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Mar 19, 2011 | 23:29 GMT

4 mins read

Libya: The Coalition Campaign Begins

Coalition fighter jets began striking targets on the ground in Libya on March 19, reportedly including the armor of forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi on the outskirts of Benghazi, the rebel capital. The idea of targeting individual tanks in the opening gambit of an air campaign is noteworthy. While the objective of military operations against Libya is ostensibly to prevent civilian casualties, the military imperative at the onset of any air campaign is the suppression of enemy air defenses as well as command, control and communications facilities. This is the way the United States and NATO have come to understand air campaigns — establish air superiority, crush the enemy's ability to threaten coalition aircraft and isolate the enemy's forces by denying their leader the ability to direct them. Media reports about battle damage, particularly in the opening hours of an air campaign, are almost always inaccurate. During the 1999 air campaign on Kosovo, multiple tanks were reported destroyed every day when in fact only a handful were destroyed in the course of the entire three and a half monthlong air campaign. In addition, the targeting of ZSU-23/4 tracked, self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery may be reported as tanks being destroyed. But there is always the question of who is making the final call on the prioritization of the target set. In Libya, the political justification for operations emphasizes holding the line and defending Benghazi. So while the military imperative is establishing the ability to operate unimpeded in Libyan airspace and preventing Gadhafi from commanding his forces, European political decision-makers in particular may be advocating an immediate targeting of Libyan forces outside Benghazi (though attacking armor in an urban setting at night entails considerable risk of civilian casualties). (click here to enlarge image) The first published footage of the initial attack aircraft launch was from mainland European bases in France, though this is probably more a reflection of the position of the media than it is a reflection of the disposition of operational forces. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada and the United States are reportedly involved, though it does not yet appear that U.S. fighter aircraft are directly striking targets in Libya. Spanish and Danish fighters are reportedly being positioned at U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella on Sicily. However, while forces move into position closer to Libya — a process that is already under way — initial strike packages and combat air patrols will have to be generated from farther out than is ideal for this kind of operation, limiting sortie-generation rates and time on station. These metrics will improve over time as squadrons arrive at more forward locations and as French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle arrives on station; it is slated to sail from Toulon on March 20. More than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles have reportedly been launched from U.S. and British attack submarines and warships in the Mediterranean, targeting fixed strategic air-defense and command, control and communications facilities. Otherwise, U.S. participation appears limited to a supporting role. Ultimately, the fact that Libya is directly across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe means that there are more than enough air bases and combat aircraft to apply overwhelming airpower to Libyan airspace. The issue ultimately involves the inherent limitations of airpower to suppress Gadhafi's forces on the ground, particularly those that are already positioned in built-up urban areas, and the ability of airpower to achieve larger political objectives in Libya. It is possible — if not likely — that some kind of special operations forces (e.g., British Special Air Service, French Foreign Legion) are already on the ground providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as forward-air-control functions. If so, coalition airpower can be employed more effectively against Gadhafi's forces in urban areas near Benghazi. But there is also the question of the status of the rebels. A rebel fighter jet was reportedly downed March 19 by a rebel SA-7 man-portable air-defense system, a reminder that rebel forces are limited in their capabilities and cohesion. While the airstrikes reportedly will continue until Gadhafi submits to Western demands, the demands themselves are vaguely worded. It is unclear exactly what Gadhafi must do for the airstrikes to cease and how much the coalition wants to destroy before ceasing operations. And then there is the question of what ultimately would be achieved by stopping Gadhafi's advance against the rebels.

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