international analysis and commentary

Assessing NATO’s experience in Libya


Recent media reports of a confidential NATO assessment of last year’s Libyan air campaign suggest that the operation suffered “crucial flaws” and that the report was “a cold shower” on the Libyan war. The report documents that NATO allies were overly dependent on the US for precision-guided munitions, reconnaissance, and refueling assets. While this and the other shortcomings in the report are worth airing, they should not fundamentally affect our assessment of the Libyan air campaign.

First, NATO won. Its air campaign was critical in allowing the Libyan opposition to overthrow the Gheddafi regime. Moreover, NATO achieved victory quickly and at a relatively low cost. Operation Unified Protector (OUP) was brief – from March 19th to October 31st. The US Defense Department estimated the war cost the US about $1.1 billion. Given that the US flew roughly one fourth of the sorties (more on this below), one could estimate the war’s total cost at $4 billion. Consider that figure relative to the roughly $500 billion of the war in Afghanistan or the estimated $1 trillion price tag of the 2003 Iraq war. While NATO allies lost a few aircraft, including a drone helicopter, they suffered no casualties, whereas there were roughly 5,000 US and allied casualties in the Iraq war and there have been around 3,000 US and allied casualties in Afghanistan so far.

Second, the burden of fighting the war was shared very equitably relative to what we might expect and relative to historical precedent. Of the total 26,500 sorties flown by fourteen NATO and four non-NATO allies, the United States flew roughly 5,300 sorties, whereas France flew about 5,600 and Britain flew an estimated 3,000 sorties. Non-US allies bore roughly 75% of the war fighting burden. This level of burden-sharing is striking given American power. The US is roughly the same economic size as its NATO allies combined, but spends over twice as much on defense as they do. One might also consider the 2003 Iraq war in contrast: the US deployed roughly 175,000 troops whereas Britain contributed 46,000, Australia provided 2,000, and Poland provided 200. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron also bore the brunt of the political risk in advocating for and leading the Libyan war. After the opening weeks, the US took a low profile role that minimized the political fallout to Barack Obama had the air campaign failed. While the NATO report is right to acknowledge the central role that the US played in the war, the war simply would not have been waged and won without France and Britain.

The Libyan case – even given what we know from the NATO report – should serve as an important corrective to those commentators, such as Robert Kagan, who have argued that the US’ European allies are averse to war fighting or even, as Rajan Menon has argued, that the US should cut its ties with its allies because they cost it more than they are worth.

What does OUP tell us about the future of military intervention? First, it tells us that when leading NATO allies’ economic (e.g., oil) and political (e.g., refugee flows) interests are implicated in a crisis that the US cares little about, we can expect the allies to have the will to advocate for and lead military intervention. Second, it tells us that in such circumstances the US will have to play an important role, but allies are capable of bearing a large share of the burden.

In short, the Libyan war, far from being characterized by “crucial flaws”, is evidence that the United States’ NATO allies are valuable partners capable of bearing their share of the burden in a successful military operation.