WASHINGTON â€“â€“ While White House and European leaders have repeatedly threatened a no-fly zone over Libya, mounting such a complex operation could require hundreds of aircraft and a bombing campaign to neutralize Libyaâ€™s air defense system, current and retired U.S. military officers said.
Although Libyaâ€™s military is considered no match for the U.S. and its allies, it would take such a large-scale Western military effort to establish the around-the-clock patrols over Libyan airspace needed to deter further attacks on rebels, the U.S. officers said.
â€œThis is all doable,â€ retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Dunn, the former vice director for strategic plans and policy for the Pentagonâ€™s Joint Staff, said of creating a no-fly zone.
But, he added, â€œThe simple fact of the matter is that itâ€™s not simple.â€
There is little evidence yet that consideration of a no-fly zone has moved beyond the conceptual stage in Washington or in European capitals, where officials seem to be hoping, at least for now, that the threat of a no-fly zone will deter the Libyan air force from attacking protesters.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had ordered his military to begin planning for such an operation. The White House also said Monday that a no-fly zone is under â€œactive consideration.â€ But a senior administration official said the option would be chosen only in a narrow circumstance Ã³ if Moammar Gadhafi sets off a large-scale humanitarian crisis with new air attacks against Libyans.
â€œIf Gadhafi begins an all-out assault on the opposition, creates a humanitarian crisis, and it includes significant use of airpower, then that would be the kind of compelling situation that spurs the international community to take that step,â€ said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.
If a no-fly zone is eventually ordered, one of the biggest worries for U.S. planners would be Libyaâ€™s surface-to-air missile batteries along its coastline, especially its so-called SA-6 missiles, which though designed years ago by the Soviet Union are lethal enough to shoot down U.S. and European fighters, several analysts said.
Libya is believed to have roughly 50 SA-6 missiles, which are mobile and easy to move to avoid detection. Pentagon planners would likely seek to neutralize the SA-6s by warning Libyaâ€™s military not to target NATO aircraft but also with airstrikes against batteries that took threatening actions, such as activating their radar, the officers said.