Image: U.S. Air Force and Navy airplanes at Sigonella NATO military base, Sicily, Italy.
Carmelo Imbesi  /  AP
U.S. Air Force, background, and Navy, foreground, airplanes are seen Friday at Sigonella NATO military base, Sicily, Italy.
By
updated 3/18/2011 7:15:54 PM ET 2011-03-18T23:15:54

If NATO mounts an operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, it will almost certainly establish quick superiority over Moammar Gadhafi's outdated air force. But diplomats and analysts — relying on lessons learned from NATO's intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s — caution that any attempts to launch airstrikes against Gadhafi's ground forces would be far more dangerous, and could result in serious losses.

NATO's leaders met Friday to work out the details of a flight ban over Libya, after the U.N. Security Council gave the international community a surprisingly broad mandate to protect civilians under attack by government forces.

Alliance military planners said they could deploy dozens of fighter-bombers, tankers, air surveillance aircraft and unmanned drones to a string of air bases along Europe's southern perimeter from which to send patrols over Libya.

Officials said an "execute order" could launch the operation as early as this weekend.

Lessons from Bosnia, Kosovo
NATO has significant experience in such operations — its warplanes successfully enforced no-fly zones over Bosnia in the early 1990s and over Kosovo in 1999 in an effort to end crackdowns by Serb forces on civilians.

Still, Germany and some other member nations have expressed reservations about the operation, warning that it could become a complex and long-term commitment for the alliance. A plan to launch possible air strikes against Gadhafi's air defenses was also thrown into doubt Friday by Libya's surprise announcement that it was declaring an immediate cease-fire in the conflict, diplomats said.

When asked whether the North Atlantic Council — NATO's top decision-making body — had considered the possibility of airstrikes against Libyan air defense and other ground targets during its meeting on Friday, Martin Povejsil, the Czech Republic's envoy to the alliance, replied: "We only discussed enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo, and providing humanitarian assistance."

Libyan air force weak
If Gadhafi's air force was to flout a U.N. flight ban, experts say his air force would almost certainly be shot to pieces. Since the 1980s, chaotic purchases of equipment, poor maintenance and inadequate training have shrunk his fleet of more than 400 fighter-bombers, light attack jets and helicopter gunships to a few dozen aircraft.

What remains are mostly Sukhoi Su-22 and Mig-23 fighter bombers, as well as Yugoslav-made Jastreb light strike jets dating from the late 1960s — several of which have already been destroyed by insurgents, or flown out of the country by defecting pilots.

Outside of its fighter craft, the regime has a handful of operational interceptors, such as the MiG-21 and MiG-25, also dating from the 1960s. Its long-range air defenses are in a similar state, relying on 200 missile launchers long considered obsolete.

A recent report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said the air force has also had major pilot training problems and lost a number of its aircraft to accidents and other attrition.

"Libya seems to have had a serious shortage of even mediocre combat pilots," it stated.

Libyan anti-aircraft guns plentiful
What worries NATO planners, however, are Libya's plentiful anti-aircraft guns and light, short-range shoulder-launched missiles — systems which proved very effective against Alliance aircraft during the Kosovo war, said a diplomat who asked not to be identified.

These include about 500 cannons of various calibers, whose presence on the battlefield could prevent allied aircraft from descending lower than 15,000 feet, said the diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. In Kosovo, a majority of bombing missions had to be carried out from higher altitudes beyond the reach of the Serbian guns.

Experts have cautioned, however, that it is difficult to give an exact assessment of the African nation's military abilities, particularly in the wake of the defections that saw some troops taking not just aircraft but also weapons with them.

"The apparent proliferation of small arms, man-portable air defense missile systems, and some heavy weaponry among fighters on both sides, also is leading some outside counterterrorism and arms trafficking experts to express concern about the conflict's longer term implications for regional security," said an assessment prepared by the Congressional Research Service in Washington this week.

NATO deployment could be quick
In contrast, NATO planners say the international community has 200-300 modern jets which could be quickly deployed to Libya from bases stretching from Gibraltar to Greece, and from U.S. and French carriers in the Mediterranean Sea.

These would include top-of-the-line Eurofighter Typhoons, used by British, Italian and Spanish air forces. Also available are the formidable French Dassault Rafale fighters and the U.S. Boeing Co.'s F-18 Super Hornet, the backbone of U.S. naval air power.

The alliance would also have a huge technical advantage over Gadhafi in its AWACS planes — whose rotating radars can look 200 miles (320 kilometers) deep into enemy airspace, monitor all aerial movements over Libyan territory and direct planes to any violators of the no-fly zone.

The U.S. also has a number of ships and other military assets in the region. They include the nuclear-powered submarine USS Providence, equipped with tomahawk missiles; the amphibious landing dock USS Ponce and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge with a contingent of 400 Marines and dozens of helicopters. It also has the command ship USS Mount Whitney and destroyers USS Mason, USS Barry and USS Stout.

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Analysts said aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone would fly from NATO bases in Sigonella, Sicily, Aviano in northern Italy, Istres in southern France, and Ventiseri-Solenzara in Corsica. Additionally, the U.S. amphibious carrier the USS Kearsarge in the Mediterranean could be used to enforce the no-fly zone.

The Italian air base at Trapani-Birgi at the western tip of Sicily, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of Tripoli, is already being used by AWACS planes that would support any aerial missions over Libya.

Two larger carriers could also be used in the operation. The French Charles De Gaulle is currently in port in Toulon, while the USS Enterprise is in the Red Sea. Both would need several days to arrive on station.

Unmanned reconnaissance and attack drones, such as the U.S. Reaper and Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire ground-attack missiles, would provide additional benefits because of their ability to loiter over an area for hours on end, added analysts.

"This would be a fairly simple operation, much easier than NATO's aerial missions in the Balkans in the 1990s," said Marko Papic of the Stratfor intelligence analysis group in Austin, Texas. "Unlike the mountainous and heavily wooded Balkans, Libya is flat, without foliage or places to hide equipment, and the Libyan air force is a joke."

A NATO official warned, however, that logistics considerations involved in deploying such a large number of aircraft would play a large role in the planning process. To avoid repeated aerial refuelings from tanker aircraft, the fighter jets would likely have to be based close to Libya, but some of those bases lacked the necessary facilities to support fighter squadrons, said the official who could not be named under standing regulations.

UN Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday that NATO is now completing its plans, "in order to be ready to take the appropriate" action.

"(The) Allies stand behind the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and human rights," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama sets stage for military action

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama sets stage for military action

    >>> good evening. tonight we have to take you on something of a tour of the world to cover the overwhelming amount of news going on. and while we have been focused on the disaster in japan, where the nuclear alert level actually went up a notch today, while it's been going on for exactly a week tonight, instead we must begin tonight back in libya . today president obama announced that on top of the two wars the u.s. is fighting, the united states will now take the lead on possible military action in libya . the u.n. approved it last night. it started out as a no-fly zone but has grown into something perhaps bigger. a nato ultimatum of gadhafi of libya that the president says is non-negotiable. gadhafi declared a cease fire today but not all of his people were told about it. so on this busy friday night we have correspondents around the world. we begin with nbc's andrea mitchell on what it is the u.s. military is now a part of. andrea, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. armed with the u.n.'s approval of military strikes and a no-fly zone, the president gave moammar gadhafi an ultimatum. an immediate cease fire or face military action . and tonight there is no sign gadhafi is backing down. this is what the u.s. and its allies are trying to stop. gadhafi forces pounding rebels in the western city of misrata. the rebels claim this video was taken today even after gadhafi 's government announced a cease fire . in fact gadhafi seemed determine to carry out a bloody threat he issued on the radio last night, to retake the rebel stronghold, benghazi . he said he would show no mercy and no compassion. all this prompted a grave commander in chief to issue a blunt warning.

    >> these terms are not subject to negotiation. if gadhafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences. the resolution will be enforced through military action .

    >> reporter: president obama spoke shortly after briefing 18 congressional leaders, including many wary of yet another military engagement in a third muslim country . but in benghazi , rebels cheered last night's u.n. decision to come to their rescue.

    >> i am very happy. i am very happy. gadhafi , gadhafi --

    >> reporter: as the fighting continues the president is sending his secretary of state to paris to consult again with the allies.

    >> colonel gadhafi 's refusal to hear the repeated calls up until now to halt violence against his own people has left us with no other choice but to pursue this course of action.

    >> reporter: u.s. officials say air strikes against gadhafi forces would be led by the british and french, with an unusual arab coalition. support expected from jordan, the united emirates , qatar and kuwait.

    >> i can tell the house britain will deploy tornados and typhoons as well as surveillance aircraft .

    >> reporter: president obama ruled out u.s. ground troops but not air power . u.s. officials say the u.s. role would be to provide intelligence and surveillance planes to track gadhafi 's air defenses. they would also provide aerial refueling to allied planes enforcing the no-fly zone. the navy already has warships in the mediterranean and two nuclear submarines . the u.s. is expecting the saudis and others to help pay for what they see as a short engagement, but they added there will be cost for the u.s. taxpayer. tonight libya claimed it would advance no further on benghazi , but gadhafi forces have continued to shell rebel areas and there is no evidence of a cease fire .

    >> andrea starting us off in

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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