British Air Strikes Options in the Middle East: Lessons from Libya

As the United Kingdom gears up for air operations over Iraq and perhaps Syria, lessons can be drawn from a similar multinational operation in Libya in 2011.

The  US airstrikes conducted earlier this week with Arab partners (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) demonstrate that this is not a Western intervention but a regional response to ISIS.

This is not the first time that we have seen the US operate with Muslim allies. The NATO Operation Unified Protector saw Jordan, Qatar and the UAE contribute, aircraft military personnel as well as Headquarters and trainers on the ground to support the mission. Commanders of the NATO campaign were heavily influenced by the judgement and advice of their Arab allies. Given this, the question now for the US and her allies  is how to best support the operation against ISIS. Should they provide combat power or leave that to the regional partners and continue to provide support from the sidelines?

The Scale of the Problem

A spokesman for the Department of Defense has said it ‘may take years’ to eliminate ISIS. Such an operation will require considerable depth in military capability in order to be able to sustain the operation over that period. The area across Syria and Iraq over which ISIS is spread is almost as large as Libya. It became clear during Operation Unified Protector that even with the 200+ combat aircraft committed, it was difficult to cover the entire area simultaneously. Operations ebbed and flowed between the west and the east of the country.

Given the size of regional air forces (Qatar has just twelve combat aircraft), it remains to be seen whether they would be able to sustain their operations over a protracted period and may require assistance to be able to do so. The numbers of combat aircraft that European and other Western forces might individually contribute is not likely to be particularly large.

The UK has eight combat aircraft in Afghanistan and is unlikely to be able to sustain more than that number in Iraq over a period of years, particularly as the Tornado force is ramping down. Other European forces might provide a handful of aircraft each. Turkey, which will soon be the second largest air force in NATO, has decided to stay out to avoid further fighting on its borders. Iranian forces may increase the numbers but it would be difficult to integrate them into a coalition operation. Likely the airspace would be to be segregated to avoid accidents.

Intelligence and Support Assets

Combat air operations over Libya were severely hampered by the lack of ISTAR assets to provide the necessary intelligence to generate targets, as well as supply  air-to-air refuelling tankers.

Arguably, the biggest requirement today is for intelligence – both from the air and the ground. As with Operation Unified Protector, targets are likely to be fleeting. The UK could provide Reaper, although the UK may need to negotiate basing in Iraq to maximise time over target. The UK has already committed Rivet Joint but both Sentinel and Shadow ISTAR platforms are highly prized by allies.


Special Forces and Training

While ISTAR assets are valuable for target identification and designation and establishing pattern of life, air operations tend to work best in conjunction with operators on the ground to help locate and ‘paint’ or illuminate a target.

The operation against ISIS, similar to the operations against Al-Qa’ida in Iraq and operation Unified Protector will require special forces not only to coordinate the air operation but also to help train and support Kurdish and other local ground forces. This is an area where UK forces have excelled in the past and is perhaps one of the most important contributions to the campaign.


Air operations are controlled by Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) which generate the necessary Air Tasking Order (ATO). The UK supplied nearly 900 personnel to Operation Unified Protector, many of whom were either at the CAOC or at the Joint Force Headquarters in Naples.

The US has a fully worked up CAOC in Qatar, which covers air operations in the entire region, including Iraq and Afghanistan. UK, Canadian and Australian forces are already present and could be surged to help with the additional requirements. 


The UK’s Dual Mode Brimstone was particularly successful in Libya as it is a very low collateral weapon. However, European forces struggled with weapons for Operation Unified Protector owing to the tempo of the campaign and shrinking national stockpiles. As a consequence many of the nations operating F-16 aircraft had to be supplied direct by the US.

 As most of the aircraft flown by Arab partners are US platforms, a coalition of regional partners would rely almost exclusively on US contractors. US stockpiles are substantial but have been reduced through the effects of sequestration. This may reduce the tempo of operations.

In conclusion, there are many ways in which the UK could contribute – not just through the use of combat aircraft. Arguably, the most useful contribution would be intelligence assets, special forces and analysts.  However, British officials will undoubtedly wish to show solidarity with their most important ally and that will inevitably mean airstrikes. 


Elizabeth Quintana

Associate Fellow

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