Libya: Victory Through Airpower

Dec. 1, 2011

If US and NATO air forces had not intervened in the Libyan civil war this year, Muammar Qaddafi would still be alive and Libya’s ruling dictator. Thousands of the civilians who had protested or taken up arms against his regime, however, would all be dead.

That is airpower’s contribution to the now-complete operation. In March, Qaddafi’s forces were in the process of routing the rebels. Resistance forces had been pushed into an enclave at Benghazi, where many anticipated a last stand. Qaddafi himself promised no mercy to those who had opposed him. (See: “Why Qaddafi Must Go,” May, p. 6.)

Then the US and NATO stepped in and saved Libya’s civilians from slaughter. Attacking aircraft knocked out Qaddafi’s air defenses. Libyan tanks and artillery on their way to Benghazi were destroyed from above. Government helicopters and fighters could no longer attack the regime’s enemies, and pro-Qaddafi units lost their supply routes. Qaddafi’s ability to menace Libya’s civilians quickly faded, but for many weeks neither side was able to secure an advantage.

There was a real danger the Libya operation would become an open-ended engagement the Air Force, and the US military in general, could ill-afford.

American military interventions have a way of becoming permanent. The Air Force first responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer 1990. More than 21 years later, the Iraq mission is just now coming to an end. The Air Force has been in Afghanistan for a decade, and at least three more years of war are expected. And USAF still helps defend South Korea 61 years after North Korea invaded.

Critics wasted no time coming up with imaginative ways to criticize airpower’s role while the operation was still in progress. “Airpower in and of itself will not be decisive,” said Ohio State professor Peter Mansoor in March. “It can prevent the rebels from losing [but] it won’t necessarily allow them to win.” Not necessarily, but it did.

“Air forces often exaggerate what they can do,” asserted The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. “They are always less accurate than they claim. … Bombing works best as a blunt instrument against civilians as a generalized punishment,” he wrote in July. Cockburn seemed to be describing the exact opposite of how airpower functioned over Libya.

Even with victory, new straw man arguments appeared, just so they could be knocked down. “Although airpower certainly contributed to Qaddafi’s defeat, it cannot build a government that can operate effectively in his stead,” wrote University of Kentucky professor Robert Farley—as if anyone were actually arguing that it could.

Author Daniel Swift seemed willfully oblivious to the present. “Any history of bombing must also be a history of civilian casualty, for bombing saves the lives of soldiers only at the expense of other lives,” he wrote in the New York Times. In reality, Qaddafi’s troops were halted by airpower. This prevented a massacre at Benghazi and averted a humanitarian disaster.

From the brink of a bloodbath in Benghazi, the rebels regrouped and regained the initiative. US and NATO air forces tracked Qaddafi’s units, so the rebels knew what they faced. Under a very liberal (and welcome) interpretation of their United Nations mandate, US and NATO aircraft helped the rebels grind down Qaddafi’s forces.

The rebels pushed back across the desert, to the capital of Tripoli, and finally surrounded Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.

It was there that Libya’s civil war effectively came to an end. Airpower was there for the conclusion, showing the same persistence and accuracy it had all along. On Oct. 19, NATO aircraft spotted “a convoy of several dozen four-by-four vehicles trying to force their way out of Sirte,” said Gerard Longuet, France’s defense minister. A French Mirage fighter and a remotely piloted US Predator aircraft fired on the convoy “to block it, not to destroy it,” in Longuet’s words.

Qaddafi was forced into hiding, but it was short-lived. He was quickly captured by the opposition and was soon dead.

This mission could have gone off the rails many times. The Libyan rebels were initially as disorganized and ragtag a group of warriors as one could ever hope to find. Until they came together as a fighting force under the umbrella of air dominance, stalemate nearly became the status quo.

Ceding US leadership to NATO was highly risky, for other members of the Alliance have traditionally shown little stomach for leading tough missions. Fortunately, the “coalition of the willing” worked out. Britain and France assumed heavy roles while Germany opted out completely. NATO aircraft flew more than 26,000 sorties. There were nearly 10,000 strike missions, 90 percent of them flown by nations other than the United States.

Several non-Alliance countries were also full partners in the mission. Islamic states Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates made valuable military contributions with their personnel and aircraft, and their support added an important dose of political legitimacy to the effort.

Still, it was the US Air Force that largely made the mission possible. The US flew three-quarters of the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance missions, noted President Obama’s national security advisor Tom Donilon in a Washington Post commentary, and the US provided three-quarters of the coalition’s aerial refueling.

The operation lasted seven months, and was a relative bargain, costing the United States $1.2 billion. More importantly, not a single American died in what was essentially a moral mission.

There is plenty of credit to share for the success in Libya. From beginning to end, this was a masterpiece of joint and coalition airpower. Eighteen nations participated. Aircraft launched from bases in several European nations and from ships in the Mediterranean.

The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps executed a joint operation over a nation where very little intelligence was available. Contrary to all precedent, NATO stepped up while the US played a supporting role.

But most of all, the Libyan rebels matured quickly as a fighting force, fought the ground battles, paid the price in injuries and deaths, and secured victory—a victory made possible through the strength of airpower.