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US Air Force chief: Libya no-fly zone would be too little, too late

Many experts agree with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who told Congress Thursday that a no-fly zone in Libya 'would not be sufficient.' But there are other options short of putting troops on the ground, which President Obama has ruled out.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / March 18, 2011

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz (r.) testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington Thursday. He raised questions about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone in Libya.

Bill Clark/Roll Call/Newscom

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Washington

On the same day that the United Nations authorized a no-fly zone in Libya, the top general in the Air Force said that it would not be enough to stop, much less roll back, the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

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Testifying before Congress Thursday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz suggested that laying the groundwork for a no-fly zone would take “upwards of a week” – not the "couple of days" suggested by other officials. Moreover, he said that a no-fly zone would not materially change the situation on the ground.

When asked by Sen. John McCain whether the situation in Libya “has deteriorated to the point where it probably would require more than just a no-fly zone to reverse the momentum that Qaddafi’s forces have obtained,” Schwartz vigorously agreed.

“Sir, that is exactly my point,” he said. “A no-fly zone, sir, would not be sufficient.”

President Obama said Friday that the US and a coalition of other nations will act against Libya if it does not abide by its self-declared ceasefire. But he did not clarify what that action might be.

Many military experts agree with Schwartz that a no-fly zone would be too little, too late. What is needed, they say, is the imposition of something akin to a "no-drive zone" for Qaddafi's forces or the insertion of special-operations troops.

"In military terms it’s never been clear that a no-fly zone would deprive Qaddafi of most of his forces,” says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Qaddafi's troops are “disciplined and structured” and “haven’t needed air cover,” he adds. “It’s been useful to have fighter jets for their psychological more than their military effect.”

A 'no-drive zone'

The strikingly sweeping UN resolution language, however, allows for “all necessary force” to protect Libyan civilians, meaning a no-fly zone need not be the extent of the global community's military involvement. One option is a “no-drive zone” of sorts, says Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We did this in Iraq. You just say, ‘You can’t move your forces’ – no ground forces movement.”

If Qaddafi fails to heed that prohibition, it may be necessary to considerably escalate allied military involvement with focused ground attacks on Libyan forces. This could include US air attacks on Libyan troops' rear areas and lines of communications, which “would disrupt Libyan capabilities very quickly,” says Dr. Cordesman.

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