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Stalemate in Libya: will advisers and drones tip the balance?

Commentary, 23 April 2011
Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Western intervention in Libya appears to be stalling, and the coalition has responded by committing military advisers and drones. But their priority, for the time being, is to purchase coalition longevity at the price of campaign intensity.

Western intervention in Libya appears to be stalling, and the coalition has responded by committing military advisers and drones. But their priority, for the time being, is to purchase coalition longevity at the price of campaign intensity.

Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

Libya Rebels Blast

When David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy signed a defence treaty in October 2010, the British prime minister promised 'practical, hard-headed co-operation between two sovereign countries'. It is likely that he did not mean only two sovereign countries. But as the war in Libya crystallises around a western siege (in Misrata) and an eastern stalemate (west of Benghazi), the Franco-British engine looks to be stalling, and Paris and London look dangerously isolated.

What are the problems?

First, the stalemate. Without air power or the free use of heavy artillery (NATO would destroy regime equipment moved into the open), neither side has the offensive capabilities to smash through the impasse. Additionally, NATO has focused 70 per cent of its airpower in Misrata, where the humanitarian crisis is acute, rather than in the stabilised east. 

All this is compounded by a basic charateristic of war: it is strategic, not static. Libya, as a thinking and reactive adversary, has responded to air strikes by adapting tactics -  exploiting urban cover, shedding uniforms, using civilian vehicles, and striking at the rebels' rear areas to sow confusion. 

Second, the diplomacy. From the outset, this was a multi-speed alliance, with two states - France and Britain - pulling along a coalition of the reluctant. After an initial barrage of strikes against Libyan air defences, the US withdrew to the sidelines for largely prudent reasons (this war will only serve to vindicate, probably unfairly, American complaints that Europe, for all its vilification of US military power, is unwilling to take responsibility for regional security). 

Only six out of NATO's twenty-eight members are actually implementing air strikes. Italy, for instance, has conducted well over 2,000 sorties - without once opening fire.

This, however, is not the crux of the problem. NATO could certainly do more in terms of degrading Libyan military hardware and limiting the regime's movement. But this underplays the structural limitations of airpower. Since the Vietnam War, airpower has been endowed with possibilities that it cannot hope to fulfill, least of all in a war whose explicit rationale and legal justification is humanitarian.

In fact, the more serious issue is resilience. Norway, which has been conducting strikes, has a three-month limit on its deployment. The parliaments of Netherlands and Sweden have placed similar time and scope limitations on their operations. Turkey and Germany, who vociferously opposed intervention in the first place, will be unhappy at the explicit support for the rebels in the form of military advisors and (via Qatar) French anti-tank weaponry. Britain has not yet consulted its parliament over the war itself, and even supporters of the government are displeased with invocation of regime change as a precondition for the end of operations.

It is hard to see how the coalition can remain cohesive and effective over a two-month period, but equally difficult to see how the war would be terminated any sooner.

NATO strikes back

Consider, first, the three operational innovations of the past week: NATO's attacks on the regime's communications infrastructure; the deployment of British, French and Italian military advisers to Benghazi; and the introduction of armed US Predator drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Each of these has value.


Though communications infrastructure is 'dual-use' in nature, 90 per cent of traffic was concerned with directing Gaddafi's forces. The regime, accustomed to relying on these channels of communication, will be forced to rely on less secure and more vulnerable means of commanding forces in the field. 

Military advisers

Military advisers - or 'mentors', as the British government calls them - will have a tightly limited mandate. They will help the opposition deal with organisation, logistics, and communications. 

This will leave untouched the severe tactical deficiencies of the rebel armies and the lack of proper weapons or ammunition (some rebels were using pre-Second World War bolt-action rifles).

But it will address the bifurcated military command - there are two competing generals, whose squabbling is compromising the rebels further - and provide Britain with some small degree of influence over the evolution of the opposition. (It may also render Britain complicit in the rebels' transgressions of the laws of war, such as their use of child soldiers and land mines).


The value of drones is that they can remain present above urban areas for long periods of time, and therefore react with greater speed and precision than patrolling manned aircraft. This will be especially useful in Misrata, where Gaddafi's forces have exploited the urban terrain to assault heavily populated areas, largely with impunity. 

This cannot eliminate the identification problem  - distinguishing combatants from civilian forces - because human intelligence will be in short supply. But unlike in Afghanistan, where targets are primarily militants, those in Libya will be more visible and identifiable heavy weaponry, like artillery or tanks. This mitigates the problem of target misidentification. It is also important to note that drones in Libya will be under the control of the Department of Defense rather than, as in Pakistan, the CIA, rendering their use more accountable and subject to greater scrutiny.

And yet, none of these three factors will be by any means decisive. Regime forces, who have proved tactically adaptable, will be able to fight with severed communications. European advisers are small in numbers (roughly ten from each country), will do little to transform the quality of rebel firepower on the frontline, and will anyway take many weeks to make their influence felt. Drones cannot break a siege, and their use will be tightly circumscribed for fear of levelling critical urban infrastructure or accidentally killing civilians collocated with military equipment

None of these changes represent mission creep, primarily because the mission already crept when, in mid-April, Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron issued a joint statement which all-but laid out a policy of regime change.

NATO's options

Ground forces: either illegal or imprudent 

One option is the use of ground forces to clear or hold territory. Lord Owen, a former British foreign secretary, argued in late April for 'a resolution that declares the city a UN safe haven and empowers French and British troops - in the name of the UN, not NATO - to push out Gaddafi's forces', entailing a 'clearly demarcated 25-mile exclusion zone for Gaddafi forces'. [1]

Lord Owen ought to have known that no such resolution would survive Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council, and that such forces would, under the current UN Resolution 1973, almost certainly be illegal 'foreign occupation forces'.

Even with a UN mandate, territorially-limited peacekeepers would merely shift the fight out of the exclusion zone. And how would they deal with artillery barrages into the zone from outside its perimeter?

A UN force, however widely composed, would face a terrible choice between standing by and watching as civilians were killed and buildings destroyed - much like Dutch peacekeepers during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre - or would be forced into protracted, bloody, and inevitably indecisive urban warfare.

This touches on a wider point. As hard as it may be to accept for the world's most powerful military alliance, possessing the most advanced military technology in the history of warfare, there are stark limits to its abilities. The alliance ignores these at its peril.

Escalation: intensity versus longevity 

Escalating the war, the second option, is less simple than it sounds. Anthony Cordesman has argued that 'Qaddafi, his extended family, and his key supporters need to be targeted for their attacks on Libyan civilians, even if they are collocated in civilian areas', adding that 'this kind of operation cannot be "surgical' - if "surgical" now means minimizing bloodshed regardless of whether the patient dies'. [2] In seeking to better fuse means and ends, this argument takes strategy seriously.

But it is bad politics and, therefore, flawed strategy. There are powerful and understandable constraints on American action. The recent (and ongoing) experience of prolonged land wars, the impact of a heavy military footprint on international perceptions of US 'imperialism', and underlying US fiscal weakness have all prompted a marginal but meaningful re-evaluation of US grand strategy. Barack Obama is sympathetic to those efforts. This will not satisfy the most cautious realists in the American strategic community, but it represents a genuine effort to think through the lessons of American foreign policy over the past decade.

Assaulting Tripoli and ratcheting up civilian casualties would be a surefire means of pushing away the uncommitted but supportive Arab states and hastening the departure of allies. France and Britain cannot carry such an expansive campaign on their own. Both states must begin to moderate the mission to match the means, rather than - as per Cordesman's suggestion - vice versa. But their priority, for the time being, is to purchase coalition longevity at the price of campaign intensity.



[1] David Owen, Declare Misrata a safe haven and send in troops, The Times, 19 April 2011

[2] Anthony Cordesman, U.S. Must Stop Libya From Becoming a Farce, Real Clear World, 20 April 2011,


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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