Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War

Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War


Between March and October 2011, a coalition of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states and several partner nations waged a war against Muammar Qaddafi's Libyan regime that stemmed and then reversed the tide of Libya's civil war, preventing Qaddafi from crushing the nascent rebel movement seeking to overthrow his dictatorship and going on to enable opposition forces to prevail. The central element of this intervention was a relatively small multinational force's air campaign operating from NATO bases in several countries, as well as from a handful of aircraft carriers and amphibious ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The study details each country's contribution to that air campaign, examining such issues as the limits of airpower and coordination among nations. It also explores whether the Libyan experience offers a potential model for the future.


From March 19 to October 31, 2011, the United States and a coalition of fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and partner states waged a remarkable air war in Libya. Operation Odyssey Dawn and Operation Unified Protector were designed to protect Libya’s civilian populace under a United Nations mandate, and in conjunction with the country’s new opposition movement, they led to the defeat and removal of the dictatorial regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. The campaign, in which the coalition suffered no casualties and which cost a relatively inexpensive few billion dollars, is now being proffered as a model for future U.S. and NATO expeditionary operations.

This report, written by a team of U.S. and international experts, examines the origins, planning, execution, and results of the air campaign, with the goal of drawing lessons from it that will help prepare the U.S. Air Force and its allies and partners for future operations in which such a strategy of aerial intervention could be a promising policy option.

The research reported here was sponsored by General Philip M. Breedlove, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.


RAND Project AIR FORCE (PAF), a division of the RAND Corporation, is the U.S. Air Force’s federally funded research and development center for studies and analyses. PAF provides the Air Force with independent analyses of policy alternatives affecting the development, employment, combat readiness, and support of current and future air, space, and cyber forces. Research is conducted in four programs: Force Modernization and Employment; Manpower, Personnel, and Training; Resource Management; and Strategy and Doctrine. The research reported here was prepared under contract FA7014-06-C-0001.

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