What Air Power Can Do (And What It Can't)

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JONATHAN COHN MARCH 25, 2011

What Air Power Can Do (And What It Can't)

A key question looming over the operations in Libya is just how effective air power can be. After checking with a few people who know this subject better than I do, the short answer seems to be that (a) it can be more effective than I would have thought (b) it's still not as effective as I would like it to be. 

According to these experts, the relatively low skills of loyalists forces and the geography of the war zone should make (and, based on the available evidence, have made) air power particularly useful against Qaddafi. Of course, neither civilian populations nor rebel forces are entirely safe right now. But they are clearly a lot safer. Explains Robert Farley, a national security expert at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce:

In this particular case, the Libyan Army is not well regarded, nor are the militias that are fighting for Qaddafi. They've been relying mostly on armor, artillery, and the even greater incompetence of rebel forces to advance. Destroying armor and forcing infantry to disperse, under such conditions, can have a very significant effect on the capability of Qaddafi's forces to carry out offensive operations. Snipers and small groups of infantry (or infantry concealed in civilian vehicles) can have some good effect, but it's very hard to actually take territory with such groups even against weak opposition. Qaddafi can still kill civilians while under threat of allied air attack, but it'll be hard to win the war. Of course, the threat of air attacks has to be credible and more or less constant, so it's still possible that a place like Misurata could fall.

The question is what comes next. Air power can't topple Qaddafi and it's far from clear the mere protection of air power will allow the rebels, whose capabilities are very much in doubt, to do it on their own. As Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress notes:

If Qaddafi does go, it will most likely be through a negotiated settlement achieved because we've done enough damage to his forces to achieve the goals President Obama laid out last a Friday: Halting the advance on Benghazi and lifting the sieges of Ajdabiya, Misurata, and Zawiya; providing water, electricity, and gas to them; and allowing humanitarian aid into the country. If the coalition gets anywhere in the vacinity of those goals, we could see a negotiated settlement that has Qaddafi flying off into exile in Venezuela or Zimbabwe or wherever will have him.

Farley and Juul both wrote me lengthy e-mails, answering my questions in more detail. I'm reprinting them, with minor edits, after the jump:

Peter Juul, Center for American Progress

The effectiveness of airpower depends on what it's being asked to do. In the Libya case, it's already been fairly effective in deterring Qaddafi's forces from advancing into Benghazi. As you note, airpower is very effective against significant ground targets like tanks and artillery--taking out tanks with precision-guided weapons was first developed as a tactic during the first Gulf War called "tank plinking," and with the widespread use of precision-guided munitions by the U.S. military and allies it's now quite easy to take out tanks, artillery, and other large pieces of equipment, especially if they're in open terrain like Libya's. It's apparently had an impact in Misurata, where there were reports that tank shelling on civilian areas stopped after coalition warplanes attacked them. However, it's only as good as long as there are planes around, since there are now unconfrimed reports that shelling has resumed. So it's not apparently deterred Qaddafi from continuing the siege at Misurata, although the coalition really hasn't concentrated its effort there until recently.

Against snipers and smaller units, airpower loses effectiveness. But, as we've seen with drone strikes in Pakistan, it's possible to target smaller groups of people. The main question in this case is whether such targeting contributes to the overall mission, which is to protect civilians, and whether such targeting causes civilian casualties. Given the way these snipers are reportedly intermingled in cities like Misurata, there is probably no way to take them out from the air without causing civilian casualties. The risk of civilian casualties from either collateral damage or misidentification is probably too great to justify dropping bombs on images, from targeting pods, that our pilots think are snipers or militia operating out of civilian cars. If an attack on something other than a clearly identifiable military vehicle leads to civilian deaths, it would be politically damaging, thus endangering the overall campaign. That is why, in the end, the best way to take out a sniper is another sniper.

As best as I can tell, given the conduct of the air campaign so far, the coalition is trying to play to the strengths of airpower. It is targeting Qaddafi's heavy weapons, supply lines, and command and control infrastructure--as a way of slowing down, halting, or deterring further advances into rebel-held areas. This action helps equalize the military balance between the regime and the rebels. It also helps protects civilians to a large extent. They are, of course, still vulnerable to small arms, machetes, torture, etc. (The Rwanda genocide didn't require heavy weapons.) But ... it's already deterred the advance on Benghazi, and we'll see if it can lift the siege in Misurata and other towns.

I doubt it will lead to regime change via the rebels marching into Tripoli. If Qaddafi does go, it will most likely be through a negotiated settlement achieved because we've done enough damage to his forces to achieve the goals President Obama laid out last a Friday: Halting the advance on Benghazi and lifting the sieges of Ajdabiya, Misurata, and Zawiya; providing water, electricity, and gas to them; and allowing humanitarian aid into the country. If the coalition gets anywhere in the vacinity of those goals, we could see a negotiated settlement that has Qaddafi flying off into exile in Venezuela or Zimbabwe or wherever will have him.

Robert Farley, assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce:

Airstrikes are most effective against opponents who are both mechanized and inexperienced. It's very easy, as you suggest, to take out a column of tanks, armored personnel carriers, or other vehicles using aircraft equipped with the proper ordinance. As the mechanization decreases and the experience increases, the effectiveness of airpower dwindles. Airstrikes can still kill large concentrations of infantry in the open, but most experienced, capable armies don't leave such concentrations for enemy aircraft to find. Experienced infantry can be very capable not only at finding defensive positions that will prevent their location and provide some protection from cover, but also at moving from point to point while under the threat of airstrikes. That said, it's always harder to carry out offensive operations that defensive when the enemy has air supremacy. Terrain also matters; to the extent that the terrain offers cover that can obscure troop movements, it's easier to hide both offensive and defensive ops from airpower.

In this particular case, the Libyan Army is not well regarded, nor are the militias that are fighting for Qaddafi. They've been relying mostly on armor, artillery, and the even greater incompetence of rebel forces to advance. Destroying armor and forcing infantry to disperse, under such conditions, can have a very significant effect on the capability of Qaddafi's forces to carry out offensive operations. Snipers and small groups of infantry (or infantry concealed in civilian vehicles) can have some good effect, but it's very hard to actually take territory with such groups even against weak opposition. Qaddafi can still kill civilians while under threat of allied air attack, but it'll be hard to win the war. Of course, the threat of air attacks has to be credible and more or less constant, so it's still possible that a place like Misurata could fall.

Airpower can also have a moral effect on both friendly and enemy forces, although the impact has declined over time as soldiers have become more accustomed to the idea of air attack.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, libya, venezuela, zimbabwe, kentucky, libyan army, the university of kentucky, peter juul, robert farley

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