North Africa LibyaBlog AnalysisMissions Operations

“Boots on the ground” in Libya, the great fantasy?

One of HMS Bulwark's landing craft rescuing migrants at sea on Wednesday (credit: MOD Uk)
One of HMS Bulwark's landing craft rescuing migrants at sea on Wednesday (credit: MOD Uk)

(BRUSSELS2) The question of having a ground presence in Libya has resurfaced thanks to the maritime operation launched by the European Union (EUNAVFOR Med).

The daily The Guardian has just published his analysis in which he supports the idea of ​​the use of land forces by the Europeans by drawing it from his reading of the Crisis Management Concept (CMC). A point of view that I do not share. This is really stretching the envelope a bit!

First of all, it forgets the context of such a document. A CMC is there to pose the entire problem of an operation, to provide the concepts and possible options in relation to a political objective. This is clearly defined. It is not as such a question of specifying the military action that will be carried out but of defining which PDSC options best respond to the defined strategic objective.

The CMC is the conceptual framework describing CSDP activity to address a particular crisis within the EU comprehensive approach. (…) The CMC defines the political strategic objectives for CSDP engagement, and provides CSDP option(s) to meet EU objectives.

Then, the defined strategic objective is clearly to disrupt the actions of traffickers. Faced with this necessity, we are considering different possible actions, including ultimately hitting a boat anchored to the shore. This does not automatically mean that this action will be used. It will depend on the mandate given by European officials (mandate which will be included in a decision). And (military) action stricto sensu will finally be specified in the concept of operation (Conops) or the operation plan (OpPlan), possibly with conditions of use.

If we place ourselves in another field, we must not confuse the architect's plan submitted for the building permit, the permit itself and the company's plan then to ensure construction (the building permit does not detail automatically all the layers of varnish that will be applied to the parquet floor in the living room ;-).

Action on the shore does not mean land forces

According to our eminent British colleague, the document speaks of possible operations to destroy smugglers' assets “ashore”. And that could include action along the coasts, in ports or at anchor (against) the means of traffickers and ships before their use (This could include “action along the coast, in harbor or at anchor of smugglers assets and vessels before their use”). For this, there is no need for land forces. A good helicopter with the right armament can do the job (*). This is how we proceeded in Libya in 2011. And this is how the European Union proceeded, during the anti-piracy operation Atalanta (read: Fight against illegal immigration trafficking: the "Atalanta" inspiration).

Authorization required

Such action would also be subject to authorization from both the United Nations or the Libyan authorities (or even both). This authorization is a mandatory condition at European level. The operation led by the Europeans is not an act of war, it is more in line with international legality, like an international police operation. In other words, without this authorization no intervention. This is a “possible option”.

A presence on land?

Finally, quite obviously, to carry out these engagements, you must have a “presence” on land, a presence which does not automatically mean a commitment of land forces. This may be assigned liaison officers, special forces (see below) or intelligence agents to simply avoid collateral damage. But, here again, you must have Libyan authorization, tacit or express. During the NATO operation in Libya in 2011, there was a presence on land, if only to guide the planes. But everyone made it clear that there were no “boots on the ground”, in the sense of terrestrial intervention.

There are Special Forces and Special Forces

We should also not be fooled by the term “special forces”. These forces are also needed on board ships to form specialized boarding teams. What we call VPDs or on-board protection teams. A task often assigned to marine riflemen (in France, the Netherlands), the famous “maros” in Italy. They are special forces in the sense that they are not the crew of the ship and that these soldiers are specially trained to deal with all kinds of situations, in an environment as changing as the ocean or the open sea. But this are not necessarily SAS commandos who are going to be parachuted or divers responsible for dynamiting a super James Bond type boat (:-). And it is not because some of these forces do not depend on the navy but on the army that an intervention on land is planned (**).

Distraction trial

By taking a few sentences from a document such as a CMC, you can invent anything. If we take up the CMC on Ukraine in this way, we could indicate that the EUAM Ukraine civilian mission could include military personnel, that it would also have the role of advising the National Guard, or even of getting involved in defense reform. Of course, this is not the case, or at least not in these provisions. By interpreting Atalanta's rules of engagement, we could even say that the operation aims to kill the pirates since it can foresee in certain very clearly defined circumstances (self-defense, risk of attack on life, etc. .) shooting at suspects. Come on, get serious!

Conclusion: We must be careful not to overinterpret this document and the possible avenues it sets out as certainties, confuse the shore and the land, land forces and action on land, or read only a paragraph while forgetting the others. It is certain that action on land would allow for more complete action. But action at sea already makes it possible to disrupt smugglers' traffic. This is why Federica Mogherini was able to be very clear and very firm during her conference with the press: “No, no, and no, there will be no “boots on the ground”.


(*) Remember that depending on the armies, and even the types of engagements, these helicopters may belong to the navy or the land forces (“land forces”). Just like special forces can belong to different units.

(**) In the same state of mind, some see a land landing operation simply because amphibious boats, or landing boats, are used in this type of operation. The use of this type of vessel actually meets a completely different objective. They generally have a large reception capacity as well as a tanker allowing them to receive small landing ships, so to put migrants or refugees on board, in numbers, and in complete safety, it is ideal. . In fact, it is not the disembarkation faculty that is mainly used here, but the embarkation faculty. (Updated 27.5.2015)

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).