The game-changer in terms of effective NATO air support for the Libyan rebels was time. That’s because it took months for NATO to re-create a coalition-style precision air strike campaign similar to what the United States leads daily in places like Afghanistan.
Battleland has talked about the air war above Libya with U.S. officials who have coordinated the air wars over Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who have participated in running the Libya campaign from Naples. Both said NATO had to basically reinvent the air-war wheel.
After ten years of air-strike-heavy combat, the United States has honed the precision air strike to a fine art. The United States can coordinate a ballet of legions of aircraft from the Combined Air Operations Center in the Middle East. Predator drones humming above the battlefield give ground commanders and their air support a consistent, birds-eye view of the battle space. Meanwhile, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the ground traveling with ground troops can guide pilots in the air to extremely precise strikes with the aid of lasers or GPS coordinates. That’s why a Special Forces A-Team can take on a lot of Taliban and U.S. forces can often blast their way out of being overrun.
But President Obama ordered that the U.S. not put boots on the ground in Libya — not even small teams staffed with JTAC folks. That job has been left to the British and French who now have their elite forces on the ground helping to coordinate the air war. That took time to set up. NATO also had to forge relationships with rebel elements to get accurate intelligence flowing to Naples. And finally, the United States had to commit to moving enough Predator drones into the battle space to make a difference there, even if it meant stealing the drones from someplace else where those aircraft might be sorely needed.
Yes, it would have been faster and perhaps more effective for the United States to just effectively expand the air war from Afghanistan to Libya and insert a handful of operators to guide precision strikes. But the president insisted this was a NATO party, and it took some time for NATO to send out the invites.