Apache helicopters in Libya: turning up the heat, or a sign of desperation? | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 28.05.2011
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Apache helicopters in Libya: turning up the heat, or a sign of desperation?

Britain has said it's sending Apache helicopters to Libya, and France is deploying combat aircraft as well. NATO says it's turning the screws on Moammar Gadhafi, but for some, the move shows they're clutching at straws.

An Apache helicopter in flight

A sign of an intervention not going to plan?

The quick and clean intervention promised in Libya has proved slow and messy. Despite over two months of NATO air support for the Libyan rebels, the civil war in the country is looking more and more like a stalemate.

As a result, it was only a matter of time before Britain and France sought to tip the balance in its battle against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military machine.

"We should be turning up the heat on the Libyan regime," British Prime Minister David Cameron announced earlier in the week. "And on Britain's part, we'll be looking at all options within the terms of the UN resolution to protect civilians, so Libyans have a chance to decide on their own future."

Shortly thereafter, Britain announced it would be sending four Apache helicopters, with France flying in similar Tiger helicopters as well. These maneuverable craft can fly lower than large warplanes and bombers, and Western militaries hope they will offer provide scope for more precise attacks against smaller targets like tanks.

Such vehicles are now routinely stationed in towns and villages, and some reports suggest that the Libyan military is using human shields in a bid to protect them.

A worrisome sign?

Some military analysts, however, see this fresh deployment of more versatile aircraft as a sign that the NATO mission in Libya is failing to make the impact Western nations had predicted and promised.

Libyan soldiers wave at a passing Gadhafi tank

Tanks are small, fast-moving targets, and difficult to destroy

"I think this is a worrisome sign," Brooks Tigner of Jane's Defense and Security Intelligence and Analysis told Deutsche Welle.

"It means there is fierce fighting on the ground, that the high-altitude precision bombing by NATO is maybe not having the effect that it should. Otherwise, why would they bring in these helicopters?"

NATO, faced with such suggestions, has played down the implication. Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard said that any military commander would always ask for all the capabilities and equipment available. The commander of the NATO operation in Libya described the helicopters as "another tool in a tool box that will help us meet our mission."

Arming civilians, or protecting them?

Naysayers argue, however, that this extra air support is long overdue, and that ground support for the rebels is the only measure that will really tip the balance.

The US and Britain both reiterated this week that sending in ground troops was not an option, and arming the rebels does not conform to the mandate of UN Resolution 1973, which only authorizes Western powers to protect civilian lives in Libya.

"The big question for me is going to be arms for the rebels," Tigner said. "How will they get there, and who will supply them? They are disorganized, have no training, they're learning on the spot. Who's going to train them?"

France has now deployed special-forces teams to Libya, and other countries might well follow suit.

Estimates suggest the rebel troops are outnumbered by as much as 10 to one by those loyal to Gadhafi, an imbalance that air support alone might not overcome. On this basis, NATO looks set to stay in Libya, and for an indeterminate period of time.

Author: Vanessa Mock, Brussels / msh
Editor: Kyle James

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