Is Libya NATO’s Final Bow?

Clara M. O’Donnell and
Clara M. O’Donnell Former Brookings Expert
Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

December 2, 2011

While U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron jostle for public acclaim for the recent military operation in Libya, significant unease can be found amongst officials from NATO allies. Indeed, although on certain levels, the multinational deployment performed very well in its UN sanctioned efforts to protect Libyan civilians against attacks by Muammar Gaddafi, the mission also raised some difficult questions for countries on both sides of the Atlantic, not least – once again – about the long term sustainability of the NATO alliance.

Contradicting the warnings from many experts and politicians in both Europe and the United States, the military intervention in Libya did not lead to a protracted stalemate. Seven months after the international coalition led by France, the U.K. and the United States deployed – initially as an ad-hoc coalition and subsequently under NATO command – the operation was called to an end in light of Gaddafi’s fall from power. In addition the nations contributing to the mission, which relied primarily on a naval embargo and air strikes, suffered no casualties and managed to keep the level of collateral damage remarkably low – largely due to the extensive and skilled use of precision guided munitions.

Europeans, which have long been criticized within the United States for not contributing sufficiently to international deployments, not least the NATO operation in Afghanistan, provided a large share of the military effort. This allowed the U.S. to scale back its own contribution after playing a leading role in neutralizing Libya’s air defenses during the first days of the campaign. Although Britain and France provided the most significant European military contributions, eleven other European countries participated in the arms embargo and the aerial campaign. And Denmark, Norway, and Belgium together hit as many targets during their strikes as France.

In addition, institutionally, NATO provided an invaluable ‘plug and play’ umbrella to co-ordinate the military campaign. According to most officials, only the United States and NATO have military command chains capable of controlling an operation of such complexity as the one in Libya. Once the alliance agreed to take full control of the mission on March 27th, it took only four days for it to implement its decision. Although not all NATO allies had initially supported the military deployment to Libya, none obstructed the command of the operation – in contrast to initial French fears. Even the use of shared NATO military assets was not too adversely affected. Although Germany, which abstained from endorsing the operation at the UN, refused to let its air crews participate in the deployment of NATO AWACS aircraft over Libyan airspace, it increased its contributions to AWACS operations in Afghanistan in order to free up crews from other NATO allies in Libya. NATO was able to bring non-alliance countries such as Sweden and the UAE into the military effort, and although their integration into the command chain was not seamless, it was greatly facilitated by years of joint training through a variety of NATO partnerships. In addition, operating under the NATO flag made it easier for Britain, France and the United States to convince their partners to remain committed to the military operation, not least over the summer when support for the mission started to wane.

But for many within NATO, the balance sheet of operation Unified Protector is far from fully positive. Some NATO officials raise questions about the implications of the mission for future operations aimed at protecting civilians. NATO strikes might have led to limited collateral damage. But during the course of the operation, according to a U.S. official, around 8,000 Libyans were killed as a result of fighting between Gaddafi’s forces and those opposing his rule. And the Libyan National Transitional Council estimates the death toll to be around 25,000. This has led some officials from NATO allies to argue that the level of casualties could have been lower if the U.S. had contributed more actively to the operation, because its unparalleled firepower could have enabled the mission to end sooner. Others have gone as far as suggesting that the death toll would have been lower if NATO had not intervened at all – although this would most probably mean that Gaddafi would still be in power. In addition, although NATO officially maintained the UN’s mandate of protecting civilians as its sole objective, de facto the unwillingness of the Libyan rebels and Gaddafi to negotiate led the success of the NATO operation to rely on Gaddafi’s demise, raising questions about the feasibility of ‘responsibility to protect’ without regime change. Finally, there is an uneasy recognition amongst officials that the nations which provided weapons and training to the rebel forces during the last months of the operation – at a minimum – ‘exploited the grey zones’ of the UN resolution which allowed for all necessary measures excluding a foreign occupation force. Such a wide interpretation of the UN mandate might have been necessary for the success of the mission. And many officials acknowledge that air power and the naval embargo alone would not have sufficed to shift the balance of forces, particularly once Gaddafi’s troops responded to NATO’s air campaign by blending into Libya’s civilian population. But the actions of several nations contributing to Unified Protector have significantly reduced the level of support from Russia, China and other international players for similar interventions in the future, with direct (although hard to measure) consequences on the willingness to pressure Syria.

In addition, although the North Atlantic Council eventually agreed to take control of the deployment to Libya, the major disagreements which marked the initial debates about the merit of military intervention – be it at the G8, the UN, NATO or the EU – were a strong reminder to transatlantic allies of the continued lack of a common strategic culture within the alliance. For some countries, in particular the U.K., the experience strengthened the growing conviction that it is futile to cooperate with certain European allies. For others, it reinforced the weariness of investing in shared military capabilities. And several countries – including Britain and France – were rattled by the United States’ unprecedented decision not to maintain a leading role within a NATO operation.

Most problematically, operation Unified Protector brought to the fore once more the significant shortcomings within European armed forces. Aerial intelligence assets, air to air refueling and fighter aircraft that can fly outside NATO airspace were all found to be in very short supply – notwithstanding the fact that several of these capabilities have been identified for years as key priorities for NATO allies. As Robert Gates, then U.S. Defense Secretary, remarked in June, although NATO should have been able to manage more than 300 air sorties a day, it was a struggle to launch 150, largely because of an acute shortage of targeting specialists. And some military officers within the NATO command chain – including senior ones – lacked the experience to perform their duties, forcing other allies to deploy additional military officials to assist them.

Yet so far, Libya has not incentivized European governments to limit their ongoing military spending cuts or to commit to the NATO and EU efforts aimed at limiting the impact of budget cuts through stronger cooperation amongst European armed forces. Governments continue to disagree about whether to develop the Allied Ground Surveillance program, designed to provide NATO with a commonly owned source of aerial intelligence – a program that has been in the pipeline for decades. Most officials predict that the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago will not lead to any significant breakthroughs on closer ‘pooling and sharing’ amongst European armed forces. And U.S. officials believe that on current trends, NATO will not be able to replicate a mission similar to the one conducted in Libya in a few years from now. Operation Unified Protect could well become a noble but final bow from the transatlantic alliance.