Small Wars

This Week at War: Don’t Arm the Rebels, Train Them

The ragtag anti-Qaddafi forces need basic combat skills a lot more than bigger guns.


Libya’s rebels need boot camp, not more weapons

Two weeks ago, when an armored column loyal to Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was poised to crush the rebellion in Benghazi, U.S. President Barack Obama dramatically reversed his policy and endorsed a limited air campaign against Qaddafi’s forces. A week ago, the rebels were on the march toward Tripoli and seemingly on the verge of removing Qaddafi from power. Alas, it was not to be. A Qaddafi counterattack has sent the scattered rebels fleeing once again back toward Ajdabiya and Benghazi. This second setback for the rebels has resulted in a debate inside the White House over whether the coalition should arm the rebels, another escalation in the conflict.

On March 30, it was reported that CIA officers were in Libya with the rebels, making an assessment of their situation and possibly directing airstrikes in support of their fighters. We can gather from open sources much of what these intelligence officers are likely to report. As a military force, Libya’s rebels are a disorganized rabble and seem incapable of preparing and holding defensive positions or maneuvering effectively against rudimentary enemy resistance. The rebels need boot camp, fundamental infantry training, and the development of some battlefield leaders, not a new stockpile of weapons.

Those Western leaders whose plan currently consists of hoping that Qaddafi will be spontaneously overthrown need to think again. Absent a Western invasion of the country, the rebel force is the only means of removing Qaddafi, and the rebels will need many months or even years of training before they are capable of defeating loyalist ground units and marching all the way to Tripoli.

A comparison with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance is instructive. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was the battle-hardened survivor of a decade-long struggle against the Soviet Red Army. After that Darwinian test, the Northern Alliance had capable leaders, a disciplined command structure, and proven tactics. When CIA and Special Forces advisors arrived in October 2001 to assist the Northern Alliance, they found a capable military force to support. By contrast, just a few weeks into their struggle, Libya’s rebels are far from being able to accomplish the military goals they seek.

Some analysts have suggested that the rebels only need some anti-tank weapons to deal with Qaddafi’s tanks and armored personnel carriers. The rebels already have a very effective anti-tank weapon at their disposal — NATO airstrikes. But as I predicted two weeks ago, Qaddafi’s forces have adapted to the arrival of coalition air power by abandoning their armored vehicles and now move about in the same pickup trucks used by the rebels. Out of fear of striking either rebel vehicles or civilians, coalition air attacks on Qaddafi’s forces west of Ajdabiya appear stymied for the moment, which is allowing Qaddafi’s superior firepower to batter the rebels in eastern Libya.

Obama’s team and other Western policymakers fear a stalemate in Libya. A deadlock would make these leaders appear ineffectual against Qaddafi. They also fear an erosion of political support for the intervention both at home and internationally.

However, one advantage of a stalemate is that it would give the rebels, assisted by Special Forces advisers, the time necessary to organize and train for the long fight that will be required to push on to Tripoli. If Obama and other Western leaders are serious about removing Qaddafi from power — without Western "boots on the ground" — they and Libya’s rebels will have to brace themselves for a long and nasty slog.

A new bomber is cheaper than Tomahawks — if you do enough bombing

When military planners for Operation Odyssey Dawn received orders to demolish Libya’s air defense system, they turned to a weapon they have used since the 1991 Desert Storm campaign against Iraq: the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile. British and U.S. warships fired 110 Tomahawks during the first night of the conflict and have launched nearly 100 more over the following two weeks. War planners use the low-flying and virtually unstoppable missiles against air defenses and other targets they consider too dangerous to attack with manned aircraft.

With the Tomahawk missile once again performing the most dangerous missions, particularly against air defenses, why does the Pentagon insist on spending billions on a new stealth bomber, which is designed to foil the same air defenses the Tomahawk has been reliably neutralizing for two decades? Although the Pentagon has yet to disclose its description of the new airplane (a successor to the Air Force’s B-1, B-2, and B-52s), the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a well-connected Washington think tank, foresees a program costing as much as $56 billion for 100 new, heavy, long-range bombers.

Defenders of the next-generation stealth bomber point to two arguments for why their airplane will trump long-range stand-off missiles like the Tomahawk. First, bomber proponents believe the economics are on their side, at least given certain assumptions. Their case comes from an introductory microeconomics textbook. As explained in a report from Rand Corp., the Tomahawk missile, at a replacement cost of $1.5 million, is an example of a business with low fixed costs but high variable costs. Its competition in this case is a cheap old-fashioned gravity bomb fitted with a GPS guidance kit that costs only $22,000. Dropped from the exotic and very pricey stealth bomber, the Tomahawk’s competition is an example of a high fixed-cost, low variable-cost business.

According to Rand, just 20 days of heavy cruise missile use over a 30-year period (the projected life of the new bomber) is enough to make the bomber the more economical alternative. If over that 30-year period, the bombers leave their hangers only a few times, it will be cheaper to attack those difficult targets with Tomahawks. But if the United States has more than 20 days of heavy bombing over those 30 years, it will be cheaper to send the pricey bomber armed with cheap GPS-guided bombs.

Bomber advocates also note that the Tomahawk cannot threaten those targets some adversaries value the most, those that are inside hardened bunkers or deep underground. The Tomahawk’s maximum warhead weight is only 1,000 pounds, which is woefully inadequate against targets such as North Korea’s buried nuclear facilities or Iran’s underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The Air Force’s bombers are the only aircraft capable of the delivering the huge bunker-busting bombs that can penetrate very hardened and deeply buried targets.

The return of the Tomahawk cruise missile to combat may renew the debate over whether the U.S. Air Force needs a pricey new stealth bomber. According to Rand, the answer is a simple matter of break-even analysis. Over the past two decades, U.S. presidents have shown themselves quite ready to turn to air power to solve foreign-policy problems. Given that penchant, hitting Rand’s break-even mark should be an easy assumption to make.

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