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Libya: Is NATO Doing Enough?

Commentary, 15 April 2011
Aerospace, International Institutions, Middle East and North Africa
Sortie figures show that, whilst NATO is undertaking extensive operations over Libya, it could - and should - be doing more.

Sortie figures show that, whilst NATO is undertaking extensive operations over Libya, it could - and should - be doing more.

By Paul Smyth

NATO Headquarters

An Unmerited Accusation, But...

The unexpected complaint by a senior rebel General that NATO is having no effect in Libya was tantamount to an accusation of failure. This clearly ignored the military situation before the allied intervention, the damage subsequently inflicted on Gaddafi's military capabilities and the rebels' poor prospects if the coalition stopped flying over Libya.    

Frustrated by NATO's reluctance to bomb targets the rebels had identified in Misratah, anxious about the ongoing crisis there, and possibly annoyed by NATO's refusal to let a rebel ship with supplies sail into the city, the General's emotive language undermined his complaint. But was his underlying criticism valid? After making a decisive impact in March, could the allied air campaign do more to affect the current situation on the ground in Libya?

NATO was quick to counter the General's criticism. Evidently, allied aircraft have been conducting many attacks against regime forces, but are constrained by the need to avoid civilian casualties.  NATO also highlighted that Libya is very large, so coalition aircraft may therefore be on patrol in the country but out of sight to the rebels. That is true but may perhaps demonstrate that NATO does not have the forces necessary to fulfill its mission.

Don't Count Sorties

NATO took command of air operations to protect Libyan civilians on 31 March. Since then, official NATO figures indicate that (as of 9 April) coalition aircraft have flown 643 'strike' missions aimed at taking action on the ground, which is an average of nearly sixty-five sorties per day. This may seem like a high number, but could nevertheless be insufficient for the task at hand

Official statistics illustrate NATO's output in sorties, but not whether that output meets the military requirement. Tracking sortie numbers is misleading - what really matters is not the number of aircraft flown but the time spent on a given task. Obviously, there should be a correlation between sorties and time on task, but, with some transit journeys from airfields in southern Europe taking well over an hour, the time spent actually patrolling an area of interest in Libya is critical. Air-to-air refueling (AAR) will extend a fast-jet's endurance over Libya, but fighters policing the NFZ will also require AAR and limit the fuel available for aircraft tasked on ground reconnaissance and attack missions.

Sortie numbers also distort perception of the effect expected from a given number of aircraft. For very good tactical and safety reasons most missions will be flown by formations, typically consisting of two or four aircraft. Consequently, sixty-five sorties does not furnish sixty-five different missions, but perhaps less than half that number.

The Strike Role Requirement

Before assessing whether NATO has sufficient assets for the strike portion of the UN-mandated mission in Libya, it is necessary to determine the strike requirement. Whilst Libya is very large and targets may appear across much of the country, it is possible to list areas of higher tasking priority:

(i) The eastern battlefront (Brega, Ajdabiya, etc.);

(ii) Misratah;

(iii) Pockets of rebel resistance in towns to the south-west of Tripoli;

(iv) The arterial routes between regime bases and deployed forces;

(v) Other parts of the country (e.g. southern oil fields).

If there are too few fighter-bombers to patrol all areas of potential ground activity, jets can be cued to active locations using surveillance and airborne control platforms such as the Global Hawk drone and AWACS aircraft. Such economy of force focuses scarce assets in time and space but leaves large areas vacant or rarely visited. If a persistent presence is required over many locations, there is no substitute for having enough aircraft for the task.

In Libya there is a justifiable requirement for a continuous NATO presence over three areas: Misratah, the eastern battlefront and rebel-defended towns in the mountains south of Tripoli. A permanent air presence in these areas would ensure that NATO aircraft are always on station to respond to regime attacks on civilians, whenever they occur. The sound of patrolling jets might even deter such assaults, and the constant threat of air attack may demoralize Qadhafi's troops. Aircraft would also be able to attack fleeting targets of opportunity and a continuous presence would also improve NATO understanding of which ground forces belong to which protagonist, thereby reducing the possibility of mistaken targeting.

To provide this cover, NATO would have to generate seventy-two hours (3 x 24) of on-station strike tasking per day. The number of aircraft necessary to meet this requirement would depend on how long individual sorties could last. If the average time on task (not sortie duration) were three hours, this would require twenty-four missions (72 ÷ 3). Assuming tactical and safety norms were followed and a pair of aircraft undertook each mission, the total strike requirement would be forty-eight sorties. Should the average time on task be only two hours, the total becomes seventy-two sorties. For both time on task periods AAR would be required for most strike aircraft operating from southern Europe. If additional AAR was conducted and time on task could be extended to four hours (giving a flight duration of perhaps seven-eight hours), the sortie requirement would fall to thirty-six sorties.

A problem with extending strike sorties is the burden it may place on limited AAR assets which are also used to refuel aircraft enforcing the NFZ. Also, if continuous overhead coverage is required, jets cannot patrol for longer than their need for additional AAR. Consequently, a planning assumption which uses the highest average time on task is unrealistic. A more frequent rotation of patrolling assets is also necessary if aircraft release all their ordnance before the end of their planned on-task period. In addition, if it were deemed operationally necessary to have four and not two aircraft on station above an area in which regime forces were especially active, the sortie requirement would rise accordingly. A constant four-aircraft presence over Misratah would add a further sixteen or twenty-four sorties (for three or two hours on task) to the daily air tasking order.

Finally, there are further demands for strike assets. NATO has been conducting an interdiction campaign to severely impact the regime's ability to reinforce and resupply its forces. Although this involves attacks against regime targets some distance from rebel view, this is a highly effective use of air power creating a strong case to give interdiction efforts along the regime's main supply routes constant attention, creating a fourth area of tasking priority. Using the previous planning assumptions this would generate a new total requirement of forty-eight, sixty-four or ninety-six sorties, depending on time on task duration. Furthermore, there is the occasional requirement to conduct strike sorties elsewhere in Libya, for example against mobile air defence systems or in response to new regime military activities, for which short-duration attention would be required.

Does NATO Have Sufficient Strike Assets?

To assess whether NATOs current air campaign is sufficient for the task is difficult when assumptions are necessary to replace detailed information (such as how much AAR is available for strike missions, and how long strike aircraft typically remain on patrol), and when sortie numbers may be reduced by poor weather, either at European operating bases or in Libya. However, with these caveats and based on the above assumptions, a broad estimate of capacity follows.

Theoretically, with an achieved average daily total of sixty-five strike sorties (between 31 March and 9 April), NATO has generated sufficient assets to provide constant cover over areas where fighting is taking place. However, this does not explain the seeming periodic absence of NATO aircraft over the eastern battlefront, the apparent shifting of NATO emphasis between Misratah and other locations, or the UK decisions to reinforce the Tornado GR4 deployment and re-role some Typhoon air defence fighters to strike assets. Furthermore, on four days NATO figures indicate flying less than sixty strike sorties (fifty-eight on 3 and 4,fifty-six on 9 and fifty-four on 7 April); it is therefore highly unlikely that it provided a constant presence over key resistance areas whilst conducting interdiction duties elsewhere. 

On 1 April, NATO listed 205 aircraft under its command. On 5 April this number had fallen to 195. The NATO operation in Libya (Operation Unified Protector) has three broad components: enforcing a NFZ, policing an arms embargo and protecting the Libyan population, and these totals encompass aircraft supporting all three missions. The lower total probably reflects the US decision to reduce its combat role in Libya, but it illustrates NATO's fundamental problem - it cannot compel member participation in the intervention and is reliant on voluntary force contributions, even when these may not suit mission priorities.

To fulfill the UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians the coalition clearly needed a greater ability to influence events on the ground than the capacity to establish and police a NFZ. However, the NFZ task provides nations with an option to participate in the NATO effort without committing fully to its objective. Whilst the NATO Air Component Headquarters at Izmir in Turkey has responsibility to apportion daily air efforts to meet campaign objectives and shifting priorities, in reality it is constrained by the assets at its disposal. Thus, if member nations have donated only air defence aircraft that are limited to NFZ duties, NATO planning staff may not have sufficient assets to meet their strike requirements. 

NATO figures for the aircraft under its command do not differentiate between types of aircraft. Of the 195 total it is not clear how many are support or combat platforms. Neither do sortie figures indicate how many flights were conducted by support aircraft, or the weight of effort given to NFZ and embargo duties. So although the number of strike sorties flown is known, the relative emphasis given to each of NATO's three missions is not. As the arms embargo mission is predominately a naval task with ancillary air support employing maritime patrol aircraft, the main issue is whether NATO has the desired balance between NFZ and strike assets.  

The shift of emphasis in US participation from strike to other supporting roles and the UK's actions to bolster its strike contribution and reduce its air defence contribution suggest NATO does not yet have the ideal mix of assets.  If that is so, it could appeal to Alliance members to follow the UK example and place greater emphasis on the strike portion of the NATO-led operation, and it should be bold in requesting US support for strike missions. The US has kept strike assets in theatre in case they are needed again, and NATO should not hesitate to declare when they are required. In addition, it could explore whether nations can provide Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) that would provide a persistent presence over key locations, thereby mitigating some of the manned aircraft requirement. UCAVs have proven their operational value in Afghanistan and they could do so again in Libya. However, given their key contribution in Afghanistan and the way in which UCAV numbers there have increased, any deployment to Libya would have to draw on additional platforms.


Events clearly indicate that the rebel General's exaggerated criticism of NATO was misplaced. However, it is unclear whether the relative emphasis which should be given to the three elements of Operation Unified Protector is reflected in the assets nations have made available to NATO. The integration of capabilities may allow an economy of force to produce effect on the ground, but if there are justifiable reasons to give constant priority to key rebel held areas then there is no substitution for employing sufficient strike platforms, including UCAVs. Official NATO sortie figures suggest that more strike assets are required to provide a resilient capability that provides not only a permanent strike presence over key terrain, but also the capacity to reinforce effort in a particular area or conduct additional strike missions elsewhere without a detrimental effect on permanent patrolling. The UK has taken steps to place due emphasis on strike activity and other nations might do likewise. NATO's air campaign can have decisive effect on the conflict in Libya, especially if it has the required assets and employs them to best effect. Then the only Generals complaining in Libya will be Qadhafi's men.

Paul Smyth was a Tornado navigator in the Royal Air Force. He retired as a wing commander after twenty-five years service. Upon retiring, Paul was head of RUSI's Operational Studies Programme and is now owner of R3I Consulting.

The views expressed here are the author's own.

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