Academic journal article Parameters

Lessons from the Air Campaigns over Libya, Syria, and Yemen

Academic journal article Parameters

Lessons from the Air Campaigns over Libya, Syria, and Yemen

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: The international air campaigns over Libya, Syria, and Yemen offer lessons for the planning of future interventions. Planners and politicians must acknowledge hostile targets will evolve over time, and it is impossible to prevent civilian casualties entirely. They should accept the likelihood every action will be filmed and posted online, and they should plan for post-conflict reconstruction as rigorously as they plan for conflict.


The past five years have seen four major air campaigns conducted by foreign powers in the Middle East: The NATO-led mission over Libya, the US-led mission against ISIL over Iraq and Syria, the Russian mission to support President Assad in Syria, and the Saudi-led campaign over Yemen.

While these interventions differ significantly in their focus, conduct, and participation, they offer a number of lessons for the political and military leadership of the United States and other Western nations. These lessons are particularly important to the political preparation of military operations and to the sustainment of political support over the long term. As such, it is vital for the military to factor them into planning and to communicate them to political leaders. The five key lessons are:

1. The likelihood of "target creep," in which air strikes expand to an ever-growing list of target types;

2. The likelihood of "force evolution," in which new types of assets are brought into theater to accelerate an apparently slow-moving campaign;

3. The inevitability of civilian casualties;

4. The new information environment created by observers on the ground equipped with smartphones, cameras and satellite imagery; and

5. The need for a coherent post-conflict reconstruction plan focused on providing immediate civilian services--"shoes on the ground" to accompany "boots on the ground."

Target Creep

The international campaign over Libya began on March 19,2011. Its authority was United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized UN members "to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." (1) For the first 12 days, the operation, dubbed "Odyssey Dawn" (OOD), was conducted by a coalition of the willing, led and enabled by the United States, together with Britain and France; from March 31 onwards, NATO took over the command of the operation, renamed "Unified Protector'" (OUP). The operation formally concluded on October 31, 2011. The author of this article was a NATO press officer throughout the operation.

Militarily, the conflict can be divided into four phases. The first week of Operation Odyssey Dawn was marked by the rapid destruction of Gaddafi regime armored columns by high-tempo air and cruise-missile strikes, lifting the immediate threat to the key rebel stronghold of Benghazi. (2) The assumption of command by NATO and the launch of OUP coincided with a prolonged period of predominantly urban fighting along relatively static front lines; during this period, NATO was accused of having fallen into a stalemate. (3) This second phase endured until late July when the forces opposed to Gaddafi broke out of their strongholds and advanced on the capital, Tripoli, with a speed that surprised OUP's commander. (4) Following the fall of Tripoli, the final phase was marked by a gradual reduction in the tempo of combat, until by October, OUP was conducting only half as many sorties per day as it had in April--approximately 80 per day, against a peak of almost 150.

OUP units clearly possessed overwhelming technological superiority over Gaddafi forces: in seven months of operations, not one Operation Unified Protector casualty was caused by enemy action. It was, moreover, unprecedentedly precise: Out of more than 6,000 airstrikes, five were confirmed as having resulted in civilian casualties (a subject to which we shall return). …

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