In the thirty days that ended when the month of April 2011 closed out it is reported that NATO flew a total of 4398 sorties, including 1821 strike sorties.
It is not clear to me what the terminology means. In my time with NATO “strike” had a very specific meaning that is not intended in the current reporting. In any case, the strike sorties carried out by NATO are a combination of attacks against “strategic” targets—runways, fixed missile installations, and command and control targets, and “tactical” targets intended as the UN resolution directed, to protect civilians by destroying Libyan Government armor and indirect fire weapons.
There is a constant temptation to equate sorties to iron on target, but in this case a lot of these 4389 sorties have been excellent opportunities for Spanish F-18’s and Norwegian, Danish, Belgian F-16’s to bore holes in the sky. The number also probably includes “air superiority missions,” similarly tooling around looking for the now combat ineffective Libyan Air Force.
Chalking up a sortie does not mean targets were engaged. So, while 4398 sorties sounds like a substantial number, one should really look at the number in context.
On 16 November 1944 in preparatory air support to the movement of the Fourth Infantry Division into the Hürtgen Forest 1,389 heavy bombers, 107 medium bombers, and 486 fighter bombers from the Eighth Air Force and the RAF in at least 1982 sorties dropped 9,000 tons of bombs in a single day against seven German villages.
Granted, the Circular Error Probable (CEP) of a heavy bomber bombardment box may have been a kilometer compared to the roughly one meter CEP for the popular GBU-12 laser-guided 500 pounder that is the most popular air-delivered weapon in the Libyan support missions, but the raw numbers are instructive.
As the advance into the Hürtgenwald continued, the Ninth Tactical Air Force, weather permitting, provided hundreds of combat sorties per day. It wasn’t enough.
If anyone still harbors thought of the victorious rebels marching into Tripoli behind a steamroller of airpower, the numbers game should disabuse them of this vision.
Modern tactical airpower is precise, surgical, and deadly, but the support of the type being provided—numerically small and tailored to limit collateral damage—is not going to provide an offensive advantage for the under-trained and under armed Libyan rebels. They may still win, because if the support missions continue, they are a kind of safety net, but it may take a very long time. The alternative is that an attack against a legitimate command and control target may provide a de facto decapitation, and a swift end.
That would be luck. Otherwise we surely must be thinking about someone’s boots on the ground if we continue to expect a military solution to the situation. Basilisk