Ground troops likely to follow attack helicopters into Libyan fray

The French and British-led NATO campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has taken another step toward deploying troops on the ground with the announcement that attack helicopters are to be sent to the conflict.

The statement by French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet that his forces will send 12 ground attack helicopters to operate in Libya, with the British likely to announce similar moves soon, is a significant escalation in the conflict and a further stretching of the March United Nations resolution authorizing military intervention.

That Security Council mandate only authorized the protection of civilians from Gadhafi's forces as Libyans rose up demanding political reform.

In response, North Atlantic Treaty Organization air forces have attempted to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi using his war planes against civilians and the rebels holding much of the east of the country. The NATO forces have also made bombing raids against Gadhafi's military assets and his command and control centres.

But this intervention has not been conclusive.

Last week Rear Admiral James Faggo, operations head of the United States 6th Fleet, said despite two months of these air raids Gadhafi still has 60 per cent of his military capacity.

Fighting on the ground between the ill-trained and illequipped rebels and Gadhafi's forces has bogged down into a stalemate.

There is persistent talk of dividing the country between the rebel-held east based on the city of Benghazi and Gadhafi remaining in power in the capital Tripoli and the west.

But with the French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy leading the charge, Paris, London and Washington have all said the only acceptable outcome is for Gadhafi to quit power entirely.

Regime change is portrayed as the only effective way to fulfil the UN mandate to protect civilians.

The deployment of the ground attack helicopters, which allow much more precise attacks on Gadhafi's forces and close support for the rebels, is a step toward that goal.

But this tactical escalation comes with added risks, making it more likely that at some point NATO ground troops will be dispatched to Libya to finish off the task of ousting Gadhafi and his regime.

NATO's high-flying bombers have been secure against Gadhafi's air defences. There have been no NATO combat casualties.

The attack helicopters are a more useful and potent weapon in this kind of infantry war. But they are vulnerable to being brought down by shoulderfired anti-aircraft missiles -of which Gadhafi is known to have ample supplies -rocketpropelled grenades and even small arms fire.

The intensified bombing attacks on Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli and other military sites in the last few days are probably an attempt to minimize the danger of NATO helicopters being downed. The focus appears to be on Gadhafi's command, control and communications centres, the essential element in managing not only his continued military resistance, but also his response to the helicopters.

If, however, the attack helicopters prove vulnerable and some are brought down, there will be growing calls for intervention on the ground by NATO forces to break the stalemate and end Gadhafi's resistance.

That's what happened in Kosovo in 1999 when the air campaign failed to produce results. Indeed, it looks as though NATO planners are replaying the campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to prevent the secession of Kosovo.

There was some uncertainty on Tuesday about how unified the French and British forces are in moving to the helicopter tactic.

French Defence Minister Longuet said on Monday: "The British, who have assets similar to ours, will also commit. The sooner the better is what the British think."

Longuet may not have understood that in the British parliamentary system it is important that the announcement of such significant developments be made in the House of Commons.

Nick Harvey, the junior armed forces minister, was dispatched to Westminster to face a barrage of questions from MPs unhappy at British government policy being announced by a French minister.

"No such decision has been taken by the United Kingdom," Harvey said. Therefore, Parliament had not been "kept in the dark" by the government.

But deploying Britain's Apache ground attack helicopters is one of the options being considered, he said, though he denied it represents an escalation, only a "tactical shift."

[Source: By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun, Can, 25May11]

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