BRUSSELS — If NATO mounts an operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, it will almost certainly establish quick superiority over Moammar Gadhafi's outdated air force. But diplomats and analysts — relying on lessons learnt from NATO's intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s — caution that any attempts to launch airstrikes against Gadhafi's ground forces would be far more dangerous, and could result in serious losses.
NATO's leaders met Friday to work out the details of a flight ban over Libya, after the U.N. Security Council gave the international community a surprisingly broad mandate to protect civilians under attack by government forces.
Alliance military planners said they could deploy dozens of fighter-bombers, tankers, air surveillance aircraft and unmanned drones to a string of air bases along Europe's southern perimeter from which to send patrols over Libya.
Officials said an "execute order" could launch the operation as early as this weekend.
NATO has significant experience in such operations — its warplanes successfully enforced no-fly zones over Bosnia in the early 1990s and over Kosovo in 1999 to end crackdowns by Serb forces on civilians.
Still, Germany and some other member nations have expressed reservations about the operation, warning that it could become a complex and long-term commitment for the alliance. A plan to launch possible air strikes against Gadhafi's air defenses was also thrown into doubt Friday by Libya's surprise announcement that it was declaring an immediate cease-fire in the conflict, diplomats said.
When asked whether the North Atlantic Council — NATO's top decision-making body — had considered the possibility of airstrikes against Libyan air defense and other ground targets during its meeting on Friday, Martin Povejsil, the Czech Republic's envoy to the alliance, replied: "We only discussed enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo, and providing humanitarian assistance."
If Gadhafi's air force was to flout a U.N. flight ban, experts say his air force would almost certainly be shot to pieces. Since the 1980s, chaotic purchases of equipment, poor maintenance and inadequate training have shrunk his fleet of more than 400 fighter-bombers, light attack jets and helicopter gunships to a few dozen aircraft.
What remains are mostly Sukhoi Su-22 and Mig-23 fighter bombers, as well as Yugoslav-made Jastreb light strike jets dating from the late 1960s — several of which have already been destroyed by insurgents, or flown out of the country by defecting pilots.
Outside of its fighter craft, the regime has a handful of operational interceptors, such as the MiG-21 and MiG-25, also dating from the 1960s. Its long-range air defenses are in a similar state, relying on 200 missiles launchers long considered obsolete.
A recent report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said the air force has also had major pilot training problems and lost a number of its aircraft to accidents and other attrition.
"Libya seems to have had a serious shortage of even mediocre combat pilots," it stated.
What worries NATO planners, however, are Libya's plentiful anti-aircraft guns and light, short-range shoulder-launched missiles — systems which proved very effective against Alliance aircraft during the Kosovo war, said a diplomat who asked not to be identified.
These include about 500 cannons of various calibers, whose presence on the battlefield could prevent allied aircraft from descending lower than 15,000 feet, said the diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. In Kosovo, a majority of bombing missions had to be carried out from higher altitudes beyond the reach of the Serbian guns.
Experts have cautioned, however, that it is difficult to give an exact assessment of the African nation's military abilities, particularly in the wake of the defections that saw some troops taking not just aircraft but also weapons with them.
"The apparent proliferation of small arms, man-portable air defense missile systems, and some heavy weaponry among fighters on both sides, also is leading some outside counterterrorism and arms trafficking experts to express concern about the conflict's longer term implications for regional security," said an assessment prepared by the Congressional Research Service in Washington this week.
In contrast, NATO planners say the international community has 200-300 modern jets which could be quickly deployed to Libya from bases stretching from Gibraltar to Greece, and from U.S. and French carriers in the Mediterranean Sea.
These would include top-of-the-line Eurofighter Typhoons, used by British, Italian and Spanish air forces. Also available are the formidable French Dassault Rafale fighters and the U.S. Boeing Co.'s F-18 Super Hornet, the backbone of U.S. naval air power.
The alliance would also have a huge technical advantage over Gadhafi in its AWACS planes — whose rotating radars can look 200 miles (320 kilometers) deep into enemy airspace, monitor all aerial movements over Libyan territory and direct planes to any violators of the no-fly zone.
The U.S. also has a number of ships and other military assets in the region. They include the nuclear-powered submarine USS Providence, equipped with tomahawk missiles; the amphibious landing dock USS Ponce and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge with a contingent of 400 Marines and dozens of helicopters. It also has the command ship USS Mount Whitney and destroyers USS Mason, USS Barry and USS Stout.
Analysts said aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone would fly from NATO bases in Sigonella, Sicily, Aviano in northern Italy, Istres in southern France, and Ventiseri-Solenzara in Corsica. Additionally, the U.S. amphibious carrier the USS Kearsarge in the Mediterranean could be used to enforce the no-fly zone.
The Italian air base at Trapani-Birgi at the western tip of Sicily, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of Tripoli, is already being used by AWACS planes that would support any aerial missions over Libya.
Two larger carriers could also be used in the operation. The French Charles De Gaulle is currently in port in Toulon, while the USS Enterprise is in the Red Sea. Both would need several days to arrive on station.
Unmanned reconnaissance and attack drones, such as the U.S. Reaper and Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire ground-attack missiles, would provide additional benefits because of their ability to loiter over an area for hours on end, added analysts.
"This would be a fairly simple operation, much easier than NATO's aerial missions in the Balkans in the 1990s," said Marko Papic of the Stratfor intelligence analysis group in Austin, Texas. "Unlike the mountainous and heavily wooded Balkans, Libya is flat, without foliage or places to hide equipment, and the Libyan air force is a joke."
A NATO official warned, however, that logistics considerations involved in deploying such a large number of aircraft would play a large role in the planning process. To avoid repeated aerial refuelings from tanker aircraft, the fighter jets would likely have to be based close to Libya, but some of those bases lacked the necessary facilities to support fighter squadrons, said the official who could not be named under standing regulations.
UN Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday that NATO is now completing its plans, "in order to be ready to take the appropriate" action.
"(The) Allies stand behind the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and human rights," he said.
Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor in Washington DC contributed to this report.