08.22.11

Libya War’s Unsung Heroes

While ragtag fighters duked it out on the ground, an elite crew of NATO planes ran the show from the sky. Clive Irving on the rebels’ secret weapon.

Somewhere high over the Mediterranean right now, a small crew of military specialists sits hunched over computer screens aboard a cruising jet. They could be American, British, or French. Since March they have been the commanding brains of the NATO mission against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya. Largely unseen and unsung, they are as responsible as anyone for Gaddafi’s defeat.

As arguments raged about whether the U.S. commitment to a “no boots on the ground” role in Libya would work, this whole unproven concept depended on a small fleet of military airplanes called AWACS—for Airborne Warning and Control System. Think of them as a combination of a flying air-traffic-control center and a lethal attack dog.

What makes the NATO Libya operation unique is that it is, literally, a complex battlefield directed and operated entirely in the air. The AWACS crews have to control all the resources being deployed simultaneously, a sky full of airplanes of every type and size flying from high in the stratosphere down to near sea level: nimble electronic surveillance airplanes sent to disrupt Gaddafi’s command-and-control network; ground attack airplanes, helicopters, and drones; maritime air patrols to block Gaddafi’s ports; high-altitude bombers; and the tankers that refuel many of the airplanes in the air—including the AWACS airplanes themselves, which have to stay airborne for long periods, as their crews confirm targets and give permission to attack. Virtually all the aerial refueling was provided by the U.S. Air Force.

The U.S., British, and French air forces each provided their own AWACS airplanes to maintain 24/7 coverage of the war theater. In an achievement that illustrates the cohesion of NATO’s disparate elements, all three air forces use common systems of communication, and have frequently trained together.

On Monday, NATO confirmed that since the Libyan operations began its forces have flown 19,877 sorties, including 7,505 that were strikes against Gaddafi’s forces and installations. On Sunday alone—as rebel forces entered Tripoli—there were three strikes on command-and-control facilities and nine on Gaddafi’s dwindling air defenses.

At the outset, the first priority was to enforce the no-fly zone that rendered Gaddafi’s Air Force impotent. But whatever the euphemisms employed to cover the air operations—such as “a limited support role”—the coordination of NATO air power and the rebels on the ground steadily improved from those early days when the first rebel attacks were chaotic and NATO pilots could barely distinguish who was friend or foe.

How different it became. Take, for example, one episode last week, as the western city of Zawiyah, gateway to the final stretch of road into the capital, Tripoli, was being contested. The central square of Zawiyah was both strategically and symbolically of high value. But, as they had done many times before, Gaddafi’s forces used a low-tech, low-cost but highly effective method to impede the rebels’ advance by deploying snipers from the roofs of tall buildings in the square.

Libya was a risky experiment, leaving the ground war to an improvised and often amateur collection of fighters.

NATO surveillance watched this problem develop, and told the rebels to back off from the square. Within a few hours the snipers had been taken out by an airstrike—probably by a Predator drone that the snipers never saw or heard. (It’s been evident for a while that some of the more tactical targeting has been assisted by French and British special forces on the ground.)

It is a familiar truism that air power alone can never win a war, no matter how devastating it is. Vietnam proved that. But Libya was a different and risky experiment, leaving the ground war to an indigenous, improvised, and often amateur collection of fighters with little or no battle experience, while, under the guise of “protecting” them, NATO set about a relentless war of attrition until the rebels could close in on that final Gaddafi compound in Tripoli.

And even though the outcome now looks and smells like victory, NATO’s resources were severely stretched. British defense chiefs were reprimanded by Prime Minister David Cameron when they publicly complained that fighting simultaneously in Afghanistan and over Libya was exhausting their capabilities. (Mats Berdal of the department of war studies at King’s College London, told Bloomberg News Monday that NATO was “running out of ammunition.”) French President Nicolas Sarkozy was attacked for impulsively committing his military to support the uprising. France made the largest contribution in ships and airplanes.

Both Cameron and Sarkozy will now brandish their cojones, claiming to have had “a good war.” As they do, the reality of how close NATO really came, in fact, to running out of ammunition—actually and figuratively—is, for sure, nowhere better understood than by those crews aboard the AWACS airplanes, who were the final arbiters of how to use whatever resources were available.