The NATO Libyan Campaign in Perspective

NATO Post Libya

On Thursday, 27 October 2011 the UN Security Council voted unanimously for a resolution ‘ending the mandate for foreign military action at 23:59 Libyan time on 31 October’. During the military action the NATO-led coalition had flown 26,000 sorties of which 10,000 were labelled strike missions. Interestingly, the resolution was passed despite an eleventh-hour appeal from Libya’s NTC to continue the mission, arguing that it needed more time to assess its security needs.

For NATO the Libyan campaign was a success. However, as the leaders of the alliance meet in Chicago in May 2012, there will be some important lessons to be learned. The reliance on the United States for the backbone of the Command and Control system is one that will need to be addressed if other coalitions of the willing are to be deployed at short notice. The combination of low collateral damage, the replacement of the regime and the zero-casualty count for their own forces provides an outcome that political leaders entering any kind of war would dream about. The Libyan rebels paid the price in blood whereas the collation paid the price in treasure. The final debate as to the actual cost of the campaign will no doubt be the subject of some discussion as various media sources try and come up with a final and definitive answer. But, by any standard metrics of war, the campaign in Libya was a new form of conflict. One conducted principally from the air and with great precision. But is it one that can be replicated elsewhere?

The answer to that question is a resounding no. Libya had a number of quite specific aspects to it. These need to be appreciated before anyone suggests that suddenly a new form of casualty-free (i.e. painless) warfare can be carried out by NATO at locations across the world where they feel they need to intervene. The horrors of the humanitarian intervention in Somalia by President Clinton still beckon for anyone rash enough to believe that warfare can be painless.

That air power showed its huge flexibility in OPERATION UNIFIED PROTECTOR is not in doubt. Towards the end of October 2011, the RAF Tornados had flown over 1,400 sorties and amassed over 8,000 hours of flying time. The RAF Typhoons also flew 600 sorties and accumulated over 3,000 flying hours.

New tactics, flying Tornados and Typhoons together as a two-ship configuration, had also been developed. Warfare often sees tactical innovation and OPERATION ELLAMY was no different. The mix of the two aircraft, flown as a two-ship configuration, provided additional versatility in terms of the weapons payloads that were available on a single armed reconnaissance mission. The mix of the 1,000 pounds Enhanced Paveway carried on board the Typhoon and the Brimstone and other Paveway variants on the Tornado provided a huge level of flexibility to address emerging targets. During the campaign the RAF, RN and Army Air Corps (AAC) launched 1,470 guided weapons. The Paveway achieved a hit rate of close to 88 per cent. The bombs that fell outside the immediate designated area missed the target by a matter of a few meters.

Throughout the campaign the French Air Force and the RAF both undertook a large range of missions that showed the inherent versatility and flexibility that now exists in their weapons systems. In the course of the NATO operations over 26,000 missions had been flown. Many of those lasted a number of hours and required a number of visits to tankers to refuel. In the course of OPERATION ELLAMY over 30,000 tonnes of fuel were transferred from VC-10 and Tristar aircraft operating in support of the mission.

When deployed on armed reconnaissance it is hard to forecast the type of targets that might emerge. What appears from an orchard or emerges from the side of a street to threaten civilians, is hard to predict at the point the aircraft is prepared for a mission. Emergent targets were not always single units, such as a MBT, APC, Artillery piece or Pick Up Trucks (PUT). Complex targets also presented themselves in the form of troop concentrations at staging points, ammunition and fuel dumps and mobile command and control centres. Having a range of weapon systems at the disposal of the crews allowed them to be selective in their application of air power.

Being able to select an appropriate weapon system to attack an emergent target, whilst reducing the risk from collateral damage, is a hugely important capability. The Storm Shadows also proved their value working alongside the Tomahawk missiles launched in the course of the campaign by the RN. The RAF and the RN can be very pleased with their current inventory. The future prospects also look good, as the RN adds the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) into its inventory in the future. Operating from a carrier offshore that ability to project air power will also add an additional level of versatility into the ability to conduct a range of possible intervention missions on a global basis.

That does not mean that lessons cannot emerge from the Libyan campaign that might suggest that Paveway and Brimstone might also have additional versatility built into their warhead designs. The ability to ‘dial a yield’ before a target is attacked would undoubtedly provide an additional element of versatility when attacking lightly armed vehicles.

The contribution of naval gunnery, an art that many will think must have gone out many years ago, is still something to be considered. As warships have tended to go for stealthy shapes the guns have always appeared to stand out. In an age of the missile system there may be those tempted to think that removing guns from warships is a good idea. For many the use of naval gunnery in the Falklands conflict is a distant memory. OPERATION ELLAMY was to highlight its enduring contribution to the littoral battle.

Any notion that naval gunnery is a capability that is no longer required should be rejected very quickly. Even though little was made of its use in the media, naval shore bombardment is not a capability that should suddenly be lost. In the course of OPERATION ELLAMY the warships HMS Liverpool, Iron Duke and Sutherland would fire 240 rounds from their guns. These varied from star shells that illuminated suspicious activity on the coastline to high explosive rounds aimed at destroying coastal artillery installations that had fired upon NATO warships.

On several occasions Libyan Special Forces who had tried to approach NATO warships in inflatable boats were chased away by star shells. Being illuminated at night when you are trying to operate covertly has a huge psychological impact. As the RN develops its thinking for the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, and its export potential, they would be wise to retain that capability.

Their collation colleagues also contributed to the overall effort providing a blend of air power that enabled strike missions to be shared out across many NATO countries. As always in such situations the Danish Armed Forces and the Norwegians made significant contributions, as did the Belgians.

For those in NATO seeking to use the campaign in Libya as a form of new approach to intervention on the international stage, a moment’s reflection might be in order. Colonel Gaddafi and his sons were not that difficult a regime to topple.

In order to take an objective view of the outcome it is vital for anyone to analyse the mistakes made by the Gaddafis. Had they played any one of these differently, the campaign may well have gone on long enough to make the international community tire of what would readily be characterised by the media as another failed and flawed attempt to intervene in an overseas country.

Gaddafi made several obvious mistakes. Many of these are reflective of an ego and personality that was deeply flawed. In part these contributed to his downfall. The list of mistakes is long and worth some detailed analysis and discussion. They include:

The regime appeared to be totally unprepared for war. It was as if Gaddafi had concluded that by making the right noises and gestures to the international community he would be allowed to survive. He dramatically underestimated the will of many of those, including David Cameron and Nickolas Sarkozy, to follow up on their rhetoric. This was a bad misjudgement and typical of a person who is unable to read the international hymn sheet that was being written at the time.

Gaddafi’s rhetoric, labelling of the rebels as members of Al Qaeda, was an attempt to sow confusion into the ranks of the international community. It barely raised an eyebrow in political circles. Certainly many so-called experts in international terrorism raised themselves from their armchairs to venture into the television and radio studios to echo his narrative. Many opined that the rebels had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda, with the implication that if Gaddafi’s regime were to fall woe betide the international community, especially European nations, whose southern flank would be exposed to an Al Qaeda-led government in Libya that their military action had installed.

Gaddafi should have played for time when the international community was debating establishing a no-fly zone. His offers of a ceasefire appeared opportunistic and insincere. His words and actions appeared out of kilter with each other. Given the degree of ISTAR coverage of Libya he should have known that he needed to visibly show a lessening threat to Benghazi as the second week of March came to a close. Had he done this, and played his long-established ties with Russia carefully, he could have dragged out the debate within the United Nations.

This mistake was repeated when progress on the campaign slowed to a halt in June. This is a crucial issue for NATO and one that is often overlooked. When conducting military operations of this type it is unlikely that the end game, whatever that means, will suddenly be reached. The 100 hours ground war that brought the Iraqi War in 1991 to an end is not representative. It had taken weeks of bombing to shape the battlefield so that, as the ground forces moved in, the Iraqis surrendered en masse. Gaddafi should have anticipated the stalemate and played for time when some members of the international community started to debate a possible end game where Gaddafi would have stayed in power. He should have seen this as a moment of weakness in the international community’s resolve and made gestures that would have seen him remain in some titular position. His intransigence at this point was crucial. It is axiomatic in international politics that delay and obfuscation creates opportunities. This was a lesson and insight that Gaddafi failed to appreciate. Had he played for time, offered a segregation of Libya and then played a longer psychologically-focused campaign, he may still be alive today.

Gaddafi’s employment of mercenaries showed from the outset how unsure he was about the loyalty of some parts of his military establishment. When a leader is so uncertain about such a fundamental point it shows that he is in a very bad situation. As events in Syria and Egypt have shown, when a dictator retains the loyalty of his armed forces it is difficult for a rebellion to gain the kind of traction needed to bring down a government.

One mistake Gaddafi and his henchmen was to make throughout the campaign was to underestimate NATO’s ISTAR capabilities, and the ways in which sensors could rapidly cue aircraft in to destroy emergent targets. All the NATO-wide experiments on sensor cueing that had been undertaken over a number of years suddenly all bore fruit. It was, and remains, an impressive capability and one that NATO should do all it can to maintain for the future. Despite the subordinate role played by the United States in the campaign, its ISTAR assets were essential to the precise nature of the way targets were attacked, helping avoid collateral damage.

Gaddafi failed to implement the full suite of asymmetric options that he could have done as the campaign unfolded. The efforts of the Libyan military in the maritime sphere were particularly derisory. Despite frequent attempts by Libyan Special Forces to mount operations at sea none were successful. Royal Navy submarines became adept at using their sonar systems to track the Rubber Inflatable Boats as they launched. Each mission was successfully intercepted. The Libyan Navy was almost ineffective and the half-hearted attempts to mine various harbours in Libya using a form of floating IED added little to the military effort. Had the Libyan Navy been able to confront and perhaps sink a NATO warship in Libyan coastal waters, with some loss of life, it may have placed what was an uneasy alliance under some increased pressure. Moreover had he been able to resort to cyberspace or to unleashing acts of terrorism in Europe – as he threatened to do at one point – he would have tested the political cohesion of the NATO alliance and a public wary of being drawn into yet another apparently endless campaign. A suicide bomb attack in London, Paris or any other national capital of a nation involved in the campaign, would have quickly created media comparisons with the backlash from the war in Iraq and its impact of Muslim communities in Europe.

Gaddafi’s harnessing of his terror weapons – the FROG and SCUD missiles – came to epitomise a military campaign that was flawed. The single time a SCUD was launched against the rebel forces it fell short and did not cause any casualties. By owning such weapons Gaddafi could well have terrorised the local people in Tripoli as the campaign moved into its end game. The way the Iraqis camouflaged and continued to fire their SCUD missiles in the 1991 war created huge problems for the coalition – causing the diversion of a great deal of military effort to detect and eliminate the launchers. In Libya on several occasions the launchers were discovered by ISTAR and quickly destroyed by attacks from the air. His failure to adopt the classic tactics of using human shields also missed an opportunity. The exceedingly low levels of civilian casualties during the war are a reflection of a huge effort put into targeting by NATO. But is also reflected the fact that Gaddafi was clearly no student of recent military history.

This catalogue of failures should be remembered and if necessary debated at length as people come to analyse the campaign in greater detail. It was Gaddafi’s ineptitude as a leader in a time of war, and the fact that he surrounded himself with family and sycophants, that led to his demise. Had he been more agile and flexible he could well have survived.

The Paradigm of Intervention

In the immediate aftermath of publishing its much-maligned Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) the United Kingdom’s coalition government became embroiled in a military adventure in Libya. Somewhat unexpectedly this would shine an intense spotlight on the outcome of the SDSR. It would also provide an immediate opportunity to conduct a detailed assessment of its impact on the United Kingdom’s ability to project military power onto the world stage using the outcome from the campaign to validate the decision-making that took place in the SDSR.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, perhaps tiring of all the criticism of the SDSR, seemed really keen to prove his doubters wrong. At the time of writing, as aircraft from many of the coalition partners involved in the Libyan campaign return home and the newly-recognised National Transitional Council (NTC) gets down to work to create a new Libya, the final outcome is far from certain.

For many commentators the outcome of the military campaign in Libya creates an opportunity to redefine the paradigm of intervention that has arisen since the events in America on 11 September 2001. Upstream activities in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hugely expensive, very complicated and difficult for member states with governments created from electoral mosaics across the political spectrum. As military campaigns they have had to learn whilst ‘in contact’ with our adversaries rather than lay out the doctrine of how to fight a war and then execute that approach.

For David Cameron this was not an approach that was sustainable. It is always difficult during wartime for a political leader to overtly criticize his armed forces. The ongoing military commitment of the United Kingdom provided a huge constraint on the Prime Minister’s freedom of manoeuvre. The general public would not wear any challenge to the military in the open. Cameron has insisted on at least one occasion that he has ‘robust’ discussions with the UK CDS – Sir David Richards.

What the nature of these discussions are one can only speculate, but it is not difficult to imagine that the Prime Minister has a specific set of views on the degree of overlap that exists between some areas of military capability. It is not hard to believe that one of the principles of David Cameron’s approach to defence matters is to imagine that the United Kingdom’s armed forces did have excess capacity that could be taken out. The question was how to do it?

Any leader who tried to place any blame for failure on the armed forces would pay a heavy political price. Cameron has instead not chosen to provide an audible criticism. He has chosen to be far more subtle. Through the mechanism of the SDSR he chose to take out capability that was felt to be redundant for the kind of balanced forms of warfare that he envisaged, with the ODA, the FCO and the MoD playing specific roles within an overall strategy by which the military instrument of power would be applied in the future.

It the heat of the SDSR, and given the speed with which is was undertaken, it is not difficult to imagine that the implications of the some of the decisions taken around the table were not discussed in any great depth. It was an assumed outcome that the force levels would be cut, the only issue was by how much.

Cameron’s doctrine for the United Kingdom’s armed forces has therefore been based on a covert recognition by some close members of the Cabinet that there was a little too much overlap built into the United Kingdom’s military capability. To state that view would have to receive the opprobrium of the press and the British public at large. To hold it covertly, only for its stealthy hand to be revealed in the wake of the SDSR, is a very different matter.

For David Cameron the outcome of the initial phase of the war in Libya will have reinforced his view that it’s now time for NATO to take similar ‘difficult decisions’ and to stop fielding equipment that sustains industries in countries that frankly cannot possibly get value for money out of the investment in equipment. What is needed is bulk buys of equipment from seasoned and expert suppliers. This will be at the heart of the next stage of the reformation on which David Cameron has embarked. It will prove a most difficult challenge. Resolving overlaps in the capabilities of the United Kingdom’s armed forces is one thing. Addressing the wider issues at a European and then NATO level is a very different matter.


AAC       Army Air Corps

AAG       Air-to-air Gun

APC        Armoured Personnel Carrier

AQIM     Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

ASaC      Airborne Surveillance and Control

AWACS  Airborne Early Warning and Control System

CIA         Central Intelligence Agency

CJEF       Combined Joint Expeditionary Force

COMUKTG Commander United Kingdom Task Group

COIN      Counter Insurgency

CSAT      Supreme Council of National Defence

FAC        Fast Attack Craft

FATA      Federally Administered Tribal Area

FEBA      Forward Edge of the Battle Area

GAINS    Global Positioning System Aided International Navigation System

GPS        Global Positioning System

IED         Improvised Explosive Device

ICC         International Criminal Court

IMINT    Image Intelligence

ISAF       International Security Assistance Force

ISTAR     Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Recognition

JFHQ      Joint Force Headquarters

JSF         Joint Strike Fighter

JSTARS   Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System

MBT       Main Battle Tank

MANPAD   Man Portable Air Defence

MRLS     Multi-Rocket Launch System

MoD      Ministry of Defence

NATO     North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

NEOCC   Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation Coordination Cell

NSC        National Security Council

NTC        National Transitional Council

OAV       Other Armoured Vehicles

ODA       Overseas Development Aid

OV         Other Vehicles

ORBAT   Order of Battle

PUT        Pick-up Trucks

RAPTOR Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado

RFTG      Response Force Task Group

RAF        Royal Air Force

RN          Royal Navy

SAS        Special Air Service

SDSR      Strategic Defence and Security Review

SDR        Strategic Defence Review

SDT        Social Dominance Theory

SIS          Secret Intelligence Service

SPG        Self-Propelled Guns

TARDIS  Tactical Air Reconnaissance Deployable Intelligence System

TIW        Tactical IMINT Wing

TLAM     Tactical Land Attack Missile

TLC         Toyota Land Cruiser

UAE       United Arab Emirates

UN         United Nations

UNITAR United Nations Institute for Training and Research

UNOSAT  UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme

UNSCR   United Nations Security Council Resolution

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