Jerome Delay, Associated Press
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to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, it will almost certainly establish quick superiority over Moammar Gadhafi's outdated air force.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.
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