What are pros and cons of a no-fly zone over Libya?
As some Congressional leaders urges military intervention in Libya, the Pentagon emphasizes the difficulty of implementing a no-fly zone or other proposed military solutions.
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“There’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Appropriations Committee. “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone.”
Secretary Gates will offer President Obama “a range of options,” but he “believes it is his duty to also present what the possible ramifications are of each option that is being considered,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, with an eye towards NATO meetings Thursday that are likely to be dominated by discussion of the feasibility of a no-fly zone in Libya.
Gates is not the first Pentagon official to emphasize the difficulty of implementing a no-fly zone. But Congress is increasingly challenging whether it is really such a tricky prospect for the most exquisitely-equipped military in the world.
“I would like to point out [Libya's] air assets are not large,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, on ABC’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour. “Their air defenses are somewhat antiquated.”
Defense analysts largely concur. Putting aside the outcome of NATO talks this week and the politics of coalition-building, some options for creating a no-fly zone don’t involve a great deal of risk to US troops, they say. These might include stealth bombers or cruise missiles that could be launched from submarines or aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, or using Predator and Reaper drones.
“Why did we bother building a stealth bomber” if not to use it to take out Libyan air defenses in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, asks Michael Knights, Lafer fellow in the Military and Security Studies Program at the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Cruise missiles all would have the range to hit anything in northern Libya – anything that matters there is within 20 kilometers of the coast,” Dr. Knights adds. “This stuff is easy-peasy for the United States. This is not Iraq or Afghanistan ground warfare. This is the kind of stuff the US military excels at.”
What’s more, while the Army and Marine Corps have been heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy and Air Force “are not tied down in two conflicts,” Knights says. “We’re doing ourselves a little bit of a disservice by making a no-fly zone seem like it’s harder than it is.”
So why does the Pentagon continue to underscore the risks of such an operation? “A characteristic of the US military is we make the difficult look easy – so people tend to default to the military. ‘Oh, we’ll put up a no-fly zone,’ ” says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.