David Cameron has been floating the idea of a No Fly Zone(NFZ) in Libya to protect the rebels from their own government. So what is this trying to prevent?:
- Government ground attack aircraft being used against the rebels. Thus far these seem to have been used mainly against arms dumps. And it looks as if the pilots are either very badly trained or they are deliberately missing.
- Gaddafi being resupplied from the air with munitions, mercenaries etc. The thing here is that it would take a lot of transport aircraft movements to make a significant difference to Gaddafi’s plight and a simple embargo will stop the bulk of this sort of traffic.
- Helicopters being used as gunships. Very difficult to stop, they are so low that they are difficult to track with radar and their flights are so short that they are over before the fighter arrives.
- Helicopters being used to transport troops. They can but the numbers are so small as to be insignificant. And once again radar isn’t very effective against them.
So what do we need to do to enforce an NFZ?
- Airborne radar, we have these but Libya is a big country, the desert alone is four times the size of Britain. So we may need to have one for the east and one for the west. Then for 24/7 coverage that means 6 AWACS aircraft at least.
- Fighters. These run Combat Air Patrols (CAPs), each with two aircraft. Over Libya we would, because of its sheer size, probably need to run at least four CAPs to be effective, which is eight aircraft. To do this 24/7 is going to take something like 32 fighter aircraft.
- Protection for the fighters and AWACS. This means using jamming and electronic countermeasures aircraft. It also means using ground attack aircraft to suppress their air to ground capabilities (yes we would have to bomb them). This will involve taking out radars (when they are switched on) and SAM and AAA sites. Initially this will take more than the number of fighter aircraft we deploy. Once the assets on the ground have been sufficiently degraded it would take less resources to do this.
- Flying tankers to refuel all these aircraft and keep them in the air for the long sortie times involved. So that’s quite a lot of tanker resources.
So can we do it? Very easily if the will is there. The EU could do it without America and vice versa. Combined it would be easy. There are military bases in Sicily and Cyprus that have all the logistics in place, the Americans have at least a couple of carriers available (though they are not mightily effective for this sort of thing) and Malta is a staging post that is close to the action.
But is it worth it? This is an open ended commitment, what if we still have 32 fighter aircraft up 24/7 at Christmas? It can happen, look at Vietnam/Afghanistan/Iraq. And the air assets that Gaddafi has are very small indeed. This is a lot of effort to apply to a very small threat. Nominally Libya has a fairly large aircraft inventory, but most of these are not capable of being used. For instance the 35 Mirage F1s were being refurbished and the two that had completed this process defected to Malta. The MiG 25 are antiques and were retired ages ago. The Mirage Vs were sold to Pakistan. The Tu 22 Blinders are no longer there. Add in the difficulty in servicing these things and you can see how small the threat really is.
There is a far better solution. The area of land Gaddafi still occupies is relatively small, we know where all their air bases are so we know where all the active aircraft are. The solution is to take them out on the ground, then we don’t need an NFZ because they will have nothing to fly. Obviously this would mean bombing them, but so would a NFZ. We could extremely easily mount such an operation, it would take a small fraction of the resources required for a NFZ. American B2s and F117s flying at night and using smart munitions could take out virtually every Libyan military aircraft in an hour or so. At the same time they could render their bases unusable.
Now I am not proposing that we do this, it would be a significant escalation of Western involvement and would probably need a UN resolution in order to be legal, which the Chinese and Russians aren’t going to vote for in case it becomes a precedent that can be used against them one day. But from a purely military perspective if we want to stop Gaddafi attacking his people from the air then it is the most efficient method.