Thursday, March 3, 2011

No-fly zone (NFZ)

I try to write my blogs based on my experience and education (both civilian as well as military). Apparently my blog about establishing a no-fly zone inspired one reader to submit an extended response. I'm posting Skyflea's comments here:

An excerpt from an e-mail sent by the Air Force Association CEO:
The air defense system could not threaten the F-22. The Libyans have older systems. The network is integrated for a common radar picture. However, their aircraft are older -- mostly Mig 21s and Mig 23s with some light attack/trainers and some ground attack aircraft. The Surface to Air missiles are also older SA-2s, SA-3s (Viet Nam era) and about 50 SA-6s. The latter are lethal to almost all aircraft except for the F-22. They would have to be dealt with in any regard. But it is not clear what kind of maintenance they have undergone ... nor how well the Libyans are trained on the system.

The central issue, in my mind, with a no-fly zone (NFZ) is a policy one. What do you want to do? It is too facile to say: Stop aircraft from killing people and destroying things ... as it begs the question of: “Soooooo, are you OK with ground forces killing people and destroying things?” If the latter is answered in the negative, then the air piece is only one part of a larger answer. [I worry this option is being considered just to be seen as “Doing Something.”]

A second, but lesser important question is: How long do you want to do this. If the answer is: We don't know ... but plan for a month or so. Then we'll need a couple hundred aircraft for 24/7 ops ... and either 3-4 carriers plus land-based support or bases in nearby nations or both. Italy is the best choice ... and to get its OK, we'll need either a NATO sign off, a UN Security Council Resolution, or just plain leaning on a good friend with a weak government. Other basing options are a bit unsavory. Egypt probably won't help ... neither will Tunisia. Algeria has its own terrorist problems. Israel won't want to be seen in an active role. Other African choices are pretty far away with little infrastructure.

A subset of the first issue -- more in the tactical realm -- is you would want to take out some of the air defenses no matter what systems you use ... and that means killing Libyan troops ... with all the unintended consequences of such actions. Secondly, what do you do about helicopters? They are hard to kill ... especially if they know you are coming. What if they just set down on the top of a building? You can't get them with an air-to-air missile; you'd need bombs [or as some of our members have pointed out – bullets] ... and that may mean civilian casualties ... especially if you don't hit that which you are aiming. Also, you don't generally configure fighters for both air-to-air missions and air-to-ground ones at the same time. Thus the need for more aircraft. The F-22 does carry both types of weapons internally and can do the job. I cannot address the policy question of whether Sec Gates would entertain a request from EUCOM/AFRICOM to deploy the F-22. Some believe he would be reluctant to approve the aircraft’s deployment.

Finally, the Navy is not configured for round the clock operations, except in a short-term surge mode and has to keep a bit of its airpower to defend the fleet. This means less for NFZ ops. The good news is that you would not have to establish a NFZ over the entire country -- probably just the major cities and perhaps a few key air bases.
Bottom line: creating a NFZ over the country is “do-able” – but not simple … and I would want to get the policy pieces answered before we embarked on this option.

Skyflea's comments are right on point. While the F-22 may be able to handle anything Libya can throw at it, why risk your newest (and most expensive) fighter to keep third generation aircraft from taking off? Using older airframes such as F/A-18s means shortening their lifecycle even further after ten years of war. Maintaining Operation Northern and Souther Watch (no-fly zones over Northern and Southern Iraq respectively) was very costly in just fuel and maintenance. Factor in costs associated with maintaining the bases and NFZs become very expensive showpieces.

Operation Provide Comfort (the cease fire operation of Desert Storm and the pre-cursor to Northern Watch) established a no-fly zone at the 38th parallel. The intent was to protect the Kurds of Northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein. While the Iraqi air force did not fly past the 38th parallel, there was nothing stopping Saddam from rolling his artillery right up to the line of demarcation and lobbing artillery rounds. Artillery generally has a range of 18km (11 miles). The Kurds had to move further north to avoid artillery rounds which forced them into contact with Turkish forces. The Turks would attack and drive the Kurds back towards Saddam's artillery.

Shooting down aircraft is unpredictable in respect to where the parts impact the earth. During Operation El Dorado Canyon, Libyan air defense artillery (ADA) created many civilian casualties. Gaddafi's planners only thought about firing solutions out over the Mediterranean. When the FB-111s crossed over land, the ADA batteries had to slew 180 degrees and fire back over Libya. The impact of the rounds caused even more casualties and damage.

If the reports are correct, more and more of Gaddafi's forces are leaving or joining the rebels. I think establishing a NFZ is the answer to the wrong question. The question the US and other governments should be asking is, who will take over Libya when Gaddafi finally falls? We can't let Libya fall into the same lawless chaos as is the case in Somalia.


Quimbob said...

ok, o how about sending in intel guys with radar or something to help prepare for air strikes & the intel guys could collect info on who's shaping up to take control?
I realize that's getting kind of Viet Namish.

Skyflea said...

Who says we haven't sent in the snake eaters? But it isn't so easy -- didn't the Brits send in a few special ops guys who are now being held by rebels?

Bob Baylor said...

Skyflea, I read the same article indicating the British SAS were captured by Gaddafi's people. Their capture is even more humiliating for PM Cameron who had been for some time warning Gaddafi that he would face sanctions if the protesters were attacked.

Skyflea said...

NATO AWACs are flying missions with a 320km lookdown view into Libya. They must be orbiting over the Med, maybe out of Geilenkirchen, with fighter support. I wouldn't be surprised if there are other electron sniffers in the mix. Perhaps NATO is building a no-fly zone?