AIN Blog: The Limits of Air Power over Libya

 - March 30, 2011, 5:36 AM

The air campaign over Libya has rekindled the debate about what exactly air power can accomplish without “boots on the ground.” 

The First Gulf War, followed by the Iraq no-fly zones and the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, suggested to some theorists that much could be accomplished without recourse to ground troops. Then came the Second Gulf War and its bloody aftermath in Iraq, plus Afghanistan, to suggest that only full-scale, all-arms interventions can really lead to regime change.

Regime change is clearly the objective in Libya, yet none of the nations taking part in the action have apparently yet inserted small units of special forces to coordinate with the anti-Gaddafi rebels, and to direct close-air support. That’s how airpower made sure that the Taliban was ejected from government in 2001 and 2002. Eight years later, though, coalition troops are still mired deep in conflict in Afghanistan, while huge resources go into a “reconstruction” that still has a very uncertain outcome.

No wonder then the intervention in Libya has been so hedged with restrictions. That’s partly to help build the widest possible coalition of nations. But it’s also because Western electorates are unwilling to expend serious blood and treasure, even though in theory they support liberal interventionism. Furthermore, the rebels in Libya cannot be compared to the much stronger anti-Taliban forces, which were supported by air power in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.

Of course, some close-air support can be done from the air alone. The quality of electro-optics on modern warplanes enables the precision attack of armor and artillery by a new generation of dual-mode weapons. The French have been dropping Safran (Sagem) AASMs (the French acronym for “modular air-to-ground weapon”) from Rafales and Mirages, while the British have employed MBDA Brimstones from Tornado GR.4s.

But their targets so far have been out in the open desert. Where pro-Gaddafi forces have closed with the rebels inside urban areas, targeting the bad guys from the air alone is much more difficult. Military commanders argue that the desert air strikes, coupled with air attacks on communications nodes, are degrading the supply lines of Gaddafi’s mobile forces, and will achieve a cumulative effect. We shall see. No one can yet predict the outcome of the intervention in Libya.