Starting on 19 March 2011, wasn’t it nice to see those U.S and allied fighter-bombers attacking Gaddafi’s forces? And now that Operation Odyssey Dawn is already more than three months old, what can it teach us about the relevance, or lack of it, of airpower in today’s world?
A useful starting-point for answering the latter question may be found in events that took place almost exactly a century ago. On 28 September 1911, Italy went to war with the Ottoman Empire and invaded Libya. As part of their army — there were no independent air forces as yet — the Italians brought with them nine aircraft (later increased to thirteen). They also had two airships, creating the largest, most modern force of its kind ever assembled in history until that time. With this force they quickly established absolute control of the air, which given that the other side was never able to fly a single craft, nor fire a single anti-aircraft gun, was not hard to do.
During the early weeks of the campaign, aircraft and airships proved quite useful. They provided liaison, flew reconnaissance missions, spotted for their own side’s artillery, and dropped hand grenades on the enemy. Never having seen anything of the kind, the enemy troops ran as soon as the flying machines made their appearance. This was the age when Kipling wrote of "the white man’s burden". Pro-Imperialist feeling was at its height, with the result that, all over the "civilized" world, newspapers delighted in publishing pictures of bare footed natives fleeing along with their women, children, camels, donkeys, and goats.
Later, as the remaining Ottomans and their Arab allies resorted to guerrilla warfare, things changed. Italian command of the air notwithstanding, a year after the beginning of the war no fewer than 100,000 Italian troops were fighting in Libya — two and a half times as many as originally envisaged. Even so, hostilities dragged on for the next seven years. In 1919 they died down, only to flare up again three years later. Ultimately it was to take the Italians, now under ruthless fascist control, twenty-one years, as well as a quarter of a million ground troops complete with artillery and tanks to pacify the country. They did so primarily by fencing off the Egyptian frontier, as well as establishing vast concentration camps in which tens of thousands died of hunger and disease. In the process, their commander, the subsequent Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, earned the sobriquet "the Butcher of the Fezzan."
Is history being repeated, and if, so, what are the implications of this fact? To be sure, technology has undergone enormous development since the time when the most powerful Italian aircraft — developing something along the lines of 50 horsepower — could carry a maximum of two people and were armed with so-called Cipelli hand-grenades that pilots had to arm with their teeth and throw overboard by hand. Instead of a few ramshackle machines made of wood, wire and fabric, airpower now consists of a formidable array of high performance jets, satellites, cruise missiles and drones, all using sophisticated sensors and guided to their targets by an inconceivably complex network of the most modern available sensors and data links.
During the first days of the campaign the Coalition’s aircraft and cruise missiles quickly eliminated Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft defenses and drove his aircraft out of the sky — again, no great feat given that the former were at least twenty years out of date and that only a few of the latter seem to have been operational. That accomplished, though, the basic factors affecting the use of airpower over Libya today bear a remarkable resemblance to those that hampered it a century ago. They include problems with the weather, such as cloud and sandstorms, which can and do disrupt operations; the relatively small number of machines available to operate over a vast country; the attacking aircrafts’ long turnaround times (much longer than those of their predecessors, incidentally), and the consequent difficulty of maintaining continuous surveillance; the need to fly at high altitudes (nowadays, this means over 15,000 feet) in order to avoid shoulder-launched missiles, drastically reducing the ability to acquire targets; and the difficulty of locating well camouflaged targets.
Now even more than then, aircraft tend to come out of God knows where — in fact, some have to fly in all the way from Britain, spending eleven hours in the air and meeting Germany-based tankers to refuel on the way — drop their bombs on God knows what, and disappear to God knows where. In the absence of follow up, the damage they create is similar to that caused by a pebble thrown into an anthill. It is seldom lethal, and often the effects can be quickly repaired or bypassed.
As journalists who have spent time in Libya told me, what is occurring is not really a war; all there is are loose, ill organized and ill commanded, bands of fighters. Some claim to be loyal to Colonel Gaddafi; others say that they oppose him. In reality, many are loyal only to themselves, seeking to survive amidst the general chaos. From time to time they clash and exchange some shots, but hardly ever on a sustained basis or with any kind of strategic objective in mind.
Given the lack of a network of observers on the ground, telling apart "friends" from "foes" is almost impossible. Just one week into the campaign, U.S Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was already accusing Gaddafi’s supporters of deliberately dragging the corpses of those they had killed to places that the Coalition had bombed in order to stake their claims. Perhaps so, perhaps not. What is not in doubt is the fact that, since then, the allied air forces have repeatedly hit both rebels and civilians on the ground.
To justify their inability to prevail so far, Coalition spokesmen have started blaming the rebels for their military incompetence. Not that this is in any way surprising, given that almost all of them were civilians until hostilities broke out in late February. More and more, one is reminded of Vietnam where the Americans were always pointing fingers at their "feckless" allies and where the loss of 11,000(!) fixed wing aircraft and helicopters did not save them from defeat.
Taking a wider, strategic, point of view, could it be that the current campaign in Libya is yet another one of the countless occasions in which the advocates of airpower have misled politicians and the public with their ‘siren song’ of a short, easy and (for their own side) bloodless war? If Gaddafi’s forces play their cards well, then there is a good chance that this will indeed turn out to be the case. To do so, their first rule must be to look as much like their opponents as possible. That means using similar vehicles — the ubiquitous Toyota trucks seem to be playing a major role in the war — while at the same time avoiding the open countryside and fighting in the towns. Instead of uniforms they should wear badges. The more they do all this, the greater the difficulty Coalition aircraft will have in finding them and the greater also the likelihood that civilian casualties will occur. Those casualties can then be used — in fact they are already are being used — to rally popular support for Gaddafi against the Western "crusaders". This being essentially a civil war, in the long run, the side that manages to win such support is likely to be victorious.
Not Libya in 1911-1932 alone, but Algeria in 1954-62, Vietnam in 1965-75, Somalia in 1993, Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002, and 2003, Lebanon in 2006, and Gaza in 2009-11 provide scant support for the idea that airpower on its own can bring the present war to a successful end. And even these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. To be sure, Slobodan Milosevich in 1999 was forced to give up. But only after a force that, at peak, consisted of 1,000 of the most advanced combat aircraft in history had been attacking him for 78 consecutive days; and then not because his armed forces had suffered any great damage but because he had enough of watching his practically defenseless country being bombed to pieces for no purpose.
However, Gaddafi differs from Milosevich in that he is unlikely to be swayed by what is happening to the country he has ruled for so long; why should he, given that large parts of it have risen against him and are trying to get rid of him? His army apart, from his point of view the more destruction the Coalition inflicts the better. If only out of fear lest he share the fate of Serbia’s former president, he is much more likely to fight to the end.
A few weeks from now, everything may be over — say in case Gaddafi is assassinated, hardly an unlikely occurrence given the West’s determination to get rid of him, or decides to throw in the towel after all. More probably, though, the Coalition has let itself in for a long, foolish, and, for the people on the ground, cruel and bloody war.
Taking a wider strategic perspective, the conduct of the campaign so far seems to be confirming a lesson that has now been repeated countless times over the last hundred years; namely, that airpower — while absolutely essential when it comes to supporting the operations of regular armies on both land and sea — is much less useful in irregular ones. That was true in Libya a hundred years ago; in Libya and elsewhere, it is still true today. The only question is, when will they ever learn?