Or East or West, depending on where they are coming from!
Of course I am referring to the rumoured deployment of British Army Apache AH1 helicopters to Libya.
As the Royal Navy’s Response Force Task Group (RFTG) has been taking part in the very visible and very noisy Exercise Cougar 11 in the Eastern Mediterranean it has been rumoured for a long time that it would see some operational deployment in support of Operation Ellamy. Elements of the RFTG sailed 3 weeks early to provide those much talked about ‘choices’
Also during this deployment was the news that the Army Air Corps Apache helicopter had continued its ongoing integration within the Royal Navy and Royal Marines amphibious capability, successfully firing Hellfire missiles, working in weapons storage and movement aboard and of course further training for air and ground crew in the littoral environment.
All good stuff, proving and improving a useful capability, we should all be pleased.
If true, and at this stage the MoD have neither confirmed nor denied, it will mark yet another escalation in the tortuous escalation in force that has characterised the NATO involvement.
On Monday, French defence minister Gerard Longuet let the cat out of the bag by saying;
The British, who have assets similar to ours, will also commit. The sooner the better is what the British think.
Speaking to Parliament today, Nick Harvey said;
We have not taken this decision, and that we have not suggested to the French that we have taken this decision.
The objective would remain exactly the same, the targets would remain the same, but we would have at our disposal a weapon with a greater degree of precision, better able to hit targets, and indeed moving targets, and with a lower risk of collateral damage.
But I repeat: No such decision has as yet been taken.
It’s very unusual strategy to tell the enemy exactly what you’re up to
The French are deploying Tiger and Gazelle helicopters, both have combat experience in Afghanistan but the French Tiger’s are currently awaiting their Hellfire integration, currently, they are only armed with an automatic cannon and unguided rockets. Reports said 12 Tigers were aboard the BPC Tonnerre but this seems unlikely given the small numbers in service so the HOT ATGW and Mistral AA missile armed Gazelles may form the bulk of the force (any French commenters in the know?)
Press reports have characterised this as a significant escalation, it’s an escalation alright but not sure about the significance; aboard HMS Ocean are 3 Apache’s although more could be deployed. What it does represent is a risk in risk, Libyan forces still retain a sizeable man portable anti aircraft missile arsenal and by operating at lower speeds and altitudes than fast jets, helicopters remain more vulnerable to ground fires.
Is this like a slow motion replay of the Balkans, a vague hope changey notion that air attacks would force some sort of capitulation followed by a drawn out realisation that ground forces are the most sensible option?
As in the Balkans, Gadaffi shows no signs whatsoever of changing anything and has adapted the tactics to counter the denial of airspace and interdiction of command and control. The lack of any palatable options means he is in to the end.
Despite the background noise of statistics on number of bombs dropped, sorties generated, tanks destroyed, bunkers collapsed and even ships sunk, the reality on the ground is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Without the use of ground manoeuvre forces this will simply drag on and on, each escalation elongating the conflict and unlikely to bring about significant change.
The dreams of air power theorists have yet again been shown as somewhat deficient in the reality stakes.
Perhaps I am being harsh, for a very limited set of strategic objectives air power has served its purpose and by keeping ground forces out of Libya (apart from those ‘advisors’) we remain within the bounds of UN1973. As we run out of targets that can be safely engaged from the air alone though, there is a certain depressing inevitability about a rising civilian casualty list.
The great white hope of Libyan rebel forces being that ground element; has, despite their incredible bravery and resourcefulness, also shown to be somewhat optimistic.
The underlying strategy seems as confused as ever, mired in conflicting politics that only complicate matters and the longer things go on, those political issues will play an even greater role in dragging things out.
This deployment is an excellent demonstration of this muddle, are they part of the NATO force, not according to NATO. The LA Times reported a NATO official, when asked, said;
At this stage, we have heard that they have got a ship with helicopters in the Mediterranean,they’re not part of us.
The strategy so far has been to stave off a rebel defeat, apply constant but rising pressure, wear down the government forces and provide some breathing space for the rebels to organise and arm themselves but in parts this is hopelessly optimistic, how long has it taken us to get the ANA to its current state, are we really going to be slowly applying pressure for years to come?
Instead of simply ripping the plaster off, the West’s strategy is to peel it off, inch by inch, escalation by escalation, hoping the pain will go away.
By demonstrating this timidity, deferring to the UN, having a palpable aversion to deploying ground forces and only doing the bare minimum at every escalation we are simply dragging things out and storing up problems for the future.
A swift and decisive ground intervention with limited aims and objectives would bring the matter to a conclusion much quicker than our incremental, over cautious and hopelessly optimistic approach. What that ‘matter’ is depends on your point of view, it could be the removal of Mr Gadaffi or an end to the humanitarian crisis.
Who knows, attack helicopters just might prove to be the tipping point, it’s a nice thought, but I remain sceptical.