Friday, March 18, 2011

Military action likely in Libya in the next 24 hours

The UN has called for a ceasefire in Libya and has voted to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. With the diplomacy finally complete, the way is clear for military operations in support of the Libyan rebels to begin. In response, Libya declared a cease fire and then stepped up attacks on the Libyan rebels, racing to advance as far as possible before UN-backed military strikes can make a difference. When will the nations with the UN mandate act?

In the right hand sidebar of this blog I have inserted a clock displaying the local time in Tripoli, Libya. As we have seen in the past, Western air forces prefer to initiate action at night when the air defenses of their opponents' are typical much weaker. I believe it is safe to predict that if the Western Allies do launch a military strike, it will be during the hours of darkness, when Muamar Qaddafi's air force will be unable to fight effectively. As I write this, it is nearly 9:00 PM EET, so darkness is falling over Libya right now.

What are the likely first targets?

1) Air Defenses - The Iraqi air defenses are, by 21st century standards, very crude. Libya has a handful of the now-ancient SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, SA-3 surface-to-air missiles, and SA-5 surface-to-air missiles. The most up-to-date of these systems dates from the late 1960s. Western air forces have previously met and overcome far more sophisticated air defenses in Iraq. The reality is that the operators of these missile systems would probably be too afraid to turn their radars on, as that would make them immediate targets for anti-radiation missiles.

2) Libyan Air Force - Libya possesses only a handful of airbases suitable for the operation of modern warplanes (see map below from Globalsecurity.org).

As this map shows, many of the Libyan Air Forces bases were located in the eastern coastal portion of Libya, where they could be used against Israel, and possibly Egypt. These bases have already fallen to the rebel Libyan forces, leaving Qaddafi's forces with only three major bases located in the western portion of Libya. The runways at these airbases will be a high-priority target. Using cratering munitions, the Western allies will try to ensure that none of Muamar Qaddafi's fixed wing jets will ever be able to take to the skies again.

Qaddafi's fixed wing aircraft pose almost no threat to the Allied jets that may attack them. The Libyan Air Force at its peak possessed fewer than 200 Soviet-era fighters and fighter bombers (MiG 21s, MiG-23s, and Su-22s). In addition, Qaddafi has purchased large numbers of jet trainers like the Aero L-39ZO and the Soko G-2 that are probably being used as light attack bombers. Even when they were brand new the MiG-21 and MiG-23 were no match for the Western jets that were their contemporaries. The West has, since then, moved several generations beyond these old jets.

The Western powers arrayed against Libya now: the United Kingdom, France, and Spain--boast advanced combat aircraft like the Tornado, the Typhoon, the Mirage 2000, the Rafale, and F/A-18 Hornets. It is possible that certain Arab League nations might contribute some advanced combat aircraft. The Egyptian Air Force boasts more than 200 F-16 Fighting Falcons and the Jordanian Air Force has another 50 of these effective fighters. If the Saudi Arabians decided to participate, they have about 150 of the excellent F-15 Eagle and 87 Tornadoes of the ground-attack variant.

These are the forces available exclusive of the United States. The United States could, without unduly stressing itself, contribute an aircraft carrier with perhaps 50 or 60 F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets. A covert first-strike by B-2 Spirits to crater Libyan runways is a possible first step in imposing a no-fly zone. A handful of B-2s could knock out all of Libya's operational airbases and be gone before the Libyan air defenses ever suspected they were there.

Any Libyan pilot who makes it into the air will probably immediately flee to a neutral country: attempting to fight air-to-air with Western or Arab League aircraft would be suicidal.

3) Interdiction - Even after Libya's air force is neutralized, the Libyan Army and mercenary forces loyal to Muamar Qaddafi remain far more formidable than the rebel forces facing them. While it might take longer without the aid of his air force, Qaddafi tanks and other armored forces would eventually overcome and slaughter the rebels on the ground. If the Western Allies and Arab League want to do more than delay the inevitable defeat of the Libyan rebels, they will need to strike Qaddafi's combat forces on the ground and interdict their supply routes back to western Libya.

This is potentially a much riskier endeavor, as it would require attack aircraft to descend to lower altitudes in order to indulge in "tank-plinking." The Western Allies have the ability to do this, but in doing so they would run the risk posed by small automatic anti-aircraft cannon. As threats go, this is a low order threat, but there is always the possibility that a Libyan gunner could get lucky and shoot down an aircraft in the ground attack role. The best aircraft for performing this role safe, the U.S. A-10, may not be available for this mission over Libya. It's participation would depend on the status of diplomacy and the Obama administration's desire for that level of involvement.

I do not foresee any on-the-ground involvement by the Western Allies. The rebels have not requested this involvement and western public opinion seems to oppose it. It is possible that the navies of the Western Allies could be used along Libya's northern coast to close coastal roads to military movements using shore bombardment, sea-launched cruise missiles, and to support the no-fly zone with ship-borne radars and ship-borne anti-aircraft missiles.

Both Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have issued ultimatums to Qaddafi. I think it is doubtful that Qaddafi will comply with these demands in a way that satisfies the Western Allies. Right now, all we can do is sit and wait to see who will make the first move and where.

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