What do you do with your overpriced, non-combat tested and extremely unpopular Rafale and Eurofighter jets that no country in their right mind is willing to buy? You demonstrate their capabilities in an especially tailored war for everyone to see! Right now, France, followed by the UK, Canada and Norway, have started test driving those machines in an ongoing air campaign against Libya’s Russian-type tanks, aging air defenses and rapidly decaying air force.
Setting the stage
Following on the steps of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s popular uprisings, a group of Libyan insurgents tried to break free from the iron rule of long term dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. However, unlike Tunisia’s Ben Ali who fled the country right at the beginning of the unrest, and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who was forced to step down without putting much of a fight, Gaddafi stood his ground and the revolt fizzled.
Gaddafi never lost control of the capital Tripoli, and retained control over much of his country. Only in Benghazi, the other big city in the East, were the insurgents able to retreat at first. After a couple of days of this stand off, Gaddafi ordered his air force to bomb an arms and ammunition depot there, effectively depriving his opponents from gaining further access to heavy weaponry.
However, despite its obvious military superiority, the Gaddafi regime wasn’t able to regain control of Benghazi; at least not as fast as analysts would have expected. Getting nervous, Gaddafi ordered air strikes against hot pockets of resistance. Those strikes were apparently quite effective, and managed to demoralize the insurgency in Benghazi. The rebels would probably have surrendered by now, if it was not for them being mortally terrified of Gaddafi’s desire for vengeance and retribution.
At this point, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy floated the idea of a no-fly-zone over Libya to deny Gaddafi’s air force access to the Benghazi rebels. He lobbied heavily for this concept, and managed to secure a declaration by the Arab League favoring no-fly zones over Libya.
Sarkozy’s relentless lobbying bore fruits shortly after that. On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1973, legitimizing the use of (air) force against Libya (but no boots on the ground). Most surprisingly, Libya’s long term ally Russia didn’t veto the resolution, nor did China: both countries abstained, together with India, Brazil, and Germany.
Without much ado, everything was fast tracked from then on. On March 19, 2011, Sarkozy announced the beginning of the war against both Libyan air force and tanks… and proudly told that Rafale aircraft have already prevented Gaddafi from attacking Benghazi.
The air campaign of France and some (but not all) other NATO countries is in progress right now, as I’m writing this.
Looking behind the stage
The real reason for France’s (and the UK’s) eagerness to attack Libya at this point is probably neither humanitarian concerns with the rebels, nor a particular hatred of Gaddafi and his antics, but the desire to promote France’s Rafale and UK/Germany’s Eurofighter combat jets by throwing them in a real combat situation.
First of all, there are other conflicts in the world, where rebels are being subject to the wrath of dictators, to which neither France nor the UK gave but a single thought. Secondly, after having given up his ambitions to build nukes, Gaddafi was soon again the darling of UK and US diplomats and governments. And third, Gaddafi and Sarkozy seemed to understand each other quite well, during Gaddafi’s visit in Paris just a couple of years ago.
Protecting the rebels (or, as the French have put it, “to assist the Libyan People”) is but a cover story for the real issue we’re facing here, and that is a story of weaponry marketing gone bad.
When Sarkozy was elected President, he set out to sell Dassault Rafale fighter jets to France’s closest allies, but was turned down everywhere he went. On his first stop, Algeria turned his jets down, because the Algerians were pretty much up in arms against his anti-Arab pre-electoral rhetoric and his saying that (french) colonialism didn’t have only negative consequences for the colonized countries. Tunisia didn’t have money to burn and turned down his offer for Rafales. Libya wasn’t too hot either, and didn’t bite. Morocco, angry with Sarkozy, because he visited their arch enemy Algeria first, and not really happy with the extremely high price tag of the Rafale used a big grant from Saudi Arabia to secure 24 F-16 Block/52 from the US instead.
Sarkozy’s Rafale woes went on and on, and many other countries turned the French offer down. Most of them were concerned that this modern aircraft was 1/ overpriced, 2/ not combat tested.
The Eurofighter did fare slightly better than the Rafale, as it was integrated in more than just one country’s air force. However, it isn’t an easy sell, because its planning lasted way too long and may thus contain planned obsolescence… and, of course, because it’s like other European gear, overpriced too. That’s why the UK, one of the main users of this type of aircraft, is probably eager to demonstrate its capabilities in the ongoing Libyan air campaign.
Lessons to learn
To Gaddafi and other leaders in his position, the current dramatic turn of events is an interesting lesson… and this lesson is: to benefit from the protection of a superpower, you must regularly buy their high tech weaponry.
First of all, had Gaddafi bought Rafales from Sarkozy back then in 2008, he could have used those fighter jets against the rebels right now without France saying anything about it. Instead, he’s now being pummeled by those very same machines he refused to buy. Sure, he couldn’t have used those Rafales against France or NATO, because they are certainly equipped with a tamper-proof kill switch, but that was never the point, right?
Secondly, had Gaddafi bought fighter jets from the Russians recently (as Algeria did), Russia would almost certainly have vetoed any UN resolution against him, instead of abstaining and letting him down. The same goes for Chinese tanks and ammo. If you don’t buy from your former weapons suppliers for quite some time, don’t expect them to stay by your side when push comes to shove.
I have no doubts that the countries attacking Gaddafi will prevail in a very short time and with very little own casualties / losses. Their air forces and navies are optimized to quickly win those kinds of military campaigns. As long as there are no boots on the ground that could be drawn into protracted urban warfare, things will go according to plans.
However, as much as the military outcome of the conflict is crystal clear, the middle and long term political consequences aren’t. By helping an opposition that was too weak to overthrow Gaddafi by its own means, and eventually putting that opposition in power, the UN Security Council may have just planted the seeds of a long and murderous civil war in this North African country. Because that eventual change of power wouldn’t have occurred in an “organic way” with the concerned parties duking it out between themselves, the losing party will resort to terrorism and urban warfare, just like what we’ve been witnessing in Iraq in the last couple of years.
Should the current air campaign result in a civil war instead of a peaceful transition of power, all the casualties of such a civil war will be the responsibility of Sarkozy and by extension of the countries of the UN Security Council that authorized 1973 or didn’t actively veto it.
Personally, I’d love to see Gaddafi ousted, rather sooner than later. But the price shouldn’t be a murderous civil war. Libyans are people too: they don’t deserve to live in Iraq v2.0