Libya no-fly zone should be 'easy'

2011-03-19 07:35

Brussels - If Nato mounts an operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, it will almost certainly establish quick superiority over Muammar Gaddafi's outdated air force.

But diplomats and analysts - relying on lessons learnt from Nato's intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s - caution that any attempts to launch airstrikes against Gaddafi's ground forces would be far more dangerous, and could result in serious losses.

Nato's leaders met on Friday to work out the details of a flight ban over Libya, after the UN Security Council gave the international community a surprisingly broad mandate to protect civilians under attack by government forces.

Alliance military planners said they could deploy dozens of fighter-bombers, tankers, air surveillance aircraft and unmanned drones to a string of air bases along Europe's southern perimeter from which to send patrols over Libya.

Officials said an "execute order" could launch the operation as early as this weekend.


Nato has significant experience in such operations - its warplanes successfully enforced no-fly zones over Bosnia in the early 1990s and over Kosovo in 1999 to end crackdowns by Serb forces on civilians.

Still, Germany and some other member nations have expressed reservations about the operation, warning that it could become a complex and long-term commitment for the alliance. A plan to launch possible air strikes against Gaddafi's air defences was also thrown into doubt on Friday by Libya's surprise announcement that it was declaring an immediate cease-fire in the conflict, diplomats said.

When asked whether the North Atlantic Council - Nato's top decision-making body - had considered the possibility of airstrikes against Libyan air defence and other ground targets during its meeting on Friday, Martin Povejsil, the Czech Republic's envoy to the alliance, replied: "We only discussed enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo, and providing humanitarian assistance."

If Gaddafi's air force was to flout a UN flight ban, experts say his air force would almost certainly be shot to pieces. Since the 1980s, chaotic purchases of equipment, poor maintenance and inadequate training have shrunk his fleet of more than 400 fighter-bombers, light attack jets and helicopter gunships to a few dozen aircraft.

What remains are mostly Sukhoi Su-22 and Mig-23 fighter bombers, as well as Yugoslav-made Jastreb light strike jets dating from the late 1960s - several of which have already been destroyed by insurgents, or flown out of the country by defecting pilots.

Outside of its fighter craft, the regime has a handful of operational interceptors, such as the MiG-21 and MiG-25, also dating from the 1960s. Its long-range air defences are in a similar state, relying on 200 missiles launchers long considered obsolete.

A recent report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies said the air force has also had major pilot training problems and lost a number of its aircraft to accidents and other attrition.

Modern jets

"Libya seems to have had a serious shortage of even mediocre combat pilots," it stated.

What worries Nato planners, however, are Libya's plentiful anti-aircraft guns and light, short-range shoulder-launched missiles - systems which proved very effective against Alliance aircraft during the Kosovo war, said a diplomat who asked not to be identified.

These include about 500 cannons of various calibres, whose presence on the battlefield could prevent allied aircraft from descending lower than 4 500m, said the diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

In Kosovo, a majority of bombing missions had to be carried out from higher altitudes beyond the reach of the Serbian guns.

In contrast, Nato planners say the international community has 200 - 300 modern jets which could be quickly deployed to Libya from bases stretching from Gibraltar to Greece, and from US and French carriers in the Mediterranean Sea.

These would include top-of-the-line Eurofighter Typhoons, used by British, Italian and Spanish air forces. Also available are the formidable French Dassault Rafale fighters and the US Boeing Co's F-18 Super Hornet, the backbone of US naval air power.

The alliance would also have a huge technical advantage over Gaddafi in its Awacs planes - whose rotating radars can look 320km deep into enemy airspace, monitor all aerial movements over Libyan territory and direct planes to any violators of the no-fly zone.

Attack drones

Analysts said aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone would fly from Nato bases in Sigonella, Sicily, Aviano in northern Italy, Istres in southern France, and Ventiseri-Solenzara in Corsica. Additionally, the US amphibious carrier the USS Kearsarge in the Mediterranean could be used to enforce the no-fly zone.

The Italian air base at Trapani-Birgi at the western tip of Sicily, about 500km north of Tripoli, is already being used by Awacs planes that would support any aerial missions over Libya.

Two larger carriers could also be used in the operation. The French Charles De Gaulle is currently in port in Toulon, while the USS Enterprise is in the Red Sea. Both would need several days to arrive on station.

Unmanned reconnaissance and attack drones, such as the US Reaper and Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire ground-attack missiles, would provide additional benefits because of their ability to loiter over an area for hours on end, added analysts.

"This would be a fairly simple operation, much easier than Nato's aerial missions in the Balkans in the 1990s," said Marko Papic of the Stratfor intelligence analysis group in Austin, Texas.

"Unlike the mountainous and heavily wooded Balkans, Libya is flat, without foliage or places to hide equipment, and the Libyan air force is a joke."

A Nato official warned, however, that logistics considerations involved in deploying such a large number of aircraft would play a large role in the planning process.


To avoid repeated aerial refuellings from tanker aircraft, the fighter jets would likely have to be based close to Libya, but some of those bases lacked the necessary facilities to support fighter squadrons, said the official who could not be named under regulations.

UN Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Friday that Nato is now completing its plans, "in order to be ready to take the appropriate" action.

"(The) Allies stand behind the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and human rights," he said.

  • Mark - 2011-03-19 07:56

    Its all about OIL........ The yanks would not oust Bob out of Zim !!!

      theoldmanofthemountains - 2011-03-19 14:09

      Mark, has Bob sent warplanes his countrymen? Has he mounted full-scale military assaults against any Zim cities lately. Has there been armed insurrection against his government? Has the main opposition party called for military action? The answer to all these is NO. I don't like Bob, I don't support him or his political party at all. But please don't compare the full-scale war civil war in Libya to what happened in Zim - it's chalk & cheese.

  • Mr D - 2011-03-19 07:56

    Send the USS Enterprise to Libya to sort out the OuBaas but once this is all over the NEW Gov will turn against the west, because you just cannot trust "them" this space....

  • Sword&Cross - 2011-03-19 08:18

    SOUTH AFRICA "again" makes a fool of itself applying 'zuma stupidity" as it is becoming internationally known these days notwithstanding that they are exercising overwhelming Racism within SA borders as well - even leading to FORCED REMOVALS after new labour laws kick in.

  • Cameron - 2011-03-19 08:38

    South Africa should actually be playing its own part in this NO-FLY ZONE, and give our airforce something to do, 16 new grippon fighters rusting doing nothing.

      Wout - 2011-03-19 14:54

      "Grippon" is a med used to combat flu, not delusional dictators. Try the "Gripen" instead ;-)

  • IronDuke - 2011-03-19 09:34

    Sword&Cross , it is an insult to the nation (South Africa)or any nation to call a president "stupid" or applying stupidity samething (democratly elected) ,no guese here which group u from ,that has no remorse for what happen (probably wana stay previledge forever),Zuma(president) unlike overcame all odd to become president of a non-racial country. Let Libya deals with its own issues we already got enough on our plate. Next time make a positive contribution to the state of our nation ,which can help in small meaningfull way.

      Nkulu - 2011-03-19 09:52

      Well done "Duke". We should respect our president as he was democratically elected by the majority. The only way of keeping our country non-racial, is to quite judging one another by our skin colour. I am proud to be a South African and I am from the white race.

      Wout - 2011-03-19 15:09

      I hope I understood your comment correctly (English being such a diffucult languange and all), but somebody somewhere said: "Every contry ends up with the leader it deserves". Whether that was was with G.W. in the US, with Saddam in Irak, with Bob (not the "Builder") in Zim, that (powerful) clown in Libya, a horny king in a nearby kingdom, or a Zuma in South Africa - we all get what the majority either elects or what the population condones but putting up with such so-called "leaders". WAKE UP and smell the coffee.

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