Libyan rebels appeared to make marked progress Mar. 27, driving westward from the long-contested town of Ajdabiya to small towns west of Ras Lanuf. In so doing, the rebels have consolidated control over almost all the energy infrastructure on the Gulf of Sidra.

Some 100 miles of advance is certainly noteworthy, but by almost all indications it was not a matter of Gadhafi’s forces being defeated by force of arms so much as a deliberate decision to pull back, possibly to Sirte (the Libyan leader’s hometown and a loyalist stronghold).

There is a logic to this. Gadhafi was on extended lines vulnerable to airpower. He was on the verge of taking Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, when the coalition began to bomb targets in Libya, but the vast stretches of open territory between these towns leave readily identifiable armor and artillery vulnerable to attack from the air. By pulling back to strongholds like Sirte, not only does Gadhafi reduce the extension of his own lines and force the rebels to extend theirs, but he falls back onto stockpiles of his own in more built-up areas where it is far more difficult to attack targets from the air for fear of inflicting civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, the rebels in the east never actually conquered much territory through conquest in the first place, rather enjoying the accumulation of territory ceded to them by either the abandonment or defection of the military and security forces responsible for it. Even now there is little sign that they have coalesced into a meaningful military force (much less one with the logistical wherewithal to fight on extended lines), even as they have charged westward into territory vacated in the course of Gadhafi’s retreat. In fact, there is a risk that they will overreach themselves, riding the momentum of their westward advance directly into prepared defensive positions by more competent loyalist forces.

In any event, the tactical problems that define the attempt to change the reality on the ground in Libya through the application of airpower alone remain considerable. The open terrain between Gadhafi’s strongholds in the east and the rebel strongholds (even Ras Lanuf) remains a considerable challenge for either side to sustain combat operations across. And it remains far from clear that even with air support directed by western special operations forces that the rebels will be able to dislodge loyalist forces from prepared defenses in built-up urban areas.

Posted by nhughes in Strategy, Tactics

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  • Eagle1

    [Y]ou may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.
    T. R. Fehrenbach
    This Kind of War, 1963

  • Moose

    If Reuters is accurate, Sirte may not be the stronghold. They are reporting convoys leaving Sirte for Tripoli ahead of the rebel advance.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    The room we just entered is still mighty dark. Way too early to tell.

  • GIMP

    Okay, first destroy Libyan IADS, next establish a no fly zone, then follow up by destroying Libyan air force assets. What next? Go after his artillery and armor? What’s after than? Ground troops and an occupation?

    What is this but a full out undeclared war on a sovereign nation for its attempt to prevent the overthrow of its existing government.

    Sure, we can remove a leader we can’t stand, but where and when does it end if anywhere or ever. I thought we were supposed to be smart.

  • Brian Grubbs

    To many are simply referring to Quadaffi as a “dictator we don’t like” and if go after him, where will it stop. However, Quadaffi is a dictator who has supported if not outright directed terrorist attacks on US citizens. And now there is a significant armed rebellion in his country. It seems a very small effort on our part to prevent his use of air power compared with full on BOG (which we don’t have to provide due to the significant rebellion that has grown up on it’s own). By taking air power our of the picture we’ve provided a measure of parity back to the rebels, keeping their rebellion alive.
    A full fledged armed rebellion as in Libya is worth our active (but limited support). This is much different than actively supporting protestors in Syria.