More CAS for Libyan insurgents

Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya has hit 80 days. I’d like to draw a comparison between the Kosovo war air campaign and the one currently going on in Libya, and provide some suggestions on what can be done better.

Libya is a thinly populated dessert flatland whereas Kosovo where Serb ground forced hid and operated is hilly, forested and mountainous. Libya is no Serbia in military prowess either, hence the surprise that the campaign there has gone beyond the 78 days that it took for Milosevic to give up. Whereas Milosevic had a way out as NATO merely wanted his forces out of Kosovo but did not intent to replace Milosevic, the insurgents in Libya seek his departure and complete regime change. What this means is that Qaddafi and the elite around him who have perpetuated his regime are likely to face the wrath of future victors, hence they would rather fight to the end. As an alternative to Gaddafi leaving, NATO and the insurgents should offer an amnesty to the Gaddafi close circle who leave before a cut-off date but rule that out for anyone indicted or investigated by the ICC.

The Kosovo campaign saw a slow but steady ramp-up of operations as the continental European weather improved from March when total allied aircraft numbered 344 (214 US, 130 other allies) to more than 1031 (731 US, at least 300 other allies) by the end of the campaign in June. A total of 10,484 strike sorties were flown, or an average of 134 per day. If you consider that out of those 78 days, 54 were impeded by weather, you can feel the pressure that was increasingly being brought upon Milosevic’s forces. But the weather in Libya does not seem to be a hindrance to air operations and the number of strike sorties has fallen from around 70 in the initial days when the US carrying most of the load to a stable 50 today as NATO has ran out of targets or is not willing to engage them for fear of collateral damage.

While UN Security Council Resolution 1973 providing the authorization for the Libya action provides for protection of civilians only, in ex-Yugoslavia humanitarian law was the only limitation. Nevertheless, despite Resolution 1973, more can be done in the first place. NATO it appears has not touched key regime apparatus infrastructure such as the intelligence service headquarters and the TV station which continues to spew Gadaffi’s propaganda, providing crucial psychological support for the regime.

NATO can support the insurgents more closely by coordinating their actions with the insurgents. While there have been a few indication of the two cooperating, this seems to be more concerned with clearing up the ground for NATO pilots than operating alongside and supporting each other. Yet this is where most of the gains are to be made.

NATO needs to train forward air controllers (FAC), a slight stretch of the Resolution if done outside Libya or by civilian contractors inside Libya, or put its own FACs on the ground, possibly unacceptable under the current Resolution, although currently implemented at unknown numbers through the military liasions between certain Western special forces and insurgent forces. An Al Jazeera report recently showed a rebel scouting for NATO Gaddafi forces positions with a GPS and radio behind enemy lines for NATO air interdiction operations. There needs to be more of those, but close air support (CAS) is even more desirable, especially in the desert flatlands, to clear up the insurgent force’s advance path out of the Grad missiles and other artillery that sends them running back for cover. Also, it was indicated that there is no direct contact between the FAC and NATO pilots, a bridge that needs to be built if there is to be any increase in the level of effectiveness of this method.

In the Kosovo air campaign the single most successful event was an air raid in the Pashtrik Mountain region in the border with Albania that came in the last days of the war. The Atlantic battalion consisting of Albanian-Americans with a hotline to the US forces was pushing from Albania exposing and concentrating Serb forces. A massive B52 raid proved a critical break in the Serb force’s will to fight.

The use of FACs in Afghanistan proved a resounding success, with US special forces operating as FAC alongside the weakened Northern Alliance in the push that saw the take over of Afghanistan against battle-hardened Taliban. Yet to achieve this mission A10’s and AC130’s are the tools, something only the US can provide whereas the shiny new European jets are much less effective.

In conclusion, a change of tactics and tools and a greater involvement of the US is needed if the mission is to be completed faster, with less urban warfare, and with less acrimony which will make post-war reconciliation much harder. Outdated French Gazelles and and American UAVs just won’t cut it.

Edited to add Pashtrik breakout paragraph.

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