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A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article
Dealing with the Arab Spring from the Combined Air Operations Center
Jahara W. Matisek
About two weeks before I deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar, an unemployed man in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, immolated himself as a form of protest on December 17, 2010. His grievance? Local Tunisian police had seized his fruit stand for not having a license, and they refused to return his property.
Revolutions and rebellion are incredibly rare, as the collective action problem must be overcome during a social movement against the government. All too often, such social movements have trouble garnering enough support, because the cost of participation in anti-government movements carries a larger risk/cost than payoff/benefit; hence, most will “free-ride” by not participating, or by waiting until enough people are involved making the perception of risk/danger close to zero. This is exactly why the “Rebel’s Dilemma” exists; typically, only about 5% of the population will ever actively participate in a rebellion against their government. However, Bouazazi’s self-sacrifice in conjunction with the power and speed of social media compelled hundreds of thousands to rise up against their authoritarian governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Of course troubling had been brewing in the region for years, if not for hundreds of years. But the actions of Bouazazi touched a nerve with many in the MENA region that felt their repressive governments were not meeting the most basic of societal needs. Their discontent was definitely justified too; the Freedom House Index considers the MENA region to be one of the least free regions in the world.
When I arrived at the CAOC the first week of January, 2011, it was operations normal. By ops normal I mean the “war” in Iraq was wrapping up, and Afghanistan was still in the middle of President Obama’s 33,000 troop “surge.”  This humdrum of perpetual war was only occasionally spiced up around the CAOC with the occasional anti-piracy mission needing air support in the Horn of Africa. Literally no one in the building was concerned about the unrest beginning in the region.
Starting at the CAOC
I was excited to start my 130-day staff-tour deployment at Al Udeid Air Base (AB) in Qatar. My job was considered one of the easiest at the CAOC: Chief of Diplomatic Clearances in the Air Mobility Division (AMD). In fact, my pre-deployment training at Hurlburt Field, Florida, was cut short by one week when the instructors found out what my CAOC job was going to be. Indeed, upon arrival, I hardly needed any “OJT” (on the job training). Much of my experience in the U.S. Air Force up until that point had been as a pilot on the C-17A Globemaster III, and I had flown into numerous hostile locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to include other undisclosed locations in Africa. Now I had an opportunity to turn my aviation experience into some serious “chair-flying” at a desk.
Not surprisingly, a decade of war in the MENA region had routinized the movement of aircraft in U.S. Central Command’s Area of Responsibility (CENTCOM AOR), which spanned east to Pakistan, west to Egypt, south to Yemen, and northwards to Kazakhstan. For political reasons, Turkey and Israel fell into the AOR of U.S. European Command (EUCOM).
Nonetheless, my aviation experience in the MENA region made the job relatively simple. This meant ensuring every U.S. military aircraft flying in and out of the CENTCOM AOR had the appropriate diplomatic clearances and proper routing to overfly and land in certain countries. Additionally, I was responsible for ensuring every military aircraft conducting inter-state flights (for example, Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia) within the CENTCOM AOR had diplomatic approval. Overall, the job came down to double-checking routing, such as making sure someone would not cause an international incident flying into Iranian airspace. In more time-sensitive moments, it also meant contacting U.S. embassy staff to coordinate last-minute diplomatic clearances for an important mission or impromptu Distinguished Visitor (DV) arrival. Despite such contingencies, it was still a boring job. This workload changed when the U.S. intervened in Libya.
Importance of the CAOC
The CAOC is a unique warfighting unit, which was first designed and stood up for combat use in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The primary responsibility of a CAOC is to command and control a broad spectrum of air and space power, to enable “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power.” It serves as a critical node for air campaigns, and while it is primarily organized and staffed by the U.S. Air Force, it integrates all branches of the U.S. military and any other coalition partners. Finally, a CAOC is comprised of four units: AMD, Combat Operations Division (COD), Combat Plans Division (CPD), and Strategy Division (SD). These divisions are effectively responsible for synchronizing strategy through the operational level, so that deployed squadrons can efficiently employ tactics; achieving efficiency and effectiveness in the battlespace.
Following the Persian Gulf War, CAOCs were stood up at Incirlik AB, Turkey, and Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), Saudi Arabia, to support Operation Northern Watch and Southern Watch respectively. Both were meant to command and control air operations in support of the “air blockades” in Iraq, which were intended to protect Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Only a year later, another CAOC would be stood up in Vicenza, Italy, to deal with the Bosnian War. This CAOC enabled the establishment of a no fly zone (NFZ) over the Balkans, in support of Operation Sky Monitor, Deny Flight, and Deliberate Force. Over time, the NFZ transformed into protecting United Nations (UN) troops, to eventually employing offensive air strikes against the Bosnian Serb Army, which helped Muslim-Croat offensives. Such decisive airpower in conjunction with ground forces, led Slobodan Milošević, President of the Republic of Serbia at the time, to surrender at the Dayton Accords, leading to a sizeable NATO-led contingent of peacekeepers deploying to Bosnia.
Again in 1999, the CAOC at Vicenza was stood up, this time to support Operation Allied Force in the Balkans. This 78-day air campaign to end the Kosovo War, marked the first time airpower – without any ground forces – had compelled a foreign leader, Slobodan Milošević, President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to concede a war. This air war resulted in him removing his military forces from Kosovo. Removal of Milošević’s forces, allowed for the deployment of another large NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo to facilitate nation-building in the region.
After the attacks of 9/11, the CAOC at PSAB supported Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, in addition to maintaining Operation Southern Watch. With the use of Special Forces, local militias, and airpower, the Taliban were ousted from power in about 3 months. Then, on February 18, 2003, the CAOC at PSAB was officially transferred to Al Udeid AB, Qatar, which by no coincidence, was about one month prior to the invasion of Iraq. This enabled the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Conventional air-land hostilities lasted only 2 months, and it took another 7 months to capture Saddam Hussein hiding in his ‘spider hole’. The initial successes in OEF and OIF, and air operations in the Balkans, led many scholars, such as Stephen Biddle, to conclude airpower as providing “tremendous lethality,” lending itself to a model that “can be an important part of U.S. strategy” for future conflicts.
Indeed, such positive experiences with airpower coercing and containing foreign nations was surely in the minds of political and military leaders when Libya began to shatter during Arab Spring uprisings. For many of us at the CAOC, we naively thought such an “air only” intervention in Libya would result in similar positive outcomes as seen in the Balkans.
Arab Spring Trouble Brewing
In early January of 2011, the Tunisian President stepped down in response to protests stemming from Bouazizi’s immolation. Quite quickly, anti-government protests broke out in Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, and Syria. No U.S. military personnel at the CAOC were blinking an eye in response to these uprisings, to include even the Tahrir Square protests that seemed to threaten our allies in charge of Egypt. Even with the uprisings in Bahrain and brutally repressive tactics employed, there was hardly a peep from the West, since Bahrain hosted the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.  None of us at the CAOC were concerned about contingency plans for Bahrain or Egypt, since the U.S. military had such close ties to their militaries.
I first became aware of the Arab Spring possibly affecting me and my workload in early February of 2011, when I was approached by military planners from Australia, Canada, and the UK. These planners were concerned about the Egyptian President resignation, the openly violent rebellion in Libya, and massive protests against the President of Yemen. This unrest made them concerned about their nationals in these countries, and they wanted my advice on building a noncombatant evacuation (NEO) plan. After helping these allied planners, there was still no concern in the CAOC about the Arab Spring impacting U.S. military operations in the CENTCOM AOR.
Up until the UN resolution against Libya in March, the only internal concern at the CAOC was that the protests in Yemen were getting worse, compelling leadership to order me to create a NEO plan for Yemen. This meant contingency planning for a rapid rescue of U.S. embassy personnel and other Americans in the capital city. I can only assume my NEO plan was finally utilized when the U.S. embassy in Yemen was shut down in February of 2015 due to Houthi Rebels seizing the capital about 6 months prior.
The Curious Case of the Libyan No Fly Zone
On November 1, 1911, Italian Air Force Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti threw four bombs from his airplane – striking an Ottoman Army camp at Ain Zara, just outside of Tripoli in Libya. This was a monumental bombing mission; it was the first time in history that an airplane was used to attack ground targets. Ironically, a century later, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was for the first time ever, authorizing a resolution for an international intervention vis-à-vis airpower in Libya on the basis of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (referred to as “R2P”).
On March 17, 2011, UNSC member states passed UNSC Resolution 1973, authorizing a No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” from pro-Gaddafi military forces, “while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” There was nothing explicit in UNSCR 1973 stating the use of offensive airstrikes against pro-Gaddafi military forces.
Barely two months prior to this, UNSCR 1970 passed on February 26, 2011, in response to the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, giving a speech about the revolt in his country, concluding that he would “cut them down like cockroaches.” Indeed, his speech in conjunction with his use of Libyan bombers to attack civilians, managed to provoke condemnation from most of the international community.
UNSCR 1970 was formative in that it laid the theoretical R2P foundation as it identified the “gross and systematic violation of human rights, including the repression of peaceful demonstrators” by the Libyan regime. It enabled passage of UNSCR 1973 in using airpower to interdict pro-Gaddafi military forces. Conceptually R2P is meant “to halt mass atrocities through a three-pronged international responsibility—to prevent, to react, to rebuild.” However, the U.S. and allies were initially unprepared to wage an air war in Libya, let alone deal with a post-conflict scenario. Such unpreparedness by the international community in conjunction with a hodgepodge understanding of the situation in Libya led to a weak nation-building effort with minimal resources committed after Gaddafi was eliminated. Whereas, upon completion of air operations in the Bosnian War and Kosovo War, there were sizeable deployments and political commitments to maintain the peace thereafter. Needless to say, few political leaders openly contemplated the sort of externalities that might follow cessation of hostilities in Libya, to include the requisite resources needed to stabilize the nation.
Supporting the Libyan No Fly Zone
A day prior to the UNSCR 1973, practically all of us at the CAOC did not expect the international community, namely Russia and China on the UNSC, to actually approve a military intervention in a place that was considered to be an Arab-Muslim nation. To boot, many of us thought Libya was hardly a ‘good’ place to show off ‘good’ Western intentions, given that Libya held the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, and that the U.S. was still struggling to keep the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq afloat.
The morning UNSCR 1973 was approved, we were totally surprised and unprepared. Hours later, a Colonel at the CAOC briefed us: “We need to provide as many aircraft possible to the Libyan No Fly Zone operation, without ‘breaking the glass’.” His words essentially downgraded the importance of Libya as a military operation from day one. In essence, this Colonel (and many more high ranking personnel above him) did not want Libyan air operations interfering with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. From this, we worked out the numbers, allowing us to spare some CENTCOM aircraft in support of a Libyan NFZ deployment to Europe, but our focus remained on supporting airpower operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Later that evening on March 17, 2011, official operational orders came down from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). These operational plans laid out deployments, bed-down locations of aircraft, and command authority for the coming air war in Libya. Unfortunately, these orders looked hastily put together, almost as if OSD had not prepared a competent war plan prior to UNSCR 1973 passing. Indeed, there were a host of errors, typos, and conflicting command and control assignments of aircraft and missions. This initially led to confusion over decision-making in regards to Libyan air operations.
The conflicting OSD orders initially made it difficult to figure out who was going to be in charge of the Libyan NFZ. Throughout the OSD documents, there were multiple references to EUCOM, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), and even CENTCOM being responsible for the Libyan NFZ. Worse yet, the Air Operation Center’s (AOCs) at AFRICOM and EUCOM were initially undermanned and unprepared for the bulk of wartime planning and preparation that would be needed to execute air operations in Libya. After dozens of phone calls between the AOC staffs at EUCOM and AFRICOM, we all finally realized that AFRICOM would be in charge of the operation, to include deciding the deployment locations for U.S. and coalition military aircraft. Nevertheless, our CAOC provided a strong base of knowledge upon which the AOC staffs at EUCOM and AFRICOM at the outset of Operation Odyssey Dawn, could spin up their operational capacity to put together last-minute air operation plans. Such institutional knowledge made it even easier to hand over control of air operations to NATO on March 31, as they stood up the NATO CAOC in Poggio Renatico, Italy, to transition from Operation Odyssey Dawn to NATO-led Operation Unified Protector.
Nonetheless, the most peculiar aspect of the Libyan NFZ was that air superiority was already assumed as a part of initial air operations. From a planning mindset at the CAOC, we assumed that Libyan air defenses lacked operational capacity, and that any rudimentary air defense systems would be identified and neutralized within the first 48 hours of operations.
After about 7 months of Libyan airstrikes, Gaddafi was finally captured and killed by anti-Gaddafi rebels on October 20, 2011. His death led to NATO ceasing operation Unified Protector 11 days later, and interestingly, there was no commitment to deploy peacekeepers as previously done in the Balkans. None of us at the CAOC considered the ramifications of this military intervention, and there was little worry about a Libya without Gaddafi.
Oddly, the exuberance of going to war overcame any sort of rationalizing that one might consider basic to the tenets of going to war. But here is the problem: The U.S. (and many of its allies) see conflict in a one-dimensional perspective of imposing one’s military might on a weaker state, expecting them to accept our political will. We in our myopic blindness saw Libya as an ‘easy war’ to eliminate a ‘bad guy’, wistfully believing the country would not fall prey to the same problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite sharing similar structural and societal problems.
Missions for Bragging Rights
On March 27, 2011, B-1B bombers launched from Ellsworth AFB, SD, on a non-stop flight to bomb Libyan targets with 24 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) each. For sure this was a historic strike; it marked the first time B-1 bombers had been launched from American soil to strike targets overseas. The only problem with such a mission? The B-1 was dropping bombs on an Arab-Muslim nation, and these bombers needed somewhere to land after their 24-hour mission. While Karl Mueller stated in his RAND Corporation report that the “B-1Bs recovered at bases in Europe after striking nearly 100 targets with JDAMs,” his story is not only wrong, but was unconceivable for many reasons.
Just a few days prior to this B-1 mission, I received a phone call from planners at Ellsworth AFB who were frantically trying to figure out how to put together their Libyan bombing mission. After being asked dozens of rudimentary questions about routing and clearances, I offered them my assistance in getting approval for these bombers to land Al Udeid AB, Qatar, after their bombing run. The tricky part was that no European countries in the Mediterranean were willing to allow these B-1s landing or overflight rights. Thus, I had to negotiate with embassy staff in Israel and Saudi Arabia to allow overflight en route to Qatar. The next hard part, or so I envisioned, would be convincing Qatar to allow these two B-1Bs to land in their country upon completion of their Libyan bombing run.
Up until that point, I had established a strong working partnership with my Qatari Colonel Liaison. Indeed, I learned the true meaning of In'shallah (if God wills it) anytime I asked him for his assistance in securing diplomatic clearances. Because of this relationship I felt comfortable e-mailing him every single detail of the B-1 bombing mission in Libya. Much to my surprise, a Colonel in the COD freaked out when he had discovered my ostensible “OPSEC” (operational security) breech for sharing intimate details with a non-NATO ally. Apparently, this Colonel wanted me to lie to Qatar about these bombers just passing through without being involved in Libya.
Nonetheless, the following morning I was vindicated for my belief in developing mutual trust with the Qatari Colonel. An American liaison to the Qatari military called me over joyously to explain that Qatari political and military leaders were honored that I had shared the details of this Libyan bombing mission, and that not only was it approved, but they now wanted to provide aircraft in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. In addition, they even approved of these two B-1 bombers spending the night in Qatar, loading up another 48 JDAMs, and striking Libya on the flight back to America. I later found out that the Qatari royals were tired of being insulted by Gaddafi, and participation in the Libyan NFZ was a symbolic way of getting back at him.
Finally, the greatest oddity about this historic mission was the balance between necessity and incentive. Was it really necessary for B-1s to launch from America and strike targets in Libya when there was already a squadron of B-1s deployed to Qatar? From my perspective there were two bureaucratic incentives. First, the U.S. Air Force has been trying to justify the existence of its large bomber fleet for years – such a historic mission would be good media coverage for an expensive weapon system. Second, ‘historic missions’ are what help military personnel get promoted. It only made sense that there would be a vested interest in putting together a ‘first-ever’ B-1 overseas strike from America. Such a mission could be used to win awards and increase promotion chances. In terms of necessity, the only plausible reason why these B-1s were launched from South Dakota, when there were perfectly capable B-1s in Qatar, was that the U.S. military did not want to take away any modicum of airpower capability for ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. This B-1 mission shows that airpower can be employed for reasons beyond just a simple airstrike.
Presidential Tasking to Help Arab Coalition Partners Deploy
On March 22, 2011, Fox News reported that three Qatari warplanes deploying to Souda Bay Naval Air Station (NAS), Crete, Greece, diverted into Larnaca airport, Cyprus. The Qatari aircraft had apparently encountered “high winds” causing the pilots to declare a “fuel emergency.” This report on the Qatari divert was factually incorrect.
Prior to the Qatari aircrew launching, I had been asked by the Qatari Colonel Liaison to look over the fuel and flight planning for their C-17 and two Mirage 2000 aircraft, which showed them flying from Qatar to an airport in Kuwait to refuel. From there, the three Qatari aircraft would fly in formation through Iraqi and Syrian airspace and land in Souda Bay NAS. However, the real reason why they diverted was because the Qatari aircrews got disoriented while coasting out from Syria and thought Cyprus was their intended location. Their confusion near Cyprus, despite still being 488 miles away from the island of Crete, resulted in the Qatari aircrews panicking. This story was further verified when I found out from a British military planner at the CAOC that the Qatari aircrew panicked and tried to land at Royal Air Force (RAF) Akrotiri, which is a UK base on sovereign British land in southern Cyprus. However, due to cognitive failure, the three Qatari aircraft somehow managed to accidently land at Larnaca airport in Cyprus. This was a sensitive incident requiring Qatar and Cyprus to save face; hence the emergency fuel story. Just a day prior to the Qatari incident, the President of Cyprus had already voiced his disapproval for the use of military force in Libya. This incident made it clear that Qatar needed help on its next deployment.
Two days after the incident, AMD leadership received a presidential tasking to advise and assist Qatar, UAE, and Jordan, in their deployment of military aircraft for Libyan NFZ, so as to avoid future mistakes. To this end, I was tasked with building flight plans and coordinating diplomatic clearances for the military aircraft of these three countries. While none of these Arab states used their aircraft to attack pro-Gaddafi forces, their participation gave the necessary symbolic and political cover for a mostly Western military intervention against a Muslim-Arab nation.
Bouazizi’s selfless act has transformed the MENA region. While the Arab Spring has resulted in major civil wars erupting in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, Bouazizi’s home country of Tunisia has surprisingly made the greatest strides towards democratization in the region. Nonetheless, most of the governments in the MENA region remain oppressive, at there have been minimal reforms and little development of democratic institutions.
Since the Persian Gulf War, CAOCs have played a pivotal role in shaping American and NATO warfighting, as the preponderance of airpower – carefully coordinated – in each conflict has enabled astonishing victories, while minimizing American and coalition personnel losses. However, over-reliance on air operations can negatively impact the development of post-conflict operations. Undeniably, the Libyan Civil War is a by-product of there being no international commitment to deploy peacekeepers and resources to stabilize the nation after the UN authorized intervention.
I believe the U.S. was caught off guard during the initial Arab Spring uprisings, but the presence of the CAOC at Qatar served as a strong bastion for joint and multinational cooperation in dealing with threats. In addition, it served a vital role in helping the undermanned air staffs in EUCOM and AFRICOM, to include helping allies such as Qatar, Jordan, and UAE, deploy their military assets as they lacked the necessary expeditionary experience and organic capability to rapidly and efficiently deploy.
Finally, CAOCs like the one in Qatar, are incredibly powerful warfighting organizations that have enabled the use of American airpower in a devastating fashion. However, CAOCs have one weakness: they cannot do nation-building. The U.S appears great at winning wars, but seems to lose the peace. Such a track record indicates that political leaders need to make greater commitments to post-conflict countries to win in the long term, which means getting “boots on the ground” to keep the peace.
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 A B-1B can only carry 24,000 pounds of munitions. For the Libyan mission, the two B-1Bs each had 24 JDAMs. Four B-1Bs were actually launched to ensure mission redundancy so that two B-1Bs would be able to make it to Libya. Many reports indicated that the two B-1s in Libya struck 100-150 targets, but this is difficult to prove given that the two aircraft could only carry a combined amount of 96 JDAMs. Finally, it was reported that they were primarily going after weapon and ammunition stores; hence, on their return flight they struck some of the same targets again for good measure.
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