Monday, August 29, 2011

Air Power And The End Of Gaddafi

The Obama administration got a break this weekend as it big gamble on regime change in Libya payed out. While there are many ways to look at this accomplishment let’s us look at it through the very limited lens of military action. From the NATO perspective this was a two part air war; one, a short battle of Strategy and then, two,  a longer battle of tactics.

Overarching both battles was the attempt by NATO to negate Gaddafi’s advantage in running a military dictatorship backed by big-ticket arms. Striped of his army, the theory went, Gaddafi would not survive the assault by the rebels and the general populace.

If the assault on the Libyan regime proved anything it is that Tin Pot Military dictatorships end up with a regime that cannot stand up to a real military. Gaddafi’s forces were competent enough in the work of slaughtering the unarmed citizens of the Libyan nation but were no match for NATO’s high-flying hardware and the efforts of the Rebel fighters.

NATO, mostly via the efforts of the UK and France, slowly ground the Libyan military to the bite-sized chunks the Rebels could slowly devour. The first part of this task was the ill-named “no fly zone” set up by NATO. More properly understood, NATO established absolute air superiority in Libya. From time the time Libyan air units were able to work the seams of NATO’s blanket superiority, but it was a loosing game from the first day. 

In that first day NATO gouged out the eyes of the Libyan air defenses.  This is standard doctrine for any military worth its salt, take away the opponents ability to see the battle-field. The very first bits of the Libyan military infrastructure to get reduced to rubble were the radar facilities. The Libyans were hopelessly out-classed by NATO’s air-sea assault. From day one NATO flew with impunity in Libyan air space.

With NATO able to fly where the wanted and when they wanted, the next phase of the air war began: tactical air support of the rebels. This was the slow, unglamorous, brutal, chewing up of the Libyan military by attack air craft. 

In the US inventory the attack airframe nec plus ultra has to be the A-10 “Warthog.” It is stuff of tank commanders nightmares. ( ) The business end of the A-10 is the GAU 8/A Avenger 30mm gatling gun, a weapon specifically designed to chew up Soviet era tanks. While exact numbers of these planes deployed overseas is classified, it is more than likely the US had a few hanging around that were pressed into service. Also pressed into service for ground-pounding service was “Spooky” the AC-130, and its main armament of the 25mm GAU-12U gatling gun. As the AC-130 Specter is part of the Air Forces Special Command component and works best at night, it is likely that it was part of the overall special forces component of NATO’s efforts.

With the attack aircraft in place, NATO was able to slowly degrade the Libyan military’s ability to fight. Not only were the beans and bullets logistics getting eliminated, so too were the troops on the ground. The big guns of the Libyan army and its mercenaries, became live fire training for NATO pilots. The NATO pilots got better at chewing up the tanks and artillery, and the Rebels became better at guiding the planes from the ground.  

With NATO breaking the back of Gaddafi’s military, the rebels had a fighting chance to defeat the regime; and fight the rebels did. NATO did not have to put boots on the ground because the Libyans manned up and provided the fighters for the job. With the battle becoming more and more a small arms vs. small arms struggle, the superior moral of the rebel fighters starting tipping the war in their favor. 

It is the last consideration that must be illuminated. While NATO air power made the rebels victory possible, it did not make it inevitable. The NATO effort at regime change was successful because it had a willing, actually an enthusiastic, ally in the Libyan people. Air power opened the door, but it was the people of Libya who tossed Gaddafi out that open door. The final push for Tripoli, Operation Mermaid Dawn, could never have happened with out the support of Libyan fighters. 

Both pro and anti NATO commentators seem to miss that important fact. Leftist commentators like Pepe Escobar disparage the Libyan rebels as mere stage craft by the evil colonialist, capitalist, cabal. ( Meanwhile, triumphalism by the usual suspects also ignores the contribution by the flesh and blood fighters to better fetishize the gleaming hardware used by NATO. It is weird when the far left and status quo both manage to agree that NATO air power was the sole reason for the toppling of Gaddafi, if for different reasons.

Reality on the ground is another story. The rebels were not bit players in the machinations of greater powers. The people of Libya were not the pawns of NATO hegemony; they were not the dupes of disaster capitalism writ large. Far too many forget that Gaddafi had threatened the genocidal slaughter of his own citizens. Western “Neo-Imperialism” did not dream up those threats, they did not make Gaddafi say such things. The world community reacted to the threat of mass slaughter because it was believable. Gaddafi was a big enough SOB for the threat to be realistic.

The limited response of NATO, essentially the minimum military pressure needed to effect regime change, was a success. Whether regime change was a good idea in the first place is yet to be determined. It would be wise to remember how specific, how one off, the situation in Libya was. Regime change became almost required because Gaddafi seemed more than willing to perform prodigious works of slaughter. Because of that, ordinary citizens of Libya were more than willing to take up arms against the state. NATO worked in tandem with local, and enthusiastic, forces. It would be wise to remember that fact, that air power alone can not do the job alone. It would be wise to remember that air power is no substitute for support from the masses. I fear that the chattering elites in DC will quickly forget the people who made this possible and only remember the shiny and expensive military toys that helped those people to throw off a hated dictator.
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