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What is NATO missing in Libya? More planes, hitting better and faster

strike sight (Credit: Royal Air Force / NATO)

(BRUSSELS2) The French and British foreign ministers have said it, each in their own way, in recent days, and they will repeat it in Berlin on Thursday, during the formal meeting of the foreign ministers of the Atlantic Alliance: NATO is not doing enough in Libya, it must, it can do more. What does this rant mean in practice?

Insufficient mention for NATO

The Frenchman Alain Juppé was the most direct, triggering the first shot on Tuesday morning: “ NATO wanted to take the military direction of the operations, we accepted it, it must play its role today, that is to say to prevent Gaddafi from using heavy weapons to bombard populations. » he declared on France-Info, believing that NATO was not playing “enough” its role. And he then adjusted the sentence, after leaving the Luxembourg council of ministers: “ It is not acceptable that Misrata continues to be under fire from Gaddafi's troops. We need to be more efficient. When we fire cannons on Misrata, it is because there are cannons which must be located somewhere and which can be neutralized ».

His British counterpart William Hague was less direct but just as determined: “ We must maintain and intensify our efforts in Nato. That is why the UK has in the last week supplied additional aircraft for striking ground targets threatening the civilian population of Libya »

What it means ?

The Alliance operation must more “ robust and dynamic ”, as a diplomat explains, very diplomatically. Concretely, " the mission of protecting civilians must be fully assumed. And beyond strikes on fixed installations – artillery radar – we must also target mobile targets of opportunity. » Clearly, despite its strength on paper, on the ground the NATO operation remains a little stunted and a little slow. Two problems, two equations to be solved separately which amount to the same thing…

Have more planes, hitting better and faster?

1st problem: Lots of planes in the air, few efficient planes

This does not necessarily mean more planes. But a better distribution. Operation “Unified Protector” suffers from “ capability shortfalls, with a surplus of needs concerning the air zone and a lack of aircraft for the ground strike ».

Today, only 6 allies out of 28 in NATO participate in air-ground strikes. According to the information collected, these are Denmark (4 operational F-16 aircraft, 2 in reserve), Norway (same), Belgium (same) and Canada (6 CF18 aircraft), i.e. 18 aircraft available . Result, France (with 18 Rafale and Mirage 2000D planes and around ten on the Charles de Gaulle, outside NATO control) and the United Kingdom (8 Tornado GR4 increased to 12 + 10 Typhoons which have just made their first strike since their engagement ) ensure “ more than 50% of releases » for knocking.

Which also poses, incidentally, a “political problem”; the entire burden of the operation resting on these two countries which are therefore, statistically, more likely to endure a blunder. We could add: this poses a financial problem. Each State financing its own aircraft engaged and the armaments spent… This is not nothing.

A dozen planes missing

Around ten planes are missing per day, according to the military command of the operation. All the effort of the Franco-British couple in Berlin will therefore be focused on the 4 allies present in the operation (so that they commit a little more, withdraw certain caveats) but especially on those who paid lip service : Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden which ensure “circles in the air” to maintain a “No Fly Zone”, already effective, while they all have planes (F-16 multirole or Gripen) which could technically be useful on strikes.

Governments still need to authorize them. Let us specify that in 4 States, authorization from Parliament is necessary: ​​undoubtedly easier to obtain in Italy (where the parliamentary process already seems to be underway in this direction) than in the Netherlands, with an assembly more reluctant to a forceful strike ).

2nd problem: An Alliance slow to release its gun

The rules of engagement adopted at the start of the operation are as robust as those engaged by the coalition “says a French expert. Corn " today there are certain technical constraints ". ATOs (Air Tasking Orders), for example, are established for the following 72 hours. They can be modified if necessary within this 3 day period. Result: the reaction time of the Alliance today is still “ a little slow ».

This time should be reduced "a few hours or less ". What we call in military terms having a “short loop”, a shortened reaction time between strike and reconnaissance, developing greater operational flexibility, having “a little more autonomy and flexibility on the ground”. This would make it possible to catch columns of moving tanks or to deal with unforeseen events.

NB: The presence of American aircraft specialized in anti-tank action such as the A 10 Thunderbolt – which can move at low altitude and low speed – or the AC-130 bomber (built on the structure of the C-130 and heavily armed) would thus be " not necessary “, if these two equations are met, to have a more effective action on the ground.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).