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21st Feb 2024

Nato commander: EU could not do Libya without US

Last year's Nato operation in Libya, code named Unified Protector, is unlikely to have succeeded without US military support.

Nato major-general Marcel Druart, addressing the European Parliament committee on security and defence on Tuesday (20 March), said Nato relied heavily on US military expertise on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

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  • EU allies in Nato lack US-type capacity for air support and ground surveillance (Photo: Defence Images)

ISR involves monitoring airspace and ground movement, with information relayed back to Nato allies to conduct bombing raids.

The entire Nato operation was conducted from sea and by air with some 9,700 strike sorties launched from March until the war officially ended end at one minute before midnight on 31 October 2011. No Nato ground troops were officially deployed on Libyan territory.

"ISR is not just a force multiplier, it is critical in the planning and execution," said the general. "European allies provided most of the assets but only the United States could offer these capabilities. The EU needs to ensure that similar capabilities are available."

Rekying on just a dozen or so US predator drones, or unmanned aerial aircraft, Nato allies were able to distinguish between rebels and Gaddafi’s army. Europe lacks similar military technical capacity and skilled personnel to operate such equipment, said the general.

The shortcoming was highlighted by Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on 12 March in Copenhagen, who said the Libyan operation pointed to "significant shortfalls in a range of European capabilities - from smart munitions, to air-to-air refuelling, and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance."

Such capabilities and support were in Libya mostly provided by the US military, including the air-to-air refuelling.

Prohibitively high costs currently deter EU countries from individually pursuing an American-model ISR system, a spokesperson from Nato told EUobserver.

"It's not just the costs of the drones themselves that is expensive ....Costs include flight control, training, a command control network, and satellite networking," he noted.

Nato allies instead plan to create an alliance ground surveillance system and will pool their resources to pay for and then share the system in what Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen describes as an example of "smart defence".

The project was approved in February and should improve military inter-operability of Nato allies as well as making them more independent from the US in future operations.

Meanwhile, Nato's chain of command could also improve, indicated major-general Druart.

"There is the military machine on one hand and the political-military machine in Brussels," he said, explaining that to achieve a consensus among 28 nations is not always easy and takes a relatively long time.

He added that the Libyan operation showed the importance of working with non-Nato countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries contributed to the offensive.

France sponsored Qatar and the United States sponsored the United Arab Emirates in the Libyan operations. Militaries in both countries are largely equipped with European and American hardware and both are trained by Europeans and Americans.

Druart confirmed reports that Qatar authorities circulated weapons in Libya.

The Qatari initiative to hand out the weapons was unilateral, he noted. "What [has now] happened to these armaments, I can't tell you," he said.

Nato took command of all military operations for Libya on 31 March 2011. While no Nato soldiers were killed or injured, experts believe anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 civilians lost their lives in the conflict.

Correction: the story originally described Nato's alliance ground surveillance system as its 'smart defence'. In fact, the system is only an example of Nato's 'smart defence'

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