THE MILITARY REALITY OF A NO-FLY ZONE
How can anyone disagree with Kevin Rudd? "A greater evil", he says, "is to simply stand back and allow the innocent people of Libya to be strafed and bombed by Gaddafi".
His words tug at the heart-strings. Of course he's right. Morally, we appear obliged to assist the rebellion against a man that most of Australia would agree is a tyrant -- and a dangerous, megalomaniac one at that. But unfortunately, whenever the ideal world meets reality, something has to give.
Rudd's last "great moral challenge" was global warming but when this crashed up against political reality, it was the ethical imperative that collapsed. The practical usually triumphs over the ideal, and much the same is happening in Libya today.
There are a host of practical problems that the calls to implement a no-fly zone ignore. It would need to be enforced by Allied aircraft. This means they need to fly over the country. Libya possesses advanced anti-aircraft missiles, guided to their targets by mobile ground radar systems. If activated, these will illuminate any fast-jets flying overhead. Unless they immediately fire missiles to destroy the radar beacons they remain incredibly vulnerable. If a missiles’ fired the odds are they'll be hit. The person who fires first has the advantage.
So what happens if Gadaffi moves some air-defence radars next to a hospital? If the NATO forces enforcing the no-fly zone attack (in self defence) the result would be a public relations disaster. No missile would ever have been fired by the Libyans, however ordinary civilians would have been attacked and you can bet a number of innocent dead bodies would be produced for the cameras.
The second problem is that the rebellion is being crushed, ruthlessly. Momentum is everything in a war like this. People may hate Gaddafi, but no one will rebel if they think he will win. Over the past week a subtle change has taken place on the ground. At first the reports were of more and more cities and towns falling to the rebels as they advanced. But, critically, the capital remained under Gaddafi's control and enough forces seemingly remained loyal to the regime to stem the tide of the insurgents.
The rebels began to run out of steam. With his forces either composed of or backed by mercenaries, Gaddafi launched an assault that began retaking as that had been lost. Critically, the momentum that was supporting the insurgency had swapped sides. Disciplined, organised forces began to get the upper hand against the volunteers who were jumping in pick-ups and heading off to the front in a disorganised stream. The rebels didn't have a coordinated command structure. More importantly, perhaps, they didn't have a plan for victory. As it becomes more and more obvious that the war has been lost it becomes difficult to find people to fight the battles.
There are many ways of explaining what has happened in Libya. NATO's failure to impose a no-fly zone is not one of them.