As the situation in Libya quickly evolves, a coalition consisting of the United States, European powers and Arab partners is positioning itself to follow through with military operations authorized by the United Nations. If air power alone can prevent loyalist artillery from moving within range of Benghazi and other opposition population centers, it may well achieve the U.N. resolution's stated objective of preventing civilian casualties. But airstrikes often entail civilian casualties, and it is not at all clear how many civilians might die in the preparatory air campaign that would accompany any military operation in Libya.
Efforts continue by the United States, its NATO allies and Arab partners to position themselves for U.N.-authorized military action against Libya. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has announced a unilateral cease-fire, but how he will honor the cease-fire and whether he will accede to more stringent demands being made by the international community remain unclear. Thus, the potential for U.N. military operations against Libya is still very much on the table. If military action is undertaken, it will likely begin with at least the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. It has already been made clear that this would involve more than just conducting combat air patrols and would likely involve strikes against Libyan air defenses and the Libyan air force as well as command, control and communications targets. Such an operation is readily achievable by any single coalition partner’s air force. (click here to enlarge image) But Gadhafi’s air force is only a minor supporting element of the assault by loyalists on what remains of rebel forces. Enforcing a no-fly zone alone is a largely symbolic act and would not have a meaningful impact on the operational environment on the ground in Libya, nor will it prevent further civilian casualties. Because the rebel defensive lines are already collapsing city by city as Gadhafi’s forces advance, a more effective option might be to enforce a “no-drive” zone between Ajdabiya, where loyalist forces are already in position, and the rebel capital of Benghazi — and perhaps eastward to Tobruk, the last energy export terminal still in rebel hands. Though located in the far northeastern corner of the country, Tobruk is directly connected by road to Ajdabiya and is a significant objective because it is where the road splits. The open stretches of desert between rebel-held zones and Gadhafi’s forces would make columns of military vehicles an easy target for airpower. The campaign required to suppress enemy air defenses and conduct bombing and strafing runs against moving vehicles in the open is unlike combat air patrols and bombing fixed air force targets, which can be done from high altitudes. The former requires aircraft to drop below 15,000 feet, within range of SA-7 man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS, of which Libya has several hundred) and then into the range of “trash fire,” or anti-aircraft artillery. Both have been seen deployed with loyalist forces. The SA-7 is an early generation MANPAD and is more easily decoyed than more modern designs, but it is widely dispersed and man-portable and uses passive guidance so it cannot be destroyed in a campaign to suppress enemy air defenses (SEAD). Coming in low and fast can offer one defense for coalition aircraft, but the destruction of Gadhafi’s air force as well as older and larger strategic air-defense systems will not eliminate the threat. The loss of an F-117 over Serbia in 1999 is a reminder that even dated anti-aircraft hardware, competently employed, can pose a danger. While airpower could be used to deny Gadhafi's forces access to cities they have not yet reached, it cannot eject those forces from cities they have already entered. Delivering ordnance precisely while minimizing civilian casualties in an urban environment is difficult enough with forward air controllers on the ground identifying targets. Without them it is far more challenging — and in many cases prohibitive. While military units, weapons and installations could be targeted, many would not be realistic targets if the goal is to avoid civilian casualties. Indeed, Gadhafi could easily employ human shields, raising the prospect for even higher civilian casualties. In cities that Gadhafi loyalists have already taken, rebels who were trapped or remained behind are probably already being rounded up by Gadhafi’s internal security forces. Despite insistence by a French official on March 17 that airstrikes would begin within a matter of hours after passage of the U.N. resolution, it is not clear how much is already in place in case Gadhafi breaks his own cease-fire, which Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa declared on March 18 at about 2 p.m. local time. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, for example, is not expected to sail from Toulin for another two days — though the Italian aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi has been put to sea and will join the USS Kearsarge off the coast of Libya. Both carry small complements of Harriers that alone are insufficient for the complete spectrum of operations under discussion. Various naval assets armed with cruise missiles are also in the area. A matter of days in this sort of situation is an enormous amount of time. While more time would allow the Europeans to make political arrangements, prepare plans and position their forces, it would also allow Gadhafi to give his forces in the east time to rest, regroup and rearm, and would allow him to consolidate his position across the country, disperse his military and prepare for airstrikes. Ultimately, if airpower can prevent Gadhafi’s BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other artillery from moving within range of Benghazi and the remaining opposition population centers, it may well achieve the U.N. resolution's clearly stated objective of preventing civilian casualties. But airstrikes entail civilian casualties, and it is not at all clear how many civilians might die in the SEAD and bombing campaigns that would accompany any military operation in Libya. In actuality, it is not entirely clear what the true mission would be. The U.N. resolution said its mission was to protect Libyan civilians, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said March 18, shortly after Tripoli announced it would implement a cease-fire, that the result of any negotiations that might ensue must lead to Gadhafi's departure. U.S. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, said Gadhafi must redeploy his forces from all of eastern Libya as well as cities in the west, such as Zawiya and Misurata, adding that these terms are non-negotiable. All of the parties involved in the looming air campaign have gone out of their way to ensure the world that they do not plan on inserting ground troops into Libya. But Gadhafi cannot be defeated or removed from power from the air. As a result, how much airpower alone will achieve in the way of broader political objectives, or toward a lasting resolution of the crisis, remains a very open question.