The Pentagon is generating plans for a no-fly zone over Libya—plans that could produce the first combat assignment for the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.
Whether the idea progresses beyond this stage is subject to United Nations and NATO support, the scale of Libyan military action against its civilians, and the reluctance of the U.S. to take on stewardship of military operations in yet another Muslim country. Nonetheless, the idea does show how the U.S. Air Force confronts the task of taking down a large air defense system.
The Lockheed Martin F-22, F-16CJ Wild Weasels and some cyberoperations would be employed in shutting down Libya’s air defense system, which consists “almost exclusively” of Russian-built SA-6 surface-to-air missile (SAM)systems. The munitions are similar to those that opposed NATO forces involved in operations in Serbia and that shot down the single F-117 fighter lost in combat, says a former Air Force chief of staff.
While the SA-6 Gainful (2K12 Kub) is the most effective SAM in the Libyan inventory, others include the SA-2 Guideline (S-75), SA-3 Goa (S-125) and SA-5 Gammon (S-200).
U.S. aircraft carriers are moving to the western Mediterranean, but operations in Afghanistan may not permit them to maintain a long-term no-fly zone over Libya. That task would likely fall to the Air Force, says a senior USAF official.
“Creating and enforcing a leak-proof no-fly zone over Libya can be done without stretching U.S. forces,” the veteran fighter pilot says. “The Air Force has the capacity to do this without seriously affecting its missions in Afghanistan. There is no air superiority problem in Iraq or Afghanistan that requires more fighters and AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control Systems], than [those] already committed [to that mission].”
“With respect to the no-fly zone specifically, it’s an extraordinarily complex operation to set up,” says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We would have to work our way through doing it in a safe manner and not put ourselves in jeopardy . . . over air defenses that could actually . . . take those aviation assets out of the air. There are an awful lot of people talking about this [no-fly zone] and an increasing desire to understand it specifically.”
Basing could be an issue. “Obviously it would be desirable to operate from bases in Italy,” the former Air Force chief of staff says. “Italy would likely allow us to use its bases because of [its] vested commitment to [maintaining] access to Libyan oil and gas.”
A worst-case scenario, with NATO rejecting support of a no-fly zone, might have shorter-range U.S. fighters flying out of Egypt, using facilities like Cairo West where multi-national Bright Star exercises are conducted.
“I engaged my counterpart in Egypt a number of times,” Mullen says. “They want to sustain the relationship [with the U.S. military].”