Nato in Libya: Mission accomplished?

Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiya in this March 20, 2011 file photo
Image caption Nato believes the precision of its air strikes is key to the success of its mission

From the outset of operations over Libya, Nato commanders have made it clear to politicians exactly what an air campaign can and cannot deliver. Their mission is not yet accomplished.

Experience from the Balkans and Iraq has shown the extraordinary capabilities of modern air power, but also its limitations.

The UN Security Council resolution that cleared the way for the use of force to protect civilians in Libya ruled out the deployment of foreign troops. The ground battle has been fought by the Libyan rebels themselves; their limited capabilities leading to a sporadic and long drawn-out campaign.

'Steady erosion'

While there is no definitive evidence to prove their presence, it would be naive to imagine that there has been no foreign help, be it special forces from some Western nations; contracted advisers - possibly ex-Western military personnel - or assistance from elsewhere the region, notably from Qatar.

Image caption A surge in Nato air activity preceded the rebel advance on Tripoli

Eyes on the ground are often essential in this kind of campaign. It is clear too that a rudimentary exchange of information was established between Nato and the rebel forces to try to reduce the chances of them being accidentally hit in air strikes.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in the course of this campaign Nato air power has been decisive. On the one hand, over days, weeks and months, it has steadily eroded Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's military machine. Air defences, tanks and armoured vehicles, command centres and ammunition dumps have been systematically destroyed.

Over time this steady erosion has taken effect, fundamentally limiting the Gaddafi regime's ability to use its one great advantage - formal military power.

But it is equally clear that in the days preceding the rebel advance on Tripoli there was a significant surge or ramping up of Nato air activity. So the rebel success did not come as a surprise to Nato commanders.

Pushing the boundaries

A tour of the air bases used by the Royal Air Force in Italy shows how the success of the air campaign has rested on three key elements.

First, the capacity to put together a complex and detailed intelligence picture of what is happening on the ground. This fuses together video, still images, and other data obtained from a variety of sources, including the targeting pods under the wings of fast jets; unmanned aerial vehicles; and larger aircraft operating off the Libyan coast like the RAF and Nato Awacs with their huge on-board radars

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Media captionCol Roland Lavoie: "Tripoli is still the site of numerous clashes"

Second, air commanders believe the use of new precision munitions and tactics have reduced the chances of unwanted damage to people or buildings.

Generally this has involved the use of smaller warheads with less explosive effect but with great accuracy.

At the Italy air bases there are plenty of images of snipers being swept off the roof of buildings by the blast wave from bombs that burst in the air, with the building itself remaining largely undamaged. In other cases weapons can be fused to bury in the ground before exploding, thus limiting the radius of the blast.

For all the imagery of successful strikes, the care taken in planning and executing missions, and the claims made for modern weapons systems, it must be said that the true extent of civilian casualties will become clear only when a detailed analysis can be made after the fighting ends.

Third, there is the extraordinary logistical capacity that has been deployed in the southern Mediterranean region, ranging from ground crews, spares and airborne tankers, that together keep the air campaign aloft.

Nato commanders believe that the capabilities available in this campaign have enabled them to push the boundaries of what can be achieved by air power. Nonetheless, it is still events on the ground that will determine Libya's fate.