Small Wars

This Week at War: The Milosevic Option

Why NATO may soon break out the Kosovo playbook in Libya.

NATO wants to get ‘more aggressive' against Qaddafi. But how exactly?

Over the past two week, the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi have achieved some modest gains. Rebels in the western city of Misrata have apparently halted Qaddafi's artillery bombardment of the city center. More cracks may have developed inside the leader's inner circle. But some NATO military leaders, concerned that the overall military stalemate remains in place, are looking for ways to be "more aggressive" with the air power at their disposal. The task for NATO policymakers is to figure how to bomb Qaddafi and his forces more aggressively without taking more risks with the civilian population NATO explicitly pledged to protect.

According to the BBC, the rebel militia in Misrata has pushed back government forces a few kilometers in several directions. The bombardment of the port area and downtown has ceased as the modest rebel advance was enough to push pro-Qaddafi artillery and rocket launchers out of range. NATO airstrikes against eight Qaddafi warships -- some of which had mined Misrata's port -- will also provide some relief to the population. As welcome as these developments are for the residents of the city, this local tactical success does not seem to have affected the larger strategic stalemate throughout Libya. The eastern frontline south of Benghazi remains roughly unchanged and Qaddafi's forces remain in control of Tripoli and most of the western half of the country.

With rebel ground formations static and incapable of offensive maneuver, the NATO air campaign appears increasingly focused on attacks against government command-and-control and leadership targets. Foremost among these are repeated nighttime strikes against Qaddafi's sprawling compound in Tripoli. It is hard to imagine the military utility of these return visits to Qaddafi's compound -- Qaddafi himself long since decamped to residential areas or other obvious "no go" areas for NATO bombing. Subordinate commanders who might have once used the compound also must have long since established alternate command sites.

NATO's bombardment strategy is now likely more focused on applying political and psychological coercion against the regime rather than inflicting battlefield damage against military forces. Repeated attacks against the compound are designed to erode Qaddafi's prestige. NATO strikes on the compound and other possible leadership locations may also be aimed at frightening Qaddafi's inner circle. This intimidation, combined with legal carrots and sticks now offered by the International Criminal Court, are intended to induce more defections from those around Qaddafi. This strategy may have notched a success; Libya's oil minister has gone missing and may have defected.

But it may not be working fast enough for some NATO leaders. Gen. David Richards, Britain's top military commander, called for expanding the list of acceptable targets. Richards wants to add "infrastructure" targets to NATO's lists. Traditionally, attacks on classic infrastructure targets such as bridges, roads, power plants, and telecommunication systems are designed to isolate an adversary's ground forces, making them more vulnerable to defeat on the battlefield. But attacks on such targets are simultaneously devastating to the civilian population, which is why they have been avoided thus far in the Libyan campaign.

Richards may be hoping to reprise the strategy used effectively against Slobodan Milosevic during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. As I discussed in an earlier column, NATO faced a similar stalemate during its bombing campaign against Serbia. It then expanded its attacks against Milosevic's lieutenants and the economic assets inside Serbia valued by those lieutenants. This change in tactics created enough pressure inside the ruling inner circle to force Milosevic to succumb. Richards' definition of "infrastructure" may have these regime leadership assets in mind.

Libya's rebels and NATO should be mildly encouraged by the perceptible erosion suffered by Qaddafi over the past two weeks. But it hasn't been enough to break the stalemate. NATO may now be willing to double down on the coercive air campaign it is aiming at Qaddafi. Whether it can do that without increasing the suffering of the broader population is another question.

How to get policymakers to understand tradeoffs -- and then remember them later

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn went to the Intrepid Museum in New York City on May 11 to discuss how he and his colleagues are preparing for the coming lean years at the Pentagon. Lynn described what he and his staff have learned from the five previous episodes of defense drawdowns that have occurred since World War II. Lynn declared the previous drawdowns failures that left future policymakers unprepared for the security challenges they eventually faced. Lynn and his colleagues hope to do better this time.

Echoing comments Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this week, Lynn made clear that President Barack Obama's call for an additional $400 billion in security cuts over the next decade will create risks for future policymakers by limiting the military options available to them. In order to meet Obama's defense cut number, policymakers today will have to choose between acquiring certain future capabilities (such as new systems designed to address emerging threats) or having the capacities  (enough soldiers and equipment) needed to accomplish some security objectives around the world. Lynn, Gates, and, presumably, Leon Panetta -- Gates successor -- hope to make sure that Obama and other top officials understand these trade-offs and consequences.

In his speech, Lynn discussed the importance of maintaining a substantial research and development program during the drawdown. He noted how policymakers during the 1970s drawdown maintained research into stealth technology, an investment that continues to pay off today. For the future, Lynn wants to continue research bets on long range strike systems, unmanned aircraft, and cyber capabilities.  The purchase of these capabilities will presumably come out of the hide of forgone capacities - such as fewer ground combat brigades or legacy warships and aircraft.

It is here that top policymakers will have to make agonizing choices that risk possibly dramatic future consequences. Peer competitors like China will soon possess military research and technical capabilities that will nearly match those of the United States. Given the rapid advance of technology, it will be far too risky to forgo the development of leading capabilities such as those listed by Lynn. The long lead times required for fielding leading-edge systems will likely make it impossible to fill in a vulnerable technology gap during an emerging crisis.

But the price of paying for capability insurance may mean that top policymakers may not have the soldiers, warships, and airplanes to respond to politically urgent developments. For example, Harvard professor Sarah Sewall and retired general Anthony Zinni recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging the Pentagon and military commanders to prepare plans for stopping mass atrocities anywhere in the world. Their piece appeared just a few weeks after Obama, European leaders, and others intervened in Libya for exactly this purpose. Beyond Libya, the world affords many more opportunities for similar humanitarian interventions by military forces. But a very real consequence of the tighter budget cap on the Pentagon may be to cause Obama or a future president to have to explain why he can only watch while some humanitarian disaster takes place because military capacities have already been committed elsewhere. Indeed, a lack of available military capacity in the Western powers leading the campaign against Qaddafi partly explains why the coalition is unable to resolve the Libyan conflict.

Sewall and Zinni explained that one reason for preparing such military plans is to inform policymakers of the implications of intervention before they make any commitments. Lynn, Gates, and Panetta have a similar goal in mind for the new defense review. What remains to be seen is whether down the road the policymakers who ordered defense savings will remember the constraints they previously created.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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