Unified Protector could have been a disaster, but NATO air forces managed to pull together a masterful operation.
Despite its success in fulfilling United Nations mandates, Operation Unified Protector—NATO’s seven-month 2011 air campaign which led to the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi from Libya—raised red flags about NATO’s inadequate resources and its lack of preparation for a new shooting war. It also exposed the reality that the Air Force’s expeditionary structure has been badly oversubscribed. Unified Protector shouldn’t be the template for a future operation, according to its air commander and think-tank experts who have studied the operation for the last two years.
Although some members of Congress, alarmed at the two-plus years of mounting bloodshed in Syria, have suggested an Operation Unified Protector-style intervention in that country, “I think many have recognized this: It’s not the model,” said Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II, head of NATO’s Allied Air Command at Izmir, Turkey. He was the Operation Unified Protector (OUP) combined forces air component commander.
The operation was the direct result of UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, adopted in February and March of 2011. The resolutions authorized a no-fly zone, an arms embargo, and a mandate to protect the Libyan people from their own government, in addition to sanctions on some members of the Qaddafi regime. After an initial takedown of Libyan air defenses—Operation Odyssey Dawn, led by the United States—OUP was the NATO continuation operation which struck at regime forces moving against civilians and maintained a naval blockade on arms shipments. It started on March 23 and ended on Oct. 31, shortly after Qaddafi was captured and killed by Libyan opposition forces, which then set up a transitional government.
The Air Force contributed strike aircraft, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, and the bulk of the aerial refueling assets to OUP. However, given that the air and space expeditionary force structure was almost wholly focused on rotating units in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, there was little left over for yet a third air campaign. The Air Force Reserve played a crucial role in USAF’s ability to respond.
Unified Protector proved the air and space expeditionary force “really doesn’t work,” said Robert Owen of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Speaking on an Air Force Association symposium panel in February, Owen said USAF was already at “100 percent commitment” when the Libya crisis unfolded.
“There were no assets to send forward without digging into the reconstitution force” of equipment and units that were supposed to be resting up from Southwest Asia deployments, getting necessary training and reset, before going back to those wars, Owen explained.
It was the Air Force Reserve that “saved the Air Force’s bacon” by providing personnel and assets the Active Duty USAF simply didn’t have to spare, Owen said. The situation was tougher than it looked due to the fact that Congress never got around to authorizing the campaign or appropriating money to carry it out. This meant both Active Duty and reserve forces had to pull money from other operations and maintenance accounts.
Overall, though, on the American side, Unified Protector was a “rabbit-out-of-the-hat” operation that should be recognized as a warning: that the Air Force was “already stressed” before sequestration, “and the nation needs to understand that,” Owen said.
“There wasn’t necessarily a lot of guidance” from the NATO countries on how to fulfill OUP’s given mission, which came with a mandate to limit collateral damage and inflict zero civilian casualties, Jodice noted.
Except for a NATO ministerial finding that the operation would continue until hostilities in Libya ended, “it didn’t say how they were to end,” he observed. And “no one knew” how that would happen. In fact, there was the strong sense that when the smoke cleared, NATO would be dealing with “some aspect of the regime—either Qaddafi himself or one of his sons” or another regime holdover.
However, “I don’t think they could have told us much more,” he added. Because Unified Protector was a war by committee, it was tough even to define the mission to protect civilians. NATO’s military structure didn’t seek more clarification over the next seven months because “they didn’t want to open up that bucket of worms.”
NATO members were not advocating for regime change, he hastened to add. The notion that “‘Qaddafi must go’—all 28 could never agree to that and would never agree to that,” he said.
Absent Space-based Support
The operation started slowly because it took some time to marshal needed assets and because NATO was starting practically from scratch in terms of its military understanding of Libya. For most air campaigns, there is a period when “you have time to plan, and you do IPOE: intelligence preparation of the operational environment,” Jodice said. “Those first two to three months were really our IPOE.”
At the same time, there was a woefully undermanned ISR organization for the operation and a sharp shortage of actual ISR assets. For the US, platforms like E-8 JSTARS, E-3 AWACS, and even remotely piloted aircraft were hard to spare from Southwest Asia. Initially, just one JSTARS and one AWACS were available, but the operation gradually added a British Sentinel ISR aircraft, a French Atlantique 2, two Predators, an unarmed MQ-9 Reaper provided by Italy, and a French unarmed Harfang RPA.
This was not nearly enough. For example, even when the AWACS fleet grew, only one was up at any time, and “to be able to cover from Benghazi all the way to [the] west of Tripoli, you probably needed three or four AWACS across the front,” Jodice said.
Similarly, there was one RC-135 available, and none of the solo Rivet Joint, JSTARS, or Sentinel aircraft flew more than eight hours a day. That meant the Alliance effort was fully effective across the ISR spectrum “for only about a third of a day,” he noted.
Because of that, and a similar limitation on command and control assets, “we probably never had more than four fighters over Libya at any one time, doing weapons employment,” Jodice revealed.
There were other oddities as well. Unified Protector essentially inherited the basing structure of Odyssey Dawn, and most of those arrangements were made bilaterally, instead of as an Alliance. With more time to prepare, a more sensible basing structure could have been worked out—for instance, placing all common-configuration F-16s together. Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and Norway all have similar F-16s and indeed fly them together in mixed squadrons in Afghanistan.
In OUP, these F-16s were located in three different places, which was far from ideal, although a single mega-base was not really an option either. Not everyone could have deployed to a single base, such as Sigonella on Sicily. “We would have sunk the island,” he joked.
There were no air-to-air engagements and no Libyan regime aircraft were shot down, but that doesn’t mean the no-fly zone was completely uneventful. “At least once,” Jodice said, opposition forces managed to get a MiG-23 airborne. It was intercepted and escorted back to its base, “and then we told them, ‘Hey, you do that again, we’re going to shoot your ass down. It’s a no-fly zone; we don’t care who’s flying.’ ”
Overall, the limited airpower assets forced NATO to focus on one specific area at a time. The operation didn’t have “a whole lot of space-based support” either, Jodice noted, though some U-2 and Global Hawk missions were flown.
NATO’s lessons-learned study of OUP came up with six major findings. Some of them are “not new,” Jodice allowed, and he warned the problems identified may pop up again.
The first big lesson is that NATO didn’t adequately train or organize for an operation like OUP. The NATO Response Force—a sort of rapid-reaction force—didn’t prepare the combined force air component commander organization for what Jodice called “a small, joint operation” with “air-heavy” combat operations. The structures in place were more geared toward “humanitarian assistance-disaster relief.”
Secondly, the CFACC shop wasn’t able to stand up an ISR division “that was truly competent across all the processes that were required in supporting a very dynamic ATO [air tasking order] cycle and a kinetic operation.” It was a lack of “butts in seats,” Jodice said. It took time to get specialists in, train them, and “get processes put in place.”
The fix is that under the new NATO air command structure, there will be a “standing JFACC” [joint force air component commander] inside the new headquarters of the single air commander at Ramstein AB, Germany. Jodice’s position inactivates at the beginning of this month, and its functions will transfer to Ramstein and to the head of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa.
Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, then commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA, has been emphasizing “having the people appropriately trained” and having a database of subject experts across the Alliance, Jodice reported.
In his April confirmation hearing to be NATO’s new Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Breedlove said the Libyan operation taught NATO that the ability of partner nations to sustain their contribution to the fight “is not very deep.” He said the Alliance has “work to do in weapons and the amount of weapons,” and other “critical enablers” such as in aerial refueling.
The Iron Gets Tired
The ISR shortfalls were “probably the most glaring thing we need to work on,” said Breedlove. He added, “What we don’t want to do is be the only supplier of that superb capability.”
Similarly NATO found it was deficient in having other divisions of the CFACC shop adequately trained and is taking steps to identify on-call people to reinforce it in an emergency.
Another lesson was that NATO must have enough “critical enablers” on hand to go directly into operations on short notice. An adequate stable of on-call ISR assets is critical because “the speed and the flow of information is so fast that a fused ISR picture from strategic [to] operational to tactical levels is required,” Jodice asserted. Given the practically instant window into a conflict provided by global media, commanders have to be able to make confident decisions “in single digit seconds,” he observed.
Planners “see it time and time again,” he said, “how a tactical-level decision or ... event can have a huge strategic impact.”
In the first few months, when the operating tempo was not as high, “we were able to meet the number of sorties that were needed, based on the assets that we had,” Jodice pointed out. However, “as time goes on, as we all know, the iron gets tired” and “some of our sortie rates started to drop.”
This was due to many factors. NATO countries had shrunk their air forces, they were committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their spending on things like munitions had fallen. Adm. James G. Stavridis, who was then the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, “did a great job in trying to get the nations to give us more,” said Jodice, but in general, “there wasn’t more to be had.”
NATO is now exploring a new concept with the blanket name “Smart Defense” which will explore the Alliance’s real minimum required capabilities. “It’s a continuation of ‘interoperability,’” Jodice noted, “realizing that no one nation can do it on its own.”
One of the goals to come out of this concept will be that no one NATO member should have to provide more than 50 percent of the capacity in any particular specialty. “That could be difficult,” Jodice said, as the US provided nearly 70 percent of all the aerial refueling capacity for Unified Protector. It’s one of USAF’s “unique enablers,” along with ISR, that no other nation can provide in such capacity.
Likewise, the US ability to stockpile large numbers of precision guided weapons (PGMs were the only weapons used in OUP) is unique. Jodice said it’s unrealistic to expect smaller NATO partners to maintain months’ worth of precision munitions. But the 50 percent rule is still a discussion point; “the nations haven’t agreed to it,” he said.
Non-CFACC staff military representatives from every country were enormously helpful in smoothing the action, Jodice said. Liaison officers explained what their nations could contribute, helped with the air tasking order, and were on hand to answer questions when their country’s aircraft were flying.
Jodice said it would have been helpful to have more staff expertise on how desired effects might be achieved through nonkinetic means. Those means range from public affairs to EC-130 broadcasts to leaflets to cyber, although there was no cyber warfare applied.
Unified Protector wound up as a NATO-plus-four operation which was more a collaboration than a coalition, he said. Decisions and campaign planning largely came out of the NATO chain of command, with the consent of the non-NATO participants, Jodice explained.
No Repeat in Syria
“Every nation is going to have its own political will,” he noted, and the additional partner nations had restrictions about what they would and would not do. The lesson is to stay aware of the big picture.
“The will of the Alliance and the goals and objectives of the Alliance always have to be greater than the individual goal or objective of an individual nation,” he said.
Despite the shoestring nature of the operation, Jodice doubts success would have come about any faster.
NATO needed time for intelligence preparation and “to really mature our overall plan and mature the strategy,” he said. NATO wasn’t working directly with anti-Qaddafi forces, “but they needed time for their abilities to mature and for them to figure out ... what they needed to do,” he surmised.
The Libyan operation ended with a fractious opposition force coming to power relatively rapidly. Many of its elements don’t share the interests of the US, and this outcome posits yet another hazard for using the Libya model in Syria. At the AFA panel, Karl P. Mueller of the RAND Corp. asserted that permitting the opposition to take power “allowed NATO to walk away from responsibility” for managing the post-Qaddafi Libya. That cost avoidance probably made the operation politically feasible, he allowed. However, the OUP-aided victory conferred legitimacy on the fractious opposition forces.
Fellow RAND analyst Christopher S. Chivvis said the fact that the US was not in the lead when OUP wound down removed the stigma of what would have been seen as a US-installed new government. But the quick victory also likely made inevitable the “highly fractured security” in Libya today, Chivvis said.
That is an outcome the West would probably rather not see repeated in Syria.
Innovative Over Libya
There were a number of airpower “firsts” in Operation Unified Protector, according to Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II, head of NATO’s Allied Air Command at Izmir, Turkey.
Mixed Pairs: Britain flew mixed pairs of Typhoon fourth generation fighters with Tornado GR4 “trucks” laden with bombs, taking advantage of the sensor and connectivity capabilities of the former and combining them with the proven air-to-ground weapons delivery capabilities of the latter. Mixed pairs also were flown by French and Qatari Mirage 2000s, sometimes in concert with French Rafale fighters.
Dynamic Deliberate Targeting: Some specific targets were moved forward on the 72-hour air tasking order if the assets were unexpectedly available to attack them or if they were deemed more time-sensitive than originally thought. Sometimes this happened in single digit hours.
CSARs on Flattops: Air Force combat search and rescue HH-60s were deployed aboard the British flattop Ocean for two weeks and aboard the similar French ship Tonnerre for two days to support operations far deeper into Libya than were flown in most of the operation. The flying time from the initial base in Greece was four hours—a long time to wait if someone has been shot down, Jodice said.
SCAR-C: strike, control, and reconnaissance coordination—a throwback to forward air control but conducted by platforms ranging from the French Atlantique to a Predator, which would scout and sometimes laser-designate targets for other platforms.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar Dropped Bombs in Anger: Jodice was unhappy that France and Qatar pushed to get Qatar’s French-made Mirage 2000s on the ATO for a bomb-dropping mission, even though the pilots had not trained to do it. “This is not a test range,” Jodice said, but eventually assented because three of the four jets in the eventual mission were French, flown by UAE and French pilots trained in ground attack.
Attack Helicopters and the Air Tasking Order: France and the UK insisted that OUP make use of attack helicopters: French Tiger and Cougar aircraft and British Apaches. Those governments felt the appearance of attack helos would send a strong statement to the regime, at a time when they felt the conflict was entering a stalemate. Jodice said the “first” was putting attack helicopters on the ATO and integrating them in an air campaign, when such aircraft typically are under the direction of a ground commander and tied to ground maneuver.