UN approves no-fly zone over Libya

Muammar al-Gaddafi Mouammar Kadhafi Colonel Qu...

Image by Abode of Chaos via Flickr

The United Nations has approved the imposing of a no-fly zone over Libya, in an attempt to prevent Colonel Gadaffi and his forces launching air-strikes on dissidents unhappy with his rule. Gadaffi promptly announced a ‘ceasefire’, although whether this is genuine or simply to buy time remains to be seen.

In a rare attempt of the UN moving quickly, last night the Security Council passed a resolution approving a no-fly zone over Libya. A no-fly zone is probably the most appropriate way in which the outside world can intervene in Libya, without putting troops on the gound – that would be unthinkable after Iraq. Preventing Gadaffi loyalists from flying aircraft over Libya should give the freedom fighters some breathing space. If in the future troops are to go into Libya it would be better if they came from African and/or Arab countries, to avoid the cat-calls about Western imperialism.

It’s a feather in the cap for the UN, which all too often in modern times has been found to be slow and ponderous. The resolution emphasises that the no-fly zone is to safeguard the majority of Libyan civilians who no longer want to remain under the rule of an erratic and mentally questionable dictator. This sort of scenario is exactly what the UN is there for. Credit as well to France for actually voting for the resolution for a change, rather than vetoing it.

Exactly what part the UK can play in such a no-fly zone is open to question. Any RAF aircraft will be operating at maximum range from either Malta or more likely Cyprus. 10 years ago we could have quickly moved an Aircraft Carrier and its task group to the North African Coast, complete with a squadron of the proven Sea Harrier. Even the vision of a British Carrier over the horizon would probably be enough to rein Gadaffi in. But thanks to the RAF undermining the Fleet Air Arm, and now the ConDem Government axing the aircraft carriers, that can’t happen. And to think they told us the cuts would not mean a loss in capability.

There was an interesting post on Think Defence the other day highlighting the aircraft in the inventory of the Arab League. Some basic research has shown that the member states making up the Arab League possess over a thousand fighter aircraft (including F-16’s, F/A-18 Hornets, Mirage 2000’s and Typhoons) , 10 tankers and 13 AWACS-type surveillance planes. Why then are European and other countries even needing to get involved?

So, what Air Forces can Libya put into the air? Information is patchy, but Global Security lists the following:

  • 29 Mirage F1 (two defected to Malta after being ordered to bomb protesters)
  • 45 Mig-21 ‘Fishbed’ (most believed to be grounded, two known to be shot down)
  • 115 Mig-23 ‘Flogger’ (most believed to be grounded, at least 13 captured)
  • 94 Mig-25 ‘Foxbat’
  • 53 Su-22 ‘Fitter’ (one lost crashed, others claimed captured)
  • 6 Su-24 (two believed lost)
  • 7 Tu-22 ‘Blinder’
  • 37 Mi-24 ‘Hind’ (at least 7 lost)

The Libyans also possess around 216 Surface to Air Missiles, including the Russian SA-8 ‘Gecko’, SA-6 ‘Gainful’, SA-5, SA-3 ‘Goa’ and SA-2 ‘Guideline’. Some of these are capables systems, but whether the Libyans have the electronics and radars in order, enough missiles and good enough training to use them effectively is another matter.

Those are the raw numbers; we can probably half them at least thanks to airworthiness, lack of spare parts, and problems with maintenance and ground crew. Serviceability has been drastically affected by years of embargos and sanctions. The US State Department estimates that around half of Libyan aircraft remain in storage, including the Tupolev Bombers and most of the Migs. We also know very little about the Libyan aircrew’s training standards: probably nothing to worry too much about. And technologically there is nothing there to match the modern NATO-standard fighters.

Lets compare against what a US Aircraft Carrier of the Nimitz class carries as standard:

  • 24-28 FA/18E and FA/18F Super Hornets Fighters
  • 20-24 FA/18C Hornets Multi-role
  • 4-6 EA-6B Prowler Electronic Warfare
  • 4-6 E-2C Hawkeye AEW
  • 2 C-2 Greyhound logistics
  • 8 S3-B tankers
  • 6 Sea Hawk Helicopters

Formidable indeed. A US Carrier Group off the Libyan Coast would have Gadaffi cowering in his tent. Add in a Marine Expeditionary Force – they carry a singificant number of aircraft – and its even more formidable. It just goes to show, the utility of the aircraft carrier should not be underestimated (yes that means you, Dave and Gideon).

Therefore we can see that although the Libyans do not have any first class air-defence to write home about, they do possess a large number of basic but effective ground attack jets and helicopters. Getting these off the backs of the anti-Gaddafi forces would be a significant move to toppling the man without going in ourselves.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “UN approves no-fly zone over Libya

  1. x

    Think Defence produced this,

    http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2011/03/the-arab-leagues-air-power/

    It is interesting to watch, but only just. We will have the familiar problem of respecting sovereignty in the anarchic state system tempered with the reluctance of the West and the Arab League to put boots on the ground.

  2. John Erickson

    Actually, a lot of the strength in a Marine Assault Ship is either helo-based or AV-8B Harriers (yep, there’s another “told you so” you can use, James!). But there is still a lot of firepower waiting for any pro-Khaddafi pilot stupid enough to challenge the no-fly zone. I’m more worried about whatever ground-attack functions might be called for. While the F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and whatever Marine or Allied fighters can perform ground-attack, the Libyans have a lot of small-but-deadly AAA they can use, which would easily take down a single-engine F-16 or Harrier, and raise havoc with a twin-engine air-superiority fighter. It would be nice to have some A-10s or AH-64s in the area, but the later have short range and are Army assets, and the former are being heavily utilised in Afghanistan, so I doubt their availability. Of course, a nice broadside of nine 16″ naval rifles would certainly get the Libyans’ attention – and with armour belts immune to anything the pro-Khaddafi forces could dig up, it’s a pity we couldn’t get one of the Iowas up and under way.
    I just hope we’re in time!

    • James Daly

      And the French have got the first shots in! Apparently CDG is heading to the region, another useful addition. Seems those new fangled aircraft carrier things are quite handy!…

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