Washington Watch

April 1, 2011

No Flies on Libya

The UN has implemented a no-fly zone over Libya, responding to Muammar Qaddafi’s attempts put down a popular uprising by using mercenaries and air strikes on rebels and civilians alike. The March 17 authorization followed weeks of debate, during which it became clear that many US government and opinion leaders seemingly aren’t aware of the enormous commitment of resources such an operation requires.

A no-fly zone is an aerial blockade that prevents a country from flying aircraft to attack its own citizens, and prevents weapons resupply by air. Such a military step was taken against Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991—and persisted for nearly 12 years—and another was applied in the Balkans in the 1990s.

The UN Security Council resolution demanded an immediate cease-fire in Libya, a halt to all attacks on civilians, a halt of airlift of mercenaries into the ground fight, and authorized member states to use “all necessary measures” to enforce the edict. It directed the establishment of “a ban on all flights in the airspace” of Libya to “help protect” civilians but granted safe passage to humanitarian flights.

“Of course we have to have a no-fly zone” over Libya, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in remarks before the Atlantic Council on March 1. “We are spending over $500 billion, not counting Iraq and Afghanistan, on our nation’s defense. Don’t tell me we can’t do a no-fly zone over Tripoli.”

McCain expressed irritation with those who cautioned against moving too fast to militarily intervene in the Libyan conflict. The armed forces “always seem to find reasons why you can’t do something rather than why you can,” he said, adding that it is a moral obligation of the US and its allies to prevent Qaddafi from murdering innocent civilians from the air.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), appearing on the CBS show “Face the Nation,” warned against a military intervention in Libya, but said he didn’t think a no-fly zone would constitute such a step.

“I don’t consider the fly zone stepping over that line,” Kerry said.

Many members of Congress and the media weighed in with support of an air exclusion zone, suggesting it would help Libyan rebels without the need to directly involve the US in the fighting.

In the midst of this enthusiasm for air action, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee in early March he was disturbed by the “loose talk” about establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.

“If it’s ordered, we can do it,” Gates said. However, “let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can … fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down.”

Gates went on to say that “it also requires more airplanes than you would find on a single aircraft carrier. So it is a big operation in a big country.” (Libya is about a quarter of the size of the continental US, although most of its population and assets are clustered along the Mediterranean coast.)

The attacks began on March 19. Air Force B-2 bombers struck Libyan Air Force hardened aircraft shelters while the Navy fired some 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles from ships and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. Soon afterward, Air Force F-15Es and F-16CJs attacked Qaddafi’s ground forces as they moved toward rebel enclaves near Benghazi. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC News’ “This Week” that the pre-emptive attacks on Libyan air defense sites had been “effective” and the no-fly zone was essentially “in place.”

Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, operations director for the Joint Staff, said the USAF aircraft and Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers attacked ground forces that posed a peril to Libyan civilians, but insisted they were not performing close air support in support of Libyan rebels.

Attacks on air defenses had produced no civilian casualties, Gortney said. Qaddafi spokesmen insisted there had been dozens of civilian deaths, but multiple news outlets reported he offered no evidence for this claim. Local hospitals in Tripoli had seen no influx of injured people.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, in budget testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 17, said a Libyan no-fly zone would involve fighters, bombers, tankers, airlift and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft. The action would force “some trade-offs” with other operations; namely, some assets would have to be pulled from the fight in Afghanistan.

Schwartz said a no-fly zone “would not be sufficient” to reverse Qaddafi’s ground gains against the rebels. He echoed the remarks of National Director of Intelligence James Clapper, who a week earlier had told Congress Qaddafi would probably “prevail” against the rebels, given his superior military forces.

Gortney said that Libyan Cold War-era, Soviet-made SA-2 and SA-5 fixed surface-to-air missiles were hit, but not, initially, mobile SA-6s and SA-8s. He also warned that there are “quite a few” SA-7 man-portable SAMs in Libya that could be anywhere, and that coalition warplanes would use “speed and maneuver” to elude them if they are fired.

Years of sanctions and neglect have grounded most of Libya’s fighters and bombers, leaving only a “couple dozen” serviceable aircraft and a like number of attack helicopters, one former intelligence officer reported.

A former naval officer told NPR’s “All Things Considered” that a single aircraft carrier could maintain a no-fly zone for about a day only, before the aircrews and aircraft would be “exhausted.” The operation would demand large numbers of ground-based aircraft, supported by an Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS-type aircraft, as well as large numbers of aerial refueling airplanes.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in a white paper released in mid-March, said that based on the historical costs of the no-fly zones over Iraq and the Balkans, such an operation in Libya could cost the US between $15 million and $300 million per week, depending on the size of the area to be patrolled and the extent of the precursor attacks required.

A Careful Lead in Fighters

The Air Force is taking a measured and cost-conscious approach to fielding its premiere new aircraft, determined to address new threats only as needed, at the appropriate pace and with only as much program as necessary.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, in an interview, said the service isn’t ignoring the air superiority challenge posed by Russia’s and China’s fifth generation prototype aircraft, but the answer, for now, isn’t a new-start program to develop a sixth generation fighter.

Commenting specifically on China’s J-20 fighter, the recent first flight of which seemed to catch the Pentagon by surprise, Schwartz said the aircraft seems to him more of a “demonstrator” than a prototype. The new foreign fighters will need extensive development to make them into viable weapon systems, he said, and “given the struggle we’ve had to field our own fifth gen platforms,” it’s not likely they’ll pose a significant new operational threat soon. The fighters will need to be integrated with other systems and networks, and paired with the right weapons—significant hurdles to overcome.

“I respect the Chinese engineering and manufacturing capability … but … we should keep in mind that this is something that we invented, and it wasn’t a cakewalk for us,” Schwartz asserted.

That said, the Air Force has extensive research and development programs under way to refine technologies that would benefit a future sixth generation fighter. Schwartz listed such areas of development as including sensors, materials, manufacturing, data links, apertures, high-resolution radars, and other technologies, as well as a long-term project called ADVENT (Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology) that seeks greater efficiency and performance in jet engines.

“We’ve got over $2 billion in R&D” to develop capabilities for a fighter significantly more advanced than today’s F-22 or the upcoming F-35, he noted.

Moreover, the F-22 is “not standing still,” and an extensive upgrade program—”one of the half a dozen or so largest programs we have”—is in the works to squeeze the most performance possible out of the Raptor.

“That is in the [Fiscal 2012] budget, and we’re committed to that,” he said. So, in air superiority, “we’re certainly not backing away” from the modern threat. And “we’ll definitely keep an eye” on the progress of the J-20 and Russia’s T-50.

Asked if he was worried that the J-20’s resemblance to the F-22 and F-35 indicated successful Chinese industrial espionage or some sort of leak, Schwartz said the similarity serves as a reminder that the Air Force and its industrial partners must “protect our advantages. … It’s a team sport between government and industry.”

Next Gen Reach and Power

Schwartz described the beginning of a new next generation bomber program as part of the Air Force’s Fiscal 2012 budget a big deal, given that there were many opponents who felt the Air Force didn’t require such a program.

“We persuaded the leadership of the Department of Defense that this was, in fact, something that the country needed. … That’s not a trivial achievement,” Schwartz said.

The new bomber program, he said, will in some ways mirror the KC-X tanker project, which was recently awarded to Boeing’s 767-based concept and immediately dubbed the KC-46A. Given EADS North America’s stated intention not to protest the award, the KC-46 should not languish in litigation limbo.

The next generation bomber, like the KC-X competition, will “have mandatory requirements and nonmandatory requirements, and you’ll qualify and then there will be trade space,” the Chief explained. The new airplane will be cutting edge, but won’t demand the invention of any new technology, he said. “There is consensus in the [Pentagon] about what the general outlines of the requirement set [are]. And I’m sure that will be refined and trades will be made as we go down the road, but there is consensus on that.”

To keep the program and make it work, USAF will have to “temper [its] ambitions, field a capability that relies predominantly on proven technology, and to do it in a way where cost is essentially an independent variable.”

The new bomber program aims to “have at least—at least—a flying prototype in the middle of the 2020s, if not more than that,” Schwartz said. That will be possible, he said, because “this isn’t a completely new start.” The Air Force was taking briefings from industry for years under the previous next generation or “2018 bomber” program, which was terminated.

“The offers for the previous effort produced lots of proposals. … This isn’t the first time people have been thinking about a long-range penetrating bomber.” Building on technology in hand will allow a “streamlined procurement approach,” Schwartz said, which may even bypass traditional competition.

“An early downselect is one option, in order to control costs,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, when the time came, that isn’t one of the options that the then-leadership team seriously considers.”

The new bomber will not be a “stand-alone” system, but will rely on a host of offboard platforms, sensors, and systems to do its job, Schwartz said. Some of these will be capabilities already resident in the force. However, it will not be a platform in the tradition of previous USAF bombers.

“If we see ourselves as a cross-domain service, it would be foolish to have a concept of operations or a design for a penetrating platform that didn’t take advantage of air, space, and cyber.” It was this willingness to break the mold that convinced the DOD leadership to go ahead with the program, he said.

The bomber is emblematic of other efforts to do business in a new way, Schwartz said.

Not all the changes in the way the Air Force does business are beneficial, he conceded. For example, the old paradigm of organizing and measuring the Air Force’s capabilities by tactical fighter wings or combat wings has been discarded, and today USAF has “a number of platforms which satisfy the accepted [Office of the Secretary of Defense]-approved scenarios,” Schwartz said. “It’s about 2,000 fighters, it’s about 300 big airplanes and so on.” As to “whether we have a traditional force-sizing construct” by which to measure how prepared USAF is to answer the demands of the national military strategy, “the reality is, we do not.” He said this is true for all the services across the DOD.

“I’ve been on the record as saying I wish we did have a more explicit force-sizing construct,” he noted.