NATO Increasing Pressure–and Risk–in Libya

With the rest of Arab world still in chaos, the ongoing civil war in Libya has become less visible. However, that war has been continuing at a steady pace. The number of daily sorties, including strike sorties, has remained stable since the beginning of NATO’s intervention. Misurata continues to bleed, but rebel forces have, with the aid of large numbers of NATO strikes, been able to push Gaddafi’s men away from the city. The US, despite the public minimization of its role in the conflict, has reportedly spent $750 million protecting the people of Libya. The conflict has clearly dragged on far longer than the NATO powers expected when they began their intervention, and this has put significant political pressure on political leaders like US President Barack Obama to adequately justify continued involvement. Just this past week, US Senator Rand Paul attempted to use the (legally toothless) War Powers Resolution to force Obama to halt the operations. His effort was a failure–his motion was rejected 90-10. That does not mean, however, that 90 of the Senators are satisfied with the progress in Libya.

Leaders have attempted to draw the war to a quicker conclusion by using more aggressive targeting, like the numerous raids on Gaddafi’s compounds, including one that killed a son (Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, a relative unknown in the regime) and was rumored to have injured Gaddafi himself (for he vanished from the public eye for several days). The last week has seen two continuations of this pattern–NATO launched a particularly heavy air raid on Tripoli, and the UK and France announced–independently of NATO–that they will send attack helicopters to provide air support to the rebels. This is a particularly risky move. Attack helicopters are a very powerful weapon for fighting Gaddafi’s lightly-armed ground forces, and their lower speed will give their crews more time to identify targets than a faster attack aircraft would have. However, they are also very vulnerable to ground fire, and typically require ground support to operate safely. According to military aviation blogger David Cenciotti:

There’s an important difference between Close Air Support and Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI): the first one requires boots on the ground; the second doesn’t; the first is what helicopters are perfectly suitable to (either as a support/anti-tank platform or as an escort/recon one); the second, is the most common kind of mission flown in Unified Protector.

Helicopters . . . are not as effective if employed without the proper support of troops on the ground and when used against adversary forces that are too dispersed, intermixed with civilians and hidden (hence  not easily identifiable and targetable).

The helicopters will thus be flying a mission type that doesn’t quite match their intended use. Libya’s rebels have been getting more organized, but they are still a very ineffective fighting force that cannot come close to providing the sort of ground support the helicopters would expect when working with their own armies. Gaddafi’s men can expect to take more casualties, but there is a big risk that they will be able to down some of the attack helicopters. This could produce NATO’s first fatalities in the conflict, which would dramatically increase political pressure against the intervention. That the NATO forces are willing to take this gamble is a sign of boldness–and of desperation. Libya’s rebels, though they are brave, have proven themselves incapable of making major advances against Gaddafi’s men. NATO hopes that the increase in fatalities among Gaddafi’s troops will weaken them to the point that they cannot help but concede ground to the rebels. NATO also hopes, as with the major airstrikes on the capital, that rising casualties could produce political fragmentation within the military and ultimately lead it to turn on Gaddafi. This strategy may not be particularly effective–attacking a military typically unifies it–but it offers a more serious chance of overthrowing Gaddafi and ending the war than a rebel advance.

The French helicopter carrier Le Tonnerre is heading to Libya, carrying attack helicopters like this Eurocopter Tiger. (Image via Mahjoob Forums)

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