Libya: Warbirds of Prey? Or Warbirds of Pray?

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A British WAH-64D with its unusual radar dome above the main rotors / Wiki

After two months of stalemate, the allies are considering stepping up their war game over Libya. The war’s two key boosters – Britain and France – may decide to send a handful of helicopter gunships to pepper targets around Triploi. The French, apparently, have already chosen to do so, and said the British had as well. But the British denied that (and you wonder why these two fought the Hundred Years War?)

Some British commenters also are deploying wishful thinking. “There is a real feeling now that it won’t take too much more to encourage an uprising in Tripoli where this thing will be settled,” Michael Clarke, of the Royal United Services Institute, said in Tuesday’s London Times.

Anyway, the betting at the Pentagon is that the chopper deployments are going to happen. Better late than never, one supposes. This plainly should have been done months ago. After all the choppers can be based on ships lurking just off Libya’s coast, meaning there are no basing issues to be resolved.

The Brit-Franco choppers pack a one-two punch deadly against both armor and bunkers – two of the key targets allowing Muammar Gaddafi told keep his grip on Tripoli. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that NATO is nervous over the prospect of an extended stalemate as Gaddafi continues to kill innocent civilians despite a UN resolution imploring him not to do so.

There are several British AH-64 Apaches aboard the HMS Ocean, and French EC-665 Tigre helo gunships aboard the Tonnerre, in the Mediterranean. Both bristle with missiles, rockets and guns – and the sensors needed to use them around the clock.

The fearsome-looking U.S.-designed, U.S.-built, British-assembled and British-flown Apaches (as well as the Tigres) are hell on rotors. Unlike warplanes, they can fly low and slow, taking their time to find targets – and then destroying them instantly. “What we want is to better tailor our ability to strike on the ground,” French diplomat Alain Juppe said, “with ways that allow more accurate hits.”

The British AH-64Ds are a variation of the powerful Longbow model, featuring a fire-control radar perched above the main rotor system. That gives the helicopter the ability to lurk behind hills or other obstacles when hunting targets. In addition to its 30mm machine gun, it carries Hellfire missiles and Hydra rockets.

The downside of such operations is that the gunships’ two-person crews are vulnerable to being shot down, along with their helicopter. While the allies, led by the U.S., destroyed much of Gaddafi’s air defense network in March, many smaller anti-aircraft missiles – including shoulder-fired versions – are still believed to be in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have declared repeatedly that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” in Libya. And – despite the repeated offer of U.S. AC-130 and A-10 attack planes to fly missions against Gaddafi – no U.S. Apaches apparently are slated to go into the skies over Libya. But U.S. firepower flown by our most-trusted ally – no problem (think of it as Britwater as opposed to Blackwater.). The deeper problem, of course, may be that these fierce weapons might not change the situation on the ground. War is sometimes like that.