UK

Libya no-fly zone: Military preparations continue

The ceasefire announced by Col Gaddafi is highly unlikely to halt the military planning which is going on.

The pressure from the UN may have worked in the short term, but France, the UK and others will need reassurance that this is more than a delaying tactic from the Libyan leader.

The United Nations backed "all necessary measures", short of using ground forces, to protect the civilian population in Libya.

It's a far more wide-ranging resolution than some had anticipated, and one which gives a "coalition of the willing" carte blanche to take on not only Col Gaddafi's air defences and air force, but also his ground forces if they were to continue to threaten civilians.

'A military lead'

Those countries taking part in the coalition still need to decide who leads this mission, and what action they will take if the ceasefire breaks down.

It is not yet clear who the commander of the operation will be, where it will be headquartered and what Nato assets might be used.

The fact that the British Prime Minister is going to France on Saturday could be an indication that, having taken the diplomatic lead on recognising the rebels, France is also keen to take a military lead.

That meeting will be a chance to discuss what happens next, and how the pressure can be kept up to ensure the ceasefire holds.

According to David Cameron, Britain will deploy Tornados and Typhoon aircraft, as well as air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft.

He told Parliament on Friday that preparations to deploy those aircraft had already started, and that in the coming hours they would move to airbases from where they could start to take the necessary action.

The Tornado GR4, equipped with precision weapons, is among the first assets the UK could use to defend a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians from action by forces loyal to Col Gaddafi.

The planes are stationed at RAF Marham in Norfolk and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, though it is not yet clear which military base they would ultimately fly from. The options include bases in southern France, southern Italy or RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.

GR4s are ground attack aircraft, so could be used either to remove Libya's air defences if that were still deemed to be necessary, or to protect civilians from the ground forces which currently pose the main threat.

Potential targets

Typhoons, based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and RAF Leuchars in Fife, would be likely to be used in an air-to-air role if Col Gaddafi's air force challenged the no-fly zone.

VC10 tankers could perform refuelling and Nimrod R1 and Sentinel R1 are also likely to be involved in surveillance and reconnaissance.

Those performing the missions in the air will also need good intelligence from the ground, whether that is from rebel forces or foreign special forces based in Libya, not least to ensure that there are no civilians in or near potential targets.

Civilian casualties are one of the main risks of such an air operation if Libyan troops were to move closer to the city.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionCaroline Wyatt explores the UK's role following the UN resolution

In effect, there are two air missions to be carried out: one to establish a round-the-clock no-fly zone, and the other to prevent Libyan forces bombarding or approaching Benghazi if the ceasefire fails.

Both operations might require the destruction of some of the Libyan government's air defences, although it is not yet clear whether this would be done at the start of any operation, or only if and when coalition aircraft are engaged by Libyan government radars.

French and British aircraft are certain to be involved in policing the no-fly zone, though Paris and London will be keen for Arab air force involvement as well, even if mainly in support roles. It's thought Qatar and the UAE are the most likely to join the coalition.

The goal of the UN resolution was to get a ceasefire and halt the fighting, so the shock effect seems to have worked - for now, at least. It has demonstrated to Col Gaddafi and his forces that the outside world is serious about preventing harm to Libyan civilians.

This crisis in Libya and recent events across the Middle East may well help the RAF, which had to fight its corner in the British government's strategic defence and security review in October, and is currently doing so again, with further MoD cuts apparently needing to be made for 2011-12.

The RAF had feared losing more of its Tornado GR4 fleet in order to save up to £300m a year, and may now be able to argue a stronger case for keeping them on.

Nimrod R1s are also showing how crucial they are in a reconnaissance role, while the Sentinel R1 - scheduled to be scrapped by early 2015 in the review, once their role in Afghanistan is finished - is also again proving its worth.

Many in defence have already expressed their regret about the loss of HMS Ark Royal and the Harriers.

Some will now be wondering whether the Libya crisis could call more of the strategic defence and security review's conclusions into question, and perhaps even prompt a fresh look at the UK's military assets.

Some analysts question whether a government wishing to take a leading role on the world stage can afford to lose yet more military capability and personnel at a time when world events are proving more unpredictable than ever.

More on this story