ARGUMENTS AGAINST a No Fly Zone over Libya

Imposing a No Fly Zone in Libya will be seen as a coercive step that may demand escalation. Western governments must therefore resist calls for a NFZ over Libya until it is clearly and convincingly the correct path to take.

By Paul Smyth

See also: Arguments FOR a No Fly Zone over Libya

Now that western states have recovered most of their citizens from Libya, calls for a military response to the Libyan crisis have grown.  In particular increasing voices have talked of the establishment of a No Fly Zone (NFZ), principally because such zones have been previously employed over Iraq and Bosnia.   However, it is important to explain why such a course of action must not be rushed into. Indeed, a NFZ over Libya may be unnecessary and should probably be avoided.

Achieving the Desired Effect

The logic for mounting a NFZ over Libya is that it would prevent Qadhafi using aircraft and helicopters to suppress the popular opposition to his regime.  However, the incidence of such attacks appears small, and with reports of Libyan pilots either defecting to Malta or abandoning their aircraft to avoid attacking Libyan targets, and some air bases falling within areas now beyond government control, Qadhafi's use of air assets appears somewhat constrained.  The actual danger posed by Qadhafi's bombers and helicopter gunships therefore might not necessitate a NFZ.  For example, if aircraft are only flying from one airfield and at very low sortie rates (perhaps only two flights a day) other measures such as an international threat to indict Libyan pilots or the closure of the runway may achieve the desired effect without resort to a NFZ.  In addition, establishing an effective and enduring NFZ takes time (weeks not days) and other means may achieve the same effect more quickly.  Indeed, if Qadhafi's support base unravels his dictatorship may collapse before the diplomatic process and military preparations necessary to mount a NFZ could be completed. 

Having the Right Mandate

To achieve the desired effect a NFZ must have a mandate that facilitates enforcement and detected breaches of the NFZ must be dealt with in a timely manner.  The process authorising enforcement must be responsive and efficient with Rules of Engagement (ROE) that allow for swift action.  A NFZ without a robust mandate and timely force is open to challenge.  If Qadhafi's aircraft were able to breach the NFZ without consequence the NFZ would become a liability, reinforcing his position.   With or without the umbrella of an United Nations Resolution the nations imposing a NFZ should agree a common mandate which they will uphold to avoid the situation where aircraft policing the zone enforce it to varying degrees.  Should a UN Security Council Resolution be pursued then a resolution based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter which authorises 'all means' should be sought.  Without the right mandate a NFZ would lack teeth, and policy value.      

Understanding Coercion

Before embarking on a policy to impose a NFZ over Libya the international community must understand that enforcing a NFZ is a coercive mission.  As such it must only be undertaken if participating nations are prepared to become more fully engaged in Libya.  The readiness to accept escalation is an imperative because a NFZ may be challenged.  Thus, if Libyan air defence radars or surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were used against aircraft policing the NFZ, to enforce the zone, aircrews would expect to take self-defence measures.  Subsequent attacks against Libyan military air defence targets would be an obvious escalation of the crisis. 

Although Qadhafi's opponents might welcome such air attacks, given the history of his regime it is difficult to predict the unintentional consequences of such an upturn in violence.  Whilst any bombing raid against regime assets might ignite an unpredictable response, the size and enduring nature of a NFZ would demand a greater kinetic Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) effort than that needed for a single or occasional strike against, for example, a runway.  An OCA capability is necessary to protect aircraft policing the NFZ and it is complicated by the existence of mobile SAM systems, which are more difficult to target than static SAMs.  Fundamentally, if a low level of coercion does not achieve its objective an increase in coercion is necessary to avoid failure.  Consequently, before deciding on a NFZ policy for Libya, foreign governments should judge whether Qadhafi would submit to one and consider what additional measures would be employed if he did not.     

Similarly, it is extremely difficult to enforce a NFZ against helicopters, especially when civilian helicopters are also operating in the NFZ area.  Were the international community to establish a NFZ in Libya and it did not prevent Qadhafi from attacking his people with helicopter gunships, nations would find themselves in a dilemma: accept the inherent loss of face when the NFZ is inadequate or take more aggressive steps to prevent helicopter activity (i.e., kinetic attacks on ground targets).  Neither option would be attractive, so the commitment needed to deal with such matters must be understood and acquiesced before a NFZ strategy is embarked upon.                 

A Different Context

Linking the perceived success of the mid-1990s NFZ over Bosnia to today's crisis in Libya is unhelpful.  For a number of reasons, the NATO air campaign over Bosnia (Operation Deny Flight) is not a useful model for Libya.  First, there are crucial contextual differences between Bosnia and Libya that undermine the adoption of a common 'solution' to both crises, and second, the task of enforcing a NFZ over Libya would be more difficult than it may casually appear. 

An obvious contextual difference is the prevailing geo-security environment.  When NATO embarked on Operation Deny Flight it was able to focus almost exclusively on the Balkan crisis.  This emphasis included the substantial deployment of troops to Bosnia, adding purpose to the NATO air campaign which provided protection and support to those land forces.  Today, NATO's principal focus is on Afghanistan and an air campaign over Libya would have to compete with the immense priority afforded to this ongoing conflict where efforts are necessary to secure gains that were made in 2010.  Neither is it likely there is any appetite amongst NATO nations to deploy troops into Libya when the alliance is so heavily engaged in Afghanistan and the Iraq insurgency still casts a shadow over the region.  The strategic context that facilitated the Bosnian NFZ does not exist today.  In the immediate post-Cold War period NATO may have looked favourably on an opportunity to demonstrate its continued utility but today there is little enthusiasm to place additional operational demands upon existing obligations.

There are also differences between Libya today and Iraq between 1991-2003, where two NFZs were imposed in the north and south of the country.  These were established after the 1991 Gulf War when coalition aircraft were being used to monitor Saddam's persecution of Kurdish and Shia minorities.  The NFZs protected coalition activity from Iraqi interference; their actual ability to prevent Iraqi air attacks on civilians was limited as they were not continuously patrolled and many of the coalition aircraft policing them were ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft.  The twin NFZ arrangement left a large central area in which the Iraqi air force could train, and because Saddam still exercised significant control over the areas beneath the NFZs he could continue to persecute the Kurds and Shi'as using land forces.  Later, the NFZs were part of a strategy to contain Saddam, they became the field on which the international community and Saddam skirmished for more than a decade and they allowed coalition forces to conduct coercive air strikes with less risk.  One should therefore be careful drawing parallels between Iraq and Libya, where a different situation exists.         

The Art of the Possible

As well as contextual issues there are realistic constraints on the implementation and benefits of a NFZ in Libya.  At over 1.7 million sq. km Libya is about 33 times the size of Bosnia and is bordered by six nations with largely limited infrastructures.  A similar sized area around Bosnia encompasses western and central Europe, a region replete with the infrastructure necessary to mount a major air policing operation.  North Africa is simply unable to provide the level of basing support enjoyed by NATO air forces during the air campaign over Bosnia.  Furthermore, whilst airfields in Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Turkey and possibly southern France might have realistic utility supporting a NFZ over Libya, bases in other European states which were used during the air campaign over Bosnia are too far from Libya to be of practical value in mounting a persistent NFZ. 

To indicate the size of a comprehensive air campaign, Operation Deny Flight involved an armada of approximately 200 aircraft.  Although it is extremely unlikely the current crisis in Libya would ever demand a similar commitment of forces, and limiting a NFZ to areas under Qadhafi's control would significantly ease the logistic, operational and tactical difficulties to be overcome, the substantial air effort required to conduct a NFZ between 1-3 hours flying time from mounting bases is largely unrecognised and should not be discounted, especially if the NFZ was seriously contested. 

Finally, if Gaddafi relied on helicopter gunships to attack his people a NFZ might be of variable utility.  Helicopters are not restricted to operating from paved airfields, when airborne they can be more difficult to detect than fighter aircraft, their ability to land almost anywhere creates additional NFZ difficulties and, unlike fast-jets, they can be readily confused with civilian air traffic (e.g. humanitarian helicopter flights).  Stopping helicopters from repeatedly breaching a NFZ is therefore   difficult and it must be recognized that it may not be possible to prevent all bombing, rocketing or strafing of the Libyan people by use of a NFZ alone.     


It is obviously easier to talk about establishing a NFZ over Libya than it is to implement one.  Yet before grappling with the logistic, operational and tactical realities of imposing a NFZ over even a part of Libya, decision-takers in Western governments must be sure that a NFZ is the best way to achieve the required effect within Libya.  Once they have decided on the purpose of a zone they must ensure it has the right mandate and ROE to be effective. 

Crucially, imposing a NFZ should be seen as a coercive step that may demand escalation.  Whilst previous experience in Iraq and Bosnia is not irrelevant to Libya, the importance of contextual differences and the specific difficulties associated with a NFZ for Libya should not be neglected.  Ultimately, the success of a NFZ is proportional to the degree it is contested, and how it is subsequently enforced.  In Qadhafi's case, it may be difficult to gauge his likely reaction to a NFZ, or what unintended consequences might ensue.  One certainty is that when dealing with such an unpredictable foe it is wise not to rush into an erroneous course of action.  Western governments must therefore resist calls for a NFZ over Libya until it is clearly and convincingly the correct path to take.

Paul Smyth was a Tornado navigator in the Royal Air Force.  He participated in NFZ duties over Iraq and retired as a wing commander after 25 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 authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.


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