By Michael Durao
March 11, 2011
Gates & Co. again showed its woeful inadequacies and tendencies towards political pandering, and once again has been blatantly wrong.  Attempting to justify America’s shameful nonintervention in the Libyan uprising, the best excuse the Obama Administration can come up with is the difficulty of suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) in imposing no-fly zones.  This would be a legitimate excuse if one were attempting to secure airspace over some remote corner of the globe with no American forces present.  What Gates doesn’t want the public and policymakers to know, though, is that all the necessary assets are already in place.

SEAD has two core aspects: detection of and electronic warfare against hostile surface-to-air radars and subsequent destruction of their linked missile launchers.  The latter has become logistically difficult due to the USAF’s retirement of its EF-111A Raven fleet with no replacement a decade ago; as a result, the US military can now only rely on the Navy’s EA-6B Prowlers (and soon the EA-18G Growlers replacing them).  Among the squadrons operating EA-6Bs is the VAQ-137 Rooks. Currently the Rooks are in the Mediterranean onboard the USS Enterprise, a mere stone’s throw away from Libya.  This is a squadron specifically intended to provide the entire carrier air wing with electronic warfare capabilities, and Carrier Air Wing 1 as a whole is a self-contained expeditionary strike force which was designed to control airspace and deliver air-to-ground ordinance against the Soviet Union, and Robert Gates wants us to believe it cannot fight against Libya’s outdated inventory of surface to air missiles and radars - predominately SA-2s and SA-3s from the 1950s and 60s with a sparse force of mobile SA-6s and SA-8s.  This does not include MANPADS, of course, but their omnipresence in the modern battlefield is offset by their extremely poor reliability.  That's not to say there aren't risks; SA-3s and SA-6s have scored lucky hits in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, but those were out of hundreds fired in each theatre, and these risks - completely minute compared to the dangers of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan - are, at least in my opinion, worth the tactical and psychological boosts they will provide to the resistance.

This matter becomes even more egregious when one takes into account the enormously relevant USAFE forces stationed at Aviano AB, just north of Libya in Italy.  Aviano’s 31st Fighter Wing operates F-16CMs that are specialized for SEAD, incorporating avionics from the previous F-16CJ SEAD variant.  While they cannot jam radars, F-16s out of Aviano and F/A-18C/E/Fs from CVW-1 can act in concert with VAQ-137’s Prowlers as one of the most competent SEAD forces possible within the US’s active inventory.  Compared with SEAD, air dominance against Qaddafi’s pathetic air force is a far less significant problem.  Both the F-16s and F/A-18s are outstanding air-to-air platforms, and F-15C/Es are stationed nearby at 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath in England. Tailored for air dominance, these F-15s could easily patrol the area as force multipliers.  The F-15Es also excel at strike missions and could disable government command and control bunkers and airbases if necessary.  Neither USAFE wing would even need to be deployed away from their home base, especially considering that RAF Mildenhall’s KC-135s could permit extended range and loiter time for all assets involved.

American and European inaction on Libya has gone from a foreign policy failure to a morally outrageous display of political callousness, even moreso on the US’s part given the fact that it can execute air dominance operations over Libya with relative ease.  The rebel forces are being mercilessly slaughtered by Qaddafi and are pleading for assistance in the form of a no-fly zone; furthermore, analysts have already highlighted the significance of airpower in the regime’s ability to put down the rebels.  Depriving Qaddafi of these capabilities is an act of war, but considering his history of supporting terrorism, his brutality against Libyan and foreign civilians in the past few weeks, and personal instability second only to Kim Jong Il amongst the world’s cadre of dictators, one must ask why we’re concerned about keeping him as a friend.  France and Britain have already taken a stand, and that alone is far more than the US or the rest of the EU have committed to.  Our indecision on the previous months' rebellions have further hampered our standing in the Arab world.  It's time to put American airpower to good use and begin repairing our image in the region, and the first step is a decommissioning of Qaddafi's air and surface-to-air assets.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

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