23 Sep 2011

Cameron and Sarkozy ‘accidental heroes’ in Libya

A report from a leading think tank says that Nato coalition leaders relied on improvisation and good luck as well as military prowess in Libya.

David Cameron and President Sarkozy with Mustafa Jalil of the Libyan NTC in Benghazi (Reuters)

Prime Minister David Cameron and French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy became “accidental heroes” in the Libyan conflict, according to a report by a military think tank.

The Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) analysis of the operation said that the success of Nato air strikes relied on “improvisation” and “good luck”, as well as military prowess.

As Channel 4 News revealed in August, in some parts of Whitehall, the campaign was seen as being “initially a mess”.

‘Politically exposed’

Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy received a rapturous reception when they addressed a crowd in Benghazi last week. Their visit, to demonstrate support for the fledgling new government in Libya, came less than a month after the final overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

However, the pair had been left “politically exposed” after the US pulled out of the operation, according to Rusi.

Professor Michael Clarke, director general of the think tank and a contributor to the report, said: “Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy became accidental heroes in a civil war, justified – unlike most civil wars – on grounds of principle.

This operation was more messy and ambiguous than politicians like to admit. Professor Michael Clarke

“Like all military operations, this operation was more messy and ambiguous than politicians like to admit. In this particular case, it reflected a number of new, and sometimes novel, political and military elements.”

The allied operation overcame “big political risks”, as well as “the improvised use of weapon systems and ambiguous command arrangements” to find success, the report said.

Defence Review questioned

However, the mission has raised questions about the Strategic Defence and Security Review, according to Rusi.

The report concluded: “The ‘carrier debate’ in Britain will almost certainly be reignited by this operation. The fact is that the operation was successfully conducted without a British aircraft carrier being available.

“But it is equally a fact that the operation involved four major ships that were capable of launching aircraft – the French, and Italian carriers, the US assault ship, and Britain’s HMS Ocean acting as a helicopter carrier.

“British operations in Afghanistan were not affected by commitments to the Libyan theatre, but both the RAF and the Royal Navy had to divert assets from other tasks to cope. This crisis demonstrated that the forces could improvise and ‘could cope’ even in light of the Defence Review.

“But it also demonstrated that there are significant opportunity costs in doing so and that even a comparatively small operation such as this puts the forces under some considerable strain.”

The report also drew parallels between the Libyan operation and the 1999 Kosovo intervention, saying it appeared to be “a throwback to some of the crises of the 1990s”. It was different from Iraq and Afghanistan missions where the “emphasis was always on numbers of ‘boots on the ground”, Rusi added.

The think-tank said there was still “much to analyse” from the operation and that “many lessons will doubtless be derived from it.”