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.

Bill Clark/Roll Call/Newscom
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.

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.

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.

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.”

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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