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As AWACS Prowl Skies Above Libya, U.S. Contemplates How to Aid Rebels

by John Reed on March 7, 2011

Adding to the question of a Western presence in Libya this morning are several reports that surfaced over the weekend claiming that: U.S. AWACS jets are crisscrossing the skies above Libya requesting details on Libyan flight patterns from Maltese air traffic controllers; a British SAS team escorting a U.K. “diplomat” en-route to meet with rebels was briefly taken prisoner by those rebels and another report citing British officials as saying a no-fly zone is in “the earliest phases of planning.”

In an article claiming the U.S. is looking to funnel weapons to the rebels via Saudi Arabia (such a move would officially keep U.S. hands clean and give rebels the ability to create their own no-fly zone) Britain’s The Guardian newspaper had this to say about the AWACS:

For several days now, US Awacs surveillance aircraft have been flying around Libya, making constant contact with Malta air traffic control and requesting details of Libyan flight patterns, including journeys made in the past 48 hours by Gaddafi’s private jet which flew to Jordan and back to Libya just before the weekend.

Officially, Nato will only describe the presence of American Awacs planes as part of its post-9/11 Operation Active Endeavour, which has broad reach to undertake aerial counter-terrorism measures in the Middle East region.

The data from the Awacs is streamed to all Nato countries under the mission’s existing mandate. Now that Gaddafi has been reinstated as a super-terrorist in the West’s lexicon, however, the Nato mission can easily be used to search for targets of opportunity in Libya if active military operations are undertaken.

Al Jazeera English television channel last night broadcast recordings made by American aircraft to Maltese air traffic control, requesting information about Libyan flights, especially that of Gaddafi’s jet.

An American Awacs aircraft, tail number LX-N90442 could be heard contacting the Malta control tower on Saturday for information about a Libyan Dassault-Falcon 900 jet 5A-DCN on its way from Amman to Mitiga, Gaddafi’s own VIP airport.

Nato Awacs 07 is heard to say: “Do you have information on an aircraft with the Squawk 2017 position about 85 miles east of our [sic]?”

Malta air traffic control replies: “Seven, that sounds to be Falcon 900– at flight level 340, with a destination Mitiga, according to flight plan.”

And here’s an interesting excerpt from The New York Times about those captured SAS troops:

Eight British Special Forces soldiers were briefly taken captive by Libyan rebel forces in the east of the country, according to British news reports on Sunday.

The soldiers, from the elite Special Air Service, had been part of a team escorting a British diplomat to meet with Libyan rebels, according to The Sunday Times of London, which first reported on the incident. The newspaper cited anonymous Libyan and British sources and said the men had been held at a military base over the weekend.

Further reports later Sunday suggested that the eight men had been released and were aboard the Cumberland, a Royal Navy ship off the coast of Libya.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, confirmed in a statement that “a small British diplomatic team” in Benghazi, a rebel-held city in eastern Libya, tried to “initiate contacts with the opposition” but “experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved.”

All this makes it look like the west has quietly begun to help the rebels one way or another. Just last week there were unconfirmed reports of western ground troops in the country. It was reported they were there to look into what it would take to set up a no-fly zone.

Oh, and then there’s this interesting bit of info from the AP:

The international community appeared to be struggling to put muscle behind its demands for Gaddafi to give up power. Britain said one of the most talked about ideas for intervention — the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya — is still in an early stage of planning and ruled out the use of ground forces.

An early stage of planning? That could mean a number of things, from actual plans to implement a no-fly zone to simple considerations of one. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

richardb March 7, 2011 at 10:03 am

Obama was raised on certain truths. One was that America was an agent of imperialism thru the 20th century. It will be rich indeed to see Obama intervene in Libya with American military power to shape events to the benefit of the American people.

He may have no choice but to eat this dish of crow if Syria and Iran are shipping men and material to the Gaddafi people.

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blight March 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Idealism meeting reality is typical. I almost voted for Bush II when he promised we would stop messing around in other people's countries. Candidate Bush was reasonably compelling when he had to be.

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Airman March 7, 2011 at 10:12 am

LX-N90442 is a NATO AWACS, not U.S. Air Force. So, yes, “American” in manufacture, but not operation.

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Robert Leischer March 23, 2011 at 9:20 pm

707s or 135s miltary planes from that time DO Not Have a tail no like that . First two Numbers indicate the year the airframe was built. I was an x crewchief on Fighters from that time in Nam. Thanks, air Guard in wisconsin has one still flying a135 Same as 707 with a prefix no 57, almost as old as me, But i dont have any up dates.It does.Would like to know what the airframe hours are on it. Bob L wisconsin, Tsgt Retired 23 years in 05

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Paul March 7, 2011 at 10:14 am

@richardb Yeah, I'm sure you know ALL about Obama's truths.
Focus on the mission and keep politics out of this.

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richardb March 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

Paul, be sanctimonious if that makes you feel better Politics will motivate any American reaction. I guess you have forgotten Obama's apology tour the first year he had office? The tour that apologized for American interference in other nations affairs during the 20th century?
Those views shaped the man and now reconciling those views with a realistic assessment of American interests are proving to be messy. Is Libya a vital American interest? If so do we intervene on the ground, air or economically? Are other governments hostile to the US shaping events in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunis? How are those countries vital to the US, if at all?
Obama's world view will surely shape our response and determine the "mission".

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blight March 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm

To the cynic, it proves that party ideology has no affect on how the guy in the White House plays the world with an interest in realpolitik, and that realpolitik and national interests exceed the intellectual arguments abut America playing nice and atoning for past sins.

Libya is an oil supplier to Europe moreso than the states. If Libya collapses it will lead to a spike in prices. Nothing serious, just enough to account for a shift in S&D curves that leaves consumers fuming. The United States would soldier on without Libyan oil, as would the world. Does that mean we should let things go out of control? No.

Sending in foreign forces even if Muslim would provoke a s-storm. Somali warlords had no problem killing Pakistani peacekeepers, so having troops of similar religion won't give any protection to "outsiders". If we intervene it becomes a foreign occupation.

What we can do is do a military buildup in Malta and off the coast, and ensure no foreigners are caught in the crossfire. Table a compromise such as UN-overseen elections, but this would require foreigners to set up the vote, and worst-case scenario foreign peacekeepers.

Foreign troops will be guaranteed to be attacked by the Libyan military. What's ambiguous is what rebel forces will do. If you fail to denounce the foreigners, you are one of their agents. If you attack them, you will be destroyed, and Gaddafi's troops will mop you up.

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jason March 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

This is definitely a NATO AWACS plane, the tail number and the callsign both indicate this.

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@Earlydawn March 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Here's a thought; why don't we keep our nose out of it and actually let a country solve its own problems?

On the other hand, if it looks like Gadhafi is going to pull a Saddam and destroy the oil infrastructure in spite, I fully support putting in so many Marines that they have to put Tripoli in the Marine Corps Hymm twice.

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aniemyer March 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Wow, lots of conclusion-jumping here, based on imprecise language, a lack of practical knowledge and a stock photo. First, think about it: Putting any sort of four-engined, non-agile airframe, unescorted, over somebody else's sovereign territory is just flat stupid, from an operator's POV. So either A) They're escorted, which is spoken of nowhere in the article, or B) They are actually north, out over the Med, where they can look south into the areas where most (but by no means all) of the Libyan airfields are located and the current air-ground sorties are being flown. As in almost every previous conflict involving Libya/Cyrenaica/Tripolitania, the fight is within about 150 KM of the Med coast

Second, that's a stock photo everyone! This is a story from the "Guardian," hardly a bastion of journalistic precision and accuracy, either on the part of the reporters or the editors. The story begins with "US," then meanders over to NATO ISR data sharing. Until the amateur airplane spotters start posting (prior to their arrests, no doubt) on their blogs, there is no way of telling who the current equipment players really are.

That aside, given the desire of the White House to make this a coalition effort, I expect this to be, on paper and for the cameras, a NATO-led effort, should it come to fruition. Don't count out a Russian or Chinese veto, however, blocking this becoming a UN effort.

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kim March 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Thanx for putting info about the photo straight.

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J Weich March 8, 2011 at 1:13 am

“This is a story from the “Guardian,” hardly a bastion of journalistic precision and accuracy”.

You certainly don’t have a grasp of what constitutes good journalism if you actually believe this. The Guardian has been a beacon of truthful reporting in a sea of **** for many, many years. It still stand head and shoulders above any other US and UK paper as far as truthful independent reporting goes.

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stan March 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm

SAS team capture? Wow! I would not want to be a member of that team when they got back to their home base.

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bob March 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

True, but im sure that if you do harm the rebels, then would they want to work with you?

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blight March 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Apparently saving face by evading capture by killing the people you are supposed to meet is more important than working with them.

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STemplar March 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm

So we do nothing and we embolden the thugs in Tehran. We get involved and we risk providing fodder for the jihadists. The real problem is there is so much transpiring so quickly in the middle east it's hard to say whether it is good or bad for us. I think that's the paralysis gripping DC and European capitals right now. At the end of the day I think there is long term value outside the theater to demonstrate we are willing to apply force to resolve issues beyond strongly worded letters from the UN. That's not a green light for ground troops, but I think we could probably nudge Ghadaffi out of power with a little precise application of air power. I would hope, and based on the SAS incident, I think, we are right now trying to figure out who we should be talking to about post Ghadaffi Libya.

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Darkhorse March 7, 2011 at 4:10 pm

It is one of oldest debates around. Does the world want global stability, or does it want progress, and allow citizens to have right to elect their own government? No one should ever live under tyranny, regardless of the economic value. Do we then look the other way, when it is not convenient, or do we get involved, and own the mess that always follows? Revolution and democracy is very messy. Every human should be free.

Muammar Gaddafi , and his offspring must not be allowed to retain power.

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Dean March 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Does a no-fly zone require a carrier? Is it too far to enforce from, Italy maybe? If it does need a carrier part of the reason a NFZ has not happened is that we don't have one available for tasking? I think they moved in a 'phib group with Harriers, but I don't think I'd want to try for airspace control with just Harriers. I think you need some F-18 with AMRAAMs for that.

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MadMike March 8, 2011 at 2:07 am

Where did the F-111s come from the last time we dropped a bomb on Ghaddafi?

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blight March 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Air refueling, flew in from England from the west because we couldn't secure overflight rights.

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ruethan March 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Its a long way from Italy to Libya for fighters, and way too long for Harriers. You need enough loiter time over the area to do any good. Ergo, carriers are needed to get the a/c close enough. But the UK gave up its carrier capability, thinking (hoping) Afghanistan was going to be the pattern for future wars. A new strategic defense review , anyone?

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MadMike March 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Park a Carrier off the Libyan coast and the psychological value alone would have Ghadaffi shaking in his boots, don't you think?

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anon March 7, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Why is everyone so quick to forget what happens every time the US "aids" rebels?
anyone heard of the Taliban?

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blight March 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm

The guys we aided became the "Afghan warlords". More accurately, they would be the post-Soviet government that dissolved in in-fighting, which /led/ to the Taliban reunifying the country and driving the Northern Alliance into the Panjshir.

Without American aid, the Soviets would likely have won in Afghanistan, and it would have been cut lose after the dissolution of the USSR, and /then/ the Taliban would still rise up.

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J Weich March 8, 2011 at 1:25 am

You are mistaken. The “warlords” you refer to were backed by the US at the beginning of the current US interference in Afghanistan, the “Northern Alliance”. During the Soviet period, it was indeed the forebears of the Taliban that the US supported.

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blight March 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm

The Taliban were young students, some of which participated in the war but the inner circle of the Taliban was not made up of warlords.

My statement was incomplete, so I will recapitulate it.

We funded a variety of groups. The "warlords" were Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek (basically all groups received arms). When the Soviets departed all three groups fought for power in the transitional government, and turned their weapons on each other.

The Taliban arose in the Pashtun south as a counter-movement against more violence. Pashtun warlords changed sides or died trying. Eventually it was just Tajik/Uzbek warlords in the government, who lost Kabul (leading to the formation of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban), and then Mazar-i-Sharif, and then were forced into the Panjshir. Uzbeks included Dostum and the Tajiks included Ahmed Shah Massoud, who would eventually get killed by AQ.

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jamesb101 March 7, 2011 at 11:15 pm

the SAS guys might come out looking bad…but they did the right thing…..

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jamesb101 March 7, 2011 at 11:17 pm

The NATO AWACS are probabaly NOT in Libya….but should have CAP's close by…..while they 'look in'…

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MadMike March 8, 2011 at 2:01 am

Offer a house with a swimming pool in Vegas to every Libyan pilot who defects to Egypt or Tunisia. It'll make Ghadaffi think twice before sending out aircraft if he thinks the guy in the cockpit it going to split the scene. Besides, his aircraft, for the most part, are valuable antiques! There might even be a P-51 hidden away in someone's garage, not to mention all the spare parts gathering dust over the years.

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111 March 8, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Libya is the new Iraq.

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