The opposition forces appear to be on the defensive in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi has managed to turn the tide and what seemed likely a week ago – another dictator overthrown in the Middle East – is now highly uncertain. There is genuine fear that Gaddafi will prevail against the opposition and take back control of the country – at least enough of it to stay in power. In front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made the blunt assessment that the Libyan government’s military might is stronger than had been described, and over the long term “the regime will prevail.”
This and developments on the ground will give further impetus to those who want an international intervention in Libya. The Obama administration remains very hesitant, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying this week that any intervention must be backed by a U.N. resolution and should not be led by the United States. However, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron co-wrote a letter this week urging NATO to draft up plans for a no-fly zone, and Downing Street is also considering air strikes against airstrips in Libya to prevent Gaddafi’s air force from being used.
Leaving aside moral and political considerations of a no-fly zone, which we have covered here before, what about the practical aspects of enforcing it? Is it that hard to prevent the Libyan fighters from attacking opposition forces? Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that any no-fly zone would mean airstrikes on Libyan air defenses:
A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.
Nicholas Kristof argued this week that a no-fly zone is not that difficult. He had spoken with Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff, who couldn’t “imagine an easier military problem.”
If we can’t impose a no-fly zone over a not even third-rate military power like Libya, then we ought to take a hell of a lot of our military budget and spend it on something usable.
General McPeak argued that the United States could flying fighters over the area controlled by the opposition would be enough to deter Libyan fighters. The United States wouldn’t even have to maintain a 24/7 coverage over Libya, as the threat of interception would keep Libyan pilots from dropping bombs and, possibly, encourage them to defect.
The general’s assessment might be a tad optimistic, bordering on cocky, but the capabilities of the Libyan air force and air defense should not be overestimated. Thanks to Politico’s Morning Defense newsletter on Friday, I came across an analysis of the Libyan SAM (surface to air missiles) network, written by Sean O’Connor in May 2010.
Through open sources (primarily Google Earth) and with satellite footage, O’Connor shows what air defense capabilities Libya has. It consists primarily of Soviet-era SAM sites (S-75, S-125, and S-200), with Italian and Soviet-made radars. Almost all the systems are stationed across the western and eastern coastline, with Tripoli being best defended. According to a friend of mine, who used to be an officer in the Norwegian air force, these systems are old and should be very familiar to NATO.
O’Connor concludes his analysis by saying that while Libya has one of the best air defenses in Northern Africa, it is not without its flaws. It is based on outdated Soviet technology and the layout leaves several holes left to be exploited. The current network was unable to stop U.S. air strikes in 1986 (one F-111 was shot down by AAA fire), and “there is no reason to suspect that it will be capable of [repelling an attack] today.”
There might be other air defense systems not covered in O’Connor’s analysis, and the fear is that Gaddafi has placed SAM sites in populated areas. This should be a real concern as civilian casualties in an international intervention would be a public relations disaster. Still, the practical challenge of implementing a no-fly zone is perhaps easier than what some would lead you to believe. U.S. hesitance about a no-fly zone appears to be more based on political considerations and fear that air strikes and no-fly zones would inevitably lead to a ground intervention. These fears are not unwarranted, which makes the need for a realistic and comprehensive discussion over intervention essential.
Edit: Spencer Ackerman over at Danger Room has spoken with some air force veterans about how a no-fly zone would be implemented. Check it out here.