ÈÍÒÅËÐÎÑ > ¹73, 2014 > Reflections on Operation Unified Protector
Todd R. Phinney
NATO was quickly drawn into Operation Unified Protector, the air-heavy campaign in Libya. Without planning time, people at all echelons from many participating countries made the difference. Particularly vital was the leadership of the Combined Force Air Component commander as he and his team executed civilian policy. NATO and partner nation personnel of all ranks arrived prepared to serve, but skills and capabilities did not always match needs. Roles shifted and quick fixes were called for as cultural, organizational, and technical issues arose. Esprit developed fast, so many who finished stints orchestrated ways to return. It is vital that leaders set that tone, showing that unity is the center of gravity in multinational operations relying on unified chains of command
As 2010 ended, few in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would have predicted that the Alliance, with assistance from four partner nations, would be leading an air-heavy joint operation in North Africa. However, as the Arab Spring swept across the region, NATO was rapidly drawn into the unfolding events in Libya. What followed over the next 7 months within the Combined Force Air Component (CFAC) warrants discussion because what was learned can help prepare future military leaders as well as highlight the effect of civilian policy decisions.
The Libyan uprising was enabled by social media on February 14, 2011, with a freedom movement erupting in Benghazi shortly afterward. The rhetoric and violence of the regime quickly galvanized the United Nations into passing two Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) that described the mandate for the military action that followed. The first, UNSCR 1970 (February 26), imposed an arms embargo and froze regime assets.1 The second, UNSCR 1973 (March 17), authorized a no-fly zone over Libya as well as the use of “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians.2 After initial rebel military successes in late February, regime forces regrouped and began to crush rebel forces and population centers across the country. Significantly, regime forces appeared poised to retake the resistance “capital” in Benghazi, putting more civilian lives at risk. The U.S.-led coalition Operation Odyssey Dawn (OOD) began on March 19, 2011, when a French air force strike package attacked regime mechanized forces approaching Benghazi. The OOD air campaign, executed from Ramstein Air Base, lasted until March 31. NATO then took command with the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) positioned at Naples, and the air component eventually located at Poggio Renatico,3 both in Italy.
In contrast to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation Unified Protector (OUP) was unique in its relatively short duration and lack of a “blue” land component. In total, the OUP CFAC planned and executed 218 air tasking orders (ATOs),4 flew over 26,500 sorties including 9,700 ground attack sorties,5 destroyed over 5,900 military targets, and deconflicted over 6,700 humanitarian aid flights and ground movements.6 Compared to the 38,000 sorties flown during the 78-day NATO air campaign over Kosovo, OUP’s air planners had fewer assets with which to execute their task in a much larger area of responsibility—a region comparable to Alaska.7 Of NATO’s 28 member nations, all provided staffing and 12 provided air assets. Sweden also provided tactical reconnaissance aircraft. Key to legitimacy in the Arab world, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates also contributed personnel and aircraft. This involvement created the first-ever NATO-Arab combat partnership and is best described as an Alliance effort with four partner nations.8
NATO’s underlying strength is underscored by the contribution and commitment of its members. However, complete consensus by NATO nations normally limits the speed at which the Alliance operates. The pace at which NATO accepted and executed OUP created daunting challenges. As discussed, the first OOD aircraft struck on March 19. NATO accepted the no-fly zone mission on March 24, and on March 31 the NATO CFAC took command of the entire air mission over Libya. While prudent thinking had occurred, NATO did not officially begin planning until the North Atlantic Council (NAC) agreed to take over from the coalition.9 The resulting challenges of this quick pace were significant. While beginning to plan and execute combat operations, the OUP CFAC faced internal challenges that significantly hampered its ability to execute air operations.10
The first challenge was to overcome structural impediments hampering mission execution. At the beginning of OUP, NATO Air comprised two distinct geographic regions north and south of the Alps. U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Ralph Jodice commanded the Southern region, Air Component (AC) Izmir, located at Izmir, Turkey. The Izmir concept of contingency operations was for the commander/CFAC commander (CFACC) to remain in place along with the strategy division, the majority of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) division,11 the “upper” portion of the plans division (guidance, apportionment, and tasking), and the director of staff. Meanwhile, the NATO Combined Air Operations Centers (CAOC)12 in the Southern region would execute the air operation with the resident “lower” half of the plans division, producing the master air operations plan and ATO, while executing the ATO with the operations division. This distributed mode of operations was in place at the beginning of OUP but was essentially stillborn from the beginning. Myriad problems arose with the CFACC not being physically present with the entire entity to provide unity of command. As kinetic operations were executed from the CAOC at Poggio Renatico,13 the CFACC found himself often on the phone with the CAOC Poggio director of operations working to link strategy to the task and the task back to strategy.14 While attempting to build the CFACC’s awareness, the CAOC Poggio director of operations was himself losing awareness and the ability to lead the fledgling and hastily assembled team on the operations floor. Recognizing the untenable nature of this virtual presence, the CFACC flew to Poggio on April 1, taking a handful of his direct staff. Moving forward improved the air effort.15 This was critical as each tactical bomb had a very real strategic importance for the unity of the Alliance. Importantly, the NAC mandated a zero civilian casualty allowance for NATO fires. Early on, General Jodice identified the unity of the Alliance and partner nations as the “blue” center of gravity and one errant bomb with civilian casualties could have splintered cohesiveness.
Other problems arose from a geographically split CFAC structure. Not enough legal advisors were available to support both Izmir and Poggio, and they were initially sent to the CFAC at Izmir. As a result, the quickly formed team at Poggio, now executing combat operations, did not have legal advisors for rules of engagement (ROE) and collateral damage estimate advice on the combat operations floor. In one case, Poggio elected to delay a strike and roll it onto a subsequent ATO. However, the reporting cell at Izmir missed that and reported the target as struck. NATO Public Affairs released targeted information the next morning, compromising the target. The CFAC’s ability dramatically improved once all key elements finally collocated at Poggio. The problems discussed make clear the importance of establishing the correct organizational structure at the onset and that the geographically split OUP CFAC structure significantly degraded operations.
Exacerbating the CFAC structural problem was an immediate lack of skilled staffing across each of the CFAC divisions. That was made worse by the need to create a new initial estimate of manning because recent AC Izmir exercises were strictly humanitarian rather than kinetic. Also, a single versus geographically separated CFAC structure—the structure envisioned and planned for—changed manpower requirements. To accomplish its air-policing mission, Poggio had approximately 94 personnel who trained and operated with a defensive mindset. Once leadership determined that the new staffing requirement was roughly 400 members, a call went out for augmentation from other NATO and national entities.16 The same cadre of leadership trying to concurrently prepare for and execute combat operations built this staffing requirement. They also had to expend precious time and focus on processing new arrivals—triaging capabilities, skill sets, and maintaining awareness on the needs and current staffing within the divisions.17 It also became apparent that the skill sets necessary to fill a peacetime air operations center position such as chief of intelligence were significantly different from those needed for planning high-end airpower strategic and interdiction missions.
Ensuring proper manning of skilled personnel in the CFAC was a continuous struggle. Financial constraints and national political contexts were the two most common inhibitors. The CFACC established 45 days as the minimum time an augmentee should be present for duty. In reality, nations determine deployment length, so many arrived late and left early, compounding training, continuity, and turnover problems. Additionally, nations expected NATO to fill the operational needs with members assigned to Alliance billets. However, some nations prevented NATO from declaring a crisis establishment, summer leaves remained, and members accrued overtime hours at peacetime rates. All these factors made it difficult to execute missions at the NATO organizations that provided staffing to OUP because they had to continue home station tasks. Additionally, some members suffered financially when their governments adjusted their basic housing allowance rate to Italy. The CFAC never received sufficient staffing and as a result never used the normal 24-hour strategy for its ATO production planning schedule. Rather, limited-skilled manning drove a decision to operate on extended days, reducing planning capability.
The U.S. policy decision to take a secondary role in OUP exposed NATO ISR shortcomings and initially hampered mission accomplishment. On March 28, 2011, the President addressed the Nation and indicated that the United States would take a supporting role.18 Much has been written about the CFAC’s initial inability to properly man and equip an ISR division. These accounts are true. As augmentees arrived at Poggio, they began to fill the fledgling intelligence entity, which was still split because the original ISR division was at Izmir. Compounding issues, the small intelligence cell permanently assigned to the air policing CAOC at Poggio was insufficient in skill set and number for the new task of running a sophisticated kinetic air war.
At the core of this limitation is the fact that few countries have the national capability to collect intelligence, analyze it, share it on classified architecture, and then develop the high-fidelity targeting materials necessary for an aerial campaign where collateral damage is a concern. As the United States stepped back to a supporting role following the handover to NATO, the CFAC’s ISR division capability for Operation Unified Protector suffered when it was needed the most. Largely absent were U.S. national feeds providing critical knowledge and the current imagery and trained personnel necessary to make collateral damage estimate determinations to prosecute dynamic targets. Most important, the United States did not immediately provide trained personnel to augment NATO’s nascent ISR division.19 A perfect storm existed from the beginning: NAC guidance for zero civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, strong political pressure for the Alliance to take over the mission, the urgency to prevent Benghazi from being overrun, and the CFAC shackled by lack of a functional ISR division. From his OUP experience, General Jodice stated, “ISR is a driver, not an enabler for airpower.”
Within days, the CFACC director asked for help from NATO’s Northern Air Component at Ramstein Air Base. A U.S. Air Force intelligence colonel who was weapons school–trained arrived at Poggio to lead the ISR division. She worked informal networks and a handful of U.S. intelligence officers began to appear within days. Some were Reservists who, through creative efforts on securing funding and orders, answered the distress call and made their way to Poggio. Facing challenges and frustrations from the monumental task at hand, the ISR division chief late one night sent an email outlining, in blunt terms, the consequences of the lack of U.S. support. This email went viral within the Pentagon and was read well beyond the level originally intended; however, the ultimate impact was positive. The message was clear: NATO needed multilevel U.S. ISR support to succeed in the mission. This will be true in future NATO missions and should temper U.S. voting on future NATO operations requiring high-end ISR support, especially if the United States lacks an appetite for involvement, or to support staffing needs.
Formulating an initial air strategy was also difficult. A lack of clear political guidance and trained strategists along with differing views between the CFAC and the CJTF made initial strategy formulation difficult. Beginning with political guidance, the flash to bang period between UNSCR approvals and NATO taking the mission was very short—essentially 1 week. This period left little time to design a comprehensive strategy. Additionally, the 28 Alliance nations each saw the situation and potential Libyan endstates differently. With this, planners only received broad political guidance. OOD planners have since expressed that they also suffered from a lack of clear political guidance that carried into OUP.20 The CJTF Naples no-fly zone operations plan on March 27 stated that the assigned mission for the air component was to “enforce a no fly zone” and “to help protect civilian or populated areas under threat of attack.” Translating the broad strokes of this last phrase when matched with the UNSCR phrasing of “all necessary means” left the CFAC leaders grappling to determine the accepted left and right limits of the Alliance mandate. The Berlin Ministerial Conference on April 14 did provide further clarification by stating that the desired objectives were for attacks on civilians to cease, the regime to withdraw military forces, and a “credible and verifiable ceasefire, paving the way for a genuine political transition” to take place.21 On August 23, the NAC further refined the NATO endstate by establishing three key conditions for success. First, Libyan civilians would no longer require NATO to protect them from the threat of or an actual attack; second, an external entity such as a stabilization force could ensure stability inside Libya without NATO support; and third, regime and rebel forces would adhere to the terms of a cease-fire, and military and security forces would be back in designated locations.22 Fortunately, guidance became clearer over time as the nations built consensus.
A clear vision of the endstate and trained strategists are key elements in creating a winning air campaign plan. Early on, the strategy division suffered from a lack of formally trained and experienced strategists. In truth, the ownership of this error fell with the sending nations filling posts for which their members were not prepared.23 Few nations possess the training programs and opportunities to groom fully capable strategists, and they were absent in NATO Air prior to OUP. Moving the strategy function to Poggio under the leadership of a British group captain (colonel) recruited from the Royal Air Force liaison team, with strategy experience from the Kosovo campaign and the International Security Assistance Force, eventually helped create a functional strategy division at Poggio.
Once functional, the CFAC strategy division had to create a strategy complementary with the CJTF’s plan. Unclear guidance, the quick tempo, no-land component, and a stand-alone maritime mission resulted in a CJTF campaign plan based on airpower, but not an air campaign.24 The CFACC made two decisions instrumental in developing an air strategy. First, he directed the air component to create its own strategy within a campaign plan with the intent of vertically influencing the CJTF strategy and complementing the CJTF plan. Second, he directed the formation of a “red team” within the strategy division that was instrumental in gaming possible strategies and perceived outcomes. Libya is a large country spanning almost 1,000 miles from east to west and 500 miles from north to south. The size of the country and limited CFAC assets constrained what the air campaign could accomplish per each ATO period. For instance, the CFAC had only enough E-3s to ensure 24/7 coverage with one aircraft on station. Other large ISR division platforms were limited to one flying period per day. This forced planners either to saturate a specific area for an extended period or to methodically rove across Libya and capture as many snapshots of prioritized areas as possible. Early remotely piloted aircraft coverage consisted of two Air Force MQ-1s, and these missions necessitated careful planning as their slow groundspeed prevented rapid repositioning for new priorities.25 At the high water mark, the CFAC could launch just below 70 offensive strike sorties during an ATO cycle to cover an area equivalent to the size of Alaska.26 The strategy that eventually emerged divided Libya into nine regions.
This division fostered a geographically based awareness with a usable lexicon shared by the Airmen at the CFAC and the CJTF staff. The CFACC’s guidance to marshal efforts toward coercing combatants harming civilians drove initial center of gravity analysis. The United Nations mandate and NATO leadership did not limit strikes to regime forces. NATO forces could engage any military force threatening civilians. The reality on the ground was that Muammar Qadhafi’s forces matched action to the regime’s rhetoric. Rebel forces entering a previously threatened town were welcomed as liberators. Thus the strategy division focused on Qadhafi’s regime cohesion as the primary center of gravity to exploit. Strategists emphasized disrupting regime command and control as well as military and paramilitary forces.
This geographic focus combined with the center of gravity analysis yielded four regional approaches with the intent of protecting civilians.27 Around the Greater Tripoli region, NATO focused on disrupting command and control and regime forces. These efforts would marginalize the credibility of the regime and reduce its ability to threaten the populace. In the Jalu Brega region, NATO focused on engaging the forward elements of the regime forces between Brega and Ajdabiya. This was critical as Ajdabiya was the remaining impediment between the regime and Benghazi. In the northwest region adjacent to the Tunisian border, NATO focused on understanding what was occurring on the ground to deter further advances by the regime against the encircled rebel towns. Finally, in the southern part of the Jalu Brega region, NATO focused on understanding military activities in order to prevent fielded forces from flowing toward the battle area near Ajdabiya. As available air assets were limited, the initial air strategy relied on regional pulsing. The intent was to maximize limited ISR across the battlespace and provide kinetic activity when and where it was most needed. As with any campaign, fog and friction continually challenged execution.
Discussions to this point focused on the challenges during the few months of OUP. As time progressed, the CFAC organization matured and became a cohesive team. Needed external national support became available, at least to the minimal level necessary to plan and execute a successful campaign. Both deliberate and dynamic targeting processes evolved, and by mid-June the CFAC effectively and rapidly applied fires across the battlespace. Deliberate target sets ranged from isolated military sites in the badlands to urban installations in downtown Tripoli requiring sophisticated planning and delivery. The ISR division chief overcame initial reservations about preplanned targets by including the senior national representatives28 in the initial efforts of the joint targeting working group. This initiative ensured that by the time the CJTF commander approved a target and put it on the joint prioritized target list, national questions and concerns had normally been addressed and the striker nation was prepared to engage the target. Many of the smaller striker nations deservedly received accolades because they did indeed punch well beyond their weight. Planners and aircrews took exhaustive measures to ensure that every strike was required and was free of civilian casualties. As an example, an aircrew member terminally “drug off” a laser-guided bomb when a civilian approached the target. In another, the aircrew did not release on a re-attack when Libyan emergency responders became a collateral damage concern. The discipline of OUP aircrews was commendable, enabling the cohesion of the Alliance and ensuring continued international support for the mission. This highlights the importance of training to all spectrums of conflict.
Dynamic targeting also matured, and the CFAC team became more adept at effectively solving higher collateral damage estimate scenarios. This was possible through the selection of weapons and a developed and seasoned approval process in combat operations.29 Positive identification of regime elements became more difficult as they quickly shed standard military vehicles for Toyotas, learned the art of concealment, and did their best to exploit ROE limitations set in place to protect nonmilitary personnel, infrastructure, schools, and mosques. Using a restricted fire line aided aircrews in knowing where within the ROE they could engage without CFAC approval. Conversely, the CFAC had to approve targets on the restricted side of the restricted fire line. Whether aircrews or CFAC approved, due to the fluidity of the battlespace, limited ISR assets, and the strategic nature of every bomb, leadership and aircrews exhaustively weighed each engagement decision. The U.S. decision to allow employment of the Hellfire II missile from MQ-1 Predators helped immensely.30 Remotely piloted aircraft with precise small weapons were an invaluable asset when attacking targets difficult to find or strike, or targets that required heavy scrutiny to ensure ROE requirements.
Airpower had multiple accomplishments believed to be firsts in OUP. Often, the limited assets on hand drove the CFAC to creatively maximize and employ each airborne asset. Strategically, this operation was the first NATO-Arab military operation. Also, France was deeply involved in the leadership, planning, and execution of OUP, a significant milestone as France had just returned to the military portion of the Alliance. Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates dropped their first bombs in combat over Libya. The British Typhoon also dropped its initial combat weapons and flew its first combat pairings with the GR-4 Tornado. French and British rotary attack helicopters, normally land component assets, flew jointly from naval platforms while operating under CFAC command and control. OUP saw the first U.S. MQ-1 “buddy-lasing” for a foreign attack helicopter as well as regularly for foreign jet fighters. The MQ-1 became indispensable as a deep radio relay, on-scene commander in case of an ejection, and aerial coordinator for time-sensitive dynamic attacks on behalf of the CFAC. U.S. rescue helicopters staged aboard Alliance naval vessels to get them closer to recovery locations in case of ejections deep in hostile territory. Finally, fire support teams operated aboard two different maritime patrol aircraft platforms and effectively scoured assigned areas of the battlespace and directed precise fires against hostile forces.
What ultimately led to the success of OUP were the people involved from top to bottom. The speed at which the Alliance took on the mission and structural, manning, and national support challenges created a serious problem with little time to solve it. The importance of the leadership of the CFACC and his director during the early days cannot be overstated. NATO and partner nation personnel of all ranks arrived at the CFAC and gave their all. In some cases, skills did not match positions and members willingly accepted unanticipated roles. General Jodice made it a point to know the name of every staff member at Poggio. His care for personnel was sincere and was appreciated at all ranks. He also recognized departing members at each shift change briefing. Many members met their national limits on deployment length, went home, and found a way to return to Poggio. National representatives quickly adorned their flight suits with CFAC OUP patches and became genuine members of the CFAC effort. Strong leadership in a national endeavor is critical. In multinational operations with a unified chain of command where the unity of the nations is a center of gravity, effective and inclusive leadership by the commander is essential.
OUP was executed concurrently with NATO planning to reduce the size of the Alliance’s force structure. AC Izmir took down its flag last summer and a singular NATO air component will exist at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. As members of OUP returned to their regular NATO locations, they took with them the lessons of the Libyan operation. The current NATO joint force air component (JFAC) organization structure is largely set and doctrinally sound. A key takeaway is the importance of kinetic exercises. Senior air leaders must defend these because training opportunities are limited. AC Ramstein is configuring the JFAC facility with proper communications equipment and life support. There is an awareness that NATO, U.S., and European national JFACs need to train, exercise, and be prepared to execute together. Looking forward, it will once again be up to nations to determine if they will send trained and ready augmentation to the NATO CFAC. Failure to do so will cause the same problems created during OUP. Finally, in the future, key nations possessing unique enabling capabilities and personnel cannot “hand over the mission to NATO” and expect success without their involvement.
At 2200Z on October 31, 2011, General Jodice gave permission for the last OUP aircraft, fittingly a NATO AWACS, to depart Libyan airspace. Over the satellite radio, he dismissed the aircraft by saying, “For the past 7 plus months, you were bold, aggressive, relentless but never reckless, and made the success of Operation Unified Protector possible. I am proud of you all. On behalf of a grateful Alliance and partner nations, I thank you for your professionalism and tremendous effort. Job very well done!” For the members of the OUP CFAC team crowded into the operations room that evening, this radio call culminated 218 days of executing an unexpected air campaign that saved thousands of Libyan lives.JFQ