As the air campaign over Libya enters its third night, command of military operations will soon transfer from the United States to either the Europeans or NATO. By most accounts, the opening gambit of the air campaign went well and was effective in achieving initial objectives — destroying or suppressing air defenses and destroying what remained of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s air force. The loyalist drive toward Benghazi appears to have been halted, and the rebels have made tentative movements toward Ajdabiyah. There were no reports of combat losses; also, the coalition has not acknowledged responsibility for any civilian casualties.
This is not a surprise. The coalition air campaign, with ready, uncontested access to regional air bases, has become a hallmark of U.S. and NATO military operations. Though complex, it is a discipline of warfare that has been carefully refined, and there was little doubt that within days, the coalition would get to this point. The issue was never the ability to apply airpower to Libya. The problem of Libya is twofold. The first is what the coalition seeks to achieve and what forces it is willing to dedicate to that end, a subject about which there has been glaring contradiction from the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The second is the the applicability of airpower to that problem, however it is ultimately defined.
Airpower alone cannot force Gadhafi from power unless his position can be pinpointed and he can thereby be killed. Even if Gadhafi is killed, forces loyal to him cannot be removed from built-up urban areas without the risk of massive civilian casualties. At its core, Gadhafi’s forces are not tanks or artillery pieces — and certainly were not combat aircraft before they were destroyed. Gadhafi’s forces remain a ruthless internal security force loyal to the regime and oriented toward the management of internal dissent. At its heart, this is a light infantry force.
Dismounted forces in an urban area are difficult to target by fast moving aircraft even when forward air controllers are on the ground and are able to talk to and guide aircraft. Doing so still entails a significant risk of civilian casualties and in any event, aircraft are not the ideal tool for that job unless the entire area can be declared hostile.
So, the coalition is rapidly running up against a fundamental incompatibility with the air campaign. The objective is to prevent civilian casualties. Even setting aside the fact that airpower is not a precise tool and that its continued application will in all likelihood entail civilian casualties, the problem is that the danger to civilian lives is ground forces loyal to Gadhafi. While some of those forces were caught in the open in readily identifiable armor, others will continue to move in civilian vehicles and perhaps not even wear uniforms. For example, with troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Western military forces struggle to distinguish between and protect local populations from Taliban intimidation. It is not possible to do this from the air.
The question was never one of establishing air superiority over Libyan skies. The question remains what the coalition will do with that air superiority to further its objective. Control of the skies over Libya can help defend Benghazi from loyalist formations of armor, but it does not provide control of the streets in Tripoli. With or without Gadhafi, the country remains fractious and divided. The coalition has stepped into the fray in support of a loosely affiliated opposition that has thus far failed to coalesce into a meaningful military force capable of challenging Gadhafi. The removal of Gadhafi ‘s air force and the reduction in his ability to move conventional military vehicles do not fundamentally alter the underlying tactical equation: Loyalist forces have proved dedicated and capable; the opposition’s forces have not.
It is at this point in the air campaign that the question of “what is next” begins to become much less abstract and much more real.