Libya military operation: Who should command?

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Media captionPresident Obama defended the coalition operation in Libya

When Britain and France presented themselves as prime movers in the military operation over Libya, many wondered if they might be in command. It was, after all, French aircraft that fired the first shots.

Yet it was the US that was inevitably going to be the key military player in the opening phase, bringing crucial capabilities to bear for the destruction of Libya's fixed air defences.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday that Washington expected to turn over control of the operation to a coalition headed by France, Britain or Nato "in a matter of days".

But this is not proving so simple.

For the moment the coalition mission is being commanded from a US base in Germany by the Pentagon's Africa Command.

This is located in Stuttgart and its air component is at the US air force base of Ramstein - also in Germany.

Military command is a matter of practicalities but also of politics.

The command headquarters has to have all of the facilities and the communications to be able to mount and control an operation in the first place.

That is why, when any military action is envisaged, the job is best done by an existing, functioning headquarters.

Nato divisions

For an complex multi-national mission like the Libyan operation the obvious candidates would be Nato - which, for example, commanded the operation to eject Serbian forces from Bosnia - or an established US headquarters like Centcom - which ran the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.

North Africa falls into Africom's area of responsibility, so it was the obvious choice.

Africom as its known, is one of six regionally-orientated US commands. It was established in 2007, a sign of Washington's growing security interest in the African continent.

The original intention was to locate it in an African country, though in the end that proved impossible to arrange. It grew out of the Pentagon's European Command so Europe is where it stayed.

In time the US clearly hopes to move towards a more supporting role, with the focus on its intelligence gathering assets and so on.

But what can take Africom's place?

Speaking in the House of Commons the British Prime Minister David Cameron has clearly registered his preference. He noted that he wanted to see the "transfer to a Nato command, using Nato machinery. It's tried and tested", he said, adding: "It works, it brings people together and it has operated no-fly zones before."

But Nato has its problems too. One of the reasons that it could not command from the outset is that its member nations had not yet reached agreement to do so. Turkey, for one is very uneasy, not least because of scope of the operation.

But other countries have reservations too.

Norway has said that the six fighter jets it contributed will not take any action as long as it remains unclear which country is going to command the multi-national force.

And Italy has warned that it will review the use of its bases by coalition forces unless Nato takes command.

Arab League hesitations

Nato military planning has moved ahead on a contingency basis. But as yet there has been no political green light. "Informal consultations are continuing," is all Nato is saying at the moment.

There is another political problem with Nato. It was Arab League support for a no-fly zone that was crucial to the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1973.

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Media captionRAF Typhoon jets took off for their first mission in Libya on Monday evening

Since then, with signs of some hesitancy from the Arab League's leader Amr Moussa, (he now says he fully backs the no-fly zone) there has been an urgent effort to get contingents from Arab air forces into the operation.

Qatar has agreed to take part, with the United Arab Emirates expected to join too. Qatar could operate a small number of its French-built Mirage jets alongside French aircraft. But Arab governments are thought to be uneasy about Nato command, given that Nato is heavily engaged in Afghanistan - a controversial operation for many Arab countries.

"The Arab League does not wish the operation to be entirely placed under Nato responsibility," says Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister. But even he accepts that a Nato role may eventually be necessary.

The most likely outcome is a kind of half-way house.

Michael Clark, director of the Royal United Services Institute in London puts it this way: "Giving the command to another Nato nation, but still using the Nato command structure, would make good political and military sense," he says, not least because this operation is taking place just across the Mediterranean where there are few logistical challenges.

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