THE comforting idea that Muammar Qaddafi might go relatively gently into that good night like his more conventional autocratic neighbours has been dashed. Instead the Libyan dictator seems determined to follow the poet’s advice by burning, raving and raging against the dying of the light. It would be bad enough if Mr Qaddafi were merely determined to kill as many of his fellow citizens as possible before quickly succumbing to his own end. But the prospect is for something even worse: either a stalemate that allows Mr Qaddafi the time he needs to re-establish his authority in the east of the country; or a bloody civil war with an uncertain outcome and the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Which is why after much pious rhetoric in Western capitals about Mr Qaddafi’s growing illegitimacy, there is now urgent discussion of what kind of practical assistance could be extended to the rebels. However, after a flurry of excitement on February 28th when the British prime minister, David Cameron, told parliament that he had asked “the chief of the defence staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone”, the following day, Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, warned about the dangers of military intervention in another Muslim country. Mr Gates announced he was sending two naval vessels towards Libya, an amphibious assault ship, USS Kearsarge, and an amphibious dry dock, USS Ponce, but with the aim of providing humanitarian assistance.
At this point there are many objections to the use of force by outsiders to remove Mr Qaddafi. Foreign intervention would not be popular with Libya's opposition. There is so little intelligence about what is happening on the ground that it would be hard to distinguish friends from foes. America has both theoretical and practical objections to using force: it does not want to divert resources from Afghanistan and is in no rush to resume toppling Arab dictators.
Nevertheless, the option of creating a no-fly zone may yet gain ground. Mr Qaddafi’s 18,000-strong air force with its 13 bases is a critical element in his bid to hold on to power. The regime’s use of ground attack jets against its enemies may have been exaggerated—they are hardly the weapon of choice for street-fighting.
But of much greater use to him are his 30 or so attack helicopters (Russian Mi-25s and Mi-35s) and his substantial aerial transport capacity. These comprise seven squadrons equipped with Russian 23 An-26s, 25 IL-76s and 15 C-130s. He also has a heavy transport helicopter squadron with four Boeing Chinooks and a medium transport squadron with Soviet-era 35 Mi-8s and Mi-17s which can also be used as gun-ships. According to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the transport squadrons are by some measure the most effective part of the Libyan air force.
Mr Qaddafi’s ability to move reinforcements rapidly around the vast country has already proved important. According to intelligence estimates, far from being the delusional loon he affects to be, the Libyan leader has been preparing for the situation he finds himself in today for many years. Unlike the well-equipped, albeit poorly run, air force, the nominally 50,000-strong Libyan army (most of whom are conscripts) has long been distrusted by the regime and kept on short rations. In contrast, Mr Qaddafi and his sons have built up a paramilitary force of some 20,000 well-armed and well-drilled tribesmen loyal to their clan and supplemented by handsomely paid mercenaries from Chad and Niger.
It was tribal militiamen ferried by air from the Sahara who were dropped into the streets of Tripoli on February 21st and who bloodily cowed resistance in the capital. A few days later air transport was crucial again to Mr Qaddafi’s plan to recapture the coastal towns close to Tripoli from rebel hands. Both Zawiya and Misurata still appear to be controlled by the opposition after assaults by heavily armed forces loyal to the regime were repelled on February 28th. But Mr Qaddafi’s forces have surrounded the towns and cut off the road links to Tripoli.
A further concern for the opposition is that any attempt it makes to move its own forces along the 1,000km coast road to Tripoli from its stronghold in Benghazi will be highly vulnerable to air attack. There were also reports on February 28th of Libyan warplanes flying over Benghazi as if to warn the rebels they could be bombed at any time and of an attack on an arms depot 160km to the south either by jets or helicopters that had been seized by the opposition.
At present, without clear leadership, the rebels appear divided about whether they actually want an American/NATO no-fly zone. Some say that Western help would tarnish their revolutionary credentials and besides they hope (perhaps a little naively) that a combination of defecting air force pilots and planes seized on the ground will soon give them the ability to launch air attacks of their own. Buoyed by their early spectacular gains and the large number of army defections in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, they may, however, have over-estimated the ability of popular momentum to deliver victory over the whole country. Others realise that without help from Western air power they could be sitting ducks. On March 1st, the newly created revolutionary council was reportedly considering a request to the United Nations for air strikes against some of the regime’s military assets.
Without a no-fly zone the anti-Qaddafi revolution could yet stumble and fail. However, while the West has plenty of experience in policing no-fly zones, they are neither easy to put into effect nor guaranteed to prevent large-scale killing on the ground. Although Saddam Hussein was deterred from taking terrible retribution on the Kurds after the first Gulf war by the no-fly zone in the north, a similar attempt to neuter the Iraqi air force in the south was much less successful in curbing his brutalities against the Shi’ite population. It is also worth recalling that the no-fly zone over Bosnia did not stop the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, while, if anything, the NATO bombing of Serbia four years later accelerated ethnic killings in Kosovo.
If a no-fly zone over Libya is to be established, it looks as if it will have to be through another “coalition of the willing” rather than with the blessing of a UN Security Council resolution which would probably be opposed by both Russia and China. In the first instance, planes flying from an American carrier, probably the USS Enterprise, could establish the no-fly zone, but land bases, such as the well-positioned US Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily or a similar facility at Souda Bay in Crete, would soon be needed to sustain a long campaign. And while enforcement of a no-fly zone is not especially complicated once everything is in place, it does require both careful planning and adequate resources (a fleet of around a hundred fighter jets, aerial refuelling, airborne warning and control, robust data links between coalition aircraft, rescue arrangements for any pilots shot done).
In establishing the no-fly zone, coalition aircraft would first have to nullify Libyan air defences, which include nearly 100 Mig-25s and 15 Mirage F-1s equipped with still-capable Soviet era air-to-air missiles and a huge arsenal of Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that come in all shapes and sizes. It is unlikely, however, that either Mr Qaddafi’s pilots would fare any better than the similarly equipped, but better trained, Iraqis who failed to shoot down a single allied aircraft in 11 years of no-fly zone patrolling. But military experts, including Lieutenant General David Deptula, a former fighter pilot who until recently oversaw air force intelligence at the Pentagon, believe Libya has succeeded in acquiring more up-to-date SAMs in the past few years than were available to Iraq and that these could pose a serious threat to allied aircraft.
Before going ahead with a no-fly zone over Libya, the allies (America and Britain perhaps joined by France and Italy) would have to ask themselves two more questions. The first is how long they are prepared to stick at it if Mr Qaddafi manages to hang on. The second is what degree of “mission creep” they are prepared to contemplate. A no-drive zone to prevent the regime from using the full weight of its ground forces against the rebels might be a next step. The prospect of an open-ended, possibly escalating military commitment without UN sanction is hardly a welcome one.
Getting rid of a burning, raving and raging Mr Qaddafi may prove a lot more difficult both for the brave Libyan opposition and their anxious well-wishers in the West than was hoped only a few days ago.
SO THE rumours that EADS had managed to gain an edge over its rival, Boeing, on price in the long and bitter contest to supply the United States Air Force with a new generation of aerial re-fuelling tankers turned out to be wide of the mark. On February 24th the secretary for the air force, Michael Donley, announced that the home team had after all beaten the European defence firm that also owns Airbus to win a $35 billion contract to replace the 1950s-era Boeings (pictured above) that currently do the job.
It should not have come as a surprise, because this was a competition decided more by politics than the capabilities of the two aircraft on offer. In 2008 EADS and its then-partner in America, Northrop Grumman, pulled off a shock victory when its KC-45 triumphed over Boeing’s 767-based alternative. The air force had preferred the bigger plane based on the much more modern Airbus A330 mainly because of its ability to shift more fuel and other payloads. It was also in many ways a less risky option because the aircraft actually existed (see picture, below) and had been picked by other air forces, while Boeing’s offering, even now, will not make its first flight until 2015. There was also little difference in the number of American jobs that either plane would secure: about 50,000.
But amid howls of rage on its behalf from (mainly) Democratic members of Congress, Boeing refused to take defeat lying down and exercised its right to protest at the award, coming up with 110 complaints about a bidding process that had been unusually fair and transparent (in part because of a scandal six years earlier when Boeing had first bid but had been disqualified on grounds of criminal collusion with an air-force official). The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, upheld seven of them. With a presidential election looming, the Pentagon decided to kick the can down the road.
In September 2009 the air force duly issued a new draft Request for Proposals (RFP) that, by making price the main criterion for selection, effectively undermined the case for the KC-45. A Northrop executive condemned it as a “lowest-common-denominator approach designed to favour a less capable, smaller aircraft by turning the contest into a cost shoot-out”. Unless the RFP changed Northrop, he said, would pull out of the bidding, which it duly did in March last year. At the time, I wrote a piece with the provocative headline of “The best plane loses”. It attracted a huge number of venomously furious e-mails, accusing The Economist of bias, ignorance and probably being in the pay of EADS. Quite a few of the correspondents had direct connections with Boeing.
As it happened, EADS was not ready to throw in the towel and it tried hard to find another American partner to help it carry on the fight. But one of the firm’s most senior executives told me that fears of possible political retribution had meant that no big defence company was willing to raise its head above the parapet. Even so, EADS soldiered on, partly because it still believed that the combination of its plane’s superiority and much lower procurement risk might still prevail, partly because it calculated that the campaign would help to establish its credentials as a serious competitor in America whatever the outcome.
In the end, Northrop’s concerns proved fully justified. Boeing’s offer came in more than 1% lower than that of EADS, which meant that the air force could bypass a set of 96 non-mandatory requirements that could have tipped the balance the other way. Another factor in the Boeing plane’s favour was its lower fuel burn—a direct consequence of the KC-45’s 25% higher maximum take-off weight. EADS may still find grounds to protest and says it is studying the air force’s reasons for its decision closely. Whether it would be wise to do so is another matter. As for Boeing, its persistence and political clout has paid off, but it will be under pressure now to execute flawlessly, something it has struggled to do in recent years.
YESTERDAY'S formal passing of the baton from the outgoing Israeli Defence Force chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gaby Ashkenazi, to his successor, Major General Benny Gantz, is unlikely to mark the end of a very public squabble between past and present generals that is extraordinary even by Israeli standards. Having just returned to England from a spending a week in Israel, I am still trying to disentangle what lies behind the apparently poisonous and no-holds-barred personal rivalries at the heart of the country’s defence establishment.
Without going into too much detail, the first choice of the defence minister, Ehud Barak (backed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), to succeed Mr Ashkenazi was Major General Yoav Galant. There were rumours that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak wanted Mr Galant because he was the most gung-ho of the top brass about attacking Iran’s nuclear installations, something Mr Ashkenazi had feared would trigger a new Middle East war. But Mr Galant also became a controversial pick for other reasons, after allegations were made against him involving the seizure of public land near his home in Moshav Amicam. A fortnight ago, after a thorough investigation, the attorney-general concluded that his findings raised "significant legal difficulties" for the decision to appoint Mr Galant. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak decided to drop Mr Galant and replace him with the more consensual figure of Mr Gantz, who had been deputy chief of the IDF until his retirement in November.
Other controversies surrounding the appointment of a new chief of staff have been gleefully reported in the local press. In early August a document surfaced that appeared to show how Mr Galant intended to get the top job in the IDF by “presenting a negative image” of his rival, Mr Gantz. It subsequently emerged, however, that the document was a fake. Boaz Harpaz, a retired lieutenant-colonel who was a close associate of Mr Ashkenazi, has been charged with forging the document. It is also alleged in a book called “The Pit”, published this week by two journalists, that Mr Harpaz operated from 2010 as a spy in Mr Barak's office for Mr Ashkenazi, who had become convinced that the defence minister was trying to destroy him. The IDF has refuted these allegations.
Mr Ashkenazi is seen by many Israelis as having restored the morale and fighting efficiency of the IDF in the aftermath of the troubled 2006 Lebanon campaign, while Mr Barak is given little credit. Mr Ashkenazi also ran a slick PR operation designed to polish his image at every opportunity, while Mr Barak’s political fortunes, as an increasingly semi-detached leader of the Labour Party, slumped. No wonder there was jealousy, or that Mr Barak and Mr Ashkenazi fell out, particularly when Mr Barak moved to deny Mr Ashkenazi another year in office.
Fractious relationships between defence ministers and IDF chiefs of staff are nothing new in Israel. In the early 1990s, when Mr Barak was himself the IDF chief of staff, he clashed with Moshe Arens, the defence minister, over whether authority for preparing against an attack from Iraq should lie within the army or the ministry. More recently Shaul Mofaz faced bitter resistance from the then chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, to the government’s plan for disengagement from Gaza. Mr Ya’alon is vice-prime minister in the current government.
It is unlikely that anyone will come out of the present farrago of accusation and counter-accusation looking good. The core of the problem is the very special role that the IDF and its generals have in Israeli society. Occasionally derided for their failings, but more often worshipped for their achievements, Israel’s generals become household names and popular heroes in a way that is unimaginable in most liberal democracies. So it is not surprising that they are so frequently tempted to enter politics when they retire, sometimes with the mud (or sand) still fresh on their boots. Whether it is entirely healthy is another matter.
THE mood at the 11th annual Herzliya conference, where Israel’s top policymakers come to debate strategy and diplomacy with invited international experts, is understandably twitchy. The events in Egypt hang over the conference like the threatening grey clouds. And yesterday those clouds unleashed a savage hailstorm, in the form of a stinging attack on the Netanyahu government by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who now leads Israel’s fragmented opposition. Nobody here claims that they saw the upheaval in Egypt coming, and few think that President Hosni Mubarak's regime will be replaced by one that Israel will find anything like as easy to live with.
Members of the government have taken a vow of silence not to comment, even off the record, on the unfolding situation in Egypt. But if you talk to people here privately, they suggest there are three possible scenarios. The first (intended to sound incredible) is that Israel’s biggest neighbour will be transformed into a peaceable, pluralist democracy. The second is that Egypt will become something like Turkey, either with an army-dominated government as in the past or with a government a bit like the present one in Ankara that has a quite a strong Islamist flavour (either more or less intense, depending on the role within it of the Muslim Brotherhood). The third is that something similar to the Iranian revolution in 1979 is played out “with dramatic consequences”. If the third scenario were to be realised, the psychological impact on Israel will be such that any conceivable land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians will have to be accompanied by much more rigorous security arrangements on the ground. That said, the emergence of a moderately Islamist government that remained committed to peace with Israel could, after the initial shock, prove quite positive.
Perhaps inevitably, the turmoil in Egypt is only entrenching people here in their existing positions. The right is saying that it goes to show how quickly things can change in the unstable Arab world. Even if you could do a deal with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who anyway only speaks for half the Palestinians, how confident can you be that the peace would hold? For its part, the pro-peace camp says that the situation in Egypt means that there may be only a narrow window to get a settlement negotiated and that a new urgency is required. Realistically, few people here expect this Israeli government to do very much given Mr Netanyahu’s dependence on the support of parties ideologically hostile to the whole idea of “land for peace”.
Yet neither the possibility of an Egyptian repudiation of the 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel nor the remote prospect of progress on the Palestinian front are the biggest security concerns among those at the Herzliya. Iran’s nukes are still seen as the overwhelming existential threat to Israel, but the difficulties that the Iranian nuclear programme is thought to be having, thanks to tighter sanctions and the disruptive effects of the Stuxnet computer virus, are widely believed to have pushed the timeline for acquiring a bomb out to at least a couple of years from now. And that may be affecting the strategic calculus of at least some within the Iranian leadership.
A veteran of the Sharon and Olmert governments suggested to me that if only America was prepared to do as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested last year—and impose on Iran the kind of far-reaching sanctions that have applied to Cuba for half a century—the regime in Tehran, which is already under severe economic pressure, would not last for more than 12 months. The fact that the Castro brothers are still in power seems not to weaken the argument. Generally speaking, there’s a view here that America needs to get more serious about regime change in Iran, as that may be the only thing that will lead to any alteration in the country’s determination to press on with becoming a nuclear power able to bully the region. As usual, however, the details of how to do it are a bit sketchy.
Of more immediate concern even than the menace of a nuclear Iran is the growing threat from Lebanon since Hizbullah’s bloodless coup last month. With up to 50,000 missiles of increasing accuracy and technological sophistication having been supplied by Syria and Iran, government sources here claim that the Shiite guerrilla force (which for most practical purposes should now be regarded as Lebanon’s real army) has around four times the missile power it had when it unleashed 4,000 projectiles at Israel during the bloody five-week war in 2006. The Israeli military believes that Hizbullah has also learned lessons from the conflict in Gaza two years ago and that in any future confrontation IDF soldiers will sustain significantly more severe casualties.
Despite large investments in anti-missile defences with the help of the Americans, there are fears that Tel Aviv is still vulnerable to attack from salvoes of 200km-range Zelzal II guided missiles fired from south Lebanon and cruder devices, such as the 50km-range Fajr-5 missile, that could be launched by Hamas from Gaza in the event of hostilities. In a speech yesterday General Gabi Ashkenazi, the outgoing chief of the IDF general staff, warned that while Hizbullah and Hamas could not take territory, the battlefield had now shifted to the home front. No missile shield can be fully effective, especially when the missiles fired cost a tiny fraction of the interceptors used to stop them. Israel will still need superior intelligence and the ability to put boots on the ground to defend itself.
Israelis often feel the need to remind their critical European and American friends that they live in a pretty tough neighbourhood. Special criticism among most of the people you meet at Herzliya is reserved for Barack Obama. After the row over settlement building, which many Israelis thought was the wrong fight to pick, and what is seen here as shameless flipflopping by the administration over the fate of Mr Mubarak, the kindest description of the president you will hear in Herzliya is that he is naïve. Others are harsher, saying that he is a serial blunderer who is presiding over a rapid waning of American power and influence within the region. In particular, there is both puzzlement and anger over what is seen as the very public betrayal of Mr Mubarak, which, it is claimed, will cause every moderate Arab government to review its security relationship with America. As one source puts it: “They could have told him in private that his time was up, while sticking outwardly to a position of neutrality. But by saying they supported all the aims of the protesters and telling Mubarak he must go immediately, they took a very serious, very dangerous risk.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post got the names of its missile-defence systems in a twist. This has now been fixed.
LAST month we asked our readers to suggest a name for our new blog, covering defence, security and diplomacy. The very first suggestion, from a user called Tzimisces, also proved to be clear favourite among other readers: Clausewitz. Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz was, of course, a great Prussian military strategist of the early 19th century and the author of "On War", a classic book on strategy that is still studied today. Clausewitz perfectly fits the bill as the name for this blog because of his famous observation that one way to consider war is as "the continuation of politics by other means". But that is not the only way to think of it: Clausewitz declared that war should be considered from an instinctive, an analytical and a political point of view in order to be understood properly. Similarly, this blog will consider a range of interconnected defence-related subjects, from the technical details of new weapons to spy spats and diplomatic negotiations.
Some readers thought Clausewitz was too obvious a choice of name; but sometimes the obvious choice is the right one. Others objected that Clausewitz's book is more owned than read, because it is deeply tedious. But even if you are not a fan of his writing (and 19th-century German can be impenetrable to modern readers, including native German speakers), it is difficult to think of a more suitable alternative. Dreadnought was a popular choice, since dreadnought battleships were as much tools of diplomacy as weapons, but we felt it was too British. There was also support for Machiavelli (not military enough); various classical names (but only Athena, the goddess of warfare, wisdom and strategy, combined military and political aspects); and a selection of British generals and foreign secretaries (but we wanted a more international flavour). So in the end Clausewitz carried the day.
Update 9/2: Thank you for your comments. Several readers have pointed out that Clausewitz refers to war as "the continuation of politics by other means" in the course of his discussion of the nature of war, which he considers in several different ways before arriving at the rather more nuanced conclusion that war is the combination of a "trinity" of tendencies, of which politics is only one element. We stand corrected; the text above has been amended accordingly. Readers who wish to see the original context of the quote are invited to consult Clausewitz's original text (English translation).
In this blog, our correspondents provide reporting and analysis on the subjects of defence, security and diplomacy, covering weapons and warfare, spooks and cyber-attacks, diplomats and dead-drops. The blog is named after Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian soldier and military theorist whose classic work, "On War", is still widely studied today.