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NATO ponders: When to end Libyan air war?

Libya's air force was never top rate, but it effectively ceased to exist altogether this year after the first few weeks of the international intervention. With air superiority, the U.S. and NATO were able to fly strikes and patrols to help the fledgling rebel alliance win its famous victory over former strongman Moammar Qaddafi. (Is he still a colonel now that he's been deposed? Maybe the rebels withdrew his commission.)

Libya still has a long way to go on the road toward becoming a stable democracy -- if it can -- but the NATO military mission there is almost over. So when, exactly, should the international air presence go away? That is the latest question the alliance's leaders are trying to tackle, and as with all things NATO, it's complicated.

Qaddafi and some of his dead-enders are still at large, and there are parts of the country that still remain loyal to him. NATO's mandate was to protect civilians in Libya, so if major fighting were to break out again, U.S. and European air power might get another call for help. But it ain't cheap keeping warplanes, pilots and crews -- not to mention the American tankers and ISR -- up and flying around the clock.

Here's how the U.K.'s Guardian broke it down:

NATO aircraft have not carried out any strikes since the weekend. However, sorties by RAF Tornado and Typhoon jets, even without any bombs dropped or missiles fired, still cost £35,000 and £45,000 respectively.

By some estimates the war could soon cost Britain more than £1bn, with France and the US facing similar bills, and there is anxiety in all three countries that the campaign should drag on indefinitely.

Meanwhile, NATO members who originally opposed the intervention, including Germany and some eastern European states, argue that its mission is no longer clear. NATO officials admit it will be hard to make a judgment on when the civilian population is no longer under threat.

"An operation is like a marriage. The only thing you know for sure is the day it starts," one senior official said. "The big risk is that one day we stop and the next day there is a massacre, in which case we would have failed."

Alliance policy planners are discussing a scenario in which Qaddafi loyalists cease to hold any territory, but continue to inflict casualties, as Saddam Hussein's followers did in Iraq. In such a situation, the population would be under constant threat, but NATO aircraft would be almost powerless to intervene without the risk of causing yet more civilian deaths and injuries.

There's a solution to that problem, but it brings us to the point where U.S. and European leaders put their fingers in their ears and start humming: A stabilization force, or peacekeepers, or some kind of international constabulary. The current international alliance would be very reluctant to even consider such a step, so even though their warplanes may not have much to do, their patrols could continue if commanders believe just the sound of fighter jets overhead may help keep the peace.

Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force announced on Thursday that its Tornado aircraft have passed 7,000 flight hours as part of the Libyan operation -- the equivalent to two years' worth of normal training operations at home.


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