Operation Odyssey Dawn – War on Gaddafi

The much awaited air strikes by Western forces finally began on 19th March 2011; two days after the UN Security Council passed a sweeping resolution authorizing military action against Gaddafi’s forces.

French Air Force fired the first salvo by hitting two tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi. US and UK followed by launching around 110 Tomahawk missiles from their warships and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. Let me hasten to add for the benefit of those with a commercial bent of mind – each Tomahawk missile costs around USD 1 million so just the first round of missile strikes was equivalent of USD 110 million. Very soon the cost would run into billions of dollars – something the US and its allies can ill afford at this precarious stage when the much sought after economic recovery is playing hide and seek.

Interestingly, the operation has been code named – Operation Odyssey Dawn. Odyssey literally means – an extended adventurous voyage. Historically, Odyssey is the name of famous epic penned by Greek Poet Homer of 8th century. The poem centers on Greek Hero Odysseus and his long journey back home following the fall of Troy. It took Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War.

What is the significance of this strange code name? Does it indicate that the western forces have realized that this operation could be a long, painful and tiring haul? Given the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not too difficult to anticipate.

The decision to attack Gaddafi’s forces was imminent yet it took so long. In some way the Earth Quake and Tsunami in Japan might have helped Gaddafi for a while when the attention of the world got diverted to Japan facing the biggest tragedy since the Second World War. While France and Britain were itching to commence air strikes long back, the delay was mainly due to the reluctance of the US to get engaged in yet another conflict. Obama has won his election on the promise of pulling out from the existing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something which seemed easier said than done. On top of it, for the US to now open another military front would have been a really painful decision to make.

The recent advancement by Pro Gaddafi troops seems to have literally forced the decision on the US. Gaddafi’s troops were on the verge of entering Benghazi and fall of Benghazi would have symbolized the fall of the anti Gaddafi moment. From this point of view, the air strikes by Western forces couldn’t have been delayed even by a day.

USA has been careful to portray that it is merely supporting the attack and not leading it. Obama has repeatedly clarified that the US would not commit ground forces. The USSC waited for the Arab League’s request to implement a No Fly Zone on Libya to give out a message that this is not a Western versus Arab war. USA could have chosen to let France and Britain carry out the war but the temptation to play Super Cop would have tilted the scale in favour of the present decision of limited engagement.

Gaddafi would have been expecting and would have been prepared for the air strikes. As soon as the air strikes began, he arranged for hundreds or perhaps thousands of civilians to form a human shield around his palace in Tripoli. He has termed these civilians to be his supporters but it is difficult to say whether these people have come to his rescue voluntarily or forcibly. Whatever may be the case, it would deter any immediate air strike on his palace.

As per the US Military spokesman, the first round of air strikes has severely crippled Gaddafi’s air defence capabilities. This is not surprising given the vast gap between technical capabilities of the two sides. Very soon the Western Forces would be able to ground Gaddafi’s war planes which will significantly reduce his advantage over the rebel forces. Gaddafi may resort to the use of Surface to Surface missiles to hit the rebels and may even try Surface to Air missiles against Western war planes. However, the later may not be very effective as the missiles are technologically out dated and would not pose any serious threat to technically much superior air capabilities of the western forces. In fact, it is quite possible that the missiles available with Gaddafi may not be operational at all. In any case, this is a very limited option and would be very quickly neutralized by western air strikes.

Next option for Pro-Gaddafi Forces is to depend upon their superior artillery power in terms of tanks and armoured vehicles. France has already attacked a couple of tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi and we may witness more such strikes targeting Gaddafi’s artillery. However, the revolutionary forces are also using similar artillery equipment and therefore the air strikes against Gaddafi’s artillery would have to be much more accurate. Moreover, unlike most of the air defence installations, artillery is a mobile target and between pro and anti Gaddafi forces the frontlines are rather blurred. Gaddafi may exploit this limitation by positioning his artillery as close to the rebel forces as possible. In such situation, the Western Forces would need “Boots on the Ground” to help them direct the air attacks. This would seriously challenge the current strategy of not committing any ground troops. As a minimum, someone in the Western Camp would have to commit Special Forces to move with the ranks and files of the revolutionary forces for ground truthing.

USA and its allies would be hoping that helped by their air strikes, the Anti Gaddafi group would be able to oust Gaddafi. This may not be an easy task. They may be able to push back Pro-Gaddafi troops from Benghazi and other eastern cities but to penetrate into Tripoli would be a tough challenge. Air strikes would not be helpful once face to face engagement starts. Gaddafi would soon rework his strategy, pull back his forces and begin consolidating in and around Tripoli using Human Shield and wait for the rebels to come closer. How would the Western Forces deal with the Human Shield remains to be seen?

At this moment, a quick end to the Libyan crisis appears to be elusive. Operation Odyssey Dawn may prove to be exactly that – “an extended adventurous voyage”.

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