I’ve seen various articles in recent days where the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that he refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya. Sadly it seems to be the the same old story of politicians cutting Defence to the bone and then when the proverbial hits the fan being only too happy to over-commit whats left.
I’m not sure on what mandate an international force could intervene in Libya. After the fiasco surrounding the United Nations and the lack of a resolution for action in Iraq, it is extremely unlikely that any unilateral action could take place. The international community has little stomach for intervention at present – the debacle in Iraq – and to a lesser extent Afghanistan – has made politicians very wary of military action. US political and public opinion has never been overly keen on foreign intervention at the best of times, and with Gadaffi promising ‘another Vietnam’, many will be wary of getting involved. And the problems in Libya at the moment are not just limited to that country alone – they were sparked by protests in Tunisia and then Egypt, and there is similar unrest in other North African and Middle Eastern countries. How come the international community considers intervention in one case but not in others? Admittedly there is a difference in that Gadaffi is using his aircraft to bomb civilians protesting against him, and he has a track record of being an extremely difficult character.
Secondly, where are these military units going to come from that the Prime Minister plans to send to Libya? I wouldn’t mind betting that the Chiefs of Staff almost fainted when they read that Cameron plans to commit their ever-shrinking forces in another troublespot. Even as part of an international force within the UN, or more likely NATO – the UK would be able to contribute virtually nothing. It shows just how little Cameron and his Government understand about Defence, and how wrong it is that people with such poor judgement are running the Country’s defence.
Regular readers won’t need reminding that the Royal Navy warship leading the evacuation of British Citizens – HMS Cumberland – was on her last journey home before decommissioning. The other ship standing by, HMS York, is even more elderly than Cumberland. But using Frigates and Destroyers for evacuating British nationals from a trouble spot is ever so slightly overkill – like using a Ferrari to pop to the shop. A Bay Class LPD with a few Landing Craft and a helicopter or two would be ideal. If the worst come to the worst, it wouldn’t even need to dock, it could just sit off the coast and pick people up and drop off aid.
There has been talk of basing RAF fighters on Cyprus to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet the range from Cyrpus to Libya is considerable, and would prevent aircraft being on station for any length of time. The maximum operational range of the Eurofighter is 2,900 miles. Inn the Air Defence role with a 3 hour CAP it can operate at 185 kilometres, and with a ten minute loiter at 1,389 kilometres. It is at least 800 kilometres from Cyprus to the very western border of Libya, and twice that to Tripoli. Therefore Cyprus is barely an option, and the number of aircraft and air and ground crew required to maintain a worthwhile patrol would be considerable – aircraft that we simply do not have. Two years ago we could have sent an Aircraft Carrier plus escort to sit off the North African Coast. Not now – we don’t have one. It seems that ignorance of the flexibility and utility of the aircraft carrier is coming home to roost. Neither do we have the aircraft that could have overflown Libya and told us what Gadaffi is up to – ie, the scrapped Nimrod airframes.
Where are the ground forces to come from? Special Forces have almost certainly been in Libya already, providing close protection for RAF Hercules Transports evacuating Brits from remote desert locations. Given the frequency of tours to Afghanistan, and then when you factor in training, roulement, post-op shake down and the like, the maximum the Army could contribute would be in the region of one to three Battalions. Even then, that would place a huge strain alongside Afghanistan, particularly if any deployment in Lybia went on for too long. Rapid Reaction Forces used to be maintained for such an eventuality – particularly 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade – but at any given time these Brigades are usually either in Afghanistan, preparing to go or recuperating from a deployment.
If you want to be able to intervene in global troublespots as a world policeman – with the personal kudos that goes with it – then you need to back your armed forces to be able to do that job. If, however, you want to asset strip your Defence, then you have to accept that there will be things that you just cannot do any more. The situation is more serious than after the Nott cuts in 1981, when the Royal Navy just about managed to scrape together a task force.