Air power proved decisive in the Libya intervention, but success was not inevitable. The use of air power to support local boots on the ground should not be the default model for future interventions.

After the Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi stepped up its military campaign against rebel forces in February and March 2011, in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1970, pressure to impose a no-fly zone - which would require attacking the regime’s air defences - began to mount. On 17 March, the Security Council, with China, Russia, Germany, Brazil and India abstaining, passed Resolution 1973 authorising nations to ‘take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’. It also imposed a no-fly zone across Libya, and authorised member states to take all necessary measures to enforce it. The resolution did not provide an explicit mandate to provide direct military aid to the rebels, which would probably have provoked a veto from Russia or China.

The deteriorating situation in Benghazi triggered the first air action of the campaign as the French Air Force struck regime forces around the city on 19 March, after Paris had consulted both Washington and London. British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested shortly afterwards that, had the intervention not begun when it did, Benghazi and Tobruk would have been retaken by the regime and ‘Gaddafi would have rolled up the whole of his country in the next 24 to 48 hours’. Though the campaign ultimately secured victory for the anti-Gadhafi insurgents, the military action had to be crafted in such a way that it would remain within the bounds of UNSCR 1973. Force was to be used to protect civilians, not to pursue regime change. But even as the air campaign began, Russian diplomats argued that it was already exceeding the UN mandate.

By the end of campaign on 31 October 2011, 26,000 sorties had been flown, with 7,600 air-launched weapons used to engage 6,000 targets. NATO strike missions were flown by Danish, French, Italian, Norwegian, Qatari, United Arab Emirates, US and British combat aircraft.

Aims and fears

Regime change was, to be sure, a political ambitions of the main protagonists - France, Britain and the United States - in the NATO-led Operation Unifed Protector. The sophistry required to keep the operation within the scope of UNSCR 1973, however, carried inherent risks. Military activity was shaped to pursue the limited (if broadly interpreted) aims of the resolution, rather than to support the rebel forces directly. This gap between the mission and the aim, moreover, affected the nature of the air campaign directly. An operation intended to influence the behaviour of the regime would differ significantly (in types of targets or tempo of attacks, for example) from one designed to defeat it as rapidly as possible.

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Douglas Barrie is Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the IISS.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2012-January 2013

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