It may come as a relief to President Obama that France has decided to increase the pace of operations in Libya by deploying attack helicopters. Britain, on the other hand, seems to still be on the fence.
The role of airpower in this conflict has been a critical one. While the aerial restrictions imposed on the Libyan Air Force have hampered, but in no way neutralized, Gaddafi’s military capabilities, western airpower has proved to be the key variable in aiding the rebels. This is partly because NATO has refused to put boots on the ground and air strike operations are, in essence, the only option NATO has. It is also because the capabilities that western nations have brought to bear in Libya have primarily been fixed wing aircraft up to this point. France’s decision to deploy an unspecified number of Tiger attack helicopters, and the potential for British Apaches to join them, changes the mixture of military assets the rebels have in their corner.
The Washington Institute on Near East Policy released an analytical piece that does a good job of highlighting the role of airpower in the ‘conflict’:
NATO strike operations have proven to be the great equalizer in the conflict. They saved Misratah from being retaken by the regime and are assisting the rebels in their efforts in the Nafusa Mountains.
NATO strike operations consist primarily of battlefield interdiction, strikes approximating close air support, counterlogistics missions, and counter-command-and-control sorties. According to NATO data, most of the strike effort is focused on western Libya, primarily around Tripoli, Misratah, Sirte, and Zintan. NATO officials assert that the strikes are reducing the regime’s ability to employ, command, and sustain its combat forces. As of April 29, NATO claimed to have hit some 600 targets, damaging or destroying approximately 220 armored vehicles and 200 ammunition facilities. The effort, however, is dispersed, with NATO averaging only about sixty strike sorties a day, distributed across command and control, logistics, and forces targets, and in both the western and eastern theaters. While the present level of effort (at least) should ultimately break the regime forces, that process could be protracted, lasting weeks if not months.
Even with the deployment of attack helicopters, Obama is in a tight spot. He now needs congressional approval to continue to use military force in Libya. He also needs to decide whether he will continue to use the relatively few American assets deployed thus far–a decision which may be prolonging the fighting. Whatever Obama decides, the next few weeks will be critical in determining whether and how the United States will proceed in the Libyan ‘conflict’.
— Jordan D’Amato