Seeing Limits to New Kind of War in Libya, The New York Times


October 21, 2011


WASHINGTON — For all its success, NATO’s intervention in Libya had several significant flaws that highlight why future offensives, against a stronger adversary, could be far more difficult.

Even as Washington put a European mask of command on the operation an effort described as “leading from behind” shortages in allied intelligence-gathering aircraft, aerial refueling tankers and precision-guidance kits for bombs proved the United States remained the backbone of any NATO offensive.

To be fair, while the fighting has dragged on longer than anticipated, the death on Thursday of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, gave senior Obama administration officials an opportunity to trumpet the new American way of war to a nation weary of ground combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States military has spent just $1.1 billion in Libya, and in the words of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., didnt lose a single life. He added that this is more of the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has been in the past.

Libya proved that the leaders of some medium-size powers can be overthrown from a distance, without putting American boots on the ground, by using weapons fired from sea and air with the heaviest load carried by partner nations in the case of Libya, European allies and even some Arab states.

Now, that mission is winding down. NATO said Friday that it would cease operations in Libya on Oct. 31, exactly seven months after the alliance assumed full control of the campaign.

An axiom of the new warfare is that speed kills: Attacks must be carried out rapidly to recapture an old-fashioned element of surprise, with intelligence identifying targets even before an enemy has recoiled from previous ones.

Senior military officials noted that in Libya, NATO missions were under way just 10 days after the alliance decided to move forward compared to the 11 months it took to move from a United Nations resolution to the first airplane enforcing a no-fly zone over Kosovo in the 1990s.

NATO works, and it can work at speed, said Adm. James G. Stavridis, the alliances senior military commander. The difference is that 10 years of integrated operations in Afghanistan have created an alliance that can move quickly, can move with alacrity not without controversy, not without some nations moving faster and some moving slower and some saying we are not going to participate in this operation.

But American and alliance officials acknowledged that a stinging critique, issued this summer by Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary at the time, still echoed. He warned of a two-tiered alliance in which some allies could fight, and some really could not.

It takes every nation to bring what they can to the operation and then its up to the nations to figure out how best to use what they bring, said Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II, a United States Air Force officer who commands the allied campaign from his headquarters in Italy.

The shortages in the proper equipment, military skills and political commitment that Mr. Gates underscored are, indeed, considered a warning to the alliance. NATO does not have a roster of experienced officers to do its own targeting the essence of successful air warfare. Only the United States, Britain and France have targeteers up to modern standards.

With no troops on the ground to help spot targets, NATO planners and pilots had to improvise with other reconnaissance equipment and informants on the ground. Still, commanders acknowledged that they often could not pinpoint the shifting battle lines in hotly contested cities.

Shortages in intelligence-gathering aircraft both manned and remotely piloted also revealed a near United States monopoly on these technologies, although NATO is considering purchasing drones for itself.

For command bunkers in Tripoli as well as Colonel Qaddafis final hide-out in Surt, NATO increasingly relied on American Predator drones that fly high overhead for hundreds of hours, chronicling the pattern of life below until allied commanders feel confident the site is a legitimate target. On Thursday, for instance, a Predator helped to guide a French warplane to attack Colonel Qaddafis convoy as it tried to flee Surt. (NATO said Thursday it did not know Colonel Qaddafi was in the convoy then.)

Ditto with refueling tankers: The United States had to provide most refueling aircraft.

Likewise with the GPS packages, which turn gravity bombs into precision-guided weapons to hit their targets while minimizing civilian casualties. While alliance officers say no missions were delayed or canceled due to shortages of precision-guided munitions, there was a scramble to borrow from American and other stockpiles for NATO aircraft.

For the record, non-American alliance and partner aircraft flew 75 percent of all sorties of the war. And non-American alliance warships carried out 100 percent of the missions to enforce the arms embargo at sea.

But NATO will be able to add muscle to its military only by increasing its defense spending, now averaging 1.7 percent of gross domestic product across the 28-nation alliance. And that may be a difficult push as the United States, still the essential alliance member, cuts the Pentagon budget as part of a deficit-reduction deal with Congress.

For all the talk that no American combat troops were deployed in Libya, ground forces were required to topple the government. But they were Libyan rebel forces, and they required ample assistance and advising from outside powers.