Although rebel forces have gained hardly any ground in Libya, NATO officials are still optimistic that airpower alone will eventually force Col. Ghaddafi’s regime from power. To that end, air strikes have increasingly focused on Libya’s defense and security infrastructure, including vehicle, ammunition and missile depots; intelligence and secret police headquarters; the presidential complex in Tripoli; and other command and control sites.
“The organization of Col. Ghaddafi’s apparatus of repression is increasingly well understood as our intelligence improves daily, and senior members of the regime defect,” noted a British defense spokesman. NATO defense ministers have approved an extension until late September for Operation Unified Protector.
Helicopter attacks began on the night of June 3 when French Army Tiger HAPs and Gazelles based on the assault ship Tonnerre and British Army AH-64 Apaches from HMS Albion struck coastal targets. Their introduction could improve targeting of irregularly disposed and semi-concealed regime troops, especially in urban areas, but it is not yet clear whether NATO commanders will accept the risk of using them during daylight hours. No participating country has yet admitted sending air liaison officers into Libya to work with rebel forces.
By June 8, the aircraft of 11 NATO and four allied countries had flown 10,290 sorties, of which 3,907 were equipped for strike missions. NATO said that almost 1,800 targets had been damaged or destroyed, including some 500 tanks, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers.
The burden of strike missions appears to have fallen disproportionately on British and French air forces, which contribute 20 percent and 30 percent of the total respectively, according to AIN’s estimate. France has employed Rafales, Mirage 2000s and Super Etendards, while the UK has used Tornados and Typhoons.
The balance of strike missions have been flown by Italian Tornados and F-16s; Canadian F/A-18C/Ds; and Belgian, Danish, Jordanian, Norwegian and UAE F-16s. The UAE has also flown Mirage 2000-9s in the strike role, marking a combat debut for the MBDA PGM-500 Hakim weapon that was specifically designed for that Gulf state. Dutch and Turkish F-16s, Spanish EF-18s, Swedish Gripens and Qatar’s Mirage 2000s have flown air superiority missions.
The U.S. is still providing about 75 percent of the refueling and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) sorties, as well as Hellfire-equipped Predator UAVs, and EC-130Js for psychological warfare. There has been at least one leaflet-dropping sortie over Tripoli, performed by an Italian C-130J.
The Libyan operation has inevitably provided a proving ground and a showcase for offensive air systems, about which manufacturers will no doubt remind visitors to the Paris Air Show later this month.