NATO’s Campaign in Libya Offers Salient Lessons for the Air War Against ISIL
These five lessons from the 2011 air campaign in Libya are relevant today in the campaign against the Islamic State. By Karl P. Mueller
Three years have passed since the Autumn 2011 conclusion of Operation Unified Protector, the seven-month NATO air campaign that in concert with Libyan rebel forces defeated the dictatorial regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. It has received relatively little mention in public discussion of the three-month-old air campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), yet amidst their differences the two operations share important similarities, including the scale of the enemy, the nature of the air operations, and both campaigns’ focus on protecting civilians from brutal regimes. At least five lessons of the Libyan air campaign deserve greater attention today:
It’s normal for air campaigns to take time to work.
In spite of the president’s repeated statements that defeating ISIL will not be accomplished quickly, strategic impatience is once again rife, much as when initial weeks of bombing did not bring earlier air wars in Libya or Kosovo to a rapid end. In each of these cases the intervention strategy involved the progressive accumulation of effects—the rapid defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 was both exceptional and unexpected.
The goal of bolstering and reforming the Iraqi army to roll ISIL back in Iraq resembles the need in 2011 to build the far weaker Libyan rebels into an effective fighting force. Widely described by frustrated observers at the time as a “stalemate,” the time that this process required was in fact a period of strategic preparation. Precision airpower proved to be adept at containing advances by regime ground forces in order to buy the time and space for that effort, and appears to be doing so once again against ISIL.
Airpower typically can do much more than skeptics assume.
During air-focused interventions it is common for pundits to declare authoritatively and ultimately incorrectly, that airpower is indecisive, local partners are weak, and victory can only be achieved with U.S. “boots on the ground.” This was most recently illustrated last month when more than a few experts publicly concluded that the limitations of airpower were being revealed by its apparent failure to stop ISIL from overrunning Kobane—just before air strikes did in fact halt that offensive. This pattern of underestimation stems at least in part from a lack of recognition that U.S. and allied airpower capabilities have evolved dramatically in the past two decades, but often in ways that are not visible to the casual observer because they involve improvements in sensors, munitions, datalinks, and command and control—areas that are increasingly the key factors in effectively employing airpower.
Of course, the fact that it often outperforms popular expectations does not mean that airpower is all-powerful, and it is indeed most effective when operating in close cooperation with forces on the ground. In Libya a handful of Western advisers acting as liaisons with the rebels were invaluable, and such coordination with Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces will presumably be at least as important in Iraq and eventually in Syria, especially as Iraqi and Kurdish forces shift to conducting offensive operations.
Small allies aren’t just symbolic anymore.
A generation ago the United States tended to go to war counting Britain as a useful ally but considering smaller partners’ forces to be politically useful but of little military consequence. Air wars in the Balkans and especially in Libya have demonstrated that if well-integrated into the operation, smaller NATO allies wielding modern forces with advanced weapons and sensors can now provide firepower and surveillance information that is genuinely consequential. In seven months of operations over Libya, six Danish F-16s delivered more than 900 precision-guided bombs.
Aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and to a lesser extent Jordan also participated in the 2011 Libyan air campaign, though they were secondary players in what was their first-ever major expeditionary deployment. To date, four Arab states have joined in the military campaign in Syria (European, Canadian, and Australian forces are flying strikes only in Iraq); how effective they prove to be may indicate much about what political shape the war against ISIL will ultimately take.
The character of local partners matters a lot.
Libya was something of a “best case” scenario for aerial intervention in part because the rebels were committed to their cause, willing to fight, and not severely rent by internecine conflicts. The political landscape in Syria today is far less favorable on many levels. Prospects for progress are more encouraging in Iraq, the principal front in the campaign against ISIL for the time being, but how Iraqi political reconciliation and military reform efforts fare is likely to be hugely important to determining how and to what extent ISIL can be pushed back from its recent gains there.
It’s risky to let the chips fall where they may after a war.
In spite of relatively favorable conditions, the situation in Libya deteriorated soon after the end of the 2011 civil war, as the West remained largely disengaged and rival militias turned against each other in the postwar power vacuum, drawing support from foreign sponsors. Libya is now in the throes of a new civil war to determine its future. This unsatisfying state of affairs is doubtless a major reason why so few commentators now cite it as a successful example of aerial intervention, even though Operation Unified Protector accomplished everything it was supposed to do.
(Read More: Libya Is Stumbling Toward Civil War)
Preventing a similar course of events when ISIL is driven back in Iraq and eventually Syria will be important. The burden of stabilization efforts will necessarily fall to people on the ground—many of them non-military, and mostly not American. But the United States should expect and prepare to play an essential role on a number of levels following the war against ISIL; for the military this is likely to include U.S. airpower providing surveillance and ground attack top cover for partner states’ personnel.
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