The likely long-term importance of Libya for transatlantic military cooperation has been
encapsulated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “For the first time since 1949, NATO was placed at the service of a coalition led by two determined European nations.”
As soon as possible thereafter, President Obama handed the operation to NATO. But U.S. participation continued: European allies saw a conflict just across the Mediterreanean as an interest that warranted war, so the U.S. would support them, with the U.S. military playing a publicly discreet but indispensable role. The overriding political point is not merely that Washington stepped back and let NATO run the operation. (A Canadian four-star was in command in Naples.) The historic feature is that the U.S. supported a campaign of importance to Europe. That point emerges from the range of issues in the immediate after-action commentary.
In the Washington defense commentariat, two well-worn themes are already in play. “Defense budget facing train-wreck,” is one. “New crisis in NATO” is the other. The Libyan campaign offers a pleasing fit with those recurrent themes, rephrasing them in terms of two after-action questions. How did NATO acquit itself in the six-month campaign? And will defense budgets set to face steep cuts allow the U.S. military to play again the crucial role it had in Libya or permit the British or French forces to repeat their performance in any similar-scale future conflict?
The answers being offered in Washington about the U.S. – this time again as usual -- reflect long-held positions. So Democratic Represaentative Howard McKeown, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, warns: “The President’s impulse to slash the military goes against the principal lesson from our engagement over Libya, that our military cannot do more with less.” In the New York Times, Stephen Erlanger --- brooding on “Libya’s Dark Lesson for NATO” --- predicts: “Either Europeans will develop the security and defense identity they have advertised for so long...or, given the expense and difficulties of defeating even Libya, they will simply stop trying.”
To set NATO’s overthrow of Gaddafi in context, it helps to stroll around the NATO headquarters base in Kabul, 3,200 miles from Tripoli. Inside its fortress walls, the base is a Noah’s Ark of soldiery. Forty-eight nations have sent troops to try to bring peace to the warring tribes of Afghanistan. Since 2003, NATO has run this vast and unprecedented international effort. In addition to the U.S., NATO members compose 26 of the contributing countries; 11 European nations outside NATO have also sent contingents. Many nations have been here so long that their troops have established makeshift clubhouses in the dusty warren of two-story containers that are stacked as offices and accommodations on the base. The Norwegian troops’ clubhouse has an Ibsenesque conifer growing through it. The British club-house and store sells that immemorial British stand-by savory, Marmite. The Italians’ store makes the best take-out pizza. Every evening, soldiers gather on the balcony of the Café Blue --- whose excellent coffee reflects European mentoring --- to Skype their families thousands of miles away Next morning, in the vast dining hall, the troops will find on the steel self-service tables long lines of breakfast foods chosen to meet all tastes.
“Operation Enduring Freedom,” as America dubbed this effort in Afghanistan, has been going on for so long that it tends to be forgotten just how remarkable it is. Whether the Taliban return to rule Afghanistan concerns few of the militaries gathered in Kabul. Al Qaeda has long been run out of Afghanistan and is thought now to be quitting Pakistan under an onslaught of attacks by Predator drones, yet this astonishing coalition remains, fights --- and dies. Through July, 1,678 U.S. troops had died in Afghanistan, as had 929 other coalition troops.
The U.S. military dominates, and quietly subsidizes, this force. Of the roughly 140,000 foreign troops in country, close to 99,000 are American. An American four-star general is in command. U.S. and British officers make up most of those who sit each morning in a wide semi-circle in the command center, scanning daily operational updates projected on a wall-sized screen. (Britain’s 9,500 troops are the second biggest contingent in Afghanistan; a British three-star is deputy commander of the operation and a French three-star is chief of staff.)
Nobody believes Operation Enduring Freedom will bring an outcome remotely resembling “victory.” The bare hope is that by the time NATO --- observing the decision it reached at a meeting in Lisbon in November 2010 --- pulls out its troops at the end of 2014, the Afghans will have overcome their fractious enmities enough to reach some precarious political settlement. Yet the coalition holds.
In Afghanistan, an infantry war lasting more than a decade will likely end in stalemate. In Libya, a six-month air campaign brought the fall of a regime. But any analysis of the Libyan operation should grasp the striking institutional similarities between these two interventions.
Libya, like Afghanistan, was an international effort with 18 nations playing a part and aircraft flying from 29 European bases in six countries. President Obama’s decision to hand control of the campaign to NATO at the end of March brought derisive comments from Washington hawks about America “leading from behind.” In reality, what statistics can be pieced together show that the U.S. dominated the campaign in Libya as it has in Afghanistan.
The U.S. flew roughly half the aircraft deployed, 150 or so out of some 300. From March 31 through August, NATO flew 21,090 sorties and U.S. aircraft flew 5,316 of these.
French, Brtitish and other Europeans flew most of the strike missions releasing missiles or bombs while the U.S. struck targets from the air mostly by Predator missiles after the initial bombing phase suppressing Libyan air defenses. Over the campaign, the U.S. flew some 30 of the 40-or-so tanker aircraft refueling coalition strike aircraft. A U.S. J-STARS surveillance aircraft monitored vehicle movements as the tide of battle flowed back and forth along the Libyan coast roads. U.S. AWACS aircraft handled battle management on many of the strike missions. (European air forces possess both tanker aircraft and AWACS, but lacked the crews to fly these 24/7 for any sustained period.)
At NATO headquarters outside Brussels, U.S. officials played a decisive role in managing the campaign and, politically, in holding together the coalition. In NATO operational headquarters in Naples, U.S. Air Force targeting specialists oversaw the preparation of “target folders” for strikes against targets in Tripoli and other cities held by Gaddafi’s forces. U.S. satellite coverage provided the imagery of the targets. U.S. eavesdropping --- some by aircraft, some by a listening post set up just outside Libya’s borders --- gave real-time insights into Gaddafi’s military preparations.
U.S. warships played an equally dominant role in the armada assembled off the Libyan coast. The U.S. Navy, with 11 ships deployed through the early weeks of the campaign, was the biggest single contingent, roughly a third of the force. To minimize political visibility, the Pentagon elected not to dispatch a super-carrier; but the U.S. flotilla did include a Marine Corps carrier that launched AV-8B Harriers and EA-18 electronic warfare aircraft. It was the submarine USS Florida that, in the opening phase of the war, launched 100 cruise missiles to open a gaping corridor through Gaddafi’s air defenses. (A British submarine launched a dozen.) The USS Mount Whitney ran command-and-control of the international fleet. And when Gaddafi began in desperation to launch Scud missiles against rebel-held towns, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer offshore shot them down.
Gates, as U.S. defense secretary when the Libyan campaign began, spoke of the U.S. using “our unique capabilities and the breadth of these capabilities at the front end” of the campaign. Then, throughout the campaign, Washington quietly supplied munitions to European air forces that ran low. That explains why non-U.S. members of the coalition flying U.S.-built F-16s --- Canada, Norway, Belgium and Denmark --- flew a disproportionate number of the strike sorties in the middle weeks of the campaign. Britain and France, flying recent models of the “Eurofighter” strike aircraft could not fully take advantage of U.S. resupply (although some U.S..-munitions could be and were quickly adapted for the Euro-fighter/bombers
In all, the Pentagon reckoned that, by the end of July, operations in Libya had cost the U.S. taxpayer $896 million. The Europeans had run up a further bill of $222 million for U.S. supplies of fuel, ammunition, repair parts and technical support.
All this might arguably fall within the limits of U.S. engagement that Obama laid out in his address from the White House on March 28 heralding “transfer” of the Libya campaign to NATO: “The U.S. will play a supporting role --- including intelligence, logistical support, search & rescue, and capabilities to jam regime communications.”
In reality, the U.S. continued to play a front-line role. According to Naples headquarters, NATO had by the end of August flown 7,920 strike sorties against Libyan targets. By Pentagon reckoning, U.S. aircraft flew at least 1,210 of these, close to one in six, in addition to more than 100 strikes by Predator drones.
The Obama administration did, just about, observe its pledge of “no boots on the ground." The CIA had paramilitary operatives inside Tripoli and at other hot-spots. But British and French special forces were the main forces working with the rebels on the ground alongside Jordanian and Qatari troops – while communicating via a U.S.-run military satellite channel.
In one regard, then, the Washington hawks who criticized Obama’s decision were correct. Without massive U.S. involvement, it is unlikely that the Europeans could have sustained a six-month air campaign, and certainly not at what the Naples command center reckons settled into an average pace of 100 missions a day, half of them strike sorties. So much for Gates’s prediction on March 20 that “we will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have a pre-eminent role.”
What the Libyan campaign demonstrated --- surely to nobody’s surprise --- was the overwhelming scale of the U.S. military. Contrary to Representative McKeon’s warnings, the Joint Chiefs supplied the U.S. forces for Libya without pulling assets out of other theaters. Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched U.S. ground forces; Libya was an air campaign.
Did Libya also demonstrate the incapacity of the Europeans? Was it, as Erlanger brooded, a “dark lesson for NATO”? A better case can be made for the proposition that Libya was a coming of age for the NATO/U.S. relationship.
Yes, Europe was divided. Of NATO’s 28 members, only six European nations --- plus the United States and Canada --- flew strike sorties against Libya. Four others supplied aircraft for support missions. Three supplied a warship apiece. In all, then, just half of NATO’s European members took part in the Libya operation.
Was that success or failure? Since 1999, the alliance has been facing up to the challenge famously emphasized by Senator Richard Lugar in a speech to the Atlantic Council that September: NATO, he said, “had to go ‘out of area or out of business’.” NATO has been evolving ever since the end of the Cold War standoff in central Europe to meet challenges that it was never set up to confront and ones that its members neither signed up for nor have more than a modest capacity to meet.
By any reckoning, NATO has done well. Most of its members participated in the 77-day air campaign against Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo war, with 1,000 aircraft, most of them European, flying mostly out of bases in Italy. NATO then set up and ran KFOR, the post-conflict Kosovo “stabilization” force. Over a decade later, 22 NATO nations plus eight others still have close to 6,000 troops in Kosovo.
Kosovo is part of Europe. Afghanistan is 3,000 miles away. Yet the Kabul coalition stands. Not a bad record.
Against that background of commitment, what issues did the Libya operation bring to the fore?
NATO’s divided response to Libya reflects history. By its founding treaty, NATO is an alliance to defend Europe. Only two of NATO’s European powers sought to retain, either in capabilities or political will, any true expeditionary role: Britain and France, the old colonial powers. It was unsurprising that these were the two European powers pushing for intervention in Libya. Equally unsurprising was that Italy, its refineries hungry for Libyan oil, joined them. The surprise was that Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Holland chose, along with Canada, to participate as whole-heartedly as they did, solely in the interest of NATO solidarity. The lesson is that NATO “out of area” is always going to be, in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, “a coalition of the willing.”
Libya has probably consigned notions of a “European defense identity” distinct from NATO to the scrapheap of history. Erlanger’s critique misses the point. Gaullist France pushed the idea and, formally, NATO agreed in 2002 to make its assets available to any European coalition that wanted to fight a war that NATO preferred to sit out. Nobody ever figured out what that war would be and 20 years of the European project have produced useful, if over-costly, joint weapons developments but nothing approaching an operational capability. The truth is that a “European defense identity” had as its engine Gaullist antipathy to America. Two generations later, France --- which never withdrew from NATO, only from its command structure --- has been easing back into NATO headquarters. (Though initially asking too high a price for its formal involvement: command of NATO forces in the Mediterranean.) Libya has brought France’s full-court return. President Sarkozy signaled this in his address to French ambassadors in August. Not merely had “the Europeans demonstrated for the first time that they were capable of intervening decisively, with their allies, in a conflict on their doorstep,” Sarkozy said. NATO had been central to the effort, he went on: “NATO turned out to be a crucial tool in the service of our military operations.”
As Sarkozy noted, it was a breakthrough for the U.S. to go to war at the behest of its European allies in NATO. Technically, this was not entirely a first: in Bosnia, the Clinton administration agreed to NATO military intervention only reluctantly and only when it seemed that the French and Brtitish peackeepers under U.N. mandate were likely to be forced to withdraw in humilitition from Bosnia-Herzogovina. But the U.S. then led the charge. This time there was a real change with the U.S. putting the public burden of success or failure on the Europeans.
So Obama’s decision brings NATO to a turning point. The war NATO was formed to fight never happened. It nevertheless remains the largest military alliance in history, growing from its initial 12 members to the current 28. Militarily, its enduring importance is that for 60 years it has been training national forces how to fight together. Civilian commentators tend to have no idea how stunningly complicated even the simplest multinational operations are. (The speed with which the forces of the old Warsaw Pact have been brought up to NATO’s standards --- in governance issues like civilian control of the military, as much as in operational procedures --- is remarkable.) Libya seals what Kabul foreshadowed. NATO’s long-established structures --- the joint headquarters, the task forces, the wilderness of committees --- will be the organizational umbrella under which Western coalitions will go to war in the future. They will be, like Afghanistan and Libya, coalitions of the willing. And the ingenious two-tier political/military command structure NATO cobbled together for Libya will serve as a model for control of future out of area expeditions.
There remains America’s long-voiced irritation that the Europeans don’t spend as much on defense as the U.S. does, nor field, in consequence, forces with anything close to U.S. capabilities. In his eve-of-departure shot at Europe, Gates took aim in Brussels in June at what he diagnosed as “NATO’s serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation; the military --- and political --- necessity of fixing these shortcomings if the transatlantic security alliance is going to be viable going forward; and more broadly, the growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the alliance.”
NATO veterans in Gates’s audience of course heard echoes of hoary American complaints about “burden sharing.” Much of Gates’s broadside was nevertheless well-aimed. Already, it is being widely noted that pending British budget cuts as well as signs of French forces being overstretched in recent years suggest that the Europeans will be unable to do “another Libya” if such an operation on this scale were needed.
For that, Europe must have military capabilities greater than the sum of its forces’ disparate parts and, for that, European governments need to build joint or complementary capabilities. This is already happening: Europe’s fleet of AWACS aircraft are jointly funded NATO assets. Budget stringencies –- and the lessons of Libya --- will accelerate this evolution.
The Cold War over, a new NATO is still a work in progress. It remains the case, too, that NATO is the home of America’s only reliable allies --- sometimes querulous, frequently exasperating, but allies. As Winston Churchill remarked, “There is only one thing worse than having allies, and that is not having them.”
John Barry is National Security Correspondent for Newsweek Magazine