French Ops in Libya

Preliminary Lessons Learned

By General Jean-Patrick Gaviard


Libya: Operation Harmattan (Credit: EMA/Armee de l'Air - Marine Nationale)Photo Credit: Libya: Operation Harmattan, EMA / Armée de l’Air – Marine Nationale, March 2011


04/20/2011 – In the aftermath of several weeks of bombings above Libya, it might be of interest to attempt to decrypt two key events which happened as this operation was being conducted:

  • The “pole position start” of the French Air Force as a direct support to political action.
  • the shift of command of the operation to NATO, even though a Franco-British alternative solution could have been considered.


An Unusual Operational Tempo
When reviewing the March 19th strikes, one needs to apprehend, first and foremost, the notion of operational tempo, i.e. the rhythmus of a political-military pulse which air power’s inherent characteristics, such as reversibility, reactivity, and effective range, manage to initiate in a sequenced order.

On March 19th, the action played out in less than 7 hours:

  • At 11 a.m.: while the Carrier Battle Group warms up in Toulon, four Rafale fighters in air defense configuration take off from Saint Dizier airbase. They are supported by air tankers from Istres and one AWACS from Avord airbase.
  • At 12:30 p.m.: at the Elysée palace, the French President opens an international meeting about Libya, two days after Resolution 1973 was signed  in New York.
  • At 1:00 p.m. : the four Rafale fighters are on site and patrol above Benghazi to enforce the no-fly-zone. They are filmed and broadcasted on TV channels all over the world.
  • At 2:00 p.m.: two Rafale and two Mirage 2000D fighters in close air support configuration take off respectively from Mont de Marsan and Nancy airbases.
  • At 5:00 p.m.: French aircrafts destroy several of Gaddafi’s troops’ armored vehicles on the outskirts of Benghazi, disrupting the encirclement of the Cyrenaica’s capital. Half an hour later, after leaving the international meeting, the French President can communicate on his decision and the first results which stem from it.


A Good Synchronization of Assets
What do such a string of events and tempo demonstrate?

– First of all, there has been a highly accurate synchronization between political actions and aerial operations, displaying in a minimum amount of time a strong and loud signal of determination and credibility, in less than 48 hours after the UN resolution.

– What is also palpable here is an effective planning capability and the ability to conduct an operation, which involved the President’s personal chief of staff with his accurate operational expertise, the Joint Chief of Staff  and the Air Force. Indeed, the latter was able to perfectly adapt to the mission, while, along with the navy and Army, it is going through a major restructuring and manpower reduction.

– The importance of the Air Defense Command and Air Operations should also be highlighted: it is currently headed by General Desclaux, who, under the guidance of the Army’s Chief of Staff, planned and controlled these first air operations on his own.

There is none of NATO’s “big machinery” here. But without this command center located at the Balard base in Paris and supported by Lyon Mont Verdun-based air operations center, these French operations could never have been carried out. Finally and mostly, this string of events on a short loop basis stressed the coherence between all involved assets: ranging from the investments made to equip Lyon Mont-Verdun’s – where all European air forces are trained for air operations – to the determined choice of multirole capabilities illustrated by the « Rafale equation » and its armaments which aim at replacing all existing French air platforms. The operational result is a product of thirty years of investments driven towards a major and crucial imperative: France’s strategic autonomy and operational sovereignty.

This string of events on a short loop basis stressed the coherence between all involved assets: ranging from the investments made to equip Lyon Mont-Verdun’s – where all European air forces are trained for air operations – to the determined choice of multirole capabilities illustrated by the « Rafale equation » and its armaments which aim at replacing all existing French air platforms. The operational result is a product of thirty years of investments driven towards a major and crucial imperative: France’s strategic autonomy and operational sovereignty.


A Strategic Autonomy To Preserve

Such observations open the floor for a more poliotical dimension, i.e. the question of operational etiquette. Without NATO, it has been heard and said, no complex air operations would have been possible and therefore no alternative to its role exists.

The French and the British do however own first rate and NATO-certified command-and-control centers at the strategic, theater and service (in this case air) levels. As a matter of fact, the “all-in-one NATO solution” might not be the one, as soon as the alliance steps out of its original mission, which remains the collective defense on the European continent.

The systematic use of NATO as a universal crisis manager raises some questions, and not only in the Muslim world. That’s why the Common Security and Defence Policy will be, in actual fact and increasingly so, a proper answer to these kind of operations, in areas where balances matter to us and imbalances concern us.

Among the European Union’s agora, the political consensus mays not always be easy to achieve, but no less after all than within NATO (Ankara’s veto comes to mind). Let us not forget that EU’s operations can be executed via a “capable and volunteer” core (like the French-British alliance in the case of Libya), so long as European countries give themselves the meanss to conduct long term operations independently from the USA, in case the latter so not want to be involved. It’s probably not enough the case yet, and one can only stress out the importance for nations to master Command-and-Control (C2) assets.

Once again, the issue is not to assess March 19th’s political choice: it is about reminding the obvious truth which is that, whatever the future operational and political scenarios, autonomy stands from funding. French forces currently lack air tankers and armed UASs. In addition, French land-based, sea-based and air-based capabilities closely depend on the quality of training (in this case, the pilots’ training is at stake, but the same reasoning applies to infantrymen or sailors). Finally, these events highlight the necessary subordination of support to operations.

Whatever the future operational and political scenarios, autonomy stands from funding. French forces currently lack air tankers and armed UASs. In addition, French land-based, sea-based and air-based capabilities closely depend on the quality of training (in this case, the pilots’ training is at stake, but the same reasoning applies to infantrymen or sailors). Finally, these events highlight the necessary subordination of support to operations.

Credibility has a cost and this cost needs to be understood as an investment. As NATO is taking over the control of the Libyan skies, this is the very first lesson learned from the French Air Force strategic autonomy.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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