Curious victory for NATO in Libya

Few dispute the assertion that NATO jets enabled Libyan rebels to come knocking on Qadhafi's door in Tripoli. But as he  falls, it will be difficult to avoid the conclusion that NATO emerges from this successful operation weaker than it went into it.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director-General, RUSI

The NATO-led campaign to protect Libyan civilians - and thereby becoming effectively the air arm of the revolution against Colonel Qadhafi - was always politically controversial. For that reason alone it was evident from the beginning that if it was not successful quickly, the campaign would not be judged successful at all. And after five and a half months, NATO and its allies can claim military success just about in time to avoid the tag of failure on the grounds that it all took too long.

In truth, for an improvised air campaign supporting groups of disorganised rebels on the ground, against a brutal and well-armed regime, and operating under all the domestic political constraints and international sensitivities of a UN resolution, military success inside six months is pretty good going. British and French leaders can claim vindication for their resolve and UK military planners can breathe a sigh of relief that they will not now have to make big planning adjustments to keep the mission going beyond September.

For all this, we can be duly grateful.  A collective failure of political will; a stalemate on the ground; or glacial progress that put Libya in the 'Iraq' or 'Afghanistan' categories, would have been so much worse for the alliance. NATO analysts will take some heart from this. It is said to demonstrate President Obama's new approach of 'facilitating success' rather than leading it; the European members of NATO have stepped up to do what was necessary; NATO again provided the military core for a wider coalition operation; and even the most sceptical observers could not deny that the rebel's success was dependent on NATO destroying over 50 per cent of all the regime's military assets.[1]

For all the vindication that success provides, however - not least to British, French and American political leaders and the Secretary General of NATO for their commitment - it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that NATO emerges from this successful operation weaker than it went into it. The military operation itself created an image of NATO's limitations rather than its power.

Was this really a grand alliance?

In a big alliance, numbers matter. Only nine of its twenty-eight members were prepared to put themselves on the line physically and politically and attack ground targets.[2] Only two - France and the UK - were prepared to deploy attack helicopters (five British and around twelve French machines) which make all the difference to the ground forces. In a NATO-led coalition that supposedly consisted of more than thirty [3] contributing nations, only ten countries committed forces to ground attack, and one of them pulled out of it[4] for reasons that have still to be fully explained. This combined commitment produced between seventy and eighty available aircraft most of the time. Of that, the British and French contribution, with about twenty attack aircraft each, amounted to more than half the total.  Around 20 naval vessels were actively involved at any one time.

The extensive no-fly-zone over Libya employed no fewer than 280-300 aircraft throughout the five months of the operation.  Running the no fly zone in this environment was certainly complex - if only because so many different nations were involved - but not particularly dangerous or operationally difficult given the limitations of Qadhafi's air force and air defence system after the early days of the conflict when American power degraded them so severely. Among the NATO allies, those prepared to undertake ground attack missions at some stage over this period, consisted of the United States, France and the United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Canada. Among the non-NATO countries the United Arab Emirates and Qatar also used their aircraft in an offensive role.

The role of the United States

In a transatlantic alliance, the role of the United States must always be a factor. President Obama may have taken the US out of the direct combat role, but he certainly did not take American forces out of the front line. The European allies were hardly 'going it alone' in this operation.

Air-to-air refuelling is vital to maintain fighter jets on constant patrol and in getting them to and from most targets. The US has provided 30 of the 40 or so air-to-air refuelling tankers that have been deployed for this operation.  Even with a severely degraded air defence system, suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) assets are critical to avoid occasional loss of aircraft.  Very few allied attack missions were flown without a US electronic warfare aircraft above them acting as guardian angel. British and French forces had some of their own SEAD capabilities but were happy enough to rely on US coverage where possible. Not least, the US has continued to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) throughout the campaign, with hellfire missiles, some of which have been used. And it has maintained an active reconnaissance role both with its satellites and its own helicopter force. There has been no shortage of US service personnel in-theatre.

Reluctant coalition partners

Meanwhile, other European-NATO members have been extremely reticent to engage in an operation to which the alliance as a whole was supposedly committed. Turkish and Spanish aircraft, for example, were prohibited from flying any attack missions, Poland sent no forces. Germany not only refused to participate militarily but publicly criticised the whole endeavour.

The Arab League nations exhibited a similar inconsistency. Despite its unequivocal call in mid-March for decisive action to halt Qadhafi's offensive on Benghazi, some Arab League nations refused to participate at all. Others, like Jordan, maintained air patrols but would not undertake any offensive action. Still others, like Qatar and the UAE, have engaged in offensive operations, but are not keen to trumpet the fact. Indeed, the United Arab Emirates have displayed an interesting capacity to field both UAVs and Special Forces and have reportedly used them along the Libyan/Tunisian border. Of most value, however, some Arab countries have provided weapons to the rebels, albeit in defiance of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and have taken responsibility for internationally illegal actions that the NATO powers were never prepared, and perhaps never could have, taken themselves. The fact that there has been no international outcry over this defiance of a UN resolution (UNSCR 1970) is probably due to a general pragmatism among the world community.

A laboured success

All this can be interpreted positively in a military sense: that NATO has achieved some flexibility as an alliance and as a leader for broader coalitions and that it finds ways through the difficulties, ultimately to prevail. But NATO is more likely to be judged negatively in a political sense, especially in Washington. The Europeans could not get their act together in a convincing way, even over a comparatively small operation against a weak and crazy opponent. The greatest military alliance the world has ever known was made to look puny in what it could really deploy. Even with the US providing so many combat enablers, it should have been able to sweep Gaddafi's 1970s, Warsaw Pact weapons and his badly organised army straight off the board; the British alone have attacked just on 900 targets since the start of operations, so why has the effect not been more obvious?; and so on. And the strain that this curious little war has already put on the forces of the most capable European allies - the UK and France - is a poor omen for the future.

When the policy elite in Washington speak about 'NATO' these days, they really mean 'the Europeans'. That has been the case for some time now. And when they look at the Libya operation this week, they don't see NATO's canny adaptation and political guile at work so much as a laboured success that came just in time to save everyone's blushes. NATO should think long and hard about this operation. Whatever it represents to the Libyan people, it may come to look like a tipping point in the transatlantic evolution of NATO.


[1] See, for example, Tomas Valasek, 'What Libya says about the future of the transatlantic alliance', Centre for European Reform, July 2011.

[2] Of that nine, only seven were European nations and two of them subsequently withdrew their aircraft.

[3] NATO insists that all twenty-eight member states contributed 'directly or indirectly' and at least three other Arab League states made tangible military contributions; other Arab states made more indirect contributions.

[4] Norway.


Professor Michael Clarke

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