In 2011, during the heady early days of the Arab Spring, a coalition of a dozen Western and Arab states led by France, Britain, and the United States conducted a seven-month military intervention in Libya that led to the defeat of Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorial regime. A newly-released study of this campaign describes in detail why and how the operation was conducted. But was it a success?
On one level, this seems an odd question. Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector not only achieved their military and political objectives but did so at an exceptionally low cost. For the price of a few billion dollars and no coalition casualties, airpower prevented the Qaddafi regime from crushing the nascent Libyan rebel uprising, and then made it possible for that popular movement to overthrow its oppressor. In contrast to the ruinously expensive, bloody, and frustrating wars underway at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libyan intervention worked as advertised, and in the process it defied the expectations of critics who authoritatively declared that military success would be impossible unless the West joined the fight on the ground, that bombing would kill large numbers of civilians, or that the war would inevitably devolve into yet another quagmire.
Yet in some ways Libya does not feel very much like a victory, because the conflict was ultimately followed by a national descent into the chaos of a second civil war. Military success created the opportunity to build a better and more humane Libyan state, an opportunity that the rebels failed to seize and the intervening powers did little to advance. Would devoting more resources and attention to building a stable post-conflict Libya have produced a better result? It did following the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, though Iraq and Afghanistan stand as vivid illustrations that digging a hole and then pouring money into it is not guaranteed to make flowers grow.
Airmen can and should look to the Libyan campaign as a success story with many lessons to teach. Some are all too familiar—for example, once again low-density-high-demand assets such as tankers and especially intelligence and targeting capabilities were in embarrassingly short supply. Others are less so, such as the value of developing in peacetime strong working relationships among air forces that are not formal allies yet may be important co-belligerents in future conflicts. Libya was a highly improvisational operation that was made to look easier than it was, and its success owed much to the ability of airmen to find solutions to problems on the fly—this is an ability we should work hard to cultivate, while also working to reduce the number and size of the obstacles before they must be surmounted.
Yet the 2011 experience is also a cautionary one. The “Libya model” of intervening with airpower to assist local partners who are fighting on the ground is potentially very powerful. It is worth noting that Libya was in many ways close to a best case scenario, due to considerations of geography, politics, the weakness of the Qaddafi regime, and the characteristics of the Libyan rebels. Similar air campaigns elsewhere will often be even more challenging and in many cases strategically unpromising—not because the enemy forces are difficult to destroy from the air, but because it is often hard to find competent and palatable local partners with whom to work.
Looking beyond the immediate success of an intervention, the real strategic question is whether its ultimate results will be worthwhile, and what the intervening powers will need to do in order to make them so. Libya, like Afghanistan and Iraq, is a stark reminder that it is a simpler matter to destroy a toxic regime than to replace it with something more wholesome. A military intervention that does the former and then lets the post-conflict chips fall where they may runs a high risk of ultimately leading to strategic disappointment. This does not mean that interventions in which the West supplies airpower and leaves the ground combat to local partners are a bad idea—indeed the prospect of thus achieving victory at low cost is very attractive. But planning to disengage from the tasks of post-conflict stabilization does not need to be part of future applications of the Libya model.
It is therefore incumbent upon airmen not only to continue developing the capabilities needed for such operations, but to be able to offer political leaders a sound assessment of what airpower can and cannot realistically be expected to do. If they do not, recent experience suggests that the military potential of airpower will often be underestimated, while the desire for deus ex machina solutions to difficult strategic problems will tend to encourage excessive optimism about what military victory alone will accomplish.
Karl P. Mueller is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and the editor of Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War.