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Libya: A no-fly zone in a country with virtually no air force

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Admiral Samuel Locklear III, commander of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, which is conducting the coalition attacks on Libya, just finished a briefing with reporters from on board the USS Mount Whitney.  Locklear said U.S. and coalition forces are continuing to expand the no-fly zone over Libya, which he described as “our primary goal.”

At one point in the briefing, Locklear was asked how many Libyan planes the coalition has destroyed.  Locklear did not give any numbers but volunteered a very low opinion of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's air strength.  “When we began this,” Locklear said, “my estimation of his air force was that it was not generally in good repair, compared to most world standards for air forces.  He had a lot of equipment that was aged, much of it was sitting parked on the runways and could not be used. He was, however, effectively employing a tactical air force, a helicopter air force of, I would say, on the order of several dozen, rather than large numbers.”

“When we began the coalition strikes,” Locklear continued, “one of our objectives was to degrade the effectiveness of those remaining air force assets.  I believe we have done that, and to date we have not seen any significant movement of those forces.  We have good indications that our air strikes were very effective, and I am completely confident that the air force of Col. Gadhafi will not have a negative impact on the coalition.”

Locklear's assessment — and his judgment of Libya's air power is consistent with others, as well — suggests the United States and other coalition forces have undertaken to impose a far-reaching no-fly zone over a country that had virtually no air capability, certainly beyond a relatively small number of helicopters.  And as far as those helicopters are concerned, other U.S. military officials have said that the no-fly zone as currently designed will not stop all helicopter flights.  On Sunday, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney was asked whether “the Libyan air force is capable to fly helicopters, combat helicopters.”  Gortney answered, “Yes. Even in all of the no-fly zones that we have set up over the years, we never fully prevented airplanes from flying. At some point if — you know, it's a vast amount of air space. So if he chose to he might be able to get something up. I wouldn't rule out that nothing will fly by any stretch. I will tell you that we will — anything that does fly that we detect we will engage.”

Was it necessary to set up a vast no-fly operation in a country with such little air capability?  What seems to be happening is that the military operation in Libya — which in public discussion focused on the imposition of a no-fly zone — has morphed into an attack on pro-Gadhafi ground forces under the authority of the United Nations Security Council resolution directing the coalition to protect civilians.  With no Libyan planes in the air and few, if any, left to attack on the ground, the war in Libya is one of coalition air forces attacking Libyan troops and equipment — a task that can be very complicated, and could last quite a while.

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