Tuesday 5 August 2014

Libya: the narrative and the reality

Yesterday I wrote on the subject of Libya that "this intervention was an opportunity to be seen to be doing the right thing. But what if that's all it is? A figure I keep repeating is that in over ten thousand sorties, only 73 (confirmed*) civilians were killed (34 of which were in one single incident). From this we can either deduce that we have reached the very pinnacle of accuracy and surgical strike capability from long range aircraft (as if), or that we actually hit bugger all of any significance, and the whole jamboree was a flag waving exercise."

As speculation goes, it turns out I might not be far off the truth. I was already aware that our Tornado GR4 missions were largely a marketing exercise, and RAF Typhoon footage certainly doesn't show anything one might call destruction of assets immediately threatening to the regime. A shed on a deserted military base is hardly evidence of a decisive air power deployment. It is also difficult to see how the destruction of Libyan warships sitting in the harbour could have had any major impact on the outcome. Rather than "pummeling" Libya, it was very much a deterrence operation that would make the Gaddafi regime think twice about any co-ordinated opposition to the uprising (which, incidentally, would have killed a great many more civilians than the entire NATO operation even if the casualties were in the thousands.).

What also accounts for the small number of casualties was the number of aborted sorties which still count in the final tally. While it seems to be a tightly executed NATO air operation from the outside, the reality, according to this report, is very different.
Much has been written about the Combined Force Air Component's (CFAC) initial inability to properly man and equip an Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) division. These accounts are true. As augmentees arrived at Poggio, they began to fill the fledgling intelligence entity, which was still split because the original ISR division was at Izmir.

Compounding issues, the small intelligence cell permanently assigned to the air policing CAOC at Poggio was insufficient in skill set and number for the new task of running a sophisticated kinetic air war. At the core of this limitation is the fact that few countries have the national capability to collect intelligence, analyze it, share it on classified architecture, and then develop the high-fidelity targeting materials necessary for an aerial campaign where collateral damage is a concern.

As the United States stepped back to a supporting role following the handover to NATO, the CFAC’s ISR division capability for Operation Unified Protector suffered when it was needed the most. Largely absent were U.S. national feeds providing critical knowledge and the current imagery and trained personnel necessary to make collateral damage estimate determinations to prosecute dynamic targets.

Most important, the United States did not immediately provide trained personnel to augment NATO’s nascent ISR division. A perfect storm existed from the beginning: NAC guidance for zero civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, strong political pressure for the Alliance to take over the mission, the urgency to prevent Benghazi from being overrun, and the CFAC shackled by lack of a functional ISR division.
What this suggests, along with the low casualty rate, is that NATO air forces were extraordinarily risk averse in conducting their operations in the absence of good intelligence, thus limited targets to targets of opportunity such as armour and wheeled vehicles, or, like Bosnia, either jettisoned munitions or returned to base with them if there was a risk of collateral damage.

Though a large number of aircraft were committed to the operation, many of the air assets were dedicated SEAR aircraft (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) and specialist anti-radar aircraft, which are useful in enforcing a no-fly zone, but very little else. Looking at the order of battle, it very much appears that the mainstay of strike activity was the RAF with Typhoon and GR4, performing what are seemingly valueless missions with very, very expensive ordinance.

We also see very little in the way of Close Air Support assets such as the A10 or Apache for dealing with vehicles and heavy armour. In fact the closest we see to any such capability is a small contingent of Italian Harriers. It is unlikely that the 110 cruise missiles launched from naval platforms made much difference to the outcome either. If anything, Unified Protector looks like an insurance policy against the successor regime having the military assets to stage a major attack against neighbouring countries. That is a geopolitical and security concern.

Further to this it should also be noted that Islamist militias are attracted to Middle Eastern civil wars like flies to horse manure with or without the involvement of the West. Thanks to the NATO operation we get the blame either way, but in assessing the fallout, one must be careful not to assume that whatever happened thereafter was entirely the doing of NATO, and that it wasn't going to happen anyway. If it was (which is very likely), then perhaps thanks to NATO, the weapons haul for Boko Haram and the likes is not as big a bounty as it might have been - and some very potent weapons, such as the Buk missile system that downed MH17 are now rusting hulks fading into the Libyan sands. 

Apart from deterrence and feeding intelligence to the rebel forces, there is not much you could describe as direct military assistance. So, as keen as Western commentators are to (rightly) denounce the vanity aspect of this operation, I think it has yet to be demonstrated that the NATO effort was the decisive factor in the fall of Gaddafi. There was a large uprising, a demos one might say, and it was they who did the fighting. Ask any defence analyst whether regime change can be effected through air power alone and the answer will be a resounding no. Why should this be any different?

But then such analysis is unlikely to intrude on the narrative many have already decided upon. In the minds of some NATO has "pummeled" Libya or "bombed it into the stone age", when in fact there is little to suggest the operation was any more effective than the vainglorious politicians who ordered it. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time our politicians had sold us a military loss as a proud victory.

It can be argued that the deterrence alone was enough to tilt the outcome, but insofar as comparisons with other theaters go (as some are making), the contrasts are fatuous. In Libya, as you can see from the footage and the record of combat sorties,  most of the targets were either military assets or in open ground, where the risk of casualties were low. Those who then compare the NATO operation with the actions of the IDF (who, quite deliberately, have been dropping Paveway II bombs and firing artillery into one of the most densely populated cities in the world) are willfully bending the truth to make a weak point. Such comparisons are lazy, inaccurate and let Israel off the hook. To indulge in such willful distortion is third-rate hackery of the worst kind.

Additional notes:

* There is little in the way of reliable casualty data on account of NATO not having ground forces with which to mount investigation (and was reluctant to mount any ), so it is recognised that the death toll in all likelihood is much higher, but further investigation was left to NGOs and Libyan authorities which cannot by any measure be taken seriously. That said, the ratio is still going to be impressive compared with the number of combat sorties. The vast majority of targets can be said to be identifiable military assets. NATO executed around 9,600 strike sorties, many aborted, that destroyed 5,900 targets.

It should also be noted that Libya's army was quite small, in a country that is rather large. Given the large number of desertions, defections and the reluctance to engage, it is unlikely the regime was going to survive. There is every possibility that Libyan forces would not fight Islamist militias and melted away as Iraq's forces have in the face of ISIS. It may be that European leaders are taking credit for an achievement that was not theirs.

To make the case that the intervention aided Islamist groups, one must consider how much worse it could have been were Libyan military assets to fall into their hands, and whether the lack of such weaponry (post-intervention) prevented the uprising from establishing a central authority, preventing the new regime from establishing order. Given the size of the country it is doubtful that groups hostile to the new regime could have been contained in any case.

If there is a case for intervention it is post-revolution to assist the new government in gaining legitimacy, and to fight off the forces who would naturally gravitate toward a weak government in the hope of claiming the crown. If, of course, the new regime is one with which we prefer to deal over the alternatives.

The post-revolution violence we see today could have been prevented by NATO ground forces, but that would be seen as Western imperialism, and there is no appetite for such embroilment, especially from America who were reluctant players in the whole operation. Another consequence of Iraq.

This is where we bump into the "post-intervention paradox" whereby the best way to deal with the consequences of our interventions might well be further intervention. Which might fail of course. As I like to remind those certain that intervention is a bad thing, there is a cost to non-intervention too. What a tangled web we weave.

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