March 16, 2011 / 11:56 PM / 9 years ago

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

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Britain, France and Lebanon have circulated a draft resolution to the 15-nation U.N. Security Council that would authorize a no-fly zone to halt Libyan government air strikes on rebels. The United States, which had shown little enthusiasm for the proposal, indicated it may have decided to back it.

Here are some questions and answers about such a plan.

WHEN WOULD ANY OPERATION START?

If the Security Council votes to approve the no-fly zone, it could be implemented straight away, but it is unclear how long it would take to arrange the military operations needed to enforce it.

Rebel forces have been rapidly driven back by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in recent days and analysts believe they have little chance of responding without outside help.

WHAT FORCES WOULD BE INVOLVED?

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 Bahrain crisis.

The Arab League has announced its support for a no-fly zone, which could open the way to a NATO agreement to police Libyan air space. That would almost certainly require Italian approval for NATO to use bases in Italy for such an operation.

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

Libya has a land area some 35 times that of Bosnia where NATO implemented a no-fly zone in the early 1990s. But a no-fly zone could be implemented around the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi with a comparatively small number of combat and support aircraft.

WOULD IT BE EFFECTIVE IN STOPPING GADDAFI?

Few people believe a no-fly zone would be decisive in the current fighting on the ground. The government forces have relied mainly on artillery barrages followed by advances by tanks and other ground forces to drive the rebels back eastward from the capital, Tripoli. NATO warplanes flying over Libya could be unable to stop the killing of civilians on the ground.

WHAT EQUIPMENT DOES GADDAFI HAVE?

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a congressional hearing last week that Gaddafi had about 80 operational aircraft — a mix of helicopters, transport aircraft and fighter jets. Clapper said the warplanes were struggling to “shoot straight” because they were relying on visual, rather than computer, targeting and had not caused very many casualties, he said.

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.

WOULD THE FOREIGN FORCE HAVE TO KNOCK OUT AIR DEFENSES?

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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