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May 26, 2011

France and UK Deploy Attack Helicopters to Libya

       Just Another Step Closer to Boots on the Ground in Libya?
(defpro) : While NATO and allied Arab forces continue to apply strong military pressure to Kadhafi’s forces along the Western coast of Libya, France and the UK prepare to deploy additional assets to the operation that are expected to bring a shift in allied tactics. According to French officials, both countries are deploying attack helicopters to provide more flexibility, firepower and precision to airborne operations in Libya.

During the meeting of European Union foreign and defence ministers in Brussels on Monday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé announced that France is deploying Tigre and Gazelle attack helicopters to Operation “Harmattan”, as the French codenamed their involvement in the multi-national military operation to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973. The attack helicopters will operate from the French Navy’s “Tonnerre” Mistral-class amphibious ship (French: “Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement”, BPC).

This type of vessel can rapidly deploy a large number of troops, vehicles and helicopters to any coastal area in the world. Thereby, it is a powerful asset for operations abroad. In numbers, it can transport 16 helicopters, four landing barges, up to 70 vehicles including 13 main battle tanks, and 450 soldiers. In addition, the 200 metre-long vessel can accommodate an entire operational headquarters for joint operations, as well as a medical centre. The French Navy currently operates two of these vessels and is in the process of building a third ship of this class, the “Dixmude”.

French media reported that the “Tonnerre” left the French Mediterranean naval base of Toulon on 17 May and is carrying twelve attack helicopters of the French Army Light Aviation (French: « Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre”, ALAT). According to AFP, Juppé on Monday said that the French helicopters would enable NATO “to better adapt our ground strike capacity with more precise means of (carrying out) strikes.”

Although attack helicopters might provide greater precision and flexibility in the increasingly complex combat environment in Libya, they are also more vulnerable to close-range air defence weapons and small arms fire than the aircraft that have operated in Libyan skies during the past months. As Kadhafi’s forces might continue their effort to draw the fight into the streets of strategically important towns and cities, the situation would become very dangerous for low-flying attack helicopters or light attack aircraft.

Despite the great blow that has been dealt to the Libyan military, it has primarily affected armoured vehicle units, artillery forces, ships, air defence installations and military facilities, as well as vital supplies. However, the threat that man-portable air defence systems, or MANPADS, could represent to attack helicopters operating in such a hostile and unclear environment should not be underestimated. Further, if a helicopter crew would be shot down over an embattled city, NATO would have to launch a dicey rescue operation; “Black Hawk Down” scenarios automatically suggest themselves to one’s mind – whether plausible or not.

But according to AFP, the French officials are confident that this is exactly the environment in which the Tiger and Gazelle attack helicopters will provide significant support by engaging military assets hidden in urban areas, while avoiding civilian casualties. Combat helicopter operations in Iraq have shown that both are very demanding, dangerous and not always realisable tasks.

Moreover, it is not evident that attack helicopters would help to bring new momentum to the stalled efforts of the opposition forces on the ground. Or is this just another signal that the Coalition might be slowly, but surely, inching towards a situation in which it sees itself forced to deploy ground forces?

If ever boots on the ground are being considered, it should be carried out under a well-designed UN mandate – including the involvement of Russian, Arab and African UN troops to guarantee a politically favourable foundation – and not as a Franco-British venture into an uncertain ground operation, which could thrust the North African country into a Somalia-like condition.

Thus far, the Coalition has been able to annihilate a significant part of Kadhafi’s military, is training opposition forces in the country’s East and is enforcing an arms embargo and a no-fly zone with a considerable fleet of ships and aircraft. According to AFP reports, some 7,900 sorties have been flown by coalition aircraft, including more than 3,000 sorties aimed at identifying or striking targets, since the beginning of the operation on 31 March.

Nevertheless, opposition forces have not been able to report noteworthy progress in weeks and the strategic as well as humanitarian situation is as lacking in transparency and uncertainty as it was during the first days of the operation.

Meanwhile, NATO aircraft in the early hours of Monday carried out the heaviest attacks since the beginning of the operation against targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Some 20 explosions have been reported, including at the Bab Al Aziziyah military camp. NATO confirmed the attack and explained that allied aircraft have targeted a fleet of vehicles at the camp with guided air-to-ground missiles. The official NATO report that has been released this morning explained: “This facility is known to have been active during the initial regime suppression of the population in February 2011 and has remained so ever since, re-supplying the regime forces that have been conducting attacks against innocent civilians.”[1]
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By Nicolas von Kospoth

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