As Libyan rebels solidify their control over that country’s capital and the Gaddafi regime appears on its last legs, pundits are already rushing to talk about managing the post-rebellion political situation. Their time might be better spent considering the military lessons of the Libyan campaign for future U.S. defense planning. I can come up with five.
1. The decisive impact of Western intervention. It is clear that Tripoli would not today be a liberated city and the Libyans a free people without Western intervention. More specifically, it was the judicious use of NATO airpower that was decisive in saving the rebels from early defeat and in eventually tipping the balance of power in their favor. No intervention, no successful revolution. Given criticisms from the Left and the Right about U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya presents an important counterpoint to the critique that modern militaries such as ours cannot be effective in irregular wars.
2. The continuing value of airpower. Airpower made the difference for the Libyan rebels. The air war was won because of decades of investment in the capabilities to conduct rapid and decisive air operations. NATO’s ability to dominate the air space over Libya allowed the alliance to deliver air strikes at will as well as employ a range of capabilities including Apache attack helicopters, Predator, Fire Scout and Scan Eagle UAVs, and V-22s. Air dominance was achieved through the use of specialized weapons such as sea launched cruise missiles to attack Gaddafi’s air defense sites and the EA-18G airborne electronic warfare aircraft to jam his radars.
3. The importance of investments in enablers. While the focus of news reports about NATO operations was strike sorties, the real story is the critical role of enablers. These include space systems, airborne intelligence collectors, tankers and command and control platforms, and combat search and rescue aircraft. But it also includes intelligence teams to process information collected and air operations planners to direct operations. Ironically, the U.S. had to provide most of these enablers because our NATO allies had never made the necessary investment in critical enablers.
4. Boots on the ground are not always the answer. The Libyan revolution was won by a combination of NATO airpower and rebel ground forces. It might have been won more quickly if NATO had deployed ground forces. But then we would have owned the war and its aftermath. It took longer and may have resulted in more bloodshed this way but the Libyans now own the conflict and what follows. It is important to realize that air and sea power are sometimes enough.
5. The importance of U.S. military power in a dangerous and unpredictable world. The tsunami of popular revolution now sweeping the Middle East is the third wave of upheavals in this region in the past six decades. The first in the 1950s and early 1960s brought to power dictators such as Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak. The second wave, in the late 1970s and 1980s gave us the Iranian mullahs, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. So far, the third wave holds out hope for the rise of popular democracies. But it is just that, a hope not a certainty. The U.S. has enduring interests in this region. They include access to oil, freedom of navigation through critical waterways and the liberty and security of key friends and allies in the region. The U.S. must maintain the ability to project decisive military power into this critical and volatile region.
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