No-fly zone over Libya: The facts


As military forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi continue to wage assaults on civilians, the calls for a no-fly zone in Libya grow stronger. British Prime Minister David Cameron says planning for such a measure is under way, and U.S. officials say all options are on the table. But if the U.S decides to enforce a no-fly zone as part of an effort to shield civilians from air assaults, it will require much more than just sending in a few fighter jets to patrol Libyan air space.

Question: Who could authorize a no-fly zone?

Answer: There are a couple of options. The most desirable would be to implement the zone under United Nations auspices, but that is unlikely. On Tuesday, Russia said it would veto any attempt to do that. Some legal experts say if the UN is deadlocked, NATO could impose its own, which would be more controversial.

“NATO may attempt to solve this legal dilemma by recognizing the rebels as the new government of Libya and then get its consent for the no-fly zone,” said Jens Ohlin, assistant professor of law at Cornell University. The U.S. could act unilaterally, but Obama administration officials have emphasized that an international response is required. NATO also has given no indication that it is inclined to take action without a UN mandate.

Q: Which U.S. assets in the region could be utilized?

A: The U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet in Naples would likely be a key command and control player should a no-fly zone be instituted. While the fleet doesn’t possess an aircraft carrier, the nearby Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily would likely factor into any kind of military response. Sigonella is within easy striking distance, just 300 miles from the capital, Tripoli. British media have also suggested that a British airbase in Akrotiri, Cyprus, could be used. The carrier USS Enterprise, on patrol in the Red Sea, could be diverted to the Mediterranean. Aircraft carriers can serve as a launching pad for about 85 planes. Coupled with those from land bases, a no-fly zone operation could include more than 100 aircraft.

Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, says a no-fly zone might only cover the eastern, rebel-held parts of the country. It would require command and control aircraft, recovery teams and a couple squadrons of fighters. An aircraft carrier would be helpful, but not necessary, he said.

“This is well within NATO’s capabilities,” Joshi said. “NATO and US forces already present in Europe or nearby could implement this by themselves.”

Q: Who else could be lending support?

A: Within NATO, Cameron has been the most vocal supporter of a no-fly zone. Australia also has spoken out in favor of military intervention. Other allies, such as Germany, have called for tougher economic sanctions while stopping short of public declarations about military intervention.

Q: What would a no-fly zone accomplish?

A: The main objective would be to protect demonstrators from being targeted by regime aircraft. Some no-fly zone advocates say deploying U.S. jets would send a powerful message to Gadhafi while signaling support to anti-regime fighters. However, no-fly zone opponents counter that a heavy-handed Western intervention in a region already suspicious of the United States’ motives could undermine the protesters.

Q: What are the risks?

A: If the U.S. sent jets over Libyan air space, pilots would have to contend with anti-aircraft weaponry. If a jet were shot down and a pilot taken hostage, the stakes would only increase.

The Libyan air force has about 22,000 personnel at 13 bases. U.S. forces left Libya and the air force base it once managed there in 1970 after Gadhafi’s overthrow of the monarchy the year before.

If allies limited any no-fly zone to rebel territory, it could reduce the chances of an allied plane being hit and ease rescue and recovery, some analysts suggest.

“This is not a situation like Iraq in the early Gulf War period or during the no-fly zone. Iraq had control of the ground. Libya is contested,” Joshi said. “The probability of a downed pilot actually being captured by Libyan forces is slight.”

Asked Tuesday about the risks, Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, urged caution.

“My military opinion is, sir, it would be challenging. You would have to remove the air defense capability, in order to establish the no-fly zone. So it — no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes."