Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Quagmire Ahead

International airpower will be enough to escalate the civil war in Libya, but not to win it.

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) The UN Security Council votes for a quagmire

2) China's missiles sink the Navy's long-range plans

The UN Security Council votes for a quagmire

After a very short discussion, the U.N. Security Council, led by Britain and France, passed a resolution on March 17 that authorizes the use of military force against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime and forces. The resolution permits the use of "any means necessary" but prohibits a foreign military occupation of Libya. It specifically calls for a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect civilians. The rapid advance of pro-Qaddafi forces toward Benghazi forced the United States to quickly harden its position. Equally surprising were abstentions by China and Russia, allowing the resolution to pass.

Today, Libya responded by declaring a unilateral cease-fire. Qaddafi and his advisors may have been equally surprised by the speed with which the Security Council acted. The declaration of the cease-fire is an interesting gambit by Qaddafi. It will force the international coalition opposing him to suspend the start of an air campaign against Libya. Meanwhile, government forces will still be able to maneuver against rebel positions and move forward equipment and supplies for renewed attacks. And it will give his troops time to switch to an irregular warfare strategy, which I discuss more below.

Obama administration officials may have thought they would have many more days, or possibly weeks, to organize a multilateral response to the Libyan situation. It seems clear they badly misjudged the timetable pro-Qaddafi forces have been able to maintain. Third-world armies have a notoriously poor reputation at military logistics operations, such as frontline supply and vehicle maintenance. But Qaddafi's forces have been able to sustain a remarkably long supply line that now stretches many hundreds of kilometers from their bases near Tripoli. Qaddafi's ability to keep his mechanized spearhead moving forward up to 100 kilometers on some days may have been as surprising to officials in Washington as it was to rebel commanders in Benghazi. Qaddafi's forces were already bombarding Benghazi, and his ground forces should reach the rebel redoubt today or tomorrow.

Although the French government boasted that air strikes against Qaddafi's forces would begin within a few hours after the Security Council vote, organizing an air campaign that will have a meaningful effect on Qaddafi's ground forces will take much longer to organize. Most crucial in this regard is Obama's hesitancy to have U.S. military forces in the lead in this operation. Second is the strong desire by Western powers to have Arab military participation (Qatar and United Arab Emirates are mentioned), hopefully in the very first waves of attacking aircraft. Take away the United States, the most powerful and experienced air power, and add in completely inexperienced Arab air forces, and the result will be many long planning meetings as various European and Arab political and military leaders attempt to cobble together a multilateral air force.

This coalition will not be able to ignore Libya's air defense system, which includes 15 early warning radars, 30 surface-to-air missiles sites, and Qaddafi's fighter aircraft force. Coalition jets will have to suppress this system before they can provide persistent reconnaissance over the battle front and methodically attack Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. It is very likely that the battle for Benghazi -- assuming Qaddafi revokes his cease-fire -- will be well advanced before the coalition's air campaign has reached this phase.

The coalition should reckon with Qaddafi's likely responses. Although they are helpful, he does not need his tanks and artillery to regain control of Libya's cities. Once coalition aircraft begin attacking conventional military targets, Qaddafi will switch to irregular warfare techniques. His soldiers and mercenaries will abandon their uniforms and travel by bus, accompanied by civilians, refugees, and friendly media for shielding against air attack. Once inside cities like Benghazi and in close quarters with the rebels, Qaddafi's infantry will similarly be immune from air attack, especially if the coalition is prohibited from deploying ground troops as forward air controllers.

Finally, Qaddafi is a particularly unscrupulous and ruthless adversary with long experience using terrorism as a strategic weapon -- Libya was a large source of suicide bomb volunteers during the Iraq war -- so members of the coalition should expect terror retaliation in various forms.

Although his overseas bank accounts have been seized, Qaddafi already has the necessary money, troops, weapons, and ammunition to sustain a low intensity but brutal campaign against the rebels. The investigation begun by the International Criminal Court has left him and his sons with little choice but to fight on. The United Nations has authorized the wide-ranging use of air power against his regime. Air power will be enough to escalate this war but not enough to win it. Although prohibited for now by the Security Council, "boots on the ground" will eventually be required to remove Qaddafi and his sons from Libya.

Chinese missiles are sinking the Navy's long-range plans

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released an analysis of the Navy's shipbuilding plans. The study showed that the Navy's 30-year plan to buy new warships will not keep up with the retirement of aging ships, and thus the Navy will only briefly (around 2023) reach the number of warships it says it needs to accomplish its missions. In addition, the CBO concluded that the Navy has underestimated by 18 percent (or $93 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars) the amount of funding it will need to implement its 30-year plan, a plan that will fall short of its stated requirements.

Although that may sound discouraging enough, rapid advances in both the numbers and lethality of adversary anti-ship missiles will force the Navy to dramatically rethink how it goes about its business. This will very likely mean that the Navy's shipbuilding plan, and CBO's analysis of it, will both soon be sent to the shredder.

In a recent essay published in the Naval War College Review, Vitaliy Pradun, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, described in detail the rapidly growing threat Chinese missiles pose to U.S. Navy surface warships operating within about 1,000 kilometers of the Chinese coast, a zone that includes many important United States allies and numerous shipping lanes vital to global commerce. According to the CBO, the Navy's shipbuilding plan contemplates the purchase of 142 new surface combat ships over the next 30 years. Pradun's description of the threat posed by missiles to these ships calls into question the viability of the Navy's plan.

Rather than attempting to match the United States in aircraft carriers or warship and aircraft quality, Pradun describes how the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has carefully focused its resources on missile development and acquisition in order to achieve specific advantages over U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific. According to Pradun's analysis, it does not matter that China doesn't operate aircraft carrier strike groups or the most modern naval destroyers or fighter aircraft. China's inventory of many hundreds of long-range ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles will soon be in a position to overwhelm U.S. fleets that venture too close to China during a war. In addition to the threat to the Navy's surface forces, Chinese missiles are already positioned to cripple the U.S. Air Force's bases in the region, a conclusion the Congress's U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reached in its 2010 annual report.

According to Pradun, Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles, which the PLA has fitted to nearly every boat, ship, submarine, and aircraft, out-range U.S. anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. Pradun also described an increasingly elaborate radar, sonar, and reconnaissance satellite network China has built to track U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific. In addition, Pradun discusses why U.S. missile defense efforts are not keeping up with the numbers, speed, and accuracy of the PLA's missiles.

Pradun concludes that Pentagon planners need to redesign how U.S. forces will operate within the zone the PLA apparently intends to contest. He recommends a dramatic shift to missiles and aircraft with much longer ranges than those currently operated by the Navy and Air Force. In the scenario Pradun describes, the troubled and expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program won't be of much help. What are needed instead are the Air Force's next generation long-range bomber, the Navy's carrier-based long-range drone aircraft, a new anti-ship cruise missile that at least matches what the PLA already has, and a new technique -- perhaps a ship-based laser -- to defend against saturation missile attacks.

Last week the CBO revealed why it thought the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan was underfunded. When placed next to Pradun's analysis, the CBO report hardly matters. Without a change in course, it will soon become too risky for the Navy to enter a large swath of the Western Pacific during a crisis with China. In a few years, we should expect the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan to look a lot different than today's.


carl (not verified)

Sun, 03/20/2011 - 9:56pm


I would say I have only slightly more than no clue at all. Tequila though, he does have a clue.

But I think it a fair guess that the dictator doesn't have many well trained, motivated and disciplined forces that can accomplish much without recourse to heavy weapons. Maybe he does though.

JackC (not verified)

Sun, 03/20/2011 - 9:00pm

I'd simply note that those are confident comments when neither of you have the slightest clue regarding how much combat power the opposition has.

This operation's stumbling in the dark.

tequila (not verified)

Sat, 03/19/2011 - 12:43am

I think stripping Gaddafi's forces of his heavy weapons is the whole point of the NFZ. Hopefully he is stupid enough to load his guys on soft-skinned vehicles and try to drive into Benghazi. Like Carl said, that'd be an enemy the opposition can and actually has handled.

carl (not verified)

Fri, 03/18/2011 - 9:48pm

If the dictator's forces were to abandon use of their heavy weapons and drive into Benghazi by the busload because they were faced with effective air attack; I think the air attack would have fulfilled a critical function by presenting the rebels with opponents they may be able to handle.