European Affairs

The Libyan operation, of course, is not like any other. True, plans never withstand the shock of combat but this case was notable for the total absence of advance planning for the armed humanitarian intervention. When the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1973, aimed at preventing the Libyan military from slaughtering civilians in Benghazi, Western governments had to improvise a rapid response. There were gaps in the UN resolution and. above all, questions about modalities:  Would the operation be about enforcing a no-fly zone or go beyond? Would/could Western countries deploy ground troops on Libyan soil? Which countries would join the list of participants in the coalition? Among the leading European governments, a key question was: Could Washington be counted on to commit U.S. forces, and which kind, and in what strength, and with what caveats and for how long?

Some answers have emerged, not all of them reassuring. There has been a significant turn-out by some Europeans – not only France, Britain, and to a lesser extent Italy, but also other smaller European allies. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway are all flying sorties with their F-16 fighter-bombers. Sweden, which belongs to the EU but not to NATO, is in action with its Gripens in a much-appreciated reconnaissance role. How is the war going? No one seems to know for sure, but many analysts believe that the current appearances of a stalemate may be misleading, that the steady trickle of defections by officials and military officers from the Libyan regime is a sign that time is working against Moammar Gaddafi – while the NATO coalition seems to be holding together better than might have been expected from its ragged start, as the recent North Atlantic Council decision to extend the operation for an additional three months underscores. In an apparent sign of NATO’s confidence that Libyan defenses are weakening, the alliance started flying daytime bombing missions in early June.  In an earlier escalation, attack helicopters – low-flying and vulnerable, but lethally effective (and less liable to cause collateral damage in urban areas) – joined the attack from warships of France and Britain.

It was Paris and London that boldly took the initiative in launching the military action. The Obama’s administration’s decision to join the effort came only at the last minute late – and then became very limited after the initial phase. This development suddenly reversed the conventional wisdom that a joint military operation going through NATO guarantees strong U.S. involvement. And, of course, the West appeared divided: Germany’s abstention raised more than a few eyebrows since it isolated Berlin from its EU partners Britain and France from its traditional NATO allies, notably the U.S.

Until the June escalation, Libya has involved a limited air campaign. NATO has been flying an average of fewer than 200 sorties a day, and the number of offensive sorties – called “strikes” on targets as distinct from no-fly zone patrols -- has fallen from 100 per day during the first phase with Operation Odyssey Dawn, to fewer than 60 in NATO’s new phase, Unified Protector. By comparison NATO was flying 700 to 1000 sorties per day, including up to 300 strikes, in the Kosovo crisis in 1999 during the three-month air campaign against Serbia.

Even in operations of such limited scope, the Europeans have already approached the limits of their military capabilities. Amongst the Europeans, France and Britain alone – with operations Harmattan and Ellamy – provide more than two-thirds of the offensive air power and strike sorties. A handful of smaller European allies are providing help (often considerable in light of their national strength): the Belgian, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian air forces all have a few F-16’s in action in the up-graded Flying Falcon version that can handle advanced U.S.-supplied precision-guided bombs such as JDAMs. France, with its Rafales and Mirages, uses advanced European-made guided missiles as do the European-built Typhoons and Tornados flown by Italy and on a larger scale deployed from Britain, which also has its drones in action. So the French-British team are leading a sustained European effort, as demonstrated again with the recent decision to engage Tiger and Apache attack helicopters fit for hitting less visible targets that need to be hit from closer range. (see table below)

But U.S. assets remain indispensable – for example, for air-to-air refueling, airborne intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and for long-range drones. These gaps, which European armed forces cannot fill, confirm the fear expressed last year by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he warned publicly about the “demilitarization of Europe.”

[The U.S.-European recriminations about shortcomings and uneven efforts in Libya broke into the open June 10 – one week after this article was sent to press by European Affairs -- when in his farewell speech to the NATO Council, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bitterly criticized some European allies for relying too much on U.S. support and “sitting on the sidelines” in a NATO operation that European governments all supported at the UN.

In the actual campaign, Gates said, many of these European countries’ lack of military capabilities was so serious that it could – if allowed to continue – damage the alliance unity and dampen the U.S. efforts in the region. Without explicitly saying so, Gates seemed to be criticizing Germany and eastern European allies – none of whom has contributed to the Libyan operation.

At the same time, Gates singled out some smaller European allies for having made smart use of their limited resources to support the striking power of the NATO operation. Norway and Denmark, he said, “that have provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft in the Libya operation [and] yet have struck about one-third of the targets.” So these two countries, with their constrained resources, have found ways to do the training, buy the equipment and field the platforms necessary to make a credible military contribution.

But too many allies have been unwilling to fundamentally change how they set priorities and allocate resources. While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, Gates said, “many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

“Allies do not have intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets that would allow more allies to be involved and make an impact. To run the air campaign, the NATO air operations center in Italy required a major augmentation of targeting specialists, mainly from the United States, to do the job – a “just in time” infusion of personnel that may not always be available in future contingencies.]

Indeed, NATO itself has looked shallow as a military alliance. The shift from Odyssey Dawn to the NATO led Unified Protector has not increased the commitment of the allies’ forces. In spite of the “renewal of vows” strongly expressed in the Strategic Concept, adopted with pomp and ceremony at NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, the Atlantic alliance appears in poor shape. Put to the test in Libya, the alliance has done poorly. Even though it recognized and acknowledged that Libya was a crisis in its own backyard, Europe divided between interventionist hawks and peace-minded doves – and then had to struggle to garner U.S. support, which proved conditional and limited. In the end, the Pentagon ruled out providing the bulk of the combat forces but agreed to keep the allies supplied with key assets and some ordnance – a limited gift since the French and British fighter-bombers flying most of the missions are not compatible with many U.S.-made precision-guided munitions.

Militarily, the so-called massive conventional superiority of NATO appears to be an American military superiority with a limited British and French input while the rest of the allies either reluctant to help militarily or, when they are, not able to significantly contribute to the most demanding military tasks. In practice, NATO often gives the impression of being an alliance that exists but lacks a united strategic view and, militarily, increasingly lacks the capabilities to shape events, even in a small crisis – unless the U.S. is doing the job.

In any genuine post-crisis assessment, two issues need to be addressed. The Europeans need to seriously re-think their views about the security and defense challenges they face and decide to make the minimal budgetary effort needed to prevent Europe from vanishing completely from the strategic landscape. If Libya makes anything clear, it is this: the decline of European military budgets is creating a situation in which the use of force might simply no longer be an option. Secondly, the U.S. has to express more clearly what it expects from its European allies in the security realm. Should their military role focus on contributing (albeit modestly) to U.S.-led operation as in Afghanistan? Or should they manage low-to-medium intensity crises on Europe’s periphery?

Libya may not be a good case study. But we fight the wars we have, not the ones we want.  And Libya – however it comes out – seems to show that the transatlantic relationship has not produced a sensible focus or serious effort at equipping either Europe itself or the alliance as a whole for future contingencies. Take Libya: theoretically, it amounts to a small problem, especially since it surrendered its weapons of mass destruction capabilities under strong Western pressure in 2003 during the Iraq war. (If it had not, this Libyan war would surely have looked quite different).

Any assessment – such as this preliminary one in the thick of events – will have to reconsider the basis and wisdom of intervention as well as the conduct of the campaign and notably the degree of transatlantic cooperation. It has proved a problem that the alliance’s proclaimed original intention – to protect civilian life and manage a crisis before it became a civil war – has suffered, probably inevitably, mission creep so the aim is now the elimination of the Gaddafi regime. Could the more limited initial objectives have been achieved if Western military action had started a few days earlier?  Or might an “interposition” of NATO forces led to a stalemate?  That might have spared lives but not provided a political solution offering stability. In any case, events have not sent a message about NATO as an effective and resolute alliance, ready and capable to face all contingencies.

In addition, in the context of the Gaddafi regime’s disappearance, there will be a new challenge of post-conflict stabilization. The challenge will be particularly acute because Libya has been a place run for decades by one person, one family rule, with little more than token attention to the construction of modern state institutions. To an unparalleled degree, the country will have to be rebuilt from almost nothing beyond its oil. In this task, much will be asked from Europe, from the whole EU (Germany included). President Barack Obama underlined the importance of cooperation in this task in a news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 7, saying "my expectation is that there will be full and robust German support." The U.S. has some specialized agencies that can help. But this task seems bound to fall mainly on Europe, and the EU should be preparing for it now.

Camille Grand directs the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris.


Operation Unified Protector -- Allied Airpower Committed to Campaign


Operation Freedom Falcon

– Araxos Air Base, Greece

- 4 F-16 Fighting Falcon


Operation Mobile

-  Maritime Airfield Sigonella, Italy

-  Trapani Birgi Air Base, Italy

- 7 CF-188 Hornet


-  Maritime Airfield Sigonella, Italy


- 4 F-16 Fighting Falcon


Opération Harmattan

-  6 Airbases in France


- 8 Rafale F-3

- 6 Mirage


-  Trapani Birgi Air Base, Italy


- 4 Typhoon

The Netherlands

-  Decimomannu Air Base, Italy


- 6 F-16 Fighting Falcon


-  Souda Air Base, Greece


- 6 F-16 Fighting Falcon


-  Souda Air Base, Greece

- 2 Mirage 2000-5EDA


-  Decimomannu Air Base, Italy


- 4 F-18 Hornet


Operation Karakal

-  Maritime Airfield Sigonella, Italy


- 8 JAS 39C Gripen

United Arab Emirates

-  Maritime Airfield Sigonella, Italy


- 6 F-16E Desert Falcon

- 6 Mirage 2000-9

United Kingdom

Operation Ellamy

-  Gioia del Colle Air Base, Italy

-  RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus

- 4 Tornado GR4

- 10 Typhoon VC-10

Brimstone Storm  Shadow drones

Table from


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