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The Middle East Channel
The hidden story of airpower in Libya (and what it means for Syria)
As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO’s air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled — often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya’s, as well as obvious differences in ...
As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO’s air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled — often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya’s, as well as obvious differences in the countries’ sectarian makeup and topography. But no one has bothered to ask Libya’s revolutionary fighters and their commanders what they thought of the NATO air campaign and how it affected their strategy, tactics, and morale on the battlefield.
In March and July of 2012, I traveled to Libya to conduct over two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders who fought on the war’s four main fronts: the Nafusa mountains, Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. The results are surprising, with important implications for current deliberations on Syria. Nowhere is this more evident than in Misrata, the central coastal city that was the location of the Libyan war’s most pivotal battle. Anti-Assad forces in Syria have long boasted of making Aleppo their Benghazi — a haven from which to topple the regime in Damascus. But perhaps a closer analogy is Misrata where, after months of grinding, urban combat, Libyan revolutionaries pushed out Muammar al-Qaddafi’s troops and paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli. Precision airpower, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city’s defenders, helped in this crucial battle, but in ways that were dependent on a number of other factors — all with important implications for Syria.
“We Were Not Their Air Force” — The Limits of NATO’s Mandate
A crucial and oft-overlooked feature of NATO’s intervention was its mandate under UNSCR 1973 to protect civilians rather than act as the “air arm” of the revolution and support regime change — a limitation that created significant divisions, frustrations, and unmet expectations among the opposition. “We were not their air force,” a senior NATO commander told me. “Our mission was to protect civilians. Full-stop. Any liaison and intelligence sharing with the anti-Qaddafi forces was done through the individual NATO member states.”
The effects of this mandate were evident in a number of areas. In tactical engagements on the ground, it meant that NATO aircraft did not provide close air support to opposition forces during their clashes with loyalists. “If our pilots saw a fight between technicals, they would treat them both as legal combatants and did not intervene,” a NATO commander told me. “We were prepared to strike the anti-Qaddafi forces if they had targeted civilians. Toward the end of the war, in Sirte, we came very, very close.”
The mandate also influenced NATO’s selection of targets, both “deliberate” (pre-planned, usually fixed strategic targets identified by planners) and “dynamic” (mobile, time-sensitive targets, usually identified by pilots or reconnaissance assets during battle). Only targets that were believed to be threatening civilians were struck. As stated by one NATO planner: “We had a very tight and literal interpretation of UNSCR 1973. From our list of deliberate targets, we only struck 30 percent because of fears of civilian casualties.” Moreover, unlike the 2003 campaign in Iraq, there was no effort to cripple the regime through a massive attack on infrastructure targets such as roads, bridges, and electrical grids. “We hit only one road in seven months and this was in Brega,” the NATO commander told me.
Similarly, before a dynamic target was struck, it had to be vetted by a lengthy process: positive visual identification by the pilot, geographic position, and corroboration through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) asset, i.e. a Predator drone feed. Establishing a so-called pattern of life on suspected targets was time intensive and strained the availability of limited ISR. In many respects, this explains the opposition’s frustration that NATO was not able to cover all of Libya’s fronts equally. There simply were not enough assets, especially the ISR. In the western Nafusa Mountains, where opposition commanders had long complained about the absence of NATO strikes early in the war, these ISR assets were especially critical because the mountainous terrain provided Qaddafi’s forces excellent concealment. “The anti-Qaddafi forces had unrealistic expectations about our coverage,” argued the NATO commander. “They thought the sky would be black with NATO aircraft.”
Tactical Adaptation — on Both Sides
Very early in the conflict, Qaddafi’s forces began exploiting these limitations. By the time Operation Unified Protector (the NATO-led campaign) took over from Odyssey Dawn (the U.S.-led phase), Qaddafi’s troops had transitioned from armor and conventional military vehicles to civilian pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns — the so-called “technicals” that were widely employed by the opposition. In response, opposition forces began marking their vehicles with a large “Z” or “N” on the hood or roof; very soon, however, loyalist forces began imitating this marking. In addition, Qaddafi’s troops began emplacing artillery batteries and parking tanks inside schools, mosques, under covered markets, or civilian dwellings. The resulting fear of civilian casualties meant that the tempo of the NATO operations slowed considerably, particularly in the close-quarter urban combat like Misrata.
In multiple interviews, opposition commanders expressed frustration with the ponderous targeting cycle and NATO’s self-imposed limitations. But there was also grudging acknowledgment. According to a key commander of the Misratan opposition:
We knew NATO was under tremendous pressure not to make a mistake. It had too much data and information, from across the country. And it had to balance strategic and tactical targets. Finally, we knew that NATO is a committee. We had to explain to our young fighters the nature of [UNSCR] 1973 … that it was meant to protect civilians. And if you have a gun in your hand you are not a civilian, so NATO won’t protect you.
According to one commander, it appeared that Qaddafi’s artillery units were able to adjust their barrages to the rhythm of NATO flights. “Their artillery salvos would come in 30 to 40 minute bursts. They seemed to know when NATO wasn’t there.” Another pointed out that defending and holding captured territory from counter-attack was exceedingly difficult. “A big problem was defending our positions from artillery and armor counter-attack,” said the Misratan commander. “We would drive away Qaddafi forces and then they would quickly regroup and counterattack. Most of our casualties were from the Qaddafi counter-offensives, when NATO didn’t re-attack to support us.” In many cases, there was an acute awareness that NATO was only engaging weapons that were firing at civilians. In response, several opposition commanders acknowledged trying to provoke Qaddafi’s artillery into firing in the direction of civilians so that NATO would strike. Many interviewees expressed frequent exasperation at NATO’s aversion to striking targets in densely crowded urban areas. This was nowhere more apparent than in the Misratans’ repeated but unsuccessful pleas for NATO to strike the Tamim Building — a notorious sniper’s nest and the most contested structure in the city.
Despite these limitations and setbacks, several commanders praised NATO for degrading Qaddafi’s artillery and GRAD barrages against opposition positions. This was especially apparent in the battle for Misrata, in which loyalist forces did not adjust their barrages for accuracy because, fearing airstrikes, they would “shoot and scoot.” NATO’s early disruption of the Libyan command and control facilities also received applause; it meant that Qaddafi was unable to coordinate concentrated firepower at key junctures. Finally, several Misratan commanders cited NATO’s interdiction of loyalist reinforcements to Misrata, arriving from army garrisons in Sirte and Bani Walid. This proved crucial in leveling the playing field, particularly after the city’s defenders began receiving artillery and GRAD rockets that were being shipped from Benghazi to Misrata’s liberated port.
“When the English Came, We Started to Act” — The Pivotal Role of Ground Advisors
By every account, the presence of foreign ground advisors working with Libyan opposition forces had a transformative effect on airpower. Libyan interlocutors described how, in the operations rooms of Misrata, Zintan, and Benghazi, these advisors built trust between Western forces and the opposition and — most importantly — coordinated airstrikes.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in Misrata, where the arrival of foreign ground advisors helped break the siege and launch the westward assault toward Tripoli. In April 2011, a team of three French advisors arrived in the city, staying only for a short period. By mid-May, three or four additional advisors had arrived, maintaining a constant presence. According to one planner, the French reportedly traveled around the front lines incessantly, exposing themselves on numerous occasions to fire. Yet despite this, there was still a lengthy process of trust building. “They were always double-checking our data against their maps,” noted a Misratan fighter.
By early June, four British advisors arrived, focusing on the western front. Misratans had a more favorable impression of the British. “We became friends in two or three days; they were eating our food with us and always traveling with us to the front,” said one Misratan fighter. The British were also the most proactive in planning for a breakout of the city in late June. “When the English came, we started to act,” the Misratan commander told me. “We had a meeting with them in June and they told us, ‘You must start your offensive [out of the city] before Ramadan [July].'”
In breaking the siege, the British and French advisors were responsible for two separate zones: the British in the west, helping to coordinate the advance on Dafniya and, later, Zlitan, and the French supporting the assault on Sirte to the east. Misratan witnesses described the foreign advisors calling in coordinates to command centers via radio or satellite phone — Misratan witnesses stated the advisors did not have direct links to aircraft. In many cases, though, the response time between a particular target being fixed by the ground observers and a strike was described as “minutes.” “NATO was basically covering our advance,” the Misratan commander told me. In describing ground-to-air coordination in the Misratan breakout toward Dafniya, a village on the western front of the city, he showed on a map how airstrikes — guided by ground advisors — enabled the right flank of the Misratan assault to envelop Qaddafi’s forces.
“A Revolt by the Air Force” — Anti-Qaddafi Forces Were More Sophisticated Than We Thought
A common picture of the anti-Qaddafi opposition is that it was a largely ad hoc, fractured, and disorganized movement, filled with enthusiastic volunteers, many with little or no military experience. However, former military officers played a significant role in attempting to impart coherence, organization, and discipline into the armed opposition. In particular, defectors from the underfunded and ill-equipped Libyan air force played a significant and disproportionate role in the opposition — so much so that several interlocutors referred to the anti-Qaddafi struggle as a “Revolt by the Air Force.”
Behind the scenes, in Zintan, Misrata, and Benghazi, these officers staffed makeshift operations rooms and command centers, which, as time progressed, grew more sophisticated and established greater command and control over frontline forces. As Western air forces increased their air-to-ground coordination, particularly after the arrival of French, British, and Qatari advisors, these individuals were in a unique position to shape the application of airpower by interfacing with individual Western militaries and informing frontline fighters about what could be done by airpower. In managing the opposition’s battle-space, they reconnoitered targets, as the war progressed, and worked closely with ground advisors to coordinate air strikes and conduct battle damage assessments.
Libya’s revolutionaries did not merely try to adapt their strategies and movements to NATO’s air campaign, but rather tried to directly influence its targeting process. Opposition forces and their sympathizers across the country formed a complex network of spotters, informants, forward observers, and battle damage assessors. Anyone with a cell phone, Google Earth, Skype, Twitter, or email was in a position to report by passing coordinates, pictures, and other data. The problem that NATO faced, therefore, was not a shortage of targeting information, but a flood of it. The challenge was vetting the sources, corroborating the data, transforming it into intelligence, and then determining what was actionable.
In Misrata, in particular, the revolutionary forces grew increasingly sophisticated in their organizational structure. By the time the French and British advisors arrived en masse, Misrata’s defenders had already developed a robust command and control system, coordinating the efforts of hundreds of individual brigades (kata’ib) on the city’s three main fronts. Their efforts were enabled by the widespread use of GPS, cell phones, and a central “operations room” where the positions of friendly and hostile forces, civilian sites, and potential targets were plotted on Google Earth with remarkable precision.
The Right Lessons for Syria
Aside from appreciating these differences, it is crucial to draw the right lessons from Libya, especially regarding the belligerents’ ability to adapt to a civilian protection mandate, airpower’s limited effect in urban fighting, the role of military defectors, and the pivotal part played by ground advisors in working with indigenous forces and coordinating airstrikes.
Air power by itself had a limited direct effect on the street fighting in Misrata that raged when Qaddafi’s forces occupied nearly three-quarters of the city from March to late May. But persistent airstrikes proved essential to limiting the effectiveness of loyalist artillery barrages, preventing loyalist reinforcements from flowing into the city, and keeping the port open, which enabled humanitarian supplies and weapons to be shipped in to the opposition from Benghazi. Once Qaddafi’s forces were pushed beyond the city’s environs, precision airpower — guided by British and French advisors — was crucial in aiding the opposition breakout toward Tawergha in the south and Dafniya and Zlitan in the west.
In this sense, the Libya campaign — and Misrata in particular — represents a variation of the so-called “Afghan model” where the combination of precision airpower, ground advisors, supplies, and training helped local allies overcome their stark deficiencies in initial fighting capability. But there were crucial perquisites for this synergy. Chief among these was time. NATO’s extended attrition campaign against Qaddafi’s fielded forces allowed for the revolutionaries to close the skill gap with their adversaries. But second, and even more important in the case of Misrata, was political and operational unity among the local combatants working with Western ground advisors. It is hard to overstate the unity of purpose and, later, unity of command, that characterized Misratan forces during the epic siege that came to be known as “Libya’s Stalingrad.” Sadly, that unity is lacking in virtually all of Syria’s urban fronts, and nowhere more so than in the shattered city of Aleppo.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focusing on North African and Gulf security issues. A frequent visitor to Libya, he is the author of The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya (Carnegie Endowment, 2012). This article is adapted from a chapter in a forthcoming RAND Corporation study on the role of airpower during the Libyan conflict.