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No-Fly Zone Option Examined as Libyan Fighting Intensifies

March 2, 2011 at 9:02 PM EDT
As violent clashes between pro-Gadhafi militias and rebels continue to escalate, the international community searches for ways to quell the possibility of a humanitarian disaster. Margaret Warner talks with Time Magazine's Mark Thompson about no-fly zones and other U.S. military options in Libya.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the discussions inside the administration over a no-fly zone, we go to Mark Thompson, the military affairs correspondent and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.

And, Mark, welcome back.

MARK THOMPSON, Time magazine: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: So, we saw the outlines of a debate right there on the Hill today. As Secretary Clinton said, the no-fly zone is under — quote — “active consideration.” And then you saw Secretary Gates saying not a simple matter. How much of a debate is there?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, as so often happens in these issues, Margaret, the State Department and some folks in the White House think a no-fly zone, if may not be the way to go, right now is the best option out there.

Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in the last two days have made it very clear that, you know, not so fast, folks. Not only is this not an easy thing to do. It will be the fourth war in the Middle East we’d be involved in.

And most importantly, I think, the theme is, this might only be the beginning. This wouldn’t be the end. If we impose a no-fly zone, if we get the necessary international authorization, what happens if it fails to topple Gadhafi?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that is one of the — does seem a big point of debate, which is, how extensive an operation are we talking about? You heard Sen. Kerry say, well, it doesn’t have to be a long-running proposition. Secretary Gates was saying this is a — quote — “big operation in a big country.”

Well, you have talked to a lot of military experts. What do they say?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, number one, hope is not an option. Gates made it clear today, if we’re going to have a no-fly zone, we have to assume all of their SA-6 missiles are really good and they know how to operate them, because it’s our men and women who are going to be at risk.

MARGARET WARNER: And these are anti-aircraft missiles?

MARK THOMPSON: Anti-aircraft missile that could shoot down our plane, very similar to the one that shot down the F-117 in Kosovo not a decade or more ago.

So they would have to go in and wipe all of that out. And that would be a sustained bombing campaign. And then there’s been talk of, could you do it from a single aircraft carrier? Most of the people I’m talking to say, no, you can’t. It’s going to take at least 100 airplanes. Remember, you’re going to need tankers and radar planes to alert the fighters.

And finally, bottom line, Secretary Gates has made this point as well. He has said we do not have any evidence that there are a lot of airplanes going after Libyans on the ground. In fact, he said, as of this morning, we have no evidence of that.

Gadhafi, to the degree his troops or mercenaries are going after the rebels, are doing that on the ground. And that — you know, a no-fly zone won’t deal with that problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it does seem to be emerging that that — if anything would be the trigger, that would be the trigger, that, absent an extensive bombing campaign by Gadhafi on his own people, that they’re probably not going to go there, do you think, or not?

MARK THOMPSON: I think this is very interesting, because I think it puts Gadhafi in the driver’s seat. He knows that a no-fly zone is being discussed, and he knows how he can avoid it.

So, the question is, is he going to be dumb enough to go after his people from the sky? The betting at the Pentagon is no.

MARGARET WARNER: So, then you get to Sen. Kerry’s issue, though, which is, how we stand by — how can the world stand by and watch a ruler like him slaughter his own people? Is that the argument that some in the White House and State Department are making?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, that is.

But, I mean, Gadhafi said today, I guess, that only 200 people have died. Rebels have put the number at 2,000. That’s a lot of people in either category. But the question is, is the world community going to step up to the plate? Is NATO or the United Nations going to step up to the plate?

The people I talk to at the Pentagon don’t think they’re going to get that sort of international accord to do this. The U.S. will never do it unilaterally. And, as Tony Zinni, the former chief in this area, told me yesterday, we do not want to own this problem. If we’re going to do it, we have got to do it multinationally.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Europeans yesterday, at least in some capitals — because they’re doing some planning, I gather — were talking about, it could be limited. It wouldn’t have to be all over the whole country, perhaps, in fact, just in the areas that the rebels already control. Would — is that, militarily, a possibility?

MARK THOMPSON: A no-fly zone-ette?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, no-fly zone-lite.

MARGARET WARNER: Lite.

MARK THOMPSON: Sure, that’s possible.

I mean, military people don’t like to talk about that, because you have got to prepare for the worst case, and you never know what’s going to happen. But certainly, the Libyan air force is of not such a scale that you need something huge across the entire country 24/7. And a trimmed-down, whittled-down version could be effective.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, those who are arguing for it, what’s their answer to the point you just raised which has to do with under whose authorization? I mean, the Russians yesterday appeared to nix it at the Security Council.

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, the Russians and the Chinese and the Arab League did so today. There’s an awful lot of dead weight against the notion of a no-fly zone.

And until you break through that, it seems like talking about the tactics and techniques and procedures of carrying it out is a little putting the cart before the horse.

MARGARET WARNER: Unless, of course, it’s meant as a signal to Gadhafi.

MARK THOMPSON: Oh, that’s true. But, you know, perceptions management is big in this realm.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the secretary is continuing to say that extensive planning is going on. So, what’s the nature of the planning? Who is involved?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, what the — what Secretary Gates has to do is be able to present to the president all possible options, even if he thinks it might not be a good idea.

It’s not — his job is to carry out the president’s orders. Plainly, if the United States and its allies wanted to carry out a no-fly zone, there are bases in western Egypt they could use, where Bright Star is conducted every two years, a big military exercise.

There’s an abandoned U.S. Air Force base in Libya, Wheelus Air Force Base, which we haven’t been in, in 35 years, and it’s a safe bet we will not use that because of concern over shoulder-fired missiles from Gadhafi loyalists.

But there are also bases in Italy, in Tunisia, and aircraft carriers out in the Med. All of these things need to be choreographed. And, basically, you would have fighters in the sky that would be tasked by AWACS radar warning planes once the AWACS planes would detect something taking off, and the fighters would go investigate it.  

MARGARET WARNER: And how long would it take if — to actually get the — quote — “assets” into position to even do it?

MARK THOMPSON: There’s only one aircraft carrier there now, the Enterprise. The George H.W. Bush is slated to leave Norfolk in about three weeks. That could be sped up. This could begin in a week or two, but it could not begin overnight.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the two warships that came through the Suez Canal and arrived in the Mediterranean today, would they be involved, or are they something totally different?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, that’s the Kearsarge and the Ponce.

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

MARK THOMPSON: I mean, yesterday, Secretary Gates made clear that they’re headed in that direction and they’re ready to bring water-purification units.

He said nothing at all about any sort of offensive military operations they might be involved in. And you get the sense that these sort of ships would be better suited for humanitarian operations. A lot of the Kearsarge’s crew and air — not crew, but Marines and aircraft are currently in Afghanistan. But they do have a fair number of helicopters on board that could be used in a more offensive way. But that wouldn’t be their key role.

MARGARET WARNER: So, quick final question which follows up on that: Secretary Clinton seemed to hint at that today. She said something about using them to support getting equipment and supplies into areas that need them where we are welcome, meaning, I guess, the east.

Does — are — people in the Pentagon say, well, that could raise the sort of — you know, what happened in Africa, the Black Hawk down scenario, which started out as humanitarian?

MARK THOMPSON: They’re very leery of going to Libyan soil. I mean, a lot of — tens of thousands have streamed out into Tunisia and into Egypt, and they’d feel much more secure setting up camps there, just outside the boundaries.

MARGARET WARNER: I see. So, it might not even be going on to Libyan soil at all?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, there’s a debate going on over that right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, and I guess the debate will continue.

MARK THOMPSON: I guess it will.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, Mark Thompson, from Time magazine, thank you.

MARK THOMPSON: Sure.