The debate over the rationale and wisdom of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya has been intensifying in recent days with former senior DoD and State Department officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations weighing in. Proponents have argued for imposing a no-fly zone in terms of humanitarian concerns, the desirability of supporting a popular and potentially democratic revolution and the beneficial effects on international stability and security of ousting Ghaddafi. Opponents question the centrality of Libya to U.S. international interests, lack of understanding of who we would be supporting and the possibility of friendly casualties.
Neither side in the no-fly zone debate questions the ability of the West to implement such a policy. Indeed, it is virtually an article of faith among disputants that the U.S. alone could do it. So governments and pundits alike have the luxury of considering the political and economic factors on either side of the issue secure in the knowledge that there are virtually no military-technical impediments to implementing such a policy.
The reason it is an article of faith in this debate that a no-fly zone could be implemented is because the United States has spent decades creating the military capabilities and weapons systems that would allow U.S. and allied forces to exercise rapid and decisive control of the air. What is the first thing that NATO did as the situation in Libya deteriorated? It deployed U.S.-made AWACS over the Mediterranean to conduct air surveillance. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently acknowledged the breadth of U.S. military power by warning that it would take two U.S. aircraft carriers to conduct a fully effective air interdiction campaign over Libya. Wow. Two aircraft carriers — plus escorts — with their squadrons of F/A-18E/F Hornets and E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes is enough. Perhaps there would be the need to support the carrier air wings with aerial refueling by U.S.-KC-135 and KC-10 tankers. That is pretty good.
Responding to Gates’ claim that a no-fly zone would require attacking Libyan air defense sites, several commentators have pointed out that this is not necessarily true. I argued in an earlier blog that the U.S. could employ its limited fleet of F-22 fighters to implement a no-fly zone over eastern Libya. The F-22 was designed to operate in air defense environments infinitely more challenging than that which it would face in Libya. With its aerodynamic and sensor advantages over Libyan aircraft, the F-22 could engage hostile aircraft without them ever being aware that they were under attack. A recent blog by two analysts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments pointed out that U.S. or NATO warships equipped with the Aegis air defense system and Standard Missiles could protect cities and other targets close to the Libyan coast from the security of international waters. If Ghaddafi were to retaliate by launching ballistic missiles at nearby NATO territory, those same U.S. surface combatants with an enhanced Aegis system and the advanced Standard Missile 3 could be employed against them.
Hopefully, a decision to intervene in the Libyan revolt will be made on strategic and political grounds. But if some kind of military action is required, including a humanitarian operation, it is good to know that the question of capability to do so will not be at issue. For that we can thank a generation of Pentagon leaders and the biggest defense industrial base in the world.
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