The coalition of nations flying over Libya to protect civilians under UN Resolution 1973 is still flying some 150 sorties daily. Countries contributing aircraft are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Qatar, the Netherlands, Spain, the UAE, the UK and the U.S.
NATO took command of the renamed Operation Unified Protector on March 31. The U.S. has now withdrawn its fighter jets to standby, but continues to provide specialist support, including aerial refueling (KC-135s); electronic warfare (EA-18Gs); maritime patrol (P-3s); psychological operations (EC-130s); search and rescue (MV-22s); and SIGINT (signals intelligence, RC-135 and EP-3).
The initial campaign to neutralize Libya’s integrated but elderly air defense system appears to have been successful, with no subsequent reports of firings of SA-2, SA-3 or SA-5 missiles. Libya’s air force was also effectively disabled. However, mobile SAMs remain a threat, including the improved version of the Russian Igla infrared-guided and truck-mounted SAM, designated SA-24.
The offensive counter-air campaign took a familiar course, with submarine-launched Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting missile sites, radars and command and control facilities. A few targets were also attacked by air-launched cruise missiles, that is the MBDA Storm Shadow and Scalp launched from British Tornado GR4 and French Mirages and Rafales, respectively. The sheer number of cruise missiles expended is noteworthy: by the eighth day of the campaign, the U.S. had fired 184 BGM-109s from ships and submarines.
As for airfields, there was one attack by three American Northrop B-2s, flying a 24-hour round-robin mission from their home base in Missouri. The stealth bombers were employed as much for their ability to drop 15 independently targeted JDAM (joint direct attack munition) bombs each on hardened aircraft shelters, as for their stealth capability.
Meanwhile, air-ground strikes intended to protect civilians have been problematic, as they have not prevented Gaddafi regime forces from continuing to terrorize civilians in western and central Libyan cities. Bad weather further reduced the coalition’s ability to intervene for some days.
The Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership confirmed on April 1 that the rebels could not be properly aided without committing ground troops, a solution that was ruled out. They said that regime change remained a political goal, not a military one.
But Gaddafi’s forces would continue to be “degraded” by coalition airpower. On April 5, NATO claimed that one-third of the regime’s ground forces had been destroyed. Unsurprisingly, regime troops are now using light vehicles to move around, rather than the tanks and armored fighting vehicles that can be targeted by airstrikes.
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the cost of the Libyan operation to the U.S. alone was at least $400 million in the first week, including $260 million to replace the expended cruise missiles and JDAMs.