Friday, March 4, 2011

Cameron's fuzzy math and the failure of the SDSR (Updated)

With pundits and leaders (PM Cameron specifically) calling for NATO action to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, I'm at a loss on how this could be done. Even if we put aside the fact that the preponderance of the alliance does not want to get involved militarily, there's a plain old numbers problem with doing this. Let's go through this:
  • Number of aircraft carriers needed to enforce a no-fly zone: at least 2 by most calculations.
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers that the UK owns: 0.
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers that France owns: 1. That has all sorts of maintenance issues and is just returning from an extensive trip in the Indian Ocean. Given it's history, it should think about heading home as fast as it can.
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers owned by rest of European NATO allies: 4. Of the smaller variety (less than 27k tons)
  • Number of operational aircraft carriers that the US owns: 11.
Well, well. Thank you Mr. Cameron for your interest in NATO (and the UK specifically) taking the lead on this important issue, in spite of the fact that you have no way of doing this without essentially asking the U.S. to do almost all of it for you. You either can't do sums or you're trying to goad the U.S. into action while assuming the lead. Well done, old boy. Buddy is only half of a word.

I am against a no-fly zone personally as I don't think the U.S. can answer the questions posed by the Powell Doctrine. If we can't answer those questions, I'm certainly against another open-ended military commitment with vague objectives. But make no mistakes, given the geography of the area, we're not talking about a multi-national coalition enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. It's a U.S. enforcement. While our Special Relationship has been tense the past few years, it takes a lot of gall to clamor for NATO involvement and take the mantle of leadership upon yourself when you don't have the kit to back it up. Maybe that whole SDSR thing doesn't meet your national aspirations. Maybe you ought to give it a rethink. Or this is going to keep happening and our relationship is going to get more tense before it gets better.

UPDATE: Just a couple of point of clarification. Yes, the primary impediment to a no-fly zone is political. I get that. If that impediment is removed, it will be difficult to implement.

Land basing becomes difficult as well - although not impossible. Malta is not a NATO member, which would make air basing there difficult. I've also hear Cyprus, Crete and bases around Corsica. I can't speak for the infrastructure at these places, but I would hazard that it would be quite expensive to move the equipment and personnel necessary to these places. Especially for such long sorties to Libya, never mind time on station once they're there, and the flights back. For example, Crete to Tripoli would take nearly 2/3 of the fuel capacity of a Tornado (with extra fuel pods and no ordnance) just to cross the water between the two places. That's a long ways to go if you're planning on patrolling once you get there. Maintenance, fuel, refuel, and crew requirements make this a very expensive operation. No, I think carriers would be the best option (save Malta of course - but I'm making a NATO-internal argument here).

Finally, I hope our French readers do not take offense at my comments on the Charles de Gaulle. It was not a swipe at the French military, it was commentary on the shoddy maintenance record of that ship over the past few years and the fact that it's been in extensive operational use for Afghanistan and in exercises in the Indian Ocean. I'm not a naval expert, but when you combine those things, I would guess that the de Gaulle should head to port for some much needed sustainment maintenance. I could be quite wrong though.


  1. The UK could fly sorties out of Malta or Cypress. Carriers are easier but not required. Otherwise, good post...

  2. Aaron - I updated the post with my thoughts on that. Other than maybe Malta, I think NATO would have hard time land-basing a force to accomplish this. Not impossible, but carriers would likely be the best option by far.

  3. Although I am equally opposed to such an intervention there is an alternative to using carriers, namely existing NATO air bases in the region. In Particular Sigonella, Sicily and Souda Bay, Crete are both around 285 nautical miles from Tripoli and Benghazi respectively. Operating at this range in an air defence role a Typhoon would be able to sustain a CAP of 2+hrs over Libya.

    My principal objection to military intervention derives from the absence of support for it from those on the ground. Given this lack of support we ought to question from where the push for military action is coming. Is it from politicians seeking to replicate what they perceive as successful interventions, e.g. Kosovo, or is it, as Turkey alleges, an attempt to secure oil supplies or perhaps it is coming from inside NATO air forces who haven't had the opportunity to use their shiniest toys in action in recent conflicts?

    We would do better to provide the humanitarian assistance that has been requested, unglamourous though it may be.

  4. rodinuk - thanks for weighing in. I'm still quite skeptical of land-basing, if only because of the effort required (read: cost). Mainly in moving and maintaining support assets, to say nothing of additional flying hours. There's another good breakdown of this here:

    I have the same principal objection as you. It seems that Cameron has since backed off it, but NATO was seriously considering this up through earlier this week. Other than that, support seems to come from both liberal interventionists and some of a neo-con persuasion (very generally speaking). It sucks watching this tragedy unfold, but supporters for military action don't seem to be taking into account the real challenges of intervening.

    Yes, HA seems to be our best route at the moment. If the opposition groups do start asking for our help, we'll have to reevaluate. But that doesn't resolve the very real logistical issues involved.

  5. Argh--blogger just lost my comment...Anyway, the Charles de Gaulle is back in Toulon and about to be placed on 72 hour notice. From Secret Defense:

  6. I think it depends a lot on how big you want the no-fly-zone to be. For all practical purposes, the battle between the rebels and the forces of the regime will be fought close to the sea. With AMRAAM missiles, NATO planes could stay above the water all the time and stil kick the hell out of Gadafis airforce is they show up.
    With (Airbus) tanker airplanes and AWACS, a land based effort would easily be possible, though expensive - but Gadafi winning would be a lot more expensive in the long run, imO ...

  7. "if they show up" ...

  8. Oh, and there are a few airports in Sicily, too (e.g. Sigonella, ), closer to the contested areas than Crete etc ..

  9. As well as Sigonella, there's Trapani and Gioia del Colle further north - you may remember it from Kosovo. The Italian AF has a Eurofighter squadron based there.

    Also, NATO's own multinational AWACS are already operating in the area: German link. Theoretically in support of Op. Active Endeavour, but, y'know.