BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO may have no choice but to escalate its Libyan war effort and use helicopters or naval gunfire against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces to end bloodshed in Misrata and break the military stalemate, analysts say.
Switching to low-level strikes from the current campaign involving high-flying aircraft would be more effective, but greatly increase the danger of casualties among NATO forces and carry significant political risks for Western leaders.
U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared last week they would continue military action until Gaddafi quits.
“They’ve boxed themselves in by describing victory as Gaddafi leaving,” said Daniel Keohane of the EU Institute for Security Studies think tank. “I don’t think there’s any way they can walk away now. There’s a political imperative to carry on.”
The need to escalate from a limited campaign of high altitude airstrikes becomes more likely the more the battering of Misrata goes on, given NATO’s U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
Hundreds of people are thought to have been killed in the seven-week siege of the port city, where thousands of foreign migrant workers are stranded. A rebel spokesman said Gaddafi’s forces bombarded Misrata with rockets and artillery on Monday after 17 people were killed in the previous day’s shelling.
Tim Ripley, a military expert at Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the current pace of NATO operations was having only a very limited effect on Gaddafi’s forces.
”It’s clear they are not having a very big impact when NATO is claiming only about a 100 plus vehicles destroyed and when you look at what the Libyans had before.
“They are simply not putting up the weight of aircraft needed -- they are putting up about 60 strikes a day and only knocking out say 5, 10, 15 targets.”
Tomas Valasek, a defence analyst at the Centre for European Reform, said an escalation of the military effort could be necessary -- at least in the short term -- to end attacks on civilians and apply pressure for a political solution.
“If NATO doesn’t want to be left in this situation indefinitely, where there is effectively a military stalemate and hostilities against civilians haven’t ceased, it may be necessary to do more than it’s currently doing,” he said.
However, while there might be a demonstrable need to step up the effort, finding the resources is a problem.
At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin last week, the United States and other NATO allies rebuffed French and British calls for them to do more in the air campaign.
While Britain and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen subsequently voiced optimism that allies would eventually provide more planes, Washington is reluctant to recommit to the full combat role from which it stepped back when NATO took over the Libya campaign on March 31.
French officials and military analysts say the U.S. fleet of low-flying ground-attack A-10 aircraft and AC-130 gunships could help break the stalemate, but U.S. officials said they would be at “high risk” from Gaddafi’s shoulder-fired missiles.
Helicopters would be even more effective but even more vulnerable to ground fire by Gaddafi’s forces -- as has been shown in NATO’s war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. administration is particularly sensitive to the risk of losses in Africa after the Clinton’s adminstration’s experience in Somalia dramatised in the movie “Black Hawk Down”.
“Somalia caused Clinton a lot of problems and Obama doesn’t want that. There are a lot of people in Obama’s administration who served in the Clinton administration and remember it well,” Keohane said.
While European states in NATO have more than 800 attack helicopters they can call on, and Britain, at least, has the means to operate them in Libya from amphibious landing ships, all allies are reluctant to increase the risk to their forces.
“There’s a general problem in that you only have seven NATO states now willing to hit ground targets,” Keohane said.
“There’s even more risk using helicopters as they are easier to shoot down, and it’s a serious political problem if you have casualties or people captured.”
Ripley at Jane’s said a less risky option would be to use NATO warships to target Gaddafi’s forces, although special forces operating in Libya would be needed to direct fire.
”It’s a realistic option -- particularly around Misrata,“ he said. ”The NATO navies have 20-plus warships within range and you are taking a weight of fire power that would devastate the Libyan army -- hundreds of shells a minute.
“And provided you have observers on the ground, they are as accurate as an airstrike.”
Whatever options it chooses, NATO finds itself in a more complicated and potentially protracted conflict than it foresaw.
“One of the very important variables they simply didn’t know about was the difference between the military strength of the opposition and the political unity of the regime,” Valasek said.
“It turns out the opposition is militarily weaker than thought and the regime is probably stronger than thought. War is by definition very unpredictable and full of variables. Sometimes you get them right and sometimes you get them wrong.”
(editing by Paul Taylor)