Senior U.S. military officials believe that Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Russian-made attack helicopters -- and not his warplanes -- pose the biggest challenge to the creation of a no-fly zone over the war-torn country, a policy option drawing increasing support in both Arab and Western capitals.
The rebels working to oust Qaddafi received a welcome bit of good news on Saturday when the Arab League called on the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and announced that it was recognizing the rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi as Libya’s legitimate government. France has already recognized the insurgent leadership, and the moves by the Arab League are likely to spur other European nations to follow suit. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been in contact with envoys from the rebel leadership, but it’s not clear when, or if, the Obama administration will recognize the rebel-led provisional government.
The rebels’ diplomatic gains came as they suffered a string of military setbacks, raising the dire prospect that it may soon be too late for a no-fly zone -- even if it is imposed by powerful Western nations like the U.S. -- to have much impact on the fighting between the insurgents and Qaddafi’s well-trained and heavily armed troops. On Sunday, Qaddafi’s regime announced that it had reclaimed the oil terminal of Brega and was massing forces for an assault on Benghazi, the rebels’ erstwhile capitol. Qaddafi loyalists have already retaken the oil port of Ras Lanuf and the city of Zawiyah.
In interviews this weekend on Al-Jazeera English, an Arab satellite news channel, rebel leaders implored the international community to immediately impose a no-fly zone over the country, arguing that it would remove Qaddafi’s biggest tactical advantage and give them at least a fighting chance of prevailing on the battlefield.
The idea of a no-fly zone is under active consideration in Washington and other Western capitals, where support for the idea is lukewarm at best. The Obama administration has made clear that it would only take part in imposing or patrolling a no-fly zone over Libya if the moves were expressly authorized by the U.N. Security Council, and Russia and China -- at least for the moment -- have signaled that they would block any attempt to get such a measure through the body.
While the diplomatic maneuvering continues, current and former high-ranking American military officials told National Journal that the biggest, if least-known, practical challenge of maintaining an effective no-fly zone would come from Qaddafi’s helicopters, which are significantly harder to track and shoot down than his jets. The helicopters have been the centerpiece of Qaddafi’s military assault on the rebels, with the Libyan strongman using them to strafe insurgent positions across eastern Libya.
In a recent report titled “Libyan Rebels’ Weapons Deficit,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London, noted Qaddafi’s forces have made extensive use of Russian-made Mi-25/35 Hind attack helicopters. The group noted that such weaponry was “considerably more powerful than anything the rebels can muster.”
Rod Zastrow is a retired Air Force colonel who led a unit of F-15 fighter jets assigned to patrol the no-fly zone over Iraq in the summer of 1999 as part of Operation Northern Watch. Zastrow said in an interview that helicopters pose a much bigger challenge than jets because it would be difficult for Western pilots to pick them up on radar or determine which helicopters were attack aircraft -- and thus legitimate targets -- and which were being used for troop transportation or other needs.
Compounding the difficulties, Zastrow noted that helicopters fly so low that Western planes tracking them would need to fly much closer to the ground than usual, potentially leaving them vulnerable to anti-aircraft batteries or other forms of ground-based weaponry.
“Helicopters pose a much more difficult set of set of questions than jets,” Zastrow said in an interview. “They’re harder to positively identify, track, and target. And once you find one, it has to come down somewhere. If the helicopter crashed into a densely crowded area, it could easily cause collateral damage on the ground.”
The Pentagon’s concerns about Libya’s attack helicopters were on vivid display last week when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos told lawmakers that Qaddafi’s warplanes posed only a “modest” threat, with the real challenges coming from helicopters, which fly much lower to the ground and at speeds that are difficult for Western warplanes to track.
“Their greatest threat are their helicopter-type forces,” Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee.