The mad dog of the Middle East and the Chihuahuas of the West
“Let’s just call a spade a spade,” Mr. Gates said. “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. 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.”
Therefore, a no-fly zone would begin with airstrikes on known air defense sites. But it would likely continue with sustained patrols by SEAD aircraft armed with anti-radiation missiles poised to rapidly confront any subsequent threat that pops up. Keeping those aircraft on station for an extended period of time would be necessary, along with an unknown number of strikes. It is uncertain where the radars and missiles are located, and those airstrikes would not be without error. When search radars and especially targeting radars are turned on, the response must be instantaneous, while the radar is radiating (and therefore vulnerable) and before it can engage. That means there will be no opportunity to determine whether the sites are located in residential areas or close to public facilities such as schools or hospitals.
CROWLEY: You know what? President Reagan called Muammar Qaddafi the mad dog of the Middle East. Well, the mad dog of the Middle East just met the Chihuahua of the West in President Obama.
As you probably know, during the last week the forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have overrun the rebel-held az Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf. The rebel force between Ras Lanouf and Brega appears collapsing and at this rate Gaddafi's forces may soon start marching on Benghazi itself. Naturally, as the regime forces intensify pressure on the rebels, the controversy around the no fly zone grows more intense both internationally and domestically within the US and Europe. So here is the map of the Libyan SAM network again with a map of Libya's cities below.
What you should do is to locate the city of Ras Lanuf on both maps since this is where the rebels and regime forces are currently fighting each other. By juxtaposing the two maps, you should then find the next concentration of air defenses to the right. It basically overlaps with the city of Benghazi, currently under the control of the opposition. The next air defense bases are the cities of Darna and Tobruk, but everything to the east of Benghazi seems to be in the opposition hands. Basically you don't have air defenses anywhere near Ras Lanuf for the very simple reason that the Libyan SAM network is designed to protect big cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi. Neither to the left you have any air defenses until you reach the city of Misratah. Given that Misratah is presently under the opposition control, it's not even obvious that its SAM defenses are operational.
What's the moral of the story? There may exist many reasons why the West should try to avoid getting drawn into the business of setting up no-fly zones over Libya. However, from the purely military perspective a no-fly zone is a pretty safe business. The country is huge, but for most practical purposes Libya is no more than a highway and a string of port cities along the coast. The fighting mostly goes in two locations. The first one is a point on the Benghazi Tripoli axis where Gaddafi and rebel forces are facing each other, right now it's Brega and Ras Lanuf. The second one is a rebel enclave in Gaddafi's backyard around the city of Misratah.
Basically, the rebels are not interested in any no-fly zone over Tripoli since they don't control the capital anyway. The opposition needs only two limited no-fly zones over Ras Lanuf and Misratah. This a very small area to monitor and control. As far as Ras Lanuf is concerned there are no air defenses there at all and it's not obvious that those of Misratah are operational. From the opposition's perspective, if NATO can stop the advance of Gaddafi's forces towards Benghazi along the coast, the rebels are safe everywhere except Misratah.
Stratfor seems to have spotted a multitude of potential difficulties in Libya, but in reality it's the easiest topography for military operations one can find around. The terrain is flat and the rival forces are operating along a highway near the coast, Gadaffi's forces and their armor being totally exposed to attacks from the air.
Basically, all NATO has to do is to position a couple of US carriers opposite Misratah and Ras Lanuf at the distance of a few minutes of of flight from the shore, and wait for a call from the rebels or an alert from an AWACS system. Gaddafi fighter planes can be grounded by destroying runways on government controlled airports. Helicopters are not fast enough to get away anyway. The rebels were apparently also requesting air strikes against armor and artillery positions. It's hard to see why these should be challenging targets for NATO planes. As an extra bonus, all rebel strongholds are port cities that can be easily resupplied with food and fuel from the sea, no land access and ground troops are needed.
Of course it's none of the NATO business to assist the rebels in retaking cities. Winning the civil war is the rebels responsibility. But there is no military challenge in imposing a couple of coastal mini no-fly zones with a view of blocking Gaddafi's advances to the east and protecting Misratah. Targeting tanks and vehicles moving across an open area is an exercise for beginning pilots. Neither ground troops are required, nor a massive air campaign. It's a matter of political will only. No fear! Forward, Obamahuas!
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