When the US announced on Friday that it would stop running sorties over Libya as part of a US command effort against Moammar Gaddafi’s forces, I predicted that NATO would be requesting American fighter jets under the new joint command by the weekend. NATO on its own doesn’t have the resources to maintain the NFZ, and it would only be a matter of hours before the US was asked to fly those missions under the coalition’s aegis. I was wrong — but only in regard to the timing (via James Joyner):
Nato is running short of attack aircraft for its bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi only days after taking command of the Libyan mission from a coalition led by the US, France and Britain.
David Cameron has pledged four more British Tornado jets on top of eight already being used for the air strikes. But pressure is growing for other European countries, especially France, to offer more after the Americans withdrew their attack aircraft from the campaign on Monday.
“We will need more strike capability,” a Nato official said.
The American sorties ended on Sunday night. It took 24 hours for NATO to realize that it couldn’t carry out the mission with the forces provided by the alliance. That’s only slightly longer than I had predicted it would take.
The US has not specifically been requested to return to the attack, but it’s inevitable. NATO is pressing France and the UK to up their contributions. France already has twice as many assets in the air theater than the UK (33 aircraft of all sorts compared to 17), but both numbers are low for the kind of regime-toppling effort that NATO clearly wants to conduct. Furthermore, the change in tactics on the ground from Gaddafi’s forces to light transport and infantry makes for difficult targeting, especially if the aim is to avoid civilian casualties.
If our NATO partners start losing momentum in their air campaign, it will put the US in a tough position. Would Barack Obama allow the NATO mission to fail from a lack of resources and have Gaddafi triumph over the West? Or will he send Americans back into combat to keep the pressure on Gaddafi, even if that’s under NATO control? And will he go to Congress to get authorization for that kind of combat commitment, especially when other NATO partners aren’t upping their own antes?