(F3s off on patrol one last time.....)
No Fly Zones sound impressive. And indeed, they can be! Lots of jets patrolling the skies and stopping nasty dictators (e.g. Saddam Hussein) from using air power to schwack good guys (e.g. Kurds) at little cost and virtually no risk to our servicepeople. Much better than the dirty, dangerous expensive business of putting soldiers on the ground in unfamiliar countries with language and cultural barriers to fight someone else's war. In this sense, the NFZ is the epitome of modern gesture politics - a modern equivalent of sending a gunboat - looks great, little if any risk to us, and satisfies the dangerous disease of "do-somethingitis" that often infects politicians. ("Something must be done!" etc etc)
NFZs for humanitarian purposes are apparently legally convenient: the Northern and Southern Iraqi NFZs were not directly covered by a UN Security council Resolution. UNSCR 688 didn't expressly authorise them, and no-one (with the possible exception of the Iraqi regime) seemed to mind too much, even when it came to so-called "Response Options" which were preplanned attacks in response to Iraqi air-defence activity. Better, over the period of 12 years and more than 180,000 sorties, no manned coalition aircraft were shot down. So, an NFZ appears to provide a low-cost effort for policing - a policy initially proposed by Winston Churchill in the 1920s.
(S-300PMU-2 / SA-20 GARGOYLE: An issue)
But there are issues. Specifically, there is the Libyan integrated air defence system (IADS), which in all likelihood would have to be deactivated / destroyed before any serious NFZ partoling could get underway. According to Wikipedia the IADS may include S-300PMU-2 / SA-20 GARGOYLE, which is a rather dangerous issue. As in a Corporal Jones "Don't Panic" dangerous sort of an issue....
(Libyan Mi-35 HIND. Bad news if you're a protestor - photo by Chris Lofting)
Second, the real threat to the Libyan civilians /protesters / rebels is from ground forces operating with helicopters much more than jet fighter-bombers (FJs). And as finding and shooting down low-flying helicopters is a non-trivial task, implementing an NFZ that stops helicopters flying requires 24-hour coverage, or the political will to disable or destroy the Libyan AF on the ground.
Third, this means that we're into air attacks against Libyan armed forces targets, so why not be effective by bombing the tanks, artillery and armoured personnel carriers that are being used against the non-Gaddafi forces. Which runs the serious risk - which needs to be acknowledged up front and addressed - that in imposing an NFZ we are on a slippery slope to actual humanitarian intervention on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces. On this basis, we'd be well advised to just fess up and get on with it robustly - whilst robustly defending the legality of the intervention. More force sooner to remove Gaddafi's regime will save more lives, so if the international community is serious about it, let's get on with it.
("Now Dave, have you really thought through this 'No Fly Zone' business...?")
All of which seems to have missed British Prime Minister David Cameron when he proposed an NFZ, leading to the humiliation by US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates (seen chatting with "call me Dave" above in 2010) to basically rubbish it as "loose talk" (Ouch!). Why does Gates' view matter? Um, because the UK cannot begin to think about establishing an NFZ without the US. (Especially now after the continuing cuts following the SDSR.) In fact, no-one can - any NFZ will be US-led as only the USAF and the US Navy have the capacity and the capability to do it.
So by all means have an NFZ, preferably under UN, Arab League, African Union or even conceivably OIC auspices. But to be effective in saving Libyan lives by removing this awful regime, invoke the humanitarian exception to the Art 2(4) prohibition on the use of force and attack Gaddafi's instruments of repression.
And do it now.