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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.

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Now that Qaddafi has declared a ceasefire, his strategy likely involves buying time while he endeavors to consolidate his forces in the rebel-held east. But what he does nearer Tripoli, in the still unsettled western town of Misrata, “may well be a real test,” says Mr. White. “If Qaddafi continues to assault Misrata with ground forces and artillery like he’s been doing, that’s a clear challenge to the UN resolution.”

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What a bombing campaign would look like

Schwartz told the Senate Armed Services Committee that any aerial bombing “will require preparation of the battle space – essentially taking out Libyan air defenses and jamming communications.

These steps should not be exceedingly difficult, since about 40 percent of Libya’s air defenses are currently under control of the rebels, White says. “It’s not like we’re trying to penetrate the Soviet Union during the cold war.”

Also, precisely hitting such targets is “certainly within our capability,” Schwartz said in his testimony. Most of Qaddafi’s forces in the west are “very exposed” and “out in the desert.”

It would be difficult for Qaddafi to hide tanks and multiple rocket launchers out there, says White, and US military assets equipped with infrared systems would find it relatively easy to hit the right target.

Yet prospects of accidentally hitting civilian targets increase in more populated areas. In urban areas, Schwartz warned, there are “clearly” concerns about “collateral damage and so on.”

No ground forces?

It is unlikely that any intervention would involve US ground forces. “No one wants them there, and it’s not clear what advantages they would offer,” Cordesman says.

President Obama said Friday that the US would not send ground troops into Libya. But while the UN resolution rules out any “occupying force” on the ground, it does not rule out ground troops. A cost-effective argument might well be made for US Special Operations troops on the ground, says White. “Get them in there and help the rebels control their forces, and give them good anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons,” he says.

But all these operations would lead to an as-yet unasked question: What is the ultimate goal? If it is to remove Qaddafi, a no-fly zone and even bombing his current military positions would do little. “So are you willing to attack Qaddafi in his headquarters?” Cordesman asks.

What’s more, what if there are civilian casualties or if a new regime in Libya doesn’t meet expectations? “How do you live with the consequences?” he adds. In a case where the US may be directly or indirectly involved in nation-building, “How prepared are allied states” to take over such a mission?

Schwartz for his part posed these provocative questions in a way that that gave some insight into the planning in which his staff is now busily involved. “The question is: Is a no-fly zone the last step,” he asked, “or is it the first step?”

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