Western capitals are holding urgent talks about what help to give Libya's rebels, including the possibility of creating a no-fly zone. Col. Moammar Gadhafi's 18,000-man air force, with its 13 bases, is critical in his bid to retain power. His ground-attack jets showed their potency Monday when they bombed rebel positions near a coastal oil refinery. Still, they are hardly the weapon of choice for street fighting. Handier are his 30 or so Russian attack helicopters and transport aircraft. He also has a heavy transport helicopter squadron with four Boeing Chinooks, and a squadron of Russian medium helicopters that can serve as gunships.
The colonel's ability to move reinforcements rapidly around his vast country has already helped his campaign. He may have been preparing for this for many years. Unlike the well-equipped, albeit poorly run, air force, the nominally 50,000-strong Libyan army (mostly conscripts) has long been distrusted and kept on short rations. Meanwhile, the colonel and his sons have built a paramilitary force of some 20,000 well-armed and well-drilled tribesmen loyal to their clan and backed by richly paid mercenaries from Chad and Niger.
Tribal militiamen, ferried by air from the Sahara, were deployed on the streets of Tripoli late last month and bloodily put down resistance there. A few days later, air transport was crucial again to Gadhafi's plan to recapture coastal towns close to Tripoli from rebel hands. Both Zawiya and Misurata still appear to be controlled by the opposition, after assaults by heavily armed forces loyal to the regime were repelled last week. But Gadhafi's forces have surrounded the towns and cut off the road links to Tripoli.
Any attempt by the rebels to move their own forces along the coast road to Tripoli from Benghazi, which is 620 miles long, will be vulnerable to air attack. But at present, with nothing approaching a unified command, the rebels appear divided about whether they want a no-fly zone. Some say that Western help would tarnish their revolutionary credentials, whereas others argue that without help from Western air power they would be easy targets.
Without protection, the anti-Gadhafi revolution could yet stumble and fail. However, although the West has experience in policing no-fly zones, they are neither easy to impose nor guaranteed to prevent mass killings. Although Saddam Hussein was deterred by the no-fly zone in the north from taking terrible retribution on the Kurds after the first Gulf War of 1990-91, a similar attempt to suppress the Iraqi air force in the south was much less successful. The no-fly zone over Bosnia did not stop the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995.
A no-fly zone over Libya would probably have to be through a "coalition of the willing" rather than a U.N. Security Council resolution — which would probably be opposed by both Russia and China. Planes flying from an American carrier, probably the USS Enterprise, could establish a zone, but land bases, such as the well-placed American naval air bases in Sicily and Crete, would be needed to sustain a long campaign.
And although a no-fly enforcement is fairly straightforward once everything is in place, it takes planning and resources: a fleet of around 100 fighter jets, aerial refuelling, airborne warning and control, robust data links between coalition aircraft, and rescue arrangements for any pilots who are shot down.
Coalition aircraft would first have to nullify Libyan air defenses, which include nearly 100 MiG-25s and 15 Mirage F-1s equipped with Soviet-era air-to-air missiles and a huge arsenal of Russian surface-to-air missiles. Some military experts, including Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former fighter pilot who until recently oversaw air force intelligence at the Pentagon, think Libya has acquired more up-to-date SAMs in the past few years, and that these could threaten allied aircraft.
Before going ahead with a no-fly zone, the allies (America and Britain, perhaps joined by France and Italy) would have to ask themselves two questions. How long they are prepared to stick at it if Gadhafi hangs on? And how much "mission creep" will they allow? The prospect of an open-ended military commitment without U.N. sanction is, to put it mildly, concentrating minds.
© 2011 The Economist