Libyan war: Europe comes through its baptism of fire
24 August 2011
The campaign in Libya has shown that the EU is able to conduct a major military operation, but it also has revealed its shortcomings, argues a journalist from French daily Le Figaro.
The impact of a war that is reaching its conclusion is not solely gauged in terms of military and political objectives that may or may not have been realised. Amid the smoke and gunfire of the battle field, war also serves as a test of the relative effectiveness of military powers, reveals the strengths and weaknesses of armies, and subsequently exerts an influence on the diplomatic relations of the countries which have been involved. In this regard, the campaign in Libya should be viewed as a rich source of information.
The first conclusion that we can draw is that the ambitious goals of the intervention in Libya were achieved with relatively modest resources, that is to say without the deployment of ground troops other than special forces and military advisors in the field. As one NATO source points out, “It has shown that a military initiative that is confined to air and sea operations can have an impact that is sufficient to influence the balance of power in the field.”
This was the gamble inherent in the position adopted by Nicolas Sarkozy, and “the outcome of the war has demonstrated the validity of the military and diplomatic choices made by Paris. However, an aerial campaign conducted without massive support from the United States would certainly have required more time,” remarks Arnaud Danjean, Chairman of the Sub-committee on Security and Defence of the European Parliament. The second conclusion is that, notwithstanding concerns that were initially voiced in France, the leading role played by NATO, a US dominated military organisation, was politically accepted by states in the region, several of which – Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Jordan – actively contributed to the campaign.
Europe was dependent on US support
On the diplomatic front, the intervention in Libya confirms a trend that has been increasingly visible on the other side of the Atlantic: America’s dwindling interest in Europe. While maintaining its influence on the chain of command, and placing its supply ships, drones and surveillance and intelligence infrastructure at the disposal of their allies, the Americans were quick to put an end to the participation of their combat aircraft. “The United States is neither able nor willing to take charge of all the world’s security problems. Its strategic interests are now more focused in the East. This is a phenomenon that will become increasingly prevalent. The Americans want reliable partners, who can play a significant role in European initiatives,” continues Arnaud Danjean. The outcome of the Libyan campaign is a clear demonstration that Europe, with leadership from two capable countries, is able to conduct a large scale military campaign – and as such, it could show the way forward for future European Union operations. France and the United Kingdom, which established greater links between their defence forces a year ago, strengthened their collaboration in the skies over Libya, and confirmed the effectiveness of their military alliance. As one NATO official points out, “The collaboration with London worked without a hitch from start to finish.”
Issues with regard to the capacity of the French army
However, it also highlighted a certain weakness: in conducting the campaign, Europe was dependent on US support because it does not have its own command centre. In the light of this conclusion drawn from the Libyan operation, Paris and Warsaw rapidly attempted to revive plans for a centralised European command. But this initiative met with a point blank refusal from the UK. Hampered by London’s reluctance, and hamstrung by political conflict in Berlin, European defence cannot be said to have definitively been launched by the war in Libya.
From a strictly military point of view, the aerial campaign in Libya mas marked by the highly effective performance of the Rafale multi-role fighter (built by Dassault, which also owns Figaro) and allied attack helicopters. This aspect of the campaign, which went without a hitch, also benefited “from very strict rules of engagement, a rigourous target validation procedure and the mobilisation of significant intelligence capacity,” as one NATO source explains.
The Libyan campaign has also highlighted a number of issues with regard to the capacity of the French army: weaknesses in the fields of in-flight refueling, drones and anti-radar missiles, which will have to be overcome if one day we are to take action without support from the Americans. But will lessons learned in war now contribute to the cause of peace? MEP Arnaud Danjean hopes they will: “France’s robust diplomacy and the experience patiently acquired in the course of the aerial campaign will be critical in enabling France to play an important role in facilitating a successful transition."
Translated from the French by Mark McGovern