The “war” in Libya is two months old. The fortunes of both sides have ebbed and flowed with government forces recently driving the rebels back almost to the gates of Benghazi, their capitol. NATO airstrikes continue with some 25 of Ghadaffi’s tanks destroyed over the weekend. At the same time, the lack of adequate air-ground communications has led to a number of mistaken attacks by NATO aircraft. Then there was the forced grounding by NATO of a rebel MIG-23 in the interest of maintaining impartiality in enforcement of the no-fly zone. Fairness is ordering one rebel plane to land as one destroys two dozen Ghadaffi tanks.
The course of the conflict in Libya since the imposition of a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and the initiation of U.S.-led airstrikes has been a testament to both the effectiveness and the limits of airpower. The combination of ship and submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and B-2 delivered JDAMs virtually wiped out Libyan air defenses within a few days. Operating as flying artillery, U.S. A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft and AC-130 gunships wreaked havoc on government armor and artillery. Under the umbrella of the initial round of airstrikes, Libyan rebels advanced almost to the outskirts of Ghadaffi’s headquarters in Tripoli.
Yet, today, the rebels are back where they started, struggling to defend their last bastion Benghazi from advancing government forces. What happened? First, the weather which when it turned bad prevented NATO from conducting airstrikes. Then there was the lack of adequate forward air controllers to identify hostile targets and guide incoming airstrikes. The lack of eyes on the targets has led to a number of friendly-fire incidents. Another limiting factor has been the extensive use by government troops of camouflage and deception. Ghadaffi’s forces have figured out if they abandon military vehicles and use pickup trucks identical to those of the rebels, they can confuse NATO aircraft.
Perhaps the most significant limitation of airpower revealed by the Libyan conflict is the preoccupation in current airpower strategy with precision strikes. Precision is a worthwhile objective when conducting purely military operations. The ability to use the least aerial resources to achieve military objectives is certainly efficient. But it is not always effective. This is particularly the case when the objective of the aerial bombardment is political rather than military.
In Libya, recent experiences have spotlighted airpower’s two essential weaknesses. The first is that without an adequate ground capability even total dominance of the air is insufficient to force a conflict to conclusion. The rebel forces lack the means — numbers, training, firepower, ammunition and organization — to capitalize on the effects of airstrikes. Success in Libya may not see American boots on the ground but it does require someone to deploy them.
The second weakness is in the nature of precision airpower. In essence, modern airpower can be too precise, too selective and too antiseptic. The only way of forcing Ghadaffi to cease attacking the rebels, short of successfully destroying every tank, artillery piece, truck and gun in his arsenal, is by inflicting sufficient pain on him and his supporters that a political settlement is considered the better course. The campaign against Slobodan Milosevic succeeded only when NATO conducted a campaign against Serbian economic targets, essentially against the people of Serbia.
Modern airpower pretends that wars can be clean and neat. But the essence of war is political. In order to achieve the desired political ends, against determined adversaries, the infliction of pain on those adversaries and their supporters may be the only path.
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