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Tue March 8, 2011
Africa

A Tug Of War Over U.S. Military Options In Libya

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:15 am

As Libyan aircraft and soldiers continue to attack anti-government rebels, political pressure is mounting for the U.S. and its allies to take action.

Already, U.S. military cargo planes are taking part in a humanitarian mission, bringing in supplies to Tunisia and evacuating refugees caught up in the fighting across the border.

NATO surveillance planes have increased patrols near Libya, monitoring that government's military moves. And U.S. officials and their NATO counterparts will meet on Thursday to discuss a possible no-fly zone.

'A No-Fly Zone Is A Possible Answer'

The carrier USS Enterprise was supposed to head east to the Arabian Sea to take part in the air war in Afghanistan. Instead, it's afloat farther west in the Red Sea, with its dozens of warplanes, waiting to see if it's needed for any Libyan operation.

"We come from the sea. We don't ask permission where we put our airfields. We put them where they're needed," the Navy's top officer, Adm. Gary Roughead, told lawmakers about the flexibility of an aircraft carrier.

"We are a very good option," Roughead added, "but there are other factors that I think leadership would have to take into account."

Factors like: What's the mission? Right now, it's pretty much a humanitarian one.

But the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, says alliance defense ministers will consider military options beyond NATO's increased surveillance flights.

"A no-fly zone is a possible answer; it can't be the answer. A no-fly zone is not going to answer all our questions. It's not going to solve all our problems that we confront in Libya," Daalder says.

One reason is that a no-fly zone will do nothing to prevent Libyan helicopters or tanks from attacking the rebels.

Concerns About 'Mission Creep'

Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the United States and its allies should at least prepare a no-fly zone, and put it in place only with international approval — such as a United Nations resolution.

But the Pentagon has been resisting.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has argued that a new mission in Libya could further stretch an American military already engaged in two wars.

"If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf? Those are some of the effects that we have to think about," Gates has said.

Some military officials are less worried than Gates about a possible Libyan operation. They doubt a no-fly zone would last as long as the one in Iraq, which went on for a dozen years.

Still, a no-fly zone can evolve into more commitments that require a greater amount of time. It's called "mission creep" — you go in to do one thing and you end up doing another.

"You set up a no-fly zone — that's one part. Then the next step, you say you're going to insert, say, U.N. troops. Then you have to be able to logistically support them," says retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis, who was in charge of U.S. logistics for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"Mainly, it's how long will you do it for?" Pagonis says. "I mean, we can do anything for a short period."

Other Options?

Other military options are being floated already.

Kerry told CBS: "One could crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time."

Some have made calls to arm the rebels, including Steve Hadley, who served as national security adviser under President George W. Bush.

"Maybe even covertly starting to get some weapons to the rebels so they can create their own no-fly zone rather than the United States have to do it," Hadley told CNN.

And there are still more ideas: Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula says Libyan aircraft could be targeted themselves with U.S. cruise missiles from sea.

That, he says, would make Libyan pilots think twice about hopping into their MiG fighters.

"You're a member of an aircraft attack squadron and you come to work the next day and half your squadron is destroyed on the ramp, you're probably not going to want to go out and fly again," he says.

That kind of talk makes Gates nervous. He told lawmakers that even a no-fly zone is actually an act of war, because Libya's radar and missile sites would have to be destroyed before U.S. planes started their patrols.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're going to hear now about some of the military options and constraints when it comes to Libya. First, there is already a humanitarian mission, and NATO is gathering aerial surveillance to assess what's really happening on the ground. Now comes the question of whether to do more. For example, enforce a no-fly zone.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports on why these decisions are so complicated.

TOM BOWMAN: The carrier USS Enterprise was supposed to head east to the Arabian Sea to take part in the air war in Afghanistan. Now, it's afloat farther west in the Red Sea, with its dozens of warplanes, waiting to see if it's needed for any Libyan operation.

Admiral GARY ROUGHEAD (Chief, Naval Operations, U.S. Navy): We come from the sea. We don't ask permission where we put our airfields. We put them where they're needed.

BOWMAN: That's the Navy's top officer, Admiral Gary Roughead, telling lawmakers about the flexibility of an aircraft carrier.

Adm. ROUGHEAD: We are a very good option for that, but there are other factors that I think leadership would have to take into account.

BOWMAN: Factors like what's the mission. Right now, it's pretty much a humanitarian one. The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, says beyond that, alliance defense ministers will consider other military options.

Ambassador IVO DAALDER (U.S. to NATO): A no-fly zone is a possible answer. It can't be the answer. A no-fly zone is not going to answer all our questions. It's not going to solve all our problems that we confront in Libya.

BOWMAN: And one reason is that a no-fly zone will do nothing to prevent Libyan helicopters or tanks from attacking the rebels.

Still, there is increasing political pressure to do something, as Libyan aircraft and soldiers continue to attack rebels.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the U.S. and its allies should at least prepare a no-fly zone and put it in place only with international approval, such as a U.N. resolution. But the Pentagon has been resisting.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has argued that a new mission in Libya could further stretch an American military already engaged in two wars. Remember that aircraft carrier, its Afghanistan mission put on hold in case it's needed for Libya.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf? Those are some of the effects that we have to think about.

BOWMAN: Some military officials are less worried than Gates about a possible Libyan operation. They doubt enforcing a no-fly zone would last as long as the one in Iraq did. It went on for a dozen years.

Still, a no-fly zone can evolve into more commitments and a greater amount of time. It's what's called mission creep: you go in to do one thing and you end up doing another.

Lieutenant General GUS PAGONIS (Retired, U.S. Army): Consequently, you know, you set up a no-fly zone, that's one part. Then the next step, you say you're going to insert, say, U.N. troops. Then you have to be able to logistically support them.

BOWMAN: That's retired Army Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis who was in charge of U.S. logistics for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Lt. Gen. PAGONIS: Mainly, it's how long will you do it for. I mean, we can do anything for a short period.

BOWMAN: Already, there are other military ideas being floated. Here's Senator Kerry.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee): One could crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time.

BOWMAN: Then there are calls to arm the rebels.

Mr. STEVE HADLEY (Former National Security Adviser): Maybe even covertly starting to get some weapons to the rebels so they can create their own no-fly zone rather than the United States have to do it.

BOWMAN: That's Steve Hadley, who served as National Security adviser under President George W. Bush, on CNN.

And there are still more ideas. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula says Libyan aircraft could be targeted with U.S. cruise missiles from the sea. That, he says, would make Libyan pilots think twice about hopping into their MiG fighters.

Lieutenant General DAVE DEPTULA (Retired, U.S. Air Force): You're a member of an aircraft attack squadron, and you come to work the next day, and half your squadron is destroyed on the ramp, you're probably not going to want to go out and fly again.

BOWMAN: That kind of talk makes Defense Secretary Robert Gates nervous. He told lawmakers that even a no-fly zone is an act of war, because Libya's radar and missile sites would have to be destroyed before U.S. planes start their patrols.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.