On 17 March, 2011 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 (UNSCR 1973), authorising `all necessary means’ to protect Libyan civilians. Two days later, on 19 March, French aircraft struck armoured columns approaching the outskirts of Benghazi at approximately 4.45pm in an eleventh-hour intervention that Benghazi residents recount with breathless admiration. A US-led coalition codenamed Operation Odyssey Dawn then carried out the suppression of much of Libya’s air defence systems-a crucial prerequisite for establishing the no-fly zone.
The civilian protect mission was subsequently brought under NATO authority after arduous four-way talks between the United States, Britain, France, and NATO. Twelve days after the first strikes, the US ceded leadership of the campaign to NATO under the new name of Operation Unified Protector. France and Britain conducted the majority of strikes, with Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Sweden, and Canada playing a supportive role. In tandem, NATO warships and aircraft began patrolling the approaches to Libyan territorial waters to enforce an arms embargo on the conflict as required by the UN resolution.
More than any other facet of the intervention, NATO’s civilian protection mandate was the subject of ambiguity, haziness, and frustration among anti-Qadhafi forces. Prior to UNSCR 1973, President Obama and his British and French counterparts had given speeches clearly indicating that Qadhafi’s continued rule was unacceptable. Yet early in the actual military campaign, both NATO and the US sent strong signals about the limitations on its role: in its so-called `warning order’ to deployed forces, the Pentagon reemphasised the civilian protection mission. Echoing this, President Obama stated emphatically in a 23 March speech that the US was not pursuing regime change. Yet at a ministerial meeting in April in Berlin, the definition of `threat to civilians’-originally understood to arise from any side, including the National Transitional Council (NTC)-was revised to apply only to the armed forces serving Qadhafi, anywhere in the country. Even thereafter, as will be discussed below, in the actual execution of air operations NATO commanders came close to applying the mandate against the rebel forces in their attack on Sirt.
The United Nations never defined Unified Protector’s end-state-the point by which all threats to civilians were deemed neutralised. In many respects, this haziness about the actual relationship between the NATO coalition and the anti-Qadhafi forces was essential to cement the diverse views and concerns of the coalition and retain `top cover’ from the United Nations. Anything more specific calling for Qadhafi’s ouster would not have passed the UN Security Council, given China and Russia’s opposition to such a move.
Despite its haziness, the parameters of the civilian protection mandate had several consequences for the relationship between NATO and anti-Qadhafi forces. Here it is critical to distinguish between the forces and capabilities that belonged to NATO, the organisation enforcing the no-fly zone-which did not set foot on Libyan soil throughout the engagement-and those of its member states-who did.
Firstly, NATO, unlike its member states, had no liaison office or direct line of communication with anti-Qadhafi forces. As one senior NATO officer emphasised: `There was no coordination or communication between NATO military forces-as a coalition-and the anti-Qadhafi fighters. Full stop. Our mandate was to protect civilians. We were not their air force.’ But while ostensibly noble, in fact this absence of liaison between NATO and the rebels was to increase dramatically the influence played by the individual NATO states, who did in fact establish lines of communication, liaison units embedded in the rebels’ operations rooms, and, in the second half of the campaign, ground advisers who moved with the rebels’ advancing frontlines.
Secondly, the mandate meant that NATO, again unlike its member states, was scrupulous in not taking sides during tactical engagements. It did not see itself as providing the `close air support’ that some of its member states wished of it. `If our pilots saw a fight between technicals, they would treat them both as legal combatants and did not intervene,’ noted a senior NATO commander. Indeed, in executing the UN mandate, the coalition’s air forces came close to striking rebel forces who were believed to be threatening civilians. `We were prepared to strike anti-Qadhafi forces if they had targeted civilians. Toward the end of the war, in Sirt, we came very, very close,’ noted a senior NATO planner.
Thirdly, the civilian protection mandate compelled NATO to select fixed, strategic targets-known in military parlance as `deliberate targets’. Only those facilities-whether ammunition depots, storage bunkers, or command posts-that could be proved to be supporting an attack on civilians were struck. This focus frequently at times slowed down the targeting process; some targets required ministerial approval. Unlike the aerial campaign in Iraq, there was no effort to cripple Qadhafi’s government through a massive attack on infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and electrical grids. `We left the country’s infrastructure intact,’ noted the NATO commander. `We hit only one road in seven months and this was in Brega.’ The consequences of this for the post-Qadhafi transition were profound.
NATO’s limits While NATO focused initially on its lists of `deliberate’ (fixed) targets, the more time-intensive process of identifying `dynamic’ targets (mobile, time-sensitive targets, usually identified by pilots or reconnaissance assets during battle) proved much more challenging. Though NATO’s early disruption of Libyan command and control facilities meant that Qadhafi was unable to coordinate concentrated firepower at key junctures, the `dynamic targets’-the army and security brigades, in other words-still had to be dealt with, since NATO judged these targets to pose the greatest threat to civilians. Here, however NATO faced significant limits over and above its mandate to avoid civilian casualties without explicitly supporting the rebels.
NATO faced a significant shortfall of both aircraft and, crucially, the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets needed to vet and corroborate targets. Of the former, only 130 combat aircraft, supplied by eighteen NATO members, were available, only fifty-five of which could carry out air-to-ground ops. This gave NATO an average capacity of forty-five strikes per day, and a further seventy sorties. By 9 September, NATO would have flown a total of 8,390 strikes and 22,342 sorties-a number which stretched the capacity of some member states, including the UK and Norway, almost to their limits.
Regarding the latter, the line-of-sight requirements needed for NATO to hit `dynamic targets’ were significant. Before a dynamic target could be struck, it had to be vetted by a lengthy process: positive visual identification by the pilot, geographic position (was the target east or west of frontlines established with rebel forces?), and corroboration through ISR assets, such as Predator drones. The US provided a sizeable proportion of the ISR assets used, including thirteen S&R aircraft, two Predator drones, a Global Hawk (high-altitude unmanned), and various jamming equipment; later on, it would share previously restricted satellite imagery and signals intercepts, further improving NATO’s capabilities during the Western Mountains campaign and assault on Tripoli.
Faced with limited resources, NATO needed to prioritise. `The anti-Qadhafi forces had unrealistic expectations about our coverage,’ argued one NATO commander. `We were stretched thin. They thought the sky would be black with NATO aircraft.’ NATO therefore had to prioritise its aircraft and intelligence assets to only those fronts where it believed civilians were most endangered. As noted by the NATO commander:
First above all was Brega. Qadhafi’s forces were swarming all over the city; we knew we had to stop them or they would take Benghazi. Next was Misrata, which was hanging by its fingertips. We had to keep the port open to save the population. Eventually we moved forces over to the West.
NATO’s unique mandate and restrictions, and the increasingly important role played by ground advisers, forced both loyalist forces and anti-Qadhafi forces to adapt their tactics. The first adaptation was made by loyalist forces. As early as 25 March, by the time Operation Unified Protector took over from Odyssey Dawn, Qadhafi’s troops had transitioned from armour and conventional military vehicles, to civilian vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns-the same vehicles employed by the rebels.
In response, opposition forces began marking their vehicles with a large `Z’ or `N’ on the hood or roof; very soon, however, loyalist forces began imitating this. The opposition then switched to painting their hoods with a yellow or orange fluorescent paint. When Qadhafi’s military started copying these colours, the opposition used flags fastened to the hoods of their vehicles-the colours of these flags would be announced hours before an assault. Later, revolutionary battalion commanders, usually the lead vehicle in a group of ten or so, were given a laser beacon by foreign ground advisers.
In addition, Qadhafi’s forces began placing artillery batteries and parking tanks inside schools, mosques, civilian dwellings, or under covered markets. As the battles for Misrata and Brega wore on, NATO focused increasingly on degrading artillery and GRAD capabilities and interdicting reinforcements. Consequently, loyalist forces did not adjust their barrages for accuracy because, fearing airstrikes, they would `shoot and scoot’.
Rebel commanders understood the limitations of airpower in densely populated areas and tried to adapt. A Benghazi-based commander recalled how, in the early stages of the uprising, Yunis exhorted the thuwwar to stop Qadhafi’s forces before they entered the city; once inside the city, he stated, airpower would be useless. Similarly, the Misrata military planner exhorted his colleagues to push the enemy outside the city’s environs, `otherwise we will be just like Zawiya’-a reference to a coastal city west of Tripoli that Qaddafi forces had occupied en masse, thus negating the application of airpower. In late April, opposition commanders in Misrata realised NATO was powerless to stop the shelling of the harbour from nearby Tawergha because Qadhafi’s forces, camouflaged in civilian vehicles, had ensconced artillery teams near a mosque and inside schools. In the Nafusa, a commander involved in the initial assault on Aziziyya, a town just south of Tripoli, noted that the presence of loyalist forces disguised as civilians meant that `NATO couldn’t help; it was our problem and we had to do it on our own’.
The rebels prized attack helicopters, particularly the Apache, deployed by British and US forces. Armed with heavy-calibre machine guns, sensors, and Hellfire missiles, the slow-moving aircraft were ideal for supporting rebels in close engagements and interdicting reinforcements. Though not deployed to the battlefield until the final week of May, Apaches played a particularly significant role in striking loyalist `technicals’, accounting for nearly half of these vehicles destroyed in the conflict. Both sides appeared to hold this aircraft in awe, and it quickly became a sought after asset by rebel commanders, particularly early in the Nafusa campaign. Apaches also proved pivotal in supporting the final assault on Tripoli. `Our main help during the Tripoli battle was from the Apaches,’ noted one senior Libyan commander in the Tripoli battle. `They cleared the west Janzur area for us. When tanks were moving the Apaches were responsive within an hour.’
For their part, loyalist forces reportedly offered rewards for downing an Apache. That said, the Apaches’ deployment was circumscribed by stringent requirements for ISR support, restrictive rules of engagement (ROE), and technical limits on sortie generation (most Apaches were launched from British and US ships). Much of its reputation, therefore, appears to have been fed by its performance in Afghanistan and bolstered by the use of psychological operations (PSYOP) leaflets dropped by NATO forces onto loyalist forces in Misrata and in the east that bore a picture of an Apache.