On March 19, 2011, the British military began attacking Libyan government targets under the auspices of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. As a leading advocate of the no-fly zone, Britain’s anti-Gaddafi stance became apparent quite early on when leading members of the cabinet publicly condemned the actions of the Libyan regime.
Britain is contributing various airborne assets from the 1970s vintage Tornado and handing a debut to the “state of the art” Typhoon as well as surveillance, transport and tanker aircraft.
The Navy, in its first aircraft carrierless action since World War I, has managed to scrape together two frigates and a submarine while the use of ground forces not been ruled out. It would be safe to assume moreover that special forces are on the ground following the capture of a team earlier in the crisis.
The protests in Libya had been going on for almost five weeks before the Security Council resolution so why has Britain taken action now?
From a domestic perspective, launching military action makes sense for several reasons. Firstly, it is well publicized that the coalition government’s cuts to the British armed forces have been heavily criticized from all quarters. A successful campaign by what is left of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy could be seen as proving that Britain is still a potent and capable military force in the wake of its latest Strategic Defense and Security Review.
This week also sees the announcement of the 2011 budget and a parliamentary vote on the salaries of Members of Parliament. Although perhaps a cynical view, with headlines about Libya and Japan guaranteed to fill numerous column inches, there will be less space for coverage and comment on either of these issues should there be bad news that needs to be hidden deeper inside the tabloids than usual.
There is also the issue of poll ratings. The Conservatives lag behind Labour by almost ten points according to some polls. A short, sharp victory could boost the ratings of the party months before local elections take place in May.
This is a gamble however as the longer the conflict drags on with no clear result the more negative an impact it may have. Polls are already very close as to the support among the public for military action, the intervention in Libya being less supported than the war in Iraq initially was.
Lastly, but perhaps most significantly, Britain has oil interests in Libya. The release of the Lockerbie bomber was thought to include exploration rights for British firms in Libya. Initially Britain withdrew its oil workers and hedged its bets that Gaddafi would tumble as his fellow dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had done, presumably confident that it would be readmitted once the government collapsed. Once it became apparent that Gaddafi could remain in power and would be unlikely to allow the British back in, something had to be done to remove him.