Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Deeper Meaning Of No

It seems as if a lot always happens when I head off to my law school exams. Last year, I started two days before the General Election, a period in which a few little things came to pass. This year's exams began in earnest in the last week of January, just as North Africa discovered the delights of democratic revolution.

I guess it's easy to get nostalgic about it all, particularly for me as someone whose earliest political memories are of 1989. Indeed, as events unfolded in Libya I found myself wondering whether Gaddafi would be the Arab Ceauşescu, the literal sacrifice on the altar of the cult of personality. But now the metaphor has run out and we are faced with something we may not have seen before; an African civil war without the organisation, without the warlords.

Two questions jump out at me here. The first is reasonably straightforward; why do we care so much about the geography? Libya is no further away than the Balkans were, nor is civil war there any less of an issue for Europe than conflict in the former Yugoslavia was. Nevertheless, taking action there, even with NATO alone, seems to involve a psychological leap that it shouldn't.

It's the second question, however, that's rather more concerning. If intervening in Libya really is that difficult, shouldn't we all be, well, terrified?

The concern, at least at the level of a no-fly zone, seems to be that NATO aircraft might face resistance from Libyan planes and ground defences. On its own, that merely begs the question of what all the money we've spent on Eurofighter has really got us if it can't dominate an air force made up mostly of Soviet and French jets from the 1970's.

More generally, however, you have to wonder why on Earth you'd establish a no-fly zone where the guiding principle is, essentially, come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. If your intention is to prevent someone from flying their aircraft over an area, the first thing you do is destroy their aircraft. It's a theory so simple, even Hermann Göring could understand it.

Moreover, Göring didn't wait for the planes to present themselves in full combat mode with pilot attached. And while he may have struggled to bomb the RAF into oblivion with his collection of Heinkels and Dorniers, NATO has positively designed itself to be good at blowing up immobile objects on the ground in the desert; this is the age, lest we forget, of stealth planes with laser-guided smart bombs and submarine-launched cruise missiles.

Worst of all, those advanced munitions are meant to be backed up with GPS, AWACS, Key Hole and, well, the CIA. Arguing that you can't strike at Iranian nuclear facilities because they're hidden away under hundreds of feet of solid rock is one thing, but at the very least, runways and hangars do tend to be on the surface where you can see them...

What's more, the same argument applies to almost everything else that Gaddafi might deploy. Helicopters? Again, if Eurofighter can't deal with those in a situation where fixed-wing air superiority has been achieved, that's pretty concerning. Tanks? Even the worst stand-up comic can make jokes about Britain's past successes combating tanks in Libya. Toyota Pickups? Top Gear is one thing, but they didn't have ground attack aircraft...

Maybe I'm simplifying matters a little, but equally, the last thirty-odd years of UK and US defence policy have been justified almost entirely on the idea that, through technology, more can be done with less. Libya could and should be an example of exactly that, a decisive intervention made without a single solider setting foot on Libyan soil. If we fail to deliver that, either through lack of political will or lack of capability, serious questions will need to be asked about what we've been doing for all this time.