Here's Why A No-Fly Zone Might Not Really Change Anything In Libya

The world’s opinion-makers, in both government and media, seem to have settled on the idea that imposing a “no-fly zone” over Libya would be a good idea for all concerned. Not everyone has jumped on this bandwagon yet, but it seems to be the most popular option under discussion by those advocating “doing something” about the situation in Libya.

But would a no-fly zone really change the dynamic all that much? Even if it had been imposed two weeks ago, would it have achieved any real goal? These are hard questions to answer, but anyone advocating a no-fly zone (especially one largely imposed by the U.S. military) really does need to at least consider them.

Put aside the global politics of the situation, and assume for the sake of argument that all the relevant international bodies backed the no-fly zone (the U.N., N.A.T.O., regional organisations such as the Arab League). This is far from where we currently stand, since China and Russia have their own ideas about when the international community should intervene in situations like the one in Libya (remember Tiananmen Square?). But assume for now that all the international groups gave the no-fly zone a green light.

The first thing that would happen, most likely, is that a U.S. aircraft carrier would position itself off Libya’s shore. A swift attack would follow, on the radars and air defence capability Libya possesses. To “own the skies” you have to wipe out not only the missiles on the ground, but also the “eyes” (radars) which are capable of tracking your flights. This may also coincide with pre-emptive strikes against the airfields themselves (bombing the runways so they cannot be used), and against the planes in the hangars (again, so they cannot be used). Any Libyan planes which rose to defend against this attack would also be fair game, of course.

I have every confidence that the United States military is fully capable of success in such an attack. Within hours, we could wipe out the radars, anti-aircraft batteries and missiles, airfields, and (if we chose) a goodly portion of the Libyan Air Force’s planes and helicopters. And that this would — both militarily and psychologically — be a huge victory over Ghaddafi’s forces. But, even having said that, would it truly change much of anything on the ground? Even if it had happened two weeks ago?

The Libyan Air Force is pretty limited, and even though they do have hundreds of combat aircraft, nobody really knows how many of them are functional. A swift and decisive attack would likely cripple their ability to do much of anything, especially if American warplanes were ready to shoot them down if they tried. So, again, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that what the British call a “short, sharp shock” would be completely successful, and take the Libyan Air Force out of the picture. Would the situation on the ground be any different for the rebels?

Most of the fighting, so far, has been on the ground. The weapon of choice for Ghaddafi so far seems to be tanks and heavy artillery. It is true that bombs have been dropped, but mostly on weapons depots and other tactical targets, rather than directly on combatants. Libyan warships have also reportedly been used (for shelling, one assumes), but the brunt of the fighting has so far seemed to be urban warfare by machine guns, artillery, and tanks. A no-fly zone wouldn’t change this calculus at all. The forces loyal to Ghaddafi would have to fight without any air cover at all, but since the rebels have no air power to begin with, this would be a setback for the Ghaddafi forces — but not an overwhelming one. They’ve been using their air power in such a limited way so far (at least, from available reports) that the removal of this option would not seriously impact their ability to achieve their military goals (retaking ground the rebels occupy).

There would be an initial demoralizing aspect to imposing a no-fly zone, of course. The Libyan people would be able to see, as Obama said recently, “the noose being tightened” around Ghaddafi. It’s pretty hard to ignore airfields being bombed, after all. In the best case scenario, this would lead to massive defections from the Libyan military to the rebel forces, as they realise they’re in a losing battle with the rest of the world. However, you can’t build a war plan around only the best case scenario. If Ghaddafi and the military loyalists dug in as a result of a no-fly zone, and doubled their resolve, then this psychological aspect could turn negative. After the initial shock of American dominating the airspace over Libya faded, each subsequent victory on the ground against the rebels would actually mean that the psychological impact would negatively impact the rebels — as Ghaddafi defiantly showed that he was fully capable of regaining ground without the benefit of an air force. Demoralization may set in, in other words, but on the rebel side and not the Ghaddafi side. This would be the worst-case scenario, of course, but it has to at least be considered.

There are other worst-case aspects to consider as well. What happens if a Libyan plane or missile gets lucky and shoots down an American pilot? What kind of treatment do you think he or she would get at the hands of Ghaddafi? This is where our spoken and unspoken acceptance of torturing prisoners of war would come back to haunt the United States. How could we take any sort of moral high road and indignantly demand humane treatment from Libya when all Ghaddafi has to do is search the internet for Abu Ghraib (or Guantanamo) photos? When we get on our moral high horse about war crimes and prosecutions under the International Criminal Court, all Ghaddafi has to do is point out that America refused to join the I.C.C. (for fear of our own people being prosecuted), and the lack of prosecutions in America for any wrongdoings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else in the “War on Terror.”

Putting aside worst and best case scenarios, though, let’s assume America did successfully “take out” the Libyan Air Force’s ability to do anything. This would make the American public feel good about “doing something” (and perhaps the rest of the West, as well), but would it really change anything? After seeing rebel forces slaughtered in town after town, would the cry suddenly become “we have to do more”? These things, historically, have a way of escalating. Once you’re committed (as a country) on one side of a civil war, it becomes very hard to sit by and watch your side lose without doing more to aid them. Two weeks ago, I heard a fatuous comment from a pundit that we should impose a “no-tank zone” in Libya (in addition to a no-fly zone, of course). These cries would become louder, if Ghaddafi’s forces (minus the air force) were still taking territory back from the rebels. Calls for the next phase of American involvement would begin — bombing Ghaddafi’s tanks and heavy artillery (and warships, perhaps).

This would ratchet our involvement up considerably, and the fight would more and more look like “the United States versus Ghaddafi” rather than “the rebels versus Ghaddafi.” It may have the effect of actually levelling the playing field for the rebels, since both sides would be reduced to very light arms and urban block-by-block style battles. But even this is no assurance of victory. Ghaddafi’s forces are trained, and the rebels are a pretty ragtag bunch. Sure, their cause is just — but this is not a movie, this is real life.

What would likely happen, unless U.S. forces took the offensive step of actually targeting Ghaddafi himself for bombing raids (he already famously survived one of these, years ago), would be some sort of stalemate. American involvement may only serve to set in cement the front-line limits of the rebels and Ghaddafi forces — and that’s further towards a best-case scenario than a worst-case, it bears mentioning.

The worst case, even if we wiped out every tank and howitzer in Libya, would be what is likely happening right now anyway — the slow but inexorable victory of Ghaddafi’s forces over the rebels. If the loyalist forces retook every town in the east of the country, where would that leave the United States? Would we, at that point, declare defeat and pull out? This is not normally what American forces do, I should point out. Or would we then indefinitely continue the no-fly zone, as happened over Iraq between our wars?

Of course, the best best-case scenario (if you’ll excuse the redundancy) is that the rebels win, Ghaddafi is killed (perhaps by a rogue member of his palace guard), and the country is transformed into some sort of democracy where the oil keeps flowing and dictatorship becomes a thing of the past. In this case, we’d be off the hook, the aircraft carrier would steam away to other duties on the world’s oceans, and a new (and grateful) Libyan government would emerge with close ties to America.

But, again, you simply can’t make military plans based on such rosy scenarios. Because anything short of this outcome would likely mean we would face the choice of how long to continue the no-fly zone — whether the rebels enter a stalemate with the loyalist forces or whether Ghaddafi’s forces retake the whole country.

Which is why President Obama is cautiously talking about risks and costs, right now. Because while it’s fun for a pundit to say “we ought to just go in and impose a no-fly zone tomorrow!” such pundits are not charged with thinking these rash impulses through. Presidents are.

Because what we are talking about here is entering a third war in this part of the world. Or perhaps “fourth” or even “fifth,” depending on how you count what we’re doing in Pakistan and places like Yemen, currently. What we’re talking about is tying up one of our aircraft carriers — and a whole bunch of flying military hardware and pilots — for an indefinite period of time. This would further stretch our military, and it would seriously stretch our national budget, perhaps for years to come. In essence, we’d be borrowing more money from China to throw our lot in with a civil war with uncertain prospects — which may wind up with us being the only ones facing off against Ghaddafi, if he succeeds in crushing the rebels. So much for deficit reduction, eh?

I realise that in this age of omnipresent video, it is hard for Americans to see on their screens each night the “good guys” losing and the “bad guys” winning. The overwhelming urge is to “do something — now!” America has chosen sides already, the argument goes, so why not do something that would really help?

The answer to that is twofold. One, it may turn out badly. This alone might not be enough to make the case for non-action. But the second reason is that we really can’t be the “world’s policeman” in every single country around the globe. We can’t afford to anymore, if we ever could (and if we ever actually were such a thing). The only option with any sort of chance of low-cost success would be to declare Libya a “no-Ghaddafi zone,” and target him with a few cruise missiles. But if a first strike wasn’t successful, this too may backfire (we’re still attempting to take out Osama Bin Laden in this fashion… which we have been attempting for almost 10 years now). And it is not likely to happen anyway, because it would smack of assassination of a sovereign leader — something America does not generally pride itself on.

It is tough to sit back and watch “the good guys” get slaughtered on television each night. It is easy to work up a sense of moral dudgeon about the situation. It is almost as easy to call for a “no-fly zone” from the comfort of a computer keyboard. An initial raid which wiped out the Libyan Air Force would likely be almost completely successful — which would make everyone feel better about “doing something.” But doing so should in no way be seen as any sort of panacea for the rebel forces. Taking out the Libyan Air Force does not guarantee a rebel victory — not by a long shot. The rebels wouldn’t face bombs from the air afterwards, but they would still face warships, artillery, and tanks — all manned by trained soldiers. A no-fly zone wouldn’t change this one bit. It might slow down the advance of Ghaddafi’s forces — it might even halt this advance and create a stalemate — but it would not tip the scales all that heavily in favour of a rebel victory. Even if such a no-fly zone had been imposed weeks ago, the situation on the ground would likely be pretty much where it stands today.

If this sounds like defeatism, well, I’m sorry. Nobody ever gets covered in glory by arguing for doing, essentially, nothing. I realise this. Watching the rebels get slaughtered is tough. But watching the rebels get slaughtered after wiping out the Libyan Air Force would be just as tough — if not tougher. Revolutions don’t always succeed. The good guys don’t always win. These are grim facts, indeed. We probably could help the rebel forces enough to succeed, but it would require training, weapons, and (most importantly) time. If we leapt in with both feet on the side of the rebels, once the adrenaline rush of bombing the heck out of the Libyan Air Force wore off, American would face a long involvement in a war which would tie up precious military resources (to say nothing of precious tax dollars) while we are involved in several other global conflicts. The American public is already weary of such adventures in places most people cannot locate on a map.

President Obama, to his credit, seems to be rationally thinking this whole situation through. He’s in a tough spot, because the popular thing to do now would most likely become much less popular as time wore on. He is weighing the costs and benefits of the situation, and his reluctance to get involved may turn out, in the long run, to be the correct decision. Because, as I said, he is the one charged with taking the long view of America’s best interests in situations like these — which, in the heat of the moment (“No fly zone — now!”) may prove to be unpopular. But then, that’s what leadership sometimes requires — doing the right thing, rather than the thing which would make us feel good right away.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.