NATO doesn’t have what it takes in Libya

April 7, 2011 - 0:0

The White House has addressed the Libyan insurrection by developing a nascent “Obama Doctrine” which shows compassion for humanitarian causes while not creating major expense or long-term commitments.

While this policy may be morally justified, met with applause by the international community, and conducted economically, it violates the most fundamental rule of strategy: it is not likely to succeed.
Success is not likely because the United States is intently moving off centre stage. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is now officially in charge of enforcing a no-fly zone and protecting Libyan civilians. Unfortunately, without the American military in the lead, NATO has lost its edge in dealing with major international crises involving serious combat operations.
While NATO was able to develop and approve Operation Unified Protector in only a week and has put in place a command organization, time has taken its toll on this formidable organization and it simply can’t be expected to perform with its former Cold War era efficiency. The United States cannot depend on NATO to guide this mission to a successful conclusion because of three major deficiencies.
First, NATO lacks sufficient offensive strike power without the U.S. aggressively in the lead. Years of underfunded defense budgets, particularly in the area of sophisticated weaponry, have resulted in European nations being able to muster only limited numbers of the strike-attack aircraft needed to enforce a no-fly zone. These planes must fly from numerous air bases scattered around the Mediterranean. The European effort would be further degraded without extensive American intelligence, refueling and electronic warfare support. Without an American aircraft carrier nearby, the U.S. can offer only a limited number sophisticated aircraft best suited to patrol a no-fly zone. Of the nearly 200 tomahawk land attack missiles fired at the start of the campaign, all but six came from American ships and submarines.
Second, there is still significant dissonance in European capitals about how, and even whether, to pursue these military missions in Libya, which suggests that there is no guarantee that this operation will be pursued steadily and consistently. France, an aggressive supporter of military action, remains uncertain as to whether NATO should be in charge. Germany has eased away from a military response, even pulling its combatant ships out of adjacent Libyan waters. Turkey, always fearful of European intervention in the Middle East, has counseled caution. Most NATO nations, unable to contribute anything of military value, simply watch and wait.
Finally, NATO itself continues to be distrusted by most Arab people and governments, following its involvement in the Iraqi and Afghanistan interventions led by the U.S. Public opinion surveys suggest that many citizens in the region consider this intervention just another western colonial escapade, which makes this mission a difficult sell to most of Libya’s neighbors. The initial support of military intervention by the Arab League has now turned into mild criticism on its part and has yielded no more than ambiguous military commitments from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The leading powers in Arab world remain invisible. Without enthusiastic support from the Middle East region, a positive outcome can never be taken for granted.
While the final outcome on the ground in Libya remains problematic, one thing remains certain: the Libyan rebels will have scant chance for success without concerted, steady and sufficient outside military support. Their current lack of training, equipment and organization gives Gadhafi’s forces the edge in any direct military encounter.
While the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya may be morally justified, met with applause by the international community and allows us the opportunity to turn over leadership in “days, not weeks or months,” it fails the strategist’s most important test if it cannot deliver the desired outcome.
******Tom Fedyszyn is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. A retired U.S. navy captain who specializes in military strategy, he served two tours of duty at NATO headquarters in Brussels and was U.S. naval attaché in Moscow. The views expressed here are his own.