Shadow Government

Time to act: How to implement no-fly zone

Calls are now ranging far and wide for the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the government from continuing to use air power to attack rebel forces fighting to unseat Muammar Qaddafi. In addition to our domestic debate, Libyan ministers until recently part of the Qaddafi government (including their former ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Calls are now ranging far and wide for the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the government from continuing to use air power to attack rebel forces fighting to unseat Muammar Qaddafi. In addition to our domestic debate, Libyan ministers until recently part of the Qaddafi government (including their former interior minister and deputy U.N. ambassador) are urgently calling for it, the Gulf Cooperation Council supported it, the British and French have drafted and are pushing a U.N. Security Council resolution, and the Arab League ambassador in Washington has even suggested that organization will endorse a no-fly zone within a week.

If the Obama administration decides a no-fly zone needs doing, it ought not to jump from there to the United States establishing and enforcing it. Instead of taking up the call to provide the military force, the United States should instead pull together a coalition to undertake the work, one in which we play a minor operational role but undertake to recruit, organize, and manage the force necessary to do the job successfully. Such a role is consistent with our interests and has the potential to share broadly the burden such operations entail.

The coalition build will be complicated by the unlikelihood of getting a U.N. Security Council mandate — and there will be a certain irony in the Obama administration orchestrating a coalition of the willing after their condemnation of the practice in the George W. Bush administration. But it appears there will be plenty of countries willing to advocate the undertaking. 

The administration should do more than have their support, it should have their participation. It ought to seek a formal mandate from the Arab League sanctioning the operation, which would be a first for that organization working with the U.S. and support the administration’s National Security Strategy vision for strengthening multilateral institutions.

NATO countries may balk at direct combat without a U.N. mandate, but they are already surveilling Libyan airspace with NATO AWACs that could provide data streams to aircraft of countries that are willing to attack Libyan surface-to-air missile sites and patrol its airspace to attack aircraft on the ground or engaged in attacks on rebel forces on request from the Arab League. Individual NATO countries could participate in a variety of ways — even under an EU mantle, if that facilitated an institutional agreement that would have Sweden in but Turkey and Norway out.

Gulf Cooperation Council countries that supported the idea should be asked to provide fighter aircraft to enforce it. Those countries have aircraft in abundance and years of training by U.S. forces. Countries neighboring on Libya ought to be pressed into providing basing and overflight for aircraft and drones to ease the burden on operations; that would involve Tunisia and Egypt, two countries with recent experience overthrowing repressive governments, showing their solidarity, and perhaps Italy, which has a strong interest in solving the problem before a wave of immigration begins.

Helicopters will be a more demanding operational challenge, as Marine Commandant General Amos has attested. French and British aircraft carriers stationed on the coast could provide platforms for strikes and helicopter operations over Libya (whose main cities are coastal) as well as missiles and naval gunfire to disrupt the Qaddafi regime’s use of helicopters. Ground to air coordination would be difficult for most countries, and few have experience with special forces teams working in conjunction with locals to serve as forward air controllers, but a few countries advocating the no-fly zone have the training.

Countries that supported the operation but did not participate should be asked for money to fund those that did take an active role. The U.S. should provide only the military assets we possess that others cannot contribute, such as persistent surveillance, drones, and perhaps air control. In that way, we would be indispensable to it happening, but not own the problem ourselves. 

One collateral benefit of orchestrating such a coalition would be returning to a burden- sharing model in which the most dangerous and demanding tasks are not expected to be done by the United States. We would empower multilateral organizations that we want to take a more active role in international security. Moreover, it would reinforce the positive precedent set by the Clinton administration in East Timor, where it underwrote the success of a U.S. ally to step forward and manage a difficult problem that our own interests were less engaged in.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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