As the U.S. and NATO dawdle, responsibly, over the prospect of launching a no-fly zone over Libya, Pentagon planners are warily eying Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses ringing Tripoli and other major coastal sites. They head into heavily-secured war rooms to look at hyper-close, highly-classified satellite imagery. We, on the other hand, have to content ourselves with pretty hyper-close Google Earth imagery. Check out this public assessment of what U.S. and NATO pilots will face if they cross what Gaddafi has called his “Line of Death” at the Gulf of Sidra en route to taking down his air defenses (U.S. aircraft crossed the LOD four times in the 1980s before attacking Libyan targets; one U.S. F-111 was downed in 1986, killing both aboard.)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed three hurdles before any no-fly zone is imposed on Libya at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday. “We all agreed that NATO will only act,” he said, “if there is demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and strong regional support.”
But back to the public imagery. It’s hard to stress how this kind of thing has leveled the playing field between war-planners and everybody else.
Twenty years ago, there was great concern inside the U.S. government that future Google Earth-like capabilities would dull its combat edge. But in recent decades, it has been the U.S. and its allies that have used satellite imagery to draft war plans, not Iraq, Serbia and Libya. The fixed targets that constitute most air-defense networks favor the attacking force — which is on the move — not static defenses.
The Libyan SAM Network is the creation of Sean O’Connor of Indianapolis, who meshes Google Earth imagery with Internet research to come up with what Pentagon officials say is a pretty good snapshot of the Libyan air-defense network (although it was posted in May, it apparently hasn’t changed much since then). “At the end of the day, the Libyan strategic SAM network requires a massive infusion of new technology to remain viable in the twenty-first century,” O’Connor concludes. “It was not capable of repelling an attack over twenty years ago, and there is no reason to suspect that it will be capable of such action today.”
O’Connor is launching a monthly emailed version of his air-defense research. “At this time,” his website notes, “US.gov and .mil addresses will be denied subscription to the service.”