THE STALEMATE IN LIBYA: A COMMENT
"Britain and France were rebuffed by a number of Nato states on Thursday as the two nations pleaded with alliance members to supply more combat aircraft for attack missions against Colonel Muammer Gaddafi’s ground forces.
At a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Berlin, the UK and France implored a range of countries – including Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece and Turkey – to provide aircraft that could conduct precision strikes on Col Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery. But in a development that triggered dismay at Britain’s Ministry of Defence, it emerged that none of these countries seemed likely to provide jets for these kinds of attacks on Col Gaddafi’s forces in the near future.
Instead, the bulk of ground attacks on Col Gaddafi’s forces will continue to be conducted by the UK and France, with four other Nato members – Belgium, Canada, Denmark and Norway – carrying out a similar role. In Berlin, Nato officials were keen to play down suggestions that the alliance is divided over resourcing the mission.
Nato officials stressed that the alliance was already making a considerable effort to contain Col Gaddafi’s capability and that it was fully capable of carrying out its mission. But in London, there was irritation at the unwillingness of Nato members to back the mission with the required assets. “Moments like this do bring into question the entire Nato set-up,” said one person at the UK Ministry of Defence. “Nato is not just a body with a political mission. It has a military role. When it takes a decision to act, member states need to share the burden.”
Since the start of the campaign, Nato aircraft have flown more than 2,000 sorties, including 890 “strike” sorties. On Wednesday, Nato hit 13 of Col Gaddafi’s bunkers, a tank, an armoured personnel-carrier and three rocket launchers. US Admiral James Stavridis, Nato’s top soldier and Supreme Allied Commander, said at the meeting in Berlin that the alliance “overall [has] the necessary assets to carry out this mission”. But he warned Col Gaddafi’s troops and armoured vehicles were operating in built-up areas. That meant “sophisticated equipment” and, in particular, “a few more” air-to-ground fighter-bombers were needed to avoid civilian casualties.
British officials are privately concerned that without additional military assets it may be difficult in the long run to contain the assault on rebel cities, most notably Misurata. “On Sunday and Monday, we took out 10 of Gaddafi’s tanks so it’s not as though we’re not operating at a high tempo,” said a British defence official. “But if we are to maintain the pressure over time and be flexible in our approach, it would be useful to have others in there as well.”
Gerrit Wiesman, James Blitz & Peggy Hollinger, "UK and France isolated on action in Libya," The Financial Times. 14 April 2011, in www.ft.com.
"When taken together, the cuts are actually far greater than those that were imposed by any previous UK defence review. The nearest comparable experience was that of the demobilization period of 1945–8. Many of the planned cutbacks are in highly significant areas. The cancellation of the £14 billion Defence Training Rationalization project (on the same day as the publication of the SDSR) was the first in what appears to be a series of saving measures. More controversially, the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft was cancelled shortly before it was to enter service. With the cut to the RAF’s Sentinel force, the gap between the Nimrod R1 spy planes leaving service and their US-supplied replacements entering service, and the decision to take the Type 22 frigates out of service without replacement, there are significant gaps emerging in the UK’s surveillance capabilities. As well as these high-profile decisions, there were reductions in the fast jet fleet with the withdrawal from service of the Harrier and the shrinkage of the Tornado GR4 force, as well as cuts in the amphibious force and in the holdings of tanks and self-propelled guns. There are also plans for significant personnel reductions, with the navy losing 5,000, the air force 5,000, the army 7,000 and the civil service 25,000 by 2015. The SDSR acknowledged that in consequence Britain’s ability to engage in expeditionary operations and maintain an enduring stabilization operation such as those undertaken recently in Iraq or Afghanistan would be significantly reduced".
Paul Cornish & Andrew Dorman, "Dr Fox and the Philosopher's Stone: the alchemy of national defence in an age of austerity," International Affairs. (March 2011),
The conundrum that the British and French find themselves was of course predictable. Nay indeed was predicted in this very journal a week or more back. The issue now is that with a military stalemate on the ground, and with no variable on the horizon which would be able to tip the balance on the side of the rebels, the mot 'debacle' appears to be forming on one's lips to describe the current situation from an Anglo-French perspective. Per contra, it is the case that the fear of a horrid massacre of innocents, which was what first impelled the International community to intervene in Libya is no longer in prospect. That per se, does not however obviate the fact that with no military or political solution in sight, it will only be a matter of time (my own surmise perhaps as little as two months if not less) before there will be publicly ventured calls for a diminution of NATO's role, or worse, a reduction in the Anglo-French role in the current operation. As was noted in the British periodical the Spectator, earlier this week:
"The air campaign has come under sustained criticism from rebels, who feel that NATO has been both bureaucratic and backward-leaning. Media-wise, Nato certainly seems to have lost control of its message. And then there is what has been called the "durability issue". Since the US dialled down its role, questions have emerged about the alliance's capacity — actual planes available — to continue the
The fact that the British and the French are the heart of the same, would en faitmean the veritable collapse of the whole effort. A political defait of the highest magnitude. Of course the real problem is that both London and Paris (not to speak of the rest of the European members of NATO) has been parsimonious to the point of imbecility as it relates to their defence spending in the last fifteen years. With an end result that all European military powers (other than Russia) are almost wholely dependent upon American military support and assistance, nay indeed, American military leaderhship one is tempted to say. As we can now see, some very nasty chickens are coming home to roost at a most inopportune moment for both London and Paris.
1. Daniel Korski, "Can NATO cope in Libya?" The Spectator. 11 April 2011, in www.spectator.co.uk.