The Nuts and Bolts of a No-Fly Zone in Libya

Former fighter pilot describes the sizeable military buildup needed for no-fly.

March 10, 2011, 1:00 PM

March 10, 2011 -- U.S. officials and the Pentagon have pushed back against calls from Capitol Hill and the international community to implement a no-fly zone in Libya, citing the logistical difficulty and need for military action.

Supporters of a no-fly zone point to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military advantage against rag-tag rebels who have little or no military training.

As the United States and others contemplate what actions to take in Libya at NATO meetings today in Brussels, here is a look at some possible options, from the view of Stephen Ganyard, a former fighter pilot who has enforced no-fly zones in Bosnia and flown combat missions in Iraq, as well as served as a deputy assistant secretary of state.

See the full interview here.

QUESTION: What would it actually take to implement a no-fly zone?

ANSWER: The first thing that would have to happen is we would have to bring in aircraft to take out the enemy surface to air missile systems and enemy fighters that are on the ground.

Q: What would you actually have to take out? What does Libya have in terms of air defenses?

A: There are air defenses all the way 600 miles from Bengazhi to Tripoli and inland 2-300 miles into the southern part of the oil fields. So you would have to take out not just the airfields themselves but the surface to air missile systems that are defending the key ports and airfields themselves.

Q: What it would take in terms of ships, naval bases, how that would work?

A: It would take a sizeable buildup of both naval and air forces, we'd put forces in Sigonella, Sicily, and in Crete, NATO air space here in Southern Europe. We'd have to have aircraft carriers off shore. We have air to air refueling tankers off shore and we'd have to have fighter combat air patrols off shore before we even thought of going inland.

Few Options Make Sense

Q: You're talking hundreds of aircraft?

A: Hundreds of aircraft, numerous ships, support aircraft all just offshore and then we would to think about what would it take to take out those enemy air defenses and then what would it take to establish the combat air patrol and a no fly zone.

Q: But watching them does what?

A: It does absolutely nothing unless you have the military force to take on the aircraft that are flying now, and to be able to go in and take out those that are on the ground, just surveiling the area really does no good… It would be very difficult to say these are enemy forces versus refugee movements so until we get over Libya, and are able to take detailed close up pictures, we are really not doing ourselves any good by having air to air surveillance offshore of Libya

Q: In terms of humanitarian relief, they talked a little about ships, possibly being used for humanitarian relief, how do you do that?

A: I don't' see how you do humanitarian relief unless you have secured the shoreline. And to secure the shoreline you are going to have to establish fighter coverage overhead to protect the ships that come ashore.

Q: In terms of military options, when you look at Libya, what makes sense?

A: Very little. Nothing makes sense without a sizeable military buildup, which will take weeks if not months, in southern NATO airbases, and then we'll take a protracted campaign that will need to roll back the enemy air defenses and roll back the fighters that are on the ground. Once that is done, we go in and establish orbits overhead in various key strategic places that will prevent Libyan air force from flying and from strafing civilians or rebel positions.

Q: President Obama has said (Gadhafi) has to leave, we don't have any options?

A: I think we have options, they are not necessarily military options. I think we need to think about things other than military options. Think about aiding rebels. We can provide covert arms through the areas that have already been taken by the rebels. We can do much more in terms of finances, in terms of taking away money from Gadhafi, freezing his funds and making sure he can't pay his mercenary army.

Q: What would you do in terms of making sure they can, the rebels or the civilians can talk to each other via cell phone.

A: One of the things Gadhafi has done is shut down cell phone and internet. We could actually put U.S. aircraft off shore that can serve as airborne servers for internet access or de facto cell phone towers so they could re-establish communications in those areas that Gadhafi has shut down.