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Libya: Will A 'No Fly Zone' Fly?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Meanwhile, on this program, to the fighting now in Libya and to the debate within the Obama administration over how best to persuade Moammar Gadhafi to step aside. Right now, the U.S. is moving warships towards Libya and has frozen $30 billion of Libyan assets. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says it is time for Gadhafi to go and that nothing is off the table, including a no fly-zone over Libya. So what exactly does that mean, and what do you want to know about how a no fly-zone works? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can also join in our conversation at our website. That's npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, with us now is Joshua Keating. He's associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He has written about no fly-zones, and he's here to tell us everything he knows about them.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOSHUA KEATING (Associate Editor, Foreign Policy): Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So explain exactly how in theory a no fly-zone over Libya would work. What would it look like?

Mr. KEATING: Well, I mean, as you mentioned, the U.S. is moving warships to the area, and so what it requires is first monitoring were there fights - unauthorized flights - are taking place. When this was imposed in Iraq 10 years ago, that was done with AWACS surveillance planes. And then, there need to be fighter planes on the ready that are able to engage if the airspace is violated. And, of course, Libya is a much bigger territory than the zones that were - that the U.S. has previously imposed no fly-zones on. So this is a pretty big military operation. And as General James Mattis, the CENTCOM commander, pointed out today, it may also involved removing Libya's air defenses. So people should be under no illusions. This is a military operation that we're talking about.

KELLY: And removing the air defenses could involve a bombing campaign on top of the surveillance planes and fighters that you're talking about. So this is logistically a quite big undertaking that is being examined right now?

Mr. KEATING: It is, and that's one reason why it seems unlikely that the Obama administration is going to want to go at it alone on this. There's been talk of a Security Council resolution, but that became a little less likely today after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called a no fly-zone superfluous and said that Russia would not vote for it. So that may say a Security Council resolution unlikely, and that means that a lot of countries in NATO would be less likely to support it well. Turkey has already come out and said they're completely against this, and France has said that they're waiting for the U.N. to act. So it's looking like there might not be the international support needed to implement something like this.

KELLY: And there would have to be international support. As I understand it, this would be such a big operation to do it properly, that you couldn't do it just using U.S. aircraft carriers to fly the jets. You would need a nearby country that could provide its airbases to help support the operations.

Mr. KEATING: Right. It will be logistically difficult, and, you know, politically, it has been done before. The U.S. and several of its allies never got U.N. Security Council approval for the no fly-zones that were imposed in northern and southern Iraq between the first Gulf War and the invasion in 2003. That continues to be controversial to this day, and a lot of people feel those were illegal. But, you know, again, it seems that that's not the sort of thing that the Obama administration is really going to pursue.

KELLY: We're talking with Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine about the issue of no fly-zones and whether that is one of the answers that might apply to the situation unfolding in Libya. We would love to hear from you. You can reach us at 800-989-8255.

And, Joshua Keating, I mean, along with the logistical challenges, we've been ticking through - if you're talking about wanting international support for an operation like this, there are big legal questions as well about the legitimacy of a no fly-zone?

Mr. KEATING: Sure. Well, they're generally authorized under Chapter 42 of the U.N. charter, which does give member states authority to - for demonstrations, blockades or other operations if there's a threat to international peace. So that's how they're usually authorized.

And that was done in the case of Bosnia. In that case, the U.N. Security Council did approve it. And it was the U.N. protection in the region that implemented that and wound up shooting down several Serbian fighter planes in the process.

But, yes. It's a tricky challenge and one that - you know, it - one thing that the administration has to consider is whether this is worth the trouble, given that, you know, there's kind of a mix record as to whether no-fly zones can actually prevent atrocities from taking place on the ground.

KELLY: Do you think part of the calculation is maybe that the mere threat of a no-fly zone may help persuade, for example, some of the military commanders who are still loyal to Colonel Gadhafi, that hey, maybe, you know, you better rethink your position here.

Mr. KEATING: Right. And as part of a package of sanctions and other measures on Libya, this does makes sense. You know, in and of itself, it's not going to remove Gadhafi from power. Saddam Hussein managed to stay in power for more than a decade under a no-fly zone. And Gadhafi doesn't appear, at this point, to be susceptible to listening to reason from the outside. So - but, you know, as part of a larger package, it certainly does makes sense. But people shouldn't consider this a panacea.

KELLY: Let's take one of the calls that's coming in on this topic. Fred(ph) has called from St. Joseph's(ph), Missouri. Hi, Fred. You're on the air.

FRED (Caller): Hi.

KELLY: Hi.

FRED: Yeah, no-fly zones, I flew over them, helping to support them and it was a lot of fun. But you have to remember, you got to be ready to vigorously suppress air defenses.

KELLY: Now, where were you working at that time? You were in the military?

FRED: Well, I - yeah, I was in the Air Force. I flew warthogs and, you know, so as - mostly in, you know, the bombing and sweeping kind of job. But, you know, if airplanes takeoff, the fighters take them out, that the SAMs get kind of, you know, nasty, you take those out. But you get to be ready to vigorously go after those things and, you know, (unintelligible) doing that in Iraq. And, you know, I have fond memories of doing that. But it's going to cost you some money.

KELLY: Cost you some - it's an expensive undertaking to do this.

FRED: Yeah. Those airplanes don't come cheap.

KELLY: As you look, Fred, at the challenge of enforcing an operation of this kind over Libya, what are the challenges?

FRED: Well, the challenges, I don't see them - well, they don't have much of an air force to begin with. And their - and I haven't heard of any big upgrade programs since they had - they got the old MiG-27s. They got, you know, pretty early generation Soviet fighters from, you know, from decades ago. So I don't see the fighter, you know, the airplane suppression thing as being all that, you know, difficult. You just find them and take them out, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But the SAM suppression, you know, there are some sneaky stuff can happen there, the surface-to-air missiles. In fact, that can be the tricky part thing. You can learn their dirty tricks and take care of them one by one. But, yeah, that's the part I always enjoyed the best.

KELLY: Joshua Keating, he mentions the surface-to-air missiles that the Libyans could shoot back if they wanted to at some sort of no-fly effort.

Mr. KEATING: Yeah, of course. As Fred points out, this is a very expensive operation. But, you know, it's also dangerous for the country that's imposing it. There was a famous incident in 1994 in Iraq, which I'm sure the caller remembers, in which two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by American F-15s.

FRED: Oh, yeah. Fratricide is always an issue. You got to be so careful about that.

Mr. KEATING: Right. And so, yeah, this is both an expensive and dangerous operation. And, you know, it certainly will tip the balance somewhat. I mean, it's a tool that the regime does seem to be using. There have been reports of shootings and bombing from planes. The opposition was actually reported to have shot down a plane themselves yesterday. But there's other military options Gadhafi has on the table.

KELLY: All right. Fred, thanks so much for your call. We appreciate it.

FRED: You bet.

KELLY: And Joshua Keating, big picture, historically are the no-fly zones that have been implemented and enforced, are they viewed as a success when we talk about Bosnia and Iraq? Are people glad that that's the way events played out?

Mr. KEATING: Well, the Bosnian operation, which is called Operation Deny Flight is - you know, NATO cites it as having tipped the military balance. And it made a lot of sense, militarily, at that time. Nearly all the fixed-wing aircraft in that region were in control of the Bosnian Serbs. So it was a way of tipping the balance.

But, of course, a lot of things happened on the ground. It did nothing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. And in Iraq, it was extremely beneficial to the establishment of that, sort of, semi-independent Kurdistan area. But it was probably less effective in the south, where a lot more human rights abuses where taking place throughout Saddam Hussein's regime.

KELLY: All right. We've got another caller who has a question for you. This is Shai(ph), calling from Ohio. Shai, how are you doing?

SAI(ph) (Caller): Hi. It's Sai.

KELLY: Oh, I'm sorry. Sai, how are you?

SAI: My question relates to the estimate of $12 trillion being spent on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, or $105 billion a month, $3.5 billion a day, as our dollar is crashing and of course our acts of - my question is, how much is this extended criminal act of the U.S. government going to cost?

KELLY: All right. Well, setting aside whether it's an extended criminal act or not, is there any way to put a figure on what a no-fly zone over Libya would cost?

Mr. KEATING: I'm really not sure. I can't really give you a number figure. But you're right that the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched U.S. military sources fairly thin. And I think that that's another reason why an operation like this is pretty unlikely without international support.

KELLY: Do we have any sense of whether the resources are there, given the number of daily sorties across Afghanistan alone?

Mr. KEATING: Well, the U.S. is repositioning aircraft carriers, as you mentioned. And there are - there's resources in Europe, in bases in Italy, which can be used for this purpose. So - but, you know, again, it's a big country, and this is a quite an extensive operation, so U.S. forces are stretched pretty thin, and that's certainly a factor worth keeping in mind here.

KELLY: And a big factor, of course, is how long this sort of thing might continue once you got into it. All right, Sai, thanks so much for your call.

Joshua Keating, talk to us about - as you've reported on this, it's obviously a conversation that is ongoing here in Washington and European capitals at the United Nations whether or not a no-fly zone might be the answer. Any way to gauge the likelihood of this happening?

Mr. KEATING: Well, several countries seem very in support of it. Italy, which is actually been a longtime ally of Libya, has said that they'll support it, allow their military bases to be used and support them. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is also a little bit of an unlikely person to support this given the steep cuts to the defense ministry they've had there recently, has also said he's instructing his military planners to come up with a scenario for a no-fly. So those are probably firm supporters.

On the other side, you have Turkey, a NATO member, which is definitely against this. Russia and probably China will block this in the Security Council, and France, which has said that it will only consider this with a Security Council resolution. So I'd say, today, it's looking rather less likely.

KELLY: Okay. We're talking about no-fly zones and whether imposing one over Libya might be a good idea there. We're talking on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Joshua Keating, talk to me a little bit about, practically, as a no-fly zone is being enforced, this question of pilots perhaps having to engage other pilots. We heard from one of the callers who called in and talked about actually shooting - do you have any sense of - can the other pilots eject? Are they warned? What are the dangers in terms of the actual engagement?

Mr. KEATING: Well, the dangers are first determining who exactly it is you're dealing with. As I mentioned before, in Iraq, friendly fire was definitely an issue. So first, it's verifying, and then, it depends - it really - every no-fly zone has its own rules of engagement which are set in whatever resolution imposes it. So those are going to be determined by whatever countries are imposing the no-fly zone. But usually, there is some sort of warning process.

They try to scare the plane off, or there are number of measures that planes can take to sort of eject - force pilots to remove themselves from the no-fly zone, hopefully, before shooting. Those aren't always effective, but yes, it can be an extremely dangerous process done at very high speeds. And it's important that a sort of clear line of command to set up early in the operation as well.

KELLY: Is it clear - we talked a little bit about Libya's surface-to-air missiles that they might be able to use. What kind of fighter jets do they have that might be able to engage with Western planes?

Mr. KEATING: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, there's - it's - a no-fly zone is generally only considered in cases where there's sort of overwhelming air superiority, and that's definitely a case here. I mean, the - as an earlier caller mentioned it, the Libyan air force is pretty - it's sort of aging, Soviet-era Russian planes. And so I don't think that from that perspective they pose much of a threat to the U.S. Air Force, you know, what - another thing to consider is Gadhafi has actually not really planned a full-scale military invasion.

We've seen the Libyan military almost crumble in recent days as he has relied increasingly on foreign mercenaries. And that may be intentional; he's looking at what happened in Egypt and seeing how the military pushed Mubarak out there. And so he wants, sort of, paid people from outside that he can depend on. So this really isn't a military strategy we're seeing from Libya. So that's probably another thing to consider.

KELLY: And the big question mark hanging over all of this, of course, whether a no-fly zone might actually succeed in pushing Gadhafi out. You talked a little bit about how - in the case of Saddam Hussein, he managed to carry on for a decade with a no-fly zone, in effect, over at least part of his country.

Mr. KEATING: He did. And now, we see Gadhafi mostly working on the ground to recapture these cities and using mercenaries to fortify his position around Tripoli. So, you know, I think that while this is certainly a tactic that can help, the real balance of power, if it does shift, is going to happen on the ground. And that's what we saw in Iraq as well.

And also, at a certain extent, Bosnia, where the no-fly zone was in place for a long time, first there was monitoring, then they were actually shooting down planes. Then, NATO actually began bombing Serbian targets on the ground. And that's really what tipped the balance. You know, at the moment, I don't think anyone is seriously considering that.

KELLY: Okay. All right. Well, we'll be watching closely to see how this debate plays out both here in Washington and at the United Nations and in NATO capitals in Europe. We've been talking with Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks so much for coming in and joining us.

Mr. KEATING: Good. It's been great. Thanks.

KELLY: And there's a link to Joshua's latest article, titled, "Do No-Fly Zones Work?" That's at our website, npr.org.

Tomorrow, Neal Conan is back here in the hot seat. He'll be joined by political junkie Ken Rudin, and they'll be talking about emerging presidential hopefuls. Meanwhile, you've been listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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