NATO launches 24-hour surveillance of Libyan air space

British Defence Secy Liam Fox had hinted, a no-fly zone could be enforced.

Updated: Mar 10, 2011, 22:02 PM IST

London: NATO spy planes on Thursday mounted a
24-hour air space surveillance over Libya, as British Defence
Secretary Liam Fox hinted that a no-fly zone could be enforced
without wiping the North African nation`s air defences.

Three Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft are airborne over the
Mediterranean off the Libyan coast keeping track of all Libyan
fighters, NATO officials said here.

The surveillance was put into operation around noon
today and came as Libyan air force fighters carried out the
heaviest bombing of rebel positions at Ras Lanuf in the east
and captured the key western city of Zawiyah, 50-km from the
capital Tripoli.

In growing signs that a US and NATO combine military
action may be imminent, the British Defence Secretary said
that a no-fly zone over Libya was possible without hitting at
Libyan air force bases and air defence systems.

In contrast to comments by US Defence Secretary Robert
Gates, Fox said a no-fly zone like that was enforced over Iraq
between 1991-2003, could also be imposed over Libya.

Fox told the BBC Radio that the aim of the western
forces would require a demonstrable need, a strong legal basis
and broad international and regional support.

Fox will meet fellow NATO defence ministers later to
discuss the drafting of a UN resolution, being put together by
the UK and France, which will call for an air exclusion zone
over Libya.

Asked by BBC whether such a move would require an
attack on the country, he replied: "In Iraq that`s not the way
we carried out the no-fly zone. There are alternatives."

The British defence secretary said that, rather than
"taking out" air defences in a pre-emptive strike, NATO
leaders could say that, if an enemy locked its air defence
radar on NATO planes, they could "regard that as a hostile
action and take subsequent action".

He added: "That`s one military option but there are
other military options that we have used."

The defence secretary said he and his NATO colleagues
wanted to make sure that "we are all on the same page".

Fox also said any action would require international
and regional support, but described Col Gaddafi`s use of
violence as "very worrying".


"This isn`t just sending a bunch of airplanes to shoot down other aircraft," he said.

The zone need not span all of Libya, one of Africa`s largest countries, because much of the fighting has been confined to its coastal strip.

NATO and the US say they would not act without UN Security Council authorisation, and Western diplomats have said a Britain- and France-backed resolution to impose a no-fly zone won`t be introduced to the council unless it is endorsed by the Arab League and the African Union at meetings in coming days.

Gaddafi`s pilots would almost certainly be routed if they tried to flout a Western flight ban.

Since the 1990s, poor maintenance and lack of funding have shrunk Gaddafi`s 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 and Yugoslav-made Jastreb light strike jets dating from the late 1960s. Several have been destroyed by the insurgents, or been flown out of the country by pilots defecting from Gaddafi`s forces.

The government has only a handful of planes designed to intercept other aircraft, the Mig-21 and Mig-25, also dating from the 1960s.

NATO officials say they could quickly deploy 200-300 jets to Libya from bases stretching from Gibraltar to Greece, and from US carriers in the Mediterranean.

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

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

They also are equipped with the latest air-to-air missiles, which are far more sophisticated than the Soviet-built models of the 1980s in the Libyan arsenal.

Bureau Report