The 2011 Libya campaign: lessons for Australia
17 Dec 2012|

Despite the aphorism that generals always prepare for the last war, the 2011 Libyan campaign to oust the Gadhafi regime presents some useful pointers regarding the exercise of deadly force by Australia. This is especially so when compared with the lengthy, costly and perhaps inconclusive military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. From a Western perspective, the Libyan campaign was short, cheap, and successful.

Nineteen nations, employing the most potent military coalition in the world (NATO) attacked a small country, of 6.6 million people, for seven months to eventually force a change of regime. No NATO personnel were lost in combat, there were few civilian casualties caused by NATO and the mission was clearly achieved. The cost was about one billion dollars, one ninth of what it costs for a month in Afghanistan.

The campaign has been widely hailed by air power advocates, but it was more than just a sophisticated air campaign. Forces from aerospace, land and maritime and cyber domains were all needed to ensure success. In the opening attack on the night of 19 March 2011, 45 precision munitions from three B-2 bombers aircraft and 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched against air-defence and other targets. The British also launched Tomahawks and delivered Storm Shadow cruise missiles from strike aircraft flying from Britain. This initial engagement, mainly by the US with some UK and French support, was crucial to the eventual outcome as it enabled subsequent operations to occur unencumbered by an air threat, and it began the attrition of Libyan military assets. Once air superiority had been established, the Europeans were then able to conduct about 90 per cent of all strike sorties.

The employment of precision guided missiles was central to maintaining domestic public opinion, ensuring fewer civilian casualties as well as removing the air threat. This part of the campaign is a model for the future and Australia is working to be able to implement a similar strategy. The elements required included Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance capabilities, aerial tanker support and a supply of precision-guided weapons. Australia is currently purchasing the Growler electronic warfare aircraft, which potentially offers an offensive cyber capability. Australian forces, with the JSOW-C long range strike weapon on Super Hornets have similarly capable missiles and modern combat aircraft with which to deliver air superiority.

In the maritime environment, mine countermeasure operations kept sea lines of communications off the coast of Libya open for humanitarian support and embargo implementation. Australia’s modest mine countermeasure capability based on the Huon class mine hunters, has been approved for augmentation.

Other maritime activities in the campaign included using surface ships and submarines (21 in all) to conduct non-combatant evacuations, enact the UN arms embargo and to support the campaign with naval gunfire, command and control, surveillance and logistics.

The Libyan campaign re-kindled the debate on the role of airpower in modern warfare on the basis of the so-called ‘Obama doctrine’, which emphasises multilateralism and has as a corollary that military action should be strictly limited, with few or no ground forces involved. The Libyan rebels provided the critical ground element to the campaign, supported by special forces from several European and Arab countries. While small in number, estimated as not exceeding a couple of hundred, special forces initially deployed to rescue civilians working in Libya, to gather intelligence on the rebels and to liaise with them. These tasks evolved into training and mentoring, provision of weapons, target de-confliction and eventually in-combat coordination. Australian special forces could offer a similar capability.

The forming and practice of coalitions of like-minded nations is largely absent from the exercise regimen of Asia–Pacific militaries, except when a combat-weary US provides the opportunity. The few nations that conduct periodic low-scale exercises or one-off humanitarian operations don’t come near to replicating the kind of coalition cooperation and cohesion exhibited during the Libyan campaign. But Australia, as agreed with its US ally, could seek further opportunities to conduct military exercises with regional partners.

America’s high-end capabilities and scale can’t currently be replicated by any other nation, but well-organised coalitions demonstrate an accumulation of both political will and military forces. Australia remains largely on track to being able to offer military capabilities that might be attractive to regional coalitions. Even small-scale actions will demand the deployment of sophisticated forces from a range of combatant domains. If regional tensions are assessed as likely, then regional coalitions might be needed, and additional activities with regional partners will become a higher priority for Australia.

Brian Agnew is an Australian public servant with the Department of Defence. He is a member of the staff at the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies.

This work is the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies or the Department of Defence.  The Commonwealth of Australia will not be legally responsible in contract, tort or otherwise, for any statement made in this publication.