The air war in Libya that helped depose Moammar Gadhafi was a watershed moment for the NATO alliance, but the same operation may be impossible 10 years from now unless European countries step up their defense spending and military capabilities, a top NATO official said.
“If current trends continue, 10 years from now it’s not clear we could do this again. That is warning No. 1,” Ivo Daalder, the U.S Permanent Representative to the NATO alliance, told reporters in Washington Friday.
Daalder hailed the seven-month Libyan military intervention that ended in October to be a milestone success that proved NATO’s capability as an “operational alliance.” It marked the first time the U.S. did not play an overwhelmingly central role in a large NATO operation.
However, he also noted that stockpiles of precision-guided weapons ran low and the mission relied on U.S. logistics and intelligence.
U.S. aircraft flew about 10 percent of the strike sorties over Libya, but provided about 75 percent of all air-to-air refueling operations. “That meant that French and British and Italian and Belgian fighters could be loitering and looking for targets because they didn’t have to come back to the base for refueling,” Daalder said.
The U.S. also provided about 80 percent of the targeting information, largely from unmanned aircraft passing along intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, data, he said.
“The lesson for NATO is, you can actually have a major intervention in which the U.S. doesn’t have to do the bulk of the fighting,” Daalder said.
In the future, however, the European nations should consider stockpiling precision-guided weapons and coordinating their investment in ISR and air-to-air refueling capabilities.
The Libyan campaign was far smaller than the NATO air operations over Kosovo in 1999 in terms of the number of aircraft involved and sorties flown, Daalder said.
“This was a critical operation, but it was a very small operation,” he said.
Nevertheless, it strained the alliance’s capability, which is at risk of shrinking in the coming years as economic problems force the European militaries to make further budget cuts. “The cuts will, over time, affect the capacity of individual countries to do this,” he said.
“I don’t think the lesson is, ‘We can do this anywhere, anytime.’ This was very costly for many counties in terms of expenditures, in terms of capabilities,” Daalder said.