Source Link: Stratfor
A U.S. Air Force F-15E “Strike Eagle” crashed overnight in northeast Libya while conducting air operations. The airplane apparently experienced an equipment malfunction at about 10:30 p.m. local time on March 21, and both pilots ejected safely. Normally based out of Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, the aircraft was operating from the U.S.-administered Aviano Air Base in Italy and likely belonged to the 492nd or 494th Fighter Squadron of the 48th Fighter Wing.
Like civilian casualties, the loss of aircraft in an air campaign is to be expected, even in a mission with an ostensible humanitarian objective. The use of weapons entails inherent risk to users and bystanders as well as targets, and high operational tempos and sortie rates — something that Western militaries train to sustain – still put a strain on aircrews, maintenance personnel and machines alike.
In the current air campaign over Libya, as long as losses are kept to a low level, there is little indication they will have a meaningful effect on operations. Losses of combat aircraft in the 1999 Kosovo air campaign did not impact the overall mission. What must be watched for is any indication that forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have found a way to effectively target coalition aircraft. As targets that can be hit by cruise missiles or from higher altitudes dwindle and rebel operations continue to require close-air support, more and more aircraft will be forced to drop below 15,000 feet. This will put them first into the range of SA-7 man-portable air-defense systems in the hands of both Gadhafi’s forces and the rebels (who reportedly used one to accidentally shoot down one of their own planes) and then anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Both will remain a persistent threat, though the SA-7s in Libya are old and are more easily decoyed than more modern designs and AAA must be operated proficiently to be a serious threat.
By this point, the easily identified and targeted air defenses have largely been taken out. Other, more mobile SA-6s, SA-8s, SA-9s, SA-13s and French-built Crotales will be harder to eliminate and harder to target due to fears of civilian casualties — hence reports that electronic warfare aircraft are jamming AAA-system radars when they are activated but are not always engaging the vehicles with anti-radiation missiles. While jamming may prove fairly effective with these older systems, the threat is not being eliminated completely.
Ultimately, the concern is not modest combat losses but civilian casualties turning the tide of world opinion — and particularly the widely varied opinion on the Arab street. There, perception matters as much as or more than facts on the ground — and air campaigns entail considerable uncertainty as events rapidly evolve and battle damage is assessed remotely by aircraft or satellite.