The debate over the imposition of a no-fly zone is paralyzed by the specter of the U.S. having to attack Libyan surface to air missile (SAM) sites as a precursor to such an operation. Secretary of Defense Gates effectively shut down discussion of the no-fly option when he asserted in testimony that such an operation would begin with attacks on Libyan SAM sites.
Apparently, the Secretary forgot that he has an airplane specifically designed to operate in contested airspace, full of hostile SAMs and aircraft. It is the world’s first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22. With its stealth features, supercruise power and advanced sensors, the F-22 is designed to operate against air defenses operating so-called triple digit SAMs and lots of fighters. This is a much tougher air defense environment than existed in Iraq in 2003 or exists today in Libya. The existing fleet of F-22s supported by the necessary enablers such as AWACS should be able to extend a no-fly zone over the rebel-held portion of Libya.
A problem like Libya will be even easier to solve when the U.S. deploys its other fifth-generation aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in a few years. The F-35 also will have stealth features and advanced sensors to defeat air defenses. Designed as a strike aircraft for heavy air defense environments, the F-35 would be perfect for conducting operations against Libyan targets. But in addition, the F-35 also will be deployed on ships. There is one variant designed for aircraft carriers and another, the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) F-35B, which will be able to deploy from large deck amphibious warfare ships such as the two now off Libya’s shores. Replacing the aging Harrier aircraft the Marines currently fly, the STOVL F-35 will carry a significant payload of smart bombs and air-to-air missiles to longer ranges while maintaining a stealthy flight profile. When paired with the carrier-capable E-2D Hawkeye, ship-based F-35s could enforce a no-fly zone without the need for land-based combat or surveillance aircraft.
The idea that the will of the Free World and the ability of the U.S. military to operate where and when it chooses can be stymied by the threat from the obsolescent, poorly-maintained and badly trained Libyan air defense system is ludicrous. With its fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22 and soon the F-35, the U.S. military should be able virtually to ignore those defenses and stop Libyan air operations cold today.
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