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25th Jan 2021

Former UK air chief wary of Libya strikes

Lord Stirrup, a former British air chief, has warned that the UK and France need a clear objective on what to do with Colonel Gaddafi before launching air strikes on Libya.

Speaking to EUobserver by phone on Wednesday (16 March) ahead of a UN Security Council vote on Libya in New York, Lord Stirrup, who commanded the British air force from 2003 to 2006, said: "Before you start using military force you need to know what is the objective. Is it the removal of Gaddafi? If Yes, then clearly a no-fly zone is just one element in a long list of other elements. If it's to protect Libyan civilians, I would say: 'From what? For how long?'"

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  • A British Harrier jet preparing for take-off (Photo: Defence Images)

"As far as I can see there is no consensus, not even a growing body of opinion within international circles, not even within the EU, about what the objective would actually be," he added.

Lord Stirrup noted that any massacre of civilians in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi would likely be carried out by Gaddafi ground forces, which could not be stopped with air strikes alone.

"You couldn't intervene very successfully from the air. You could only intervene decisively on the ground. But then you are getting drawn into someone else's civil war ... What if there is a long-term stand-off between the east and west of Libya? Are we to engage in a long-term no-fly zone as we did with Iraq?" he noted.

"You must never go into these things thinking plan A is going to work. You need to think through what we call the branches and sequels," he explained.

"You have to have a clear legal basis from the international community which extends to details such as rules of engagement and how many casualties we are prepared to accept. You owe this to people if you are going to ask them to use lethal force."

The retired pilot, who saw active service in the Dhofar War in Oman in the 1970s, also warned that Libya has an unknown quantity of Russian-made shoulder-launched (SAM)-7 surface-to-air missiles, which can shoot down jets below 15,000 feet.

"It's not a show-stopper, but it's a significant risk," he said.

A French military source, who asked not be named, said the Libyan air-force itself would not pose a threat.

Libya currently has just one active French-made Mirage jet, around 30 antiquated Russian Su 22 fighters, a handful of Russian Mig 23 planes most of which are too old to fly and some attack helicopters. They also have French-made Crotale anti-aircraft missiles but the French military can "activate switches" to jam the rockets.

The French contact said the UK and France would need to destroy Libyan radar and anti-aircraft stations and to keep two jets, such as Mirage 2000 or Rafale fighters, in the air over Libya 24 hours a day to impose a no-fly zone.

The planes could be launched from the Sigonella base in Sicily, from Malta or from the Solenzara base in Corsica. They would need support from AWACS planes and anti-aircraft frigates to jam Libyan signals, as well as re-fuelling aircraft.

Ambassadors from the 15-member UN Security Council will in New York on Wednesday debate and potentially vote on a joint British-French-Lebanese proposal on military intervention in Libya.

The draft resolution, seen by EUobserver: "Decides to establish a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahariya in order to help protect civilians ... [and] authorises member states to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban."

At least nine Council members need to back the text and none of the five veto-wielding powers must oppose it in order for it to get through.

Council members Germany and China (a veto power) have spoken out against air strikes. Italy is not a Council member, but its foreign minister, Franco Frattini, earlier on Wednesday told the Italian senate that: "The international community should not and in my opinion does not want to take military action."

One EU diplomat said that with Colonel Gaddafi rapidly advancing on Benghazi and with no possibility to get a no-fly zone in place before the end of March in logistical terms, the Anglo-British UN push is only a "warning" to Gaddafi to show restraint.

France believes the UN resolution would give it the green light to launch "targeted strikes" against Gaddafi targets immediately, however.

It also believes that Italy is opposed to intervention on the ground, but not from the air. "We can neutralise its air assets in targeted strikes ... several Arab countries have assured us they would participate," French foreign minister Alain Juppe wrote in his blog on Wednesday.

For his part, Colonel Gaddafi in a pugnacious speech to supporters in Tripoli on Tuesday taunted the French. "Strike Libya? ... We'll be the one who strikes you. We struck you in Algeria, in Vietnam," he said, Reuters reports.

His son, Saif al-Islam, in an interview with the Euronews TV channel on Wednesday said he will publish records showing that Gaddafi money funded French President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign.

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