by DAVID AXE
The U.S. and Great Britain are arguing for the international community — with U.N. or NATO approval — to establish a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect anti-regime protesters in their two-week-old campaign against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libya’s air force, while potentially devastating against undefended protesters, would be powerless against the Western aerial armada that’s already assembling off the Libyan coast.
Libyan fighter pilots have been ordered to bomb protesters and facilities that might prove useful to resistance forces. The bombing raids have demonstrated both the Libyan air force’s remaining strength following decades of neglect, and its weaknesses relative to the U.S., U.K. and other nations that might enforce a no-fly zone.
Cloaked in secrecy and isolated from the international mainstream, the Libyan air force is widely assumed to have decayed to a highly decrepit state since its 1970s heyday. According to Globalsecurity.org:
Libyan pilots have reportedly experienced difficulty in finding and identifying aircraft they have been ordered to intercept. They have been reluctant to fly at night for fear of being unable to locate their bases. To some extent, these problems may reflect outdated navigation and radar aids in their combat aircraft, which are mostly older, stripped-down versions of Soviet designs.
Nonetheless, Libyan planes have played an important role in Gadhafi’s counter-attacks against his own rebelling citizens. Sometime before March 1, jets apparently bombed an arms depot near the rebel-held town of Adjabiya.
That said, not all Libyan pilots are following orders to attack the rebels. On February 21, two Libyan pilots flying Mirage F.1 fighters landed in Malta seeking political asylum. The pilots had decided to defect after being ordered to bomb protesters. Three days later, the two-man crew of an Su-22 fighter-bomber ejected rather than follow orders to attack rebels in Benghazi.
Combined with an estimated 15 planes seized by rebels, the loss of these three jets has reduced the air force’s fighter fleet by a significant degree. The losses also underscored the unraveling of the Libyan air force’s discipline and its command-and-control apparatus.
Those weaknesses, more so than the mere airplane arsenal, will likely prove decisive in the inevitable defeat of the Libyan air force if the U.S., U.K. and their allies launch an air campaign. All the same, it’s useful to compare the orders of battle of the Libyan air force and the likely international coalition enforcing the potential no-fly zone.
Flight‘s annual airpower survey for 2010 assessed Libyan air power thusly:
From these totals we can subtract the two Mirage F.1s, one Su-22 and the 15 unspecified captured planes, leaving around 250 aircraft capable of employing weapons. But most of those planes are unserviceable. Airforces Monthly estimates just 30 of the Su-22s — fewer than half — are combat-ready, but claims the active Su-24 fleet actually numbers 10, compared to just one in the Flight survey.
Against this, the U.S. will deploy, for starters, the 54 warplanes of Carrier Air Wing 1 aboard the USS Enterprise, currently sailing toward Libya from the Indian Ocean. The carrier-borne jets include a mix of C, E and F models of the F/A-18 Hornet. The U.S. Air Force has laid plans to deploy the 1st Fighter Wing and some of its 40 F-22s. The F-22s would be based in Egypt for operations over Libya, as would supporting aircraft such as E-3 radar planes and surveillance planes.
The U.K. already has an E-3 in Malta and plans to deploy an unspecified number of Typhoon fighters to Cyprus in the event a no-fly zone becomes policy.