As Libyan rebels make incremental advances NATO is recognizing that achieving success in Libya will require increased involvement. A concerted assault against Qaddafi’s forces by the rebel forces, supported by coalition warplanes, is the only available option in order to remove the regime from power. NATO is in an awkward position because UN Resolutions 1970 and 1973 do not instruct NATO and others to pursue regime change. However, in order to avoid a protracted stalemate, Qaddafi either must step down or be forcibly removed.
Despite some setbacks, the rebels have made concrete gains in Benghazi, the Tunisian/Libyan border town of Dhiba, Ajdabiya and Tobruk. However, in Misrata, due to a lack of coalition air cover, there has been heavy shelling by Qaddafi’s forces that has resulted in the deaths of Restrepo director Tim Hetherington and Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer Chris Hondros.
Under pressure from European allies, Obama has authorized the use of Predator drones against Qaddafi’s forces. This increased U.S. involvement places the United States in a striking capacity against government forces. Until recently, the U.S. chose to remain in a support capacity after handing off control of the Libyan no-fly zone to NATO. However, after Qaddafi’s forces readjusted their tactics to avoid air strikes by coalition warplanes, the U.S. military command recommended the deployment of armed unmanned drones.
At a Pentagon briefing, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright said, “The character of the fight has changed…Things that are out in the open know that they’re going to probably perish if a NATO bird sees them, so you’re seeing a much more dispersed fight [and] people that are digging in or nestling up against crowded areas.” He addressed the capabilities that Predator drones will bring to the conflict, “What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility—particularly on targets now that have begun to dig themselves into defensive positions.” Gen Cartwright continued, “They’re uniquely suited for areas—urban areas, where you can get low collateral damage.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was clear that the use of drones is not a prelude to U.S. troops being introduced into Libya. According to Gates, “This is a very limited addition on our part, but it does provide some additional capabilities to NATO.” Gates continued, “I don’t think there’s mission creep at all…The primary strike role has been turned over to our allies, our friends.” Once the drones are operational they are capable of flying upwards of 12 hours at a time. Further, the fact that drones can stay in the air for such long periods of time insures that they will be able to delineate rebels from pro-government forces.
The inability of fighter pilots to detect friend from foe has been the cause of friendly fire incidents which have created tensions between coalition forces and the rebels. Fighter jets typically have to fly at a higher altitude which makes pinpointing correct targets difficult in a battlefield scenario. Further, the fact that Qaddafi’s forces have retreated to population centers makes it easier to target them with drone aircraft. Drones carry small Hellfire missiles which are more effective than precision guided bombs. NATO fighter jets have avoided attacking more tightly grouped government forces that have taken refuge in civilian centers for fear that civilians would be killed.
Despite the use of A-10 Warthogs in the early days of the coalition airstrikes against Qaddafi’s forces, the U.S. military limited their use after NATO assumed control of the mission. As the need developed for airstrikes to occur closer to the ground, the U.S. military became concerned that U.S. Warthogs could be shot down. The use of Predator drones allows for attacks on ground units without risking the lives of American fighter pilots.
The U.S. has promised $25 million in non-lethal assistance for the Libyan rebels although this has yet to be delivered. Following recommendations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration informed Congress that it would supply the Transitional National Council based in Benghazi with much needed supplies like uniforms, vehicles, body armor and tents. However, at this point in time, the supplies will not include weapons and ammunition
Amid concerns that the gains made by the rebels cannot be held because of a lack of training and coordination, Italy and France announced that they will be joining the U.K. in sending military advisors to assist the rebels. Some have argued that this constitutes a mission creep from the original mandate of the UN resolution authorizing member states to protect civilians. France, the U.K. and Italy counter that the rebels, as they become better organized, would be best positioned to fill that role. Due to the weak rebel forces on the ground, the Europeans and the United States will find themselves in a protracted stalemate without any exit strategy.
At the same time that the Europeans have sent military advisors, clandestine operatives sent by the Central Intelligence Agency in March have been gathering intelligence and meeting with the rebels to asses their strength. Along with CIA operatives, the U.K. has sent special forces units and their MI6 intelligence officers to ostensibly conduct the same covert operations as their American counterparts. The advisors and intelligence officers who are on the ground assisting and coordinating with the rebel hierarchy hope to achieve better coordination between coalition warplanes and rebel units on the ground.
Earlier in the month as a result of a lack of communication and coordination, coalition airstrikes struck a rebel formation and caused several casualties near the oil town of al-Brega. The incident illustrates the “fog of war” that can exist in any battlefield scenario. While the incident was unfortunate it demonstrates that if NATO is going to step up its involvement it must have some level of communication with rebel units on the ground. British Royal Navy Rear Adm. Russell Harding said at the time, “I’m not apologizing…The situation on the ground is fluid, and we had no information the opposition forces were using tanks.” Admiral Harding continued, “There’s a lot of vehicles going back and forth…It is very difficult to distinguish who is operating the vehicles.”
The extent of further U.S. and coalition involvement appears to be a concerted effort to avoid disaster and keep the prestige of NATO intact. By allowing the rebels to be defeated by Qaddafi would severely undercut NATO as a robust and effective organization. The U.S. was correct to call on NATO to assume control of the no-fly zone and other related efforts against Qaddafi. Importantly, with NATO, is the concept of collective security. NATO member states share the costs and risks associated with foreign incursions.
However, because military intervention was encouraged by Sarkozy and Cameron and not by Obama, it should be the Europeans who bear most of the costs of intervention. NATO is at a crossroads. Its mission to defend Europe from the Soviet Union has ended and concurrently its raison d’être. If NATO is to remain relevant it must succeed in Libya without a preponderance of U.S. military power to assist in the mission. The U.S. military is uniquely qualified to offer technical support in the way of Predator drones but NATO member states are equally well qualified to destroy Qaddafi’s tanks.
Libya is a key test for NATO. As such, NATO will have to decide if it is willing to share the burdens of Libyan intervention rather than free-ride on the backs of the U.S. military to defeat Qaddafi.
Christopher Layne observed in “Death Knell for NATO?,” “Students of alliance relationships understand why the United States has always borne a disproportionate share of NATO’s burdens. Alliance politics inescapably involves what economists call the ‘free-rider’ problem. Security is a collective good that can be enjoyed by all members of an alliance regardless of how much they contribute individually. Thus, the hallmark of intra-alliance politics is the jostling of allies as they seek to shift to their partners (or ‘buck pass’) a greater share of the costs and risks of meeting the common threat to their security.” If NATO member states pass the buck to the United States, the NATO alliance could permanently be damaged as a result.