NATO rifts strain Libya campaign

As NATO countries diverge over the scope of their commitments in Libya, few places offer a better view of the evolving conflict there than the cockpits of the specially equipped radar aircraft that constantly circle 50 miles off the coast, coordinating the alliance’s missions.

The bombing campaign, now well into its fourth month, has stretched some militaries to the limit. Others, such as Germany’s, never agreed to participate. Some NATO officials privately say they worry that in the coming weeks, more individual countries will decide to pursue their own military agendas without consulting the alliance first — as has happened with France, which last week admitted to airdropping weapons to rebels.

Inside the radar plane — a windowless Boeing 707 with a 30-foot-wide radar dish perched on its back — military personnel from nine countries keep watch over the round-the-clock bombing raids that have pounded Libya since March. On their screens, air traffic controllers track the pulsing dots representing fighter jets, warships and drone aircraft, while English in a cacophony of accents crackles over the radio systems as they communicate with pilots.

By the end of July, however, the Norwegian voices will fall silent, as the country pulls out the six planes that have flown 10 percent of the airstrikes carried out since NATO took over control of operations from the United States at the end of March.

Other countries have also been reconsidering their commitments. Last week, Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen decried “mission creep,” saying that NATO should stick to protecting civilians and not try to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Last month, the House of Representatives voted not to authorize President Obama’s use of U.S. forces in the conflict in Libya, although it voted down a proposal to strip funding for the operation.

As of late last month, the United States had flown a quarter of the total NATO sorties over Libya and 16 percent of the strike sorties, according to the Defense Department. Bombs were dropped on 135 occasions, including 46 from unmanned Predator aircraft. According to the Defense Department, U.S. manned strike aircraft are engaged only in defensive missions against Libyan air defenses on the ground as part of the no-fly zone enforcement, not the “offensive” missions being flown by coalition members engaged in “civilian protection.”

At present, NATO, France, Britain and the United States each fly one AWACS command-and-control plane a day, for eight to nine hours at a time.

On a recent evening, planes struck targets in the Libyan capital, Tripoli; a military base west of Tripoli; and near Misurata, the rebel-held city east of Tripoli that is encircled by government troops. Just 17 planes, including two drones, were in the air during the more than six hours the NATO AWACS plane was on duty, many fewer than in previous months, air traffic controllers said, reflecting the stagnation of the front lines and the Libyan government’s apparently diminished ability to attack civilians.

Aboard the plane, the crew members, who came from the United States, Belgium, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Canada and Turkey, concentrate on their jobs. But the restrictions that each NATO country has placed on its contribution to the Libya mission directly affect all of them: There are no troops from Germany, the largest contributor to the alliance’s radar plane program, meaning that the crew is stretched more thinly than it otherwise would be.

“It’s always optimum if you have all of your assets and resources available to you,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Schmidt, the U.S. commander of the NATO AWACS program, who runs operations from Belgium. But he said the personnel under his command had no problems fulfilling their mission in Libya.

“NATO is systematically degrading the regime’s military capability,” he said.

At 9:25 p.m., a message flashes across the screen of a secure chat room from a Mirage 2000 jet flying near Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town and a government stronghold: “Many trucks . . . seem to be civilian.” The message is passed along a chain of command that stretches all the way back to Brussels before the confirmation comes not to engage with the target.

Shortly before midnight, two F-16 fighter jets refuel from tanker jets above the Mediterranean, then head toward Tripoli to drop bombs on a “hostile building” in the vicinity of Gaddafi’s sprawling compound. A drone flying nearby sends a live camera feed to an operations center near Bologna, Italy, as several members of the AWACS crew quietly confer. At five minutes after midnight, the F-16s drop their bombs, then do one more circle before flying home.

In the past week and a half, more bombings have targeted towns in the Nafusa Mountains, a range southwest of Tripoli where rebels have made advances in an attempt to cut off a supply route to the capital.

“We are making progress,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of NATO’s Libya operation. “It’s a matter of time before it gets to the city.”

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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