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Belmont Club

Scorched Earth

March 30th, 2011 - 11:41 am

Aviation Week describes how combat in Libya is being shaped by principally by sensor-weapon fusion, rather than by any cooperation with rebel ground forces.  As matters stand, the rebels are useful principally to lure Khadaffi’s forces out into the open. They are bait.  The more tempting a military target the rebel forces are, the worse for Khadaffi.

The battle being fought along the coast between Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya is beginning to take shape despite the absence of military to military connections between coalition air forces and rebel ground forces.

The coalition monitors, identifies and bombs armored forces on the move, command and control sites, communications and supply lines of the Libyan government. The rebel forces occupy areas vacated by the retreating army. The rebels appear to avoid launching attacks into urban areas occupied by the government, preferring to engage in open areas where government forces can be readily identified.

Once they are out in the open Khadaffi’s forces have no chance. In addition to destroying Libyan military units, the air war has been relentlessly targeting the morale of the Duck’s supporters. “The other trend is non-kinetic — undermining the enthusiasm of Tripoli’s leadership to continue fighting. Inducements include the equivalent of a “get out of jail free card” for defection.” Libya’ officers can buy safety from the coalition by selling information or simply bugging out.

The role of the rebels is apparently to fix Khadaffi’s forces anyplace. The military effect of the rebels is inconsequential. All that matters is that they force the Libyan government units to engage. That automatically creates a logistical tail for Khadaffi’s forces which the air campaign unremittingly destroys. Basically the coalition gets the Khadaffi snake to strike and once its neck has been extended from the hole, they chop it off. It is brutal and probably quite effective.

Rather than plunging into house-to-house fighting to clear towns of government troops, Libyan rebels are fixing government troops in place with attacks on the periphery while edging around the towns under siege. Meanwhile coalition aircraft attack the traffic coming into town carrying supplies, food, weaponry and reinforcements. The rebels save their combat strength by not plunging into built-up urban centers while the government troops become more crippled the longer they stay in place at the end of a tenuous and regularly attacked logistics route. Tripoli’s heavily mechanized troops are more vulnerable to fuel, food and ammunition shortages than the more lightly armed and motorized rebels as long as the latter avoid tightly-packed, urban battlefields.

The US is bringing in even more surveillance assets. Additional P3s, EA-18G and EC-135s are being added to the mix. They are probably going to make sending even barges up the coast a dubious proposition and make any attempts to communicate between units a very dangerous proposition. The object of these is to enforce an internal blockade of Khadaffi’s forces. Soon his forces will be cut off from each other. Then the exhortations to switch sides may start to take effect.

Air is also hunting Khadaffi’s Scuds which might be delivery systems for nerve or bacteriological agents. Why hunt these? As I wrote in the first sentence of Can NATO Topple the Khadaffi Regime, “Yes, if it can impose a blockade lasting several months, is willing to risk to risk the destruction of Libyan oil, and can eventually deploy UAVs over Libya. But the the worst thing they can do is let the fighting drag on, because it will almost inevitably lead to a humanitarian crisis in Libya.”  That captures the two aspects of the unfolding strategy: blockade and defense against Scorched Earth.

Aviation Week’s article precisely describes the blockade, both external and external. The defense against Scuds speaks to the defense against Scorched Earth.  The air coalition is defending against a terror spasm. I wrote in Can NATO Topple the Khadaffi Regime:

Given this scenario, what can Khadaffi do? If he is suicidal and cares nothing for political consequences, he will probably attempt to create a humanitarian crisis as soon as possible. Such oil facilities as he cannot hold or feasibly protect, he may dynamite, in the dirtiest possible way. He can attempt to seize as many hostages from among the remaining Westerners as he possibly can. The Duck can also smash the system which brings water to the coast. Finally, he may unleash one last spasm of terrorism against the West and may, as a final act of self-immolation, blow all the oil facilities in his power before giving them up to the enemy. All of these tactics were used, in one way or the other, either by himself or by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, so they will instantly occur to Khadaffi.

If the pressure is kept up is that the Libyan government will probably fall in the next few weeks without a successor regime. This creates an aspect of the Scorched Earth problem to which the US has no aerial counter. The US will have imploded the Duck’s kingdom without replacing with a known and stable set of leaders. The tribal aspect of Libyan politics will mean that divisions will remain but in a state of irresolution. Together with the physical effects of war and the cutback on its oil exports, this implies the coalition will bestride a ruined, ungoverned and conflict ridden stretch of desert between Egypt and Tunisia.

Smashing the Khadaffi regime from the air will have been the easy part. The stabilization and relief operations that follow will be the real challenge, especially since they require ground operations right in the middle of al-Qaeda’s bailiwick in North Africa. How easy those stabilization operations will be depends partly on Khadaffi.  If he doesn’t wreck stuff before being killed or fleeing, it will be hard. If he does Scorch the Earth it will be harder. He is being encouraged to fly into exile largely to dissuade him from trashing what is left of his former demesne. Interestingly the “scorched earth” tactics are prohibited under Geneva I, to which Libya has been a signatory (but not the US) since 1978.

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

Not that the Duck will care, one way or the other, but this provision may be increasingly discovered by the media as the days wear on. In summary, Khadaffi is being strangled from the air. In due time it will axphysiate him. His sole counter is to turn the US win into a Pyrrhic victory. He can do this by Scorched Earth and finally, by emulating Saddam’s strategy of opening the arsenals and magazines to all and sundry. If he can give away all the explosive still in his possession at defeat, much of that will wind up as IEDs.

The conduct of the war so far has demonstrated a fair level of competence by military commanders. They are finding a path to military victory in the midst of a political situation from hell. What they cannot overcome so easily is the screwed-up mess they will inherit. The diplomats have demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for ineptness. The blockade analysis only works if they are aiming at regime change after all. If they are not, and content themselves with a simple in-place-NFZ, then the diplomats would have condemned the campaign to absorbing all the ill effects of Scorched Earth while denying themselves the benefits of blockade. They are still making things up as we go along and for all that we know may find a way to turn a sure thing into a s**t sandwich. But as God preserves little children and the United States of America, Providence may yet help us all luck out.

Update:

The AP reports that Khadaffi’s forces have adopted rebel-like battlewagon vehicles, adapted civilian transport and other strategems essentially aimed at emulating the physical signature of their enemies. This has proved so successful that unnamed sources have suggested that NATO must arm the rebels or come in on the ground to ensure the defeat of Khadaffi.

Reporters described a pell-mell rout of rebel forces traveling east at 100 miles per hour, their vehicles loaded with mattresses and other impedimenta, bringing the contagion of panic with them. Startled civilians watching the headlong flight began to join the exodus. Soon, the road to Benghazi was packed with demoralized rebel families heading east to get away from the Duck’s forces. The rout also adds to the “humanitarian” burden of NATO, which will soon have to feed and care for the battered crowds.

Khadaffi’s tactics echo the “grab the enemy by the belt” methods of the North Vietnamese Army in Vietnam. Their solution to US air dominance was to intermingle, insofar as possible, with US units. Once in close proximity, there was nothing for it but call down stuff in danger close proximity.

Of course it is useful to remember that there are some around who are actually combat effective. Unfortunately they may belong to an organization which starts with “a” has a hyphen and then ends with another “a”. Of all the ironies of war, none may be as great as a ground force of the a*-****a acting as spotters for AC-130s and A-10s for the destruction of forces which until recently was the recipient of military aid.

While President Obama calls Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi a threat to his own people, just one month before attacking Libya the president asked Congress to increase U.S. aid for Qaddafi’s military to $1.7 million.

According to State Department figures, the money was earmarked to train Libyan military officers, improve its air force, secure its borders and to counter terrorism.

But mysterious are the ways of “smart diplomacy” and doubtless we lesser mortals are foolish to question the sagacious logic of the smartest people in the world.


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