According to both the Economist and Wikipedia, Mohammer Khadaffi’s air assets consist mostly of Russian helicopters, with a few Western types thrown in. These are likely to be used as gunships and mobility assets. “The colonel’s ability to move reinforcements rapidly around his vast country has already helped his fightback. … Unlike the well-equipped, albeit poorly-run, air force, the nominally 50,000-strong Libyan army (mostly conscripts) has long been distrusted and kept on short rations. Meanwhile, the colonel and his sons have built a paramilitary force of some 20,000 well-armed and well-drilled tribesmen loyal to their clan and backed by richly paid mercenaries from Chad and Niger.”
They will ultimately be fighting for the control of three things: the oil pipeline infrastructure, the loading ports on the coast and water. The rebels are based largely to the East, with their backs to Egypt, as Montgomery was in 1942-43. Khadaffi is to the West, anchored on the Tunisian border.
It is quite obvious from the map that for so long as Khadaffi retains the area east of Misrah and down to Sabha his regime will remain viable. In order to destroy Khadaffi, the rebels have to take the coast at least to that line and cut the Tripoli-Sabha road.
Without that access, Khadaffi could not maintain a flow of water and oil to the coast. He would run out of money and necessities for Tripoli and it would eventually fall. The strategic importance of water ought not to be forgotten. It will certainly be remembered in Chicago. Present at the inauguration of the water project was none other than Louis Farrakhan.
By 1996 the Great Man-Made River Project had reached one of its final stages, the gushing forth of sweet unpolluted water to the homes and gardens of the citizens of Libya’s capital Tripoli. Louis Farrakhan, who took part in the opening ceremony of this important stage of the project, described the Great Man-Made River as “another miracle in the desert.” Speaking at the inauguration ceremony to an audience that included Libyans and many foreign guests, Col. Qadhafi said the project “was the biggest answer to America… who accuse us of being concerned with terrorism.”
The Great Man-Made River, as the largest water transport project ever undertaken, has been described as the “eighth wonder of the world”. It carries more than five million cubic metres of water per day across the desert to coastal areas, vastly increasing the amount of arable land. The total cost of the huge project is expected to exceed $25 billion (US).
The water comes from vast reservoirs trapped under the desert from past geological ages. The BBC calls it fossil water.
Coastal aquifers became contaminated with sea water, to such an extent that the water in Benghazi (Libya’s second city) was undrinkable. Finding a supply of fresh, clean water became a government priority. Oil exploration in the 1950s had revealed vast aquifers beneath Libya’s southern desert. According to radiocarbon analysis, some of the water in the aquifers was 40,000 years old. Libyans call it “fossil water”.
Oil, water the coastal road. Without these, the Khadaffi cannot survive. Both sides will fight for these prizes. Who gains them wins Libya.
In order to facilitate this task, the rebels will need to neutralize Khadaffi’s helicopters, which are at present the Libyan dictator’s key advantage. Aviation Week says there are already indications the rebels are deploying Soviet-made MANPADS, which would be effective against the rotary wing assets of the Duck of Death. The trouble with MANPADS is that they can also be used to attack civilian airliners should they be used by terrorists.
It is nevertheless the case that one nearly certain way to bring down the Khadaffi regime is either to neutralize their rotary wing assets through airpower (bombing runways may not help as much) or supply the rebels with weapons that can do so. At any rate, the requirements of supporting rebel forces imply acquiring the support of both Egypt and Tunisia without whom they cannot easily be supplied. Then, as in 1942-43, with Khadaffi in place of Rommel, he can be squeezed from both East and West by proxy forces.
It will be tricky. What price will either Tunisia or Egypt demand for Western support? And given the weakness of the Duck of Death, why should Egypt not act unilaterally? The destruction of the Libyan rotary wing force is probably well within the capability of the Egyptian Air Force. The prize of course, would be the Western oil assets. And maybe they’ll do it. Khadaffi can certainly be toppled. What comes after Khadaffi, what forces emerge from the witches’ brew that is roiling the old stomping grounds of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, ah, there’s the rub.