West divided on Libya ‘no-fly’ options

Libya rebels.jpg

Britain and France are seeking UN authority for a no-fly zone over Libya but Western allies still appear divided over both the wisdom of the idea and exactly how it would be implemented.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said any implementation of a no-fly zone would involve a large-scale military operation, including strikes on Libyan air defences.

But Barak Seener, an analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said Britain appeared to favour a narrower plan limited to preventing flights in Libyan airspace but without a big preliminary campaign against ground targets.

Douglas Barrie, military aerospace expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, also said destroying air defences was not a prerequisite.

"There's no hard-and-fast rule in the establishment of a no-fly zone that you have to go in and take out all of your opponents air defences.

"It's desirable in that you would minimise the risks to your own air assets, but you don't have to do it. It comes down to how much risk you are willing to accept."

A limited no-fly zone could involve standing air patrols – which involve planes being permanently in the air – over a limited area – such as those above populated parts of Libya under rebel control. This would require far fewer aircraft.

"If you wanted to ensure nothing flew over all of Libya at any point you would need a substantial number of aircraft – probably in the low hundreds rather than tens," he said.

"If you are only talking about patrolling the areas with any population under opposition control, you'd not be talking so many – a lot of Libya is pretty empty sand and desert."

The rationale of a limited no-fly zone would also be to try to avoid escalation by making clear to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that this was in his hands, Barrie said.

Analysts say a no-fly zone would be well within capabilities of Western states, even if limited to US and British forces.

The US Sixth Fleet, based at Naples, includes two aircraft carriers and around 175 planes.

And while Britain no longer has a carrier thanks to defence cuts, it does have air bases in Cyprus and Gibraltar and could also seek access to old bases in Malta.

Seener said Britain maintains drones, Apache helicopter gunships, Tornado and Eurofighter aircraft as well as naval destroyers and frigates in the Mediterranean area.

France, Italy and Spain also have aircraft carriers, but Seener thought it "highly unlikely they would be needed".

Political difficulties

The idea of imposing a no-fly zone has won support from Gaddafi's opponents. Gulf states also called for a no-fly zone and for an urgent Arab League meeting.

But the problems of imposing a no-fly zone are as much political as technical.

A meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels on Thursday and Friday will examine options but NATO action has appeared unlikely given Turkey's opposition and reservations among other NATO members including Germany.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday any NATO operation would need a UN resolution, but diplomats say China and Russia are unlikely to support this, making a coalition led by the United States and Britain the most likely scenario.

While the US administration has said it is considering all options, the US military has highlighted the many challenges.

Gates said on Monday that any action should be the result of "international sanction".

On Monday, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said NATO had expanded its surveillance of Libya by reconnaissance aircraft to 24-hours a day but cautioned that it was unclear how much a no-fly zone would contribute to preventing violence.

Seener at RUSI said the mission Britain envisaged was more likely to win broadest support among cautious NATO allies. But while this could be the initial scenario, it was likely to experience "mission creep" and move closer to US thinking on the need to target Gaddafi's defences.

"By striking at Gaddafi's air defence systems and targeting their heavy weapons, you tilt the balance closer to the opposition," he said.

"And by targeting Gaddafi's communications you would eliminate the regime's ability to coordinate attacks and you hurt Gaddafi's ability to erode the morale of the opposition. You would create the fog of war, and heighten disarray."

Despite the Pentagon's caution, influential Congressmen, including Republican John McCain and Democrat John Kerry have pressed the idea of a no-fly zone.

Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested on Sunday the West could bomb Libya's airports and the runways to prevent their use, although he conceded that this would not be a long-term solution.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan cautioned that a limited strike on Libyan runways "doesn't necessarily solve the problem" as this wouldn't stop use of helicopters.

William Daley, President Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, said all options were on the table, but a decision would only be taken after deep consultation with allies.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The European Union may offer financial and regulatory incentives to North African countries to encourage them to make democratic reforms, the Financial Times said today (8 March).

Citing a draft it said it had obtained, the newspaper said the move was part of a plan being prepared for an EU summit in Brussels on Friday and included additional development aid, loosening immigration restrictions and lowering trade barriers.

At the summit on North Africa, leaders will discuss the EU's humanitarian and political response to events in the region, particularly Libya where fighting has broken out between government forces and rebels trying to seize control from Muammar Gaddafi.

"Those that go faster and faster with reforms will be able to count on greater support from the EU," the newspaper quoted the 16-page blueprint as saying.

While it did not specify how the EU would measure democratic progress, the draft said "support may be re-allocated or refocused for those who stall or retrench on agreed reform plans," according to the FT.

Officials were expected to expand the list of Libyan financial entities under sanctions, including its sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority and the Libyan Central Bank, the newspaper said.

Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan Army yesterday (7 March) counter-attacked by land and air for control of a key eastern oil port, Ras Lanuf. A rebel official quoted by Reuters said Gaddafi could attack oilfields like a "wounded wolf" if the West did not stop him with air strikes.

No-fly zones were imposed in Iraq between the Gulf wars by the United States, Britain and France, in Bosnia by NATO from 1993-1995, and in NATO's air war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. Only Bosnia was backed by a specific UN resolution.

The uprising, the bloodiest yet against long-serving rulers in the Middle East and North Africa, is triggering a humanitarian crisis, especially on the Tunisian border, where tens of thousands of foreign workers are trying to flee to safety.

Oil jumped to a 2.5-year peak while gold hit a record high as fighting escalated around one of Libya's key oil ports.

Global stocks fell on Monday as the growing violence in Libya and worries about other Middle Eastern countries drove prices of oil and gold higher, raising concerns about the global economic recovery.

  • 11 March: 27 EU heads of state and government to meet in Brussels for special summit on Libya and Northern Africa.

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