America Carrying Load in Libya While Pretending Otherwise

The US handing Libya over to NATO is "like Beyonce saying she's ceding control to Sasha Fierce!" - Jon Stewart

The US handing Libya over to NATO is “like Beyonce saying she’s ceding control to Sasha Fierce!” – Jon Stewart

National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh points to a long trend in American politics toward “Defining Down War.”

Each day for the last three months, NATO has issued a classified order dividing the ongoing air war in Libya—uhh, let’s call it “mission”—into offensive and defensive operations.

The latter category is America’s job, and it is huge. It includes Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, which consists mainly of U.S. jets “loitering” in Libyan air space to watch for surface-to-air missiles that might threaten the “offensive” part of the mission: the French, British, Canadian, Norwegian, and Danish planes attacking Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces.

The United States is also supplying most of NATO’s intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in Libya, along with air-to-air refueling for NATO strike forces. By NATO’s own evidence, President Obama was somewhat disingenuous in claiming at his Wednesday news conference that U.S. forces were not “carrying the lion’s share of this operation.” U.S. planes, in fact, “represent the majority of aircraft within the theater, and they have done so from the beginning,” NATO spokesman Tony White told National Journal on Thursday. “The U.S. role continues to be fundamental to the mission” and is “supremely important in every strike sortie.”

Thus, by playing “defense” and putting no U.S. soldiers on the ground, Obama has effectively gone to war in Libya while denying that America is pursuing “hostilities” that might trigger the War Powers Resolution requiring congressional approval. Whatever you think about his legal argument, Obama’s approach may be working. As he said on Wednesday: “We have not seen a single U.S. casualty.”

When Doug Mataconis passed on word Thursday that “As of today, and since 31 March, the U.S. has flown a total of 3,475 sorties in support of OUP. Of those, 801 were strike sorties, 132 of which actually dropped ordnance,” Dave Schuler wondered about the ratio of sorties to drops, thinking it unusual. I gathered that it was mostly refueling and what in the vernacular is called ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). But apparently the SEAD missions are much more prevalent than advertised.

By my lights, SEAD is not a “support” mission in the way that aerial refueling or even ISR are. The whole point is to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. That’s a combat mission, pure and simple.

The bottom line is that, while our NATO allies are indeed playing the lead role in the “kinetic” part of this operation–discounting, naturally, the first few days of heavy fighting–it’s still mostly an American operation. This is necessary for the reasons that Robert Gates outlined on his way out of office: The Europeans have underfunded their militaries for so long that they’re simply not capable of carrying out even relatively small operations against the likes of Gaddafi’s pathetic forces on their own.

Photo: Reuters Pictures

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, World Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    SEAD is a combat mission, but I’d be willing to bet that the number that actually involved launching weapons has declined dramatically over time.

    I don’t see the justification for the headline. If we are flying refueling and intelligence and a presumably less-and-less engaged suppression missions and the other NATO forces are bombing how does that translate to us carrying the load?

    Put it this way, if it was reversed, and the non-US NATO forces were the ones doing suppression, intel and refueling, and we were the ones dropping bombs would you say they were carrying the load? We’d say they were holding our coats while we fought the war.

    You guys keep trying to make an issue out of this, but it’s obvious no one (but me) is even paying attention to Libya. And for excellent reason: no American lives lost and minimal risk of same against the possibility of taking down the man who blew a plane load of innocent people, including 189 Americans, out of the air over Lockerbie, Scotland.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: The key for me is this:

    U.S. planes, in fact, “represent the majority of aircraft within the theater, and they have done so from the beginning,” NATO spokesman Tony White told National Journal on Thursday.

    This certainly isn’t the “we handed it off to NATO, no worries” story that the administration has been selling.

    If the UK and France had infantry on the ground getting killed, I’d agree with your “holding coats” assessment. But they’re fighting the war from the skies, too–just less vigorously than we are.

  3. b-psycho says:

    The Europeans have underfunded their militaries for so long that they’re simply not capable of carrying out even relatively small operations against the likes of Gaddafi’s pathetic forces on their own.

    …or, you could say that Europeans have funded their respective military forces to actual national defense specs as far as they personally interpret the need, and are stretched because those forces are now engaging in something beyond their point to existence. Meanwhile, the U.S. has such a spectacular global bloat of military capability it’s like we can’t find bombing targets fast enough.

    How much is enough?

  4. James Joyner says:

    @b-psycho: These are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I think both are true: The Europeans are woefully underfunding their militaries while ours is bloated.

    I agree that their funding priority reflects their general sense that their security is not threatened. Yet they’re the ones who pushed for Libya yet can’t pull it off.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    They’ll be shopping for drones soon.

  6. ponce says:

    The Europeans are woefully underfunding their militaries while ours is bloated.

    James,

    Which country do you think the Europeans should be preparing to defend themselves against?

    Here’s military spending by % of GDP, BTW:

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2034rank.html

  7. Europea is underfunding in the sense that they want to be a major voice in international affairs but have no means for affecting anything that goes on outside the border of Europe.

    The Libyan war is a perfect example. This war is really about their oil supply On one hand, there citizens demand sanctions on Libya if they don’t act in a manner pleasing to European human rights sensitivites. Yet Europe can’t sanction Libya because they depend on Libyan oil, and any pressue they do supply means Libya will just start selling to China instead.

    So they really need to assure that Libya is run by a government dependent on European financial support. But they have no capability to install such a government, so they have to depend on the ability to send the US military to do there dirty work.

    Problem is that the US increasingly shows signs of tiring of this charade.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: Militaries don’t exist simply to defend against invasions by or attacks from other nation-states. That’s so early 20th Century.

    The Euros pushed hard to go into Libya but don’t have the wherewithal to carry it off. And Libya is ridiculously easy compared to other fights they could reasonably be expected to encounter.

    There’s also credible deterrent to Iranian nukes, counter-piracy missions, and just general protection of the law of the sea, unrestricted commerce, anti-terrorism, and so forth.

  9. ponce says:

    Militaries don’t exist simply to defend against invasions by or attacks from other nation-states. That’s so early 20th Century.

    NATO has a 1000:1 funding advantage over the Taliban in Afghanistan and…it hasn’t really done it any good.

    I don’t think the problem is funding.

    I think the problem is NATO is fighting battles its soldiers aren’t very motivated to win.

  10. Davebo says:

    So now Europe needs to build up a “credible deterrent to non existent Iranian nukes”?

    I think you totally discount the threat of Nepalese Neutron bombs.

  11. “Above all, the European Union must start acting like a responsible force in world affairs, not a many-headed monster.”

    The Financial Times published that on February 23, right as the civil war in Libya erupted. Unfortunately, Europe – along with America – has continued to act like a many-headed monster, particularly in Libya.

    To begin with, the West failed to help countries like Libya develop their economies before the war began. In fact, the West promised to help Libya develop its economy after Libya agreed to abandon its nuclear program. But instead of doing that, the West seemed happy to support and encourage organizations intent on overthrowing the existing regime. In particular, Britain supported the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda whose objective was to overthrow Gaddafi. In 1996, British intelligence even hired that organization to assassinate Gaddafi.

    Britain has connections to several members of LIFG. The founder of LIFG, Norman Benotman, has lived in London since 1995. While living in London, he met members of Al Qaeda such as Abu Qatada and Mustafa Setmariam Nasar. Before moving to London, he lived in Sudan where he met with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

    Britain also has connections to another member of LIFG, Anas al-Liby. He also knew Osama bin Laden. Despite the fact that America believes he had a role in the 1998 African embassy bombings, Britain gave him political asylum and allowed him to live in Manchester until May of 2000.

    Interestingly, Libya issued an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden in March of 1998. At that time, British and American intelligence tried to conceal the origins of the arrest warrant and they minimized the danger of bin Laden. The fact that Britain provided sanctuary to two members of LIFG and the fact the Britain paid LIFG to assassinate Gaddafi suggests strongly that Britain controls the organization. And the fact that British and American intelligence tried to squash an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden suggests they controlled him as well.

    Read the rest of the article at: bfanwo.blogspot.com/2011/07/yamero.html