obama responded, “With respect to our willingness to engage militarily, what I’ve instructed the Department of Defense as well as our State Department and all those who are involved in international affairs to examine is a full range of options. I don’t want us hamstrung. I want us to be making our decisions based on what’s going to be best for the Libyan people, in consultation with the international community.”

Some administration officials have cautioned against a no-fly zone due to geopolitical concerns. Besides the use of fighter jets in the enforcement of a no-fly zone, a number of ground assets, like boots on the ground, would be utilized to assess and target bunkers, air bases and other Libyan facilities. The use of air power would also put a significant number of civilians in harms way. Any aerial bombardments would inevitably cause collateral damage if any bombings occurred close to civilian centers.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has cautioned against American or Western intervention in the Libyan civil war and the wider Middle East region. The secretary has taken a more cautious tone in suggesting options available to the international community and in particular to the United States. Gates warned “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.” Mr. Gates illustrated that divides exist within the international community for a no-fly zone over Libya.

During a Department of Defense news briefing on March 1st, Gates suggested, “There is no unanimity within NATO for the use of armed force.” Gates continued, “And the kinds of options that have been talked about in the press and elsewhere also have their own consequences and second- and third-order effects. So they need to be considered very carefully.” Despite the concerns voiced by Sec. Gates a no-fly zone is still considered by some to be a viable option available to NATO, the U.S. and other Western powers. Despite the qualitative and quantitative superiority of American and Western air assets, a no-fly zone would involve direct military assaults on Libyan ground, air and offensive capabilities.

Marine Gen. James Mattis, Commander of U.S. Central Command, told Sen. John McCain during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, “My military opinion is, sir, it would be challenging.” Gen. Mattis continued, “You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone so it — no illusions here — it would be a military operation. It wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes.”

There is reason to believe that an air campaign against Libya poses few risks to American and NATO pilots. The Libyan Air Force has struggled for decades to rebuild its capabilities following the Libyan war with Chad in the 1980s. Additionally, American bombings of the Benghazi and Tripoli airports in the 1980s further damaged Libyan air assets. After the Cold War the flow of military goods from the Soviet Union ended with the last delivery of fighter jets in 1989.

As was the case in Iran, the embargoes and repeated UN sanctions have curtailed further enhancement of the Libyan Air Force beyond an outdated and antiquated number of fighter jets. In 2010, the Libyan Air Force consists of 22 MiG-21s, 125 MiG-23s and additional numbers of Su-22s and Su-24 fighter aircraft. Additionally, Libya also has a number of French Mirage fighter jets but the last major delivery of the fighter planes was made in the 1970s. The French defense contractor Dassault Aviation was awarded a contract to upgrade a number of the planes but only a few have been refitted.

Further damaging Col. Qaddafi’s military capabilities, are the loss of two Mirage jets when the pilots flew to Malta to avoid firing on protesters in February. Most of the MiG-23s have been grounded due to parts and technical issues and one of the Su-22s was purposely crashed outside of Benghazi because the pilots refused to fire on anti-government forces and protesters. Most of the technical problems that have plagued a significant portion of the Libyan Air Force are based on Col. Qaddafi’s overreliance on Soviet planes. Other contributing nations to his Air Force have been Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The French and Italians still have a robust arms trade but the latter two states no longer exist. The French and Italians were also constrained by past arms and air embargoes set by the UN Security Council, which prohibited the selling of fighter planes to Libya or the rebuilding Col. Qaddafi’s Air Force.

A no-fly zone is a complicated operation. Lieutenant General David A. Deptula (ret.), during an interview with Michele Norris of NPR, suggested that the larger question would be who is the authorizing authority or simply who would impose the no-fly zone. Would it be the United Nations, the U.S., NATO, the African Union or any other governing body or collection of states? Secondly, the question arises to who would conduct the no-fly zone and what are the rules of engagement. Deptula suggested that once those questions have been answered then larger questions of what to target must be addressed, “So once that determination was made, those individual nations would then have to get together and determine, OK, the conditions. What are the rules of engagement? Where? Across the entire country or only around those areas that Gadhafi is holding strong?”

A no-fly zone also has to have a stated end goal in place. Simply bombing Libyan air assets cannot be a means to an end. Specific goals have to be established. Lieut. Gen. Deptula illustrates that before the question of how a no-fly zone is conducted there are a number of questions that have to be answered, “Everyone at least that I have seen out in the media has kind of jumped into the, OK, how would we do this? I would suggest to you that it’s important to address a couple first order questions before we get into the how. And that is the why, the what, the where, the when and the who. You know, what are the desired strategic outcomes from imposing a no-fly zone?”

Once the go ahead to impose a no-fly zone has been made targets have to be stipulated. For example, the decision of what to shoot down and under what conditions must be clearly established. Past examples like the no-fly zone executed over Iraq are helpful in illustrating that a no-fly zone has to be comprehensive. When the decision was made by the United States and the U.K. to enforce a no-fly zone over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, helicopters were exempted which enabled that regime to target specific groups. Also, Turkish warplanes were not restricted from flying over Northern Iraq and they attacked groups there.

As the U.S. and others contemplate a path forward the question has to be asked what are a no-fly zones strategic objectives. Are the goals to prevent a further humanitarian disaster or to assist rebel groups in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime? For a no-fly to succeed and for it to be seen as a legitimate interference in Libya’s own internal affairs, it has to be viewed as an effort to avert a further humanitarian disaster. Already the Arab League has suggested that it could enforce flight restrictions with the help of the African Union if Qaddafi continually uses his Air Force against rebel forces. If the international community, and in particular, the U.S. fails to act by imposing a no-fly zone they will be seen as allowing Qaddafi’s regime an opportunity to reassert control over his country by relying on his Air Force.

This air power gives Qaddafi a strategic advantage against anti-government forces which are lightly armed with tanks, rocket propelled grenades and antiquates anti-aircraft guns, which are no match against fighter jets. The United States has become directly involved short of a no-fly zone. President Obama has instructed USAID to assist in trying to avert a humanitarian disaster on the Tunisian/Libyan border and has ordered military assets to fly nationals escaping the violence back to their countries of origin.


Great summary. Hope we do impose a no-fly before events take a turn for the worse. Phil


Great summary. Hope we do impose a no-fly before events take a turn for the worse. Phil

Sara P

Sounds like the no-fly is dead on arrival. Wish we could help the rebels in some meaningful way. Liked your synopsis. Sara

Sara P

Sounds like the no-fly is dead on arrival. Wish we could help the rebels in some meaningful way. Liked your synopsis. Sara