The publication yesterday of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Report on Libya is quite rightly very positive about the conduct and outcome of recent operations in that country.
There were three important factors in the operation leading to a successful outcome: a backdrop of clear, diplomatic alignment around UN Resolution 1973; a rapid NATO-led deployment; and the existence of internal resistance seeking to remove Gaddafi.
One can view the headlines of success but fail to see the bigger issues that the experience throws up. The ultimate success of the operation in a short timeframe does not remove the backdrop of the SDSR and the challenge to ensure that future operations of a similar type would be successful whilst maintaining the contingent capabilities that our country needs.
Conflict between military and political objectives
The objectives were not defined sufficiently clearly. It became very difficult to sustain a narrative which maintained it was not about regime change, when it became increasingly clear throughout the conflict that the objective of protecting civilians would not be secured without regime change. The public heard that the action was intended to enable Libyans to define their own future and to protect innocent civilians from a dictator. However, it is difficult not to conclude that the world had lost patience with Gaddafi and his inability to act with any concern for innocent human lives. Few analysts predicted a scenario where Gaddafi remained in power having undergone a Damascene conversion after 40 years of oppressive government. Regime change may be a toxic phrase, but there is a need to be clearer in defining objectives in a way which does not diminish credibility and sow confusion among the public.
Value for money questions
There is no doubt that our Armed Forces did an excellent job in Libya. The Typhoons and Tornados played an important and full role, as did the Navy and Joint Helicopter Command. However this should not stop us asking whether the operation achieved value for money.
The 'Harrier and Carrier' question has been much debated. It is entirely legitimate to ask whether, if we still had an operational carrier, it would have been deployed and had an impact on cost and efficiency of the operation. In evidence to the committee, the First Sea Lord made clear that if we had had a carrier available, he suspected it would have been used. Clearly, a carrier would not have incurred as yet undisclosed costs of fuel transits, accommodation, an extensive equipment supply chain and RAF bases in Italy.
It is noted that the Italians used their aircraft carrier, as did the French, rather than deploy from air bases in Italy and France. This is surely more evidence to support the urgent need for QE class carriers to be brought into service and the carrier strike programme to be regenerated with sufficient aircraft.
Nevertheless, thanks to the choice of weaponry and performance of the RAF there was little collateral damage. However, it would be interesting for the RAF's review of operations to examine whether the same low levels of collateral damage could have been achieved using different weaponry, and whether improvements could have been made so that the same targets were not bombed on multiple occasions.
The headline success of the mission should not negate the need for a rigorous assessment of value for money issues. To facilitate this we need greater transparency over the costs involved in Operation Ellamy: not only the direct costs, but also factors such as the impact on pre-existing training plans, and extra wear on engines and airframes. Given the remit of a shared NATO command a like-for-like comparison with our allies should be undertaken as far as possible.
It is imperative that the lessons taken from the successful operations in Libya should serve to inform and enable successful conduct in any future operations. It remains unclear whether a similar operation could be repeated whilst retaining the ongoing contingent capabilities in a world where the SDSR resourcing decisions are fully implemented.
Gaddafi: a unique challenge
However, it should be acknowledged that it is highly unlikely that we will see another situation where world powers agree a UN resolution leading to an effective air campaign in cooperation with in-country resistance so to achieve a successful outcome in a politically-manageable timeframe. Fortunately, there are few characters like Gaddafi who provoke universal world condemnation. Perhaps President Assad of Syria should be another: but as yet the Russians and Chinese do not seem to agree with this assessment.