March 17, 2011 / 11:21 PM / 8 years ago

Q+A: How would a no-fly zone work over Libya?

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council voted on Thursday to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” — code for military action — to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.

Here are some questions and answers on the no-fly zone.


Diplomatic sources in France, which favors more aggressive action against Gaddafi, say military action could come as soon as Friday and could include France, Britain, possibly the United States and one or more Arab states.

But a U.S. military official said no immediate U.S. action was expected following the vote.

It is unclear exactly how long it would take to arrange the military operations needed to enforce the no-fly zone.

Last week, the head of U.S. Joint Forces Command said the Pentagon could implement a no-fly zone ‘within a couple of days.’ But on Thursday, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said it would take “upwards of a week.”


Gulf or Arab League countries have warships and fighter aircraft, but have shown little capability to deploy those forces outside their region and Gulf countries are distracted by the crisis in Bahrain.

Schwartz, speaking to the U.S. Senate on Thursday, said there were “nations within the Arab League with capable air forces that under the right circumstances might be brought to bear.”

Diplomats have said that among Arab League members, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar may be prepared to take part in enforcing a no-fly zone.

If the United States chose not to get involved, Britain and France probably have the military capabilities to mount a limited no-fly zone or maritime exclusion zone.

NATO nations, whatever the arrangement, might ask for the use of air bases in Italy. An Italian government source told Reuters on Thursday that Italy was ready to make its military bases available to enforce a no-fly zone.

But U.S. officials believe the Pentagon, with its extensive air and sea assets, would do the heavy lifting.


The United States, if it decides to enforce a no-fly zone, would likely be required to pull air assets from Europe and the United States, officials say, and possibly even from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some commanders fear that could tax a military already stretched by two wars and, now, aid efforts in Japan. “There are limited intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets,” Schwartz said.

The United States would likely use bombers and fighter planes, possibly including F-16s, F-15s and F-22s, to strike ground targets, Schwartz said.

It would also deploy surveillance planes, aerial refueling planes, satellite communication equipment and aircraft capable of jamming Libyan communications.


As time passes, fewer people believe a no-fly zone would be decisive on the ground.

Government forces have relied mainly on artillery barrages followed by advances by tanks and other ground forces to drive back rebels, and NATO warplanes flying over Libya might be unable to protect civilians on the ground.

In a sign of reservations within the U.S. military, Schwartz said a no-fly zone alone would not be sufficient to reverse the momentum of Gaddafi’s troops.

It would be a major challenge to enforce a no-fly zone over all of Libya, with a land area some 35 times that of Bosnia, where NATO implemented a no-fly zone in the early 1990s.

Officials might choose to set up a more limited area around the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, using a smaller number of combat and support aircraft.


Last week, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said Gaddafi had about 80 operational aircraft — a mix of helicopters, transport aircraft and fighter jets.

Schwartz said there were “multiple tens of combat aircraft” and helicopters numbering in the “low hundreds” that had been flying “tens” of sorties a day.

But Libyan aircraft, which Clapper said relied on visual rather than computer targeting, is far less sophisticated than the planes and helicopters flown by U.S. counterparts.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, estimates Gaddafi has as few as 40 fixed-wing aircraft and the bulk of his air force’s equipment is obsolescent in Western terms.


There is some disagreement about this. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it would be necessary before U.S. aircraft could mount patrols over Libya. Opponents of the no-fly zone say that would be an act of war.

Others believe pre-emptive strikes against Libya’s outdated Soviet surface-to-air missiles would not be needed and NATO warplanes could wait until Libyan radar “locked on” to them.

Clapper said Libya had the second largest air defense system in the Middle East, with about 31 surface-to-air missile sites and a large number of portable surface-to-air missiles.

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