Friday, September 14, 2012

Absence of Tactical Air Control Teams in Libya Prolonged NATO Campaign

On Tuesday, heavily armed Islamist militants stormed and burned the American Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three of his staff members. It was the first time since 1979 that an American ambassador had died in a violent assault.

Many Libyans considered Stevens a hero for his support of their uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qadaffi a year earlier. 

In March of 2011, a multi-state coalition intervened in the Libyan civil war, pitting air power support and "rag-tag" rebel forces against Qadaffi's ground operations. 

 At the time, Military Historian Steve Call assumed results would be quick and dramatic -- similar to the Afghan rebel forces' air-supported take-down of the Taliban regime just a decade earlier. 
Instead, the Libyan campaign -- one devoid of tactical air control teams on the ground that had galvanized the Afghan war effort  -- would drag on for seven long months.

When I learned NATO was intervening in the Libyan civil war I assumed quick and dramatic results, because I assumed they would realize they had a readymade blueprint to follow. 
The Libyan rebel forces looked very much like the Afghan forces that had rebelled against the Taliban and the Kurdish rebel forces that had fought Hussein in Northern Iraq; in each case air power, teamed with these rebel forces, had proved an insurmountable team, first in bringing down the Taliban regime in 2001, and in tying up significant Iraqi forces in Northern Iraq during the 2003 invasion. 

The blueprint seemed perfect: link NATO air power with the Libyan rebels the same way it had been linked with Afghan and Kurdish rebels.
After watching events unfold through major media channels for several months, however, and seeing no dramatic results, I became suspicious and started questioning contacts in the reporting world.  One lead led to another, and before long I was corresponding with Chris Chivers, a Pulitzer-prize-winning writer for the New York Times who had been reporting on the rebellion.

He said that they too at the Times were wondering about the apparent lack of results, and when I asked if he knew of any tactical air controllers on the ground in Libya he said emphatically that they were not being used; my suspicions were confirmed. 

As anyone who even mildly agrees with my thesis in DangerClose: Tactical Air Controllers in Afghanistan and Iraq (Texas A&M University Press, 2007) will know, tactical air controllers were the key to making the marriage of air power and Afghan and Kurdish rebels so devastatingly effective. 

These specially trained Air Force “ground troops” live and work with friendly ground forces and coordinate ground efforts with those of the aircraft overhead.  By not having tactical air controllers on the ground, NATO air leaders were not only losing the essential synergy of air and ground working together, they were severely hampering their own efforts.
The reasons for this are simple.  Working independently against unopposed enemy ground troops, as in NATO’s air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, aircraft have great difficulty finding ground forces, especially at altitudes necessary to escape enemy air defenses because the enemy disperses his forces to minimize the impact of air power.  Even if the enemy is confronted by a ground force that makes them consolidate so they can fight effectively, friendly ground forces and air power will be working at crossed purposes if they are not coordinated. 

For one thing, friendly ground forces could be launching an offensive in one region while aircraft are operating in another region, and as a result, pilots will still find it hard to locate enemy ground forces that have no need to consolidate.  And if aircraft are operating in the same region as the friendly ground offensive, pilots cannot tell friend from foe without someone on the ground telling them which forces to strike. 
This problem was dramatically highlighted in Libya when a NATO aircraft dropped a 500-pound precision bomb less than 100 meters from reporter Chris Chivers – he was lucky to have survived. 

NATO did a very effective job bombing fixed sites and enemy air defenses, but with Gaddafi fighting for his life, he was not going to surrender just because his country’s infrastructure was being destroyed; to defeat Gaddafi, the rebels and NATO had to close with and kill his regime’s ultimate support: it’s fielded forces. 
Had NATO used tactical air controllers to link the air and ground campaigns in Libya, the rebels would have forced Gaddafi’s troops to expose themselves to effectively directed air strikes, thus helping the rebels succeed.  Without such coordination, what resulted was two separate campaigns that dragged on for over seven months.

To me, the lesson learned is clear: to effectively employ air power in any scenario where enemy ground forces must be defeated, you must make tactical air controllers the central component linking air and ground operations.
Steve Call is author of Danger Close: Tactical AirControllers in Afghanistan and Iraq (Texas A&M University Press, 2007) and Selling Air Power: Military Aviation and American Popular Culture after World War II (Texas A&M University Press, 2009). Danger Close is Texas A&M's best-selling ebook, selling seven times more than any other ebook the press has released. It is number 14 on the Amazon Best Sellers Rank for Kindle ebooks inaviation, and is available for $9.99 here.

Call is an assistant professor at Broome Community College in Binghampton, New York, teaching both American and military history. During his 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force, Call held many command and staff positions, including liaison officer with the army, Pentagon staff officer, and squadron commander.