Attack Helicopters Boost NATO Air Ops over Libya

AIN Defense Perspective » July 18, 2011
Attack helicopters, including this British AH-64D Apache, are launched from s...
Attack helicopters, including this British AH-64D Apache, are launched from ships off the Libyan coast. (Photo: UK Crown)
July 18, 2011, 5:50 AM

Recent briefings in Brussels and London on Operation Unified Protector reveal that attack helicopters provided by France and the UK are now making key contributions to NATO-led operations over Libya, which has been extended until the end of September.

British AH-64 Apaches plus French Tigers and Gazelles have destroyed more than 300 targets since their introduction on June 4. Flying at night, they have provided “a valuable psychological and cognitive effect,” according to one British Army officer. The helicopters’ mix of weapons (Hellfire or HOT missiles, rockets and guns) might be more suited to attacking light vehicles and control points employed by Libyan regime forces in concealed and urban areas than the combat aircraft operating from higher altitude.

Nevertheless, fast jets continue to strike a variety of targets. UK Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornados and Typhoons have demonstrated “an incredible 99-percent success rate against fixed targets, and 98 percent against moving targets,” according to a senior officer who recently returned from the Combined Air Operations Center in Italy.

By early last week, the forces had flown some 15,000 sorties and struck nearly 3,000 targets. “We have degraded Ghadhafi’s military capacity to the point that he is no longer capable of running any major offensive operation,” said a NATO spokesman. “Numerous senior civil servants and military commanders have defected from the regime.”

However, NATO has not been able to prevent rocket attacks on the beseiged enclave of Misrata from continuing, and skirmishes elsewhere. And there is no sign of a rebellion against the regime in Tripoli and other heartlands.

Other noteworthy aspects of the campaign include:

• Officials still insist that NATO has no forward air controllers or special forces operating on the ground in Libya. This has led to increased reliance on persistent surveillance from intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets, sometimes for many days, to ensure that potential targets can be verified and the risk to civilians can be assessed properly.

• France claims to be flying 25 percent of total sorties, using Rafales, Super Etendards, Mirage 2000D/N/-5s, E-2C Hawkeyes, E-3F AWACS and KC-135 tankers. French Air Force Rafale operations have now moved from Solenzara to Sigonella.

• NATO has acknowledged only one incident in which civilians were killed in an airstrike. Unconfirmed reports reaching AIN suggest that the incident, in Tripoli on June 18, was caused by the guidance failure of tailfins on a French AASM weapon.  

• The deployment of RAF aircrew onboard U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint sigint (signals intelligence) aircraft, in a co-manning arrangement. The RAF withdrew its last Nimrod R1 sigint aircraft from the Libyan operation last month, and retired the type from service. A NATO spokesman hinted that NATO has identified dissention in the ranks of the Libyan regime forces through sigint reporting.

• The U.S. continues to provide Predator UAV patrols. The Italian air force now has its first two Reaper UCAVs (unmanned combat air vehicles) operational at Amendola, from where they could provide 12- to 14-hour coverage over Libya per flight, if authorized by Rome.

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