News BlogNorth Africa Libya

The use of helicopters in Libya and resolution 1973?

firing of a British Apache helicopter (credit: UK MOD)

(BRUSSELS2, analysis) A debate is beginning to arise on the use of helicopters – imitation land forces in the operation in Libya and their possible ban by resolution 1973. Around the question “is the helicopter a land means or aerial”, we can have a debate among aesthetes in strategy. I will be careful not to enter into this debate, as I do not feel I have all the skills to do so. But we must avoid having, on this point, a typically French vision of the situation – under the pretext that some of the helicopters involved belong to the army (there are also navy helicopters :-)), and stick to internationally recognized terms.

On the one hand, the helicopter is a priori an aerial vehicle. Any helicopter – notably of the Libyan forces – which flies in the Libyan sky is thus immediately subject to the flight ban (the “no fly zone”), which is not the case for land vehicles… And this is, to my knowledge, not disputed by anyone. It is the coalition which is responsible, on a case by case basis, for authorizing certain flights. It would also be illogical – and dangerous – to describe these devices as land-based, because the Libyans could use the same argument to continue flying.

On the other hand, and this is undoubtedly the most important, resolution 1973 never prohibited the presence on the ground, it is a semantic drift, it only prohibits the presence of “occupying forces”. Which is not quite, and not even at all, the same thing. Thus, even if the presence of commando or ground guidance forces – present from the start of the operation and reinforced since then – remains extremely discreet and unofficial, it is not in formal contradiction with the resolution of the UN as long as it preserves the objective: the protection of civilians. The question then becomes whether the means implemented – whether air or land – do not exceed the objective sought and accepted by the international community.

It remains to be defined what “occupying forces” mean. In short, we can consider that it is a control over populations and/or territories which is exercised by military means (definition to be completed if necessary). We immediately see that the simple presence of forces on the ground is not enough to fulfill this definition: there is a grid of the ground, if necessary reinforced by political control. We are thus closer to the situation which predominated with Germany in all the years after the Second World War (in the east as in the west) or today in Afghanistan with the ISAF.

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).