Could Europe Impose a No-Fly Zone Alone?

With the United States hesitant to intervene in Libya, the Atlantic Sentinel wonders whether Britain and France could on their own.

British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy in London, June 18, 2010
British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy in London, June 18, 2010 (Elysée)

While armed forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi retook major cities along the Mediterranean coast, pushing the rebels eastward, the West is still contemplating whether or not to intervene in Libya.

Britain and France are in favor of enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi’s air forces from bombing cities, infrastructure and anti-government militias. France has been the first nation to recognize the rebels’ transitional council as Libya’s legitimate government. But other NATO partners are less enthusiastic.

The United States, already militarily involved in two Muslim countries, are reluctant to commit to an intervention. Influential American senators have publicly endorsed plans for a no-fly zone but the defense department warned that if such an operation were to be sustained for a prolonged period of time, it could require more resources than are currently available.

Several US Navy warships are deployed in the Mediterranean while an aircraft carrier is on standby in the Red Sea.

A no-fly zone could not prevent conflagration on the ground, the Pentagon added, nor necessarily stop helicopter gunships from harassing demonstrating crowds as happened during the early weeks of Libya’s revolt.

Nevertheless, France and the United Kingdom called upon the other members of the G8 to support a no-fly zone on Tuesday — to little avail. Canada, Germany and Russia all remained adamantly opposed to military intervention without at least a mandate from the United Nations. China and Russia have so far blocked a resolution from the Security Council.

After the G8 meeting in Paris, Atlantic Sentinel contributor Daniel DePetris, who earlier outlined the difficulties of intervening in Libya, wondered why Britain and France wouldn’t take the lead. “Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has been complaining about America’s preference for unilateralism,” he noted. “France and Britain can change this calculus by acting in a joint fashion, especially when the entire world is debating its response.”

Joint Anglo-French military action in the Mediterranean would not be unprecedented. After years of transatlanticism, the United Kingdom, forced by deep defense spending cuts, is now pooling resources with France. Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed in November of last year that ten years from now, their countries should be able to field an integrated carrier strike group, incorporating assets from both their armed forces.

As of now, there is reason to be skeptical however. From Britain, James Pritchett reckons that it would be difficult for France and his home country to go it alone — though not impossible.

British jets based in Malta would be able to fly out, refuel in the air and carry out certain patrols. The French, with their aircraft carrier, would be much better suited to this as we no longer have a carrier or aircraft to fly off from them so our best bet would be Malta or a similar air base in Italy, Spain, perhaps Cyprus.

The allies might even establish a forward operating base at Tobruk near the Egyptian border where rebels have secured an airfield. In any case, Pritchett warns that the Royal Air Force could not operate easily without air to air refueling. “The French carrier air compliment would find it a lot easier.” Their Charles de Gaulle returned from the Indian Ocean in late February and is currently stationed in Toulon in the south of France.

Combined, the British and the French wouldn’t be able to project the amount of power a US Navy fleet could. It might not even be enough for a total lockdown, according to Pritchett. “It’s possible,” he suggests, “but maybe not possible enough for them to bother attempting it.”

Gaddafi’s forces were already preparing to march on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Tuesday. The French alone could need up to three days to prepare the Charles de Gaulle for mission by which point it might be too late. The Security Council was scheduled to vote on a no-fly zone resolution Tuesday afternoon.

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