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HMCS Charlottestown participating in NATO Maritime Group 1

Operation ODYSSEY DAWN is the publicly announced code name for initial missile and aircraft strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya on 19-20 March 2011. The United States announced it, but emphasized that the U.S. role would become more of support once specialized American capabilities, required in the early phases of the UN-authorized operation, were completed. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized "all necessary measures to protect civilians", which could go beyond a no-fly zone.[1] China, Russia, Germany, Brazil and India abstained from the Security Council vote. A key aspect to initial coalition building was condemnation of Libyan government actions by the Arab League.

It appears to be converting, in all or part, to a NATO-directed Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR.

Political stresses

Not all members of the coalition have the same criteria for the action or for the desired end state. Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, Robert Danin observed that while President Barack Obama has emphasized U.S. participation is humanitarian in nature and focused on the limits within the UN resolution, President Nicolas Sarkozy has put regime change as a necessary end state. Danin contrasted the French demand with the U.S. demand for regime change in Iraq in 2003, which France did not support.[2] While Obama has said that Gaddafi must go, he distinguished US participation in attacks in support of UN humanitarian goals from military action to force regime change. However, in Chile, in a news conference with the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, he said “It is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go...And we’ve got a wide range of tools in addition to our military effort to support that policy.” He mentioned several means of economic warfare and "other measures" to isolate the regime.[3]

Arab League

Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, said the intensity of the attacks was far more than the League had expected. ""What happened differs from the no-fly zone objectives...What we want is civilians' protection not shelling more civilians."[4]

Subsequently, Moussa suggested there was less objection from the League.


France did fire the first shots in the operation, and has been the most hawkish power about intervention. Indeed, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has gone beyond the Libyan situation and predicted the government of Yemen will fall. From the meeting of foreign ministers, Juppé said, "We are coherent on all the events in the Middle East and Mediterranean. We wish democracy and human rights for all the peoples of the region. This is valid for all countries."

One foreign minister was reported to say France was especially hawkish because President Sarkozy believed it would help his election prospects next year. Another said that "France is 'not playing ball' on letting NATO take over command of the Libyan no-fly operation from France, the UK and the US because 'they want to be the glorious ones.'"

"Juppé said that Arab countries do not want to see NATO in Libya. And he underlined that: "It is not a Nato operation, but under the UN, with Arab countries, US and Canada and the European Union." He and" EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton both played down the idea of an EU split on Libya after Bulgaria, Germany, Poland and Malta - for a variety of reasons - said they would play no part in military action."[5]

France opposes NATO participation, preferring leadership to come from a group of EU foreign ministers.[6]

It has been observed that
France has a common history and geography with the countries on the southern Mediterranean shore. The duty to intervene – and the cost of indifference – is probably higher for France than for any other Western country.

Indeed, France has a very large immigrant population that originated in the Maghreb, and for which the so-called Arab spring is vitally important and a source of fascination and pride.

And today, with France taking the lead in an international effort to protect the Libyan people from their leader, they can feel simultaneously proud of being French and of their Arab roots. These positive identities constitute the best protection against the sirens of fundamentalist Islam.[7]


Abstaining from the UN resolution, Germany also declined to participate in an arms embargo against the Gaddhafi government. The country withdrew its ships from the Mediterranean on the grounds that they might be drawn into action without parliamentary approval, although Germany did reinforce its NATO contingent in Afghanistan.[8]


Italy, however, has said it will only accept NATO control, and will reconsider the use of its basis if control does not transfer to NATO.
We want Nato to take control over the operation ... We have given permission for our bases to be used and would not like to bear the political responsibility for things done by others, without our control," foreign minister Franco Frattini said during a press conference in Brussels on Monday (21 March), after a meeting with foreign ministers.
In Turin, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also insisted it was "important that the command passes to Nato with a different coordination structure than what we have now.[6]

United States

It has been reported that the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had initially opposed military action, but had been convinced to do so by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and National Security Council special adviser on human rights Samantha Power. Power had been an assistant to Bill Clinton during the Rwanda genocide, which he had called one of his greatest regrets. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on genocide, and is known for an article on Rwanda she wrote in Atlantic.[9]

These three officials were in opposition to the urging of caution from U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, national security adviser, Thomas Donilon and the Presidential assistant for counterterrorism, John Brennan. These three felt that Libya was not essential to U.S. security, and Brennan was concerned that the rebels were poorly understood and might have ties to al-Qaeda.[10] Other reports have suggested Power has been the key Administration driver for military action.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner commented:[11] "I see two memes that should be thought of in concert.

  • "...the striking fact that the United States seemed to be following rather than leading on organizing the U.N. Security Council to take action.
  • "...Libya is way far down on the list of America's Middle East priorities, so we should be wary about the opportunity costs of getting too involved."
Gen. Carter Ham
Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward

Operational control

U.S. command for the operation is under United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), headed by Gen. Carter Ham in Stuttgart, Germany. Its air component is the Seventeenth Air Force, headed by Major General Margaret Woodward.

The British component is Operation ELLAMY. Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell is the UK's Joint Force Air Component Commander, colocated with the AFRICOM Air Component at Ramstein Air Base.[12]

Practical and political concerns enter into a transfer of operational control away from U.S. headquarters. There needs to be an established physical headquarters, communications, and staff to run such an operation. NATO is the only real alternative, but there is concern in the Arab League over NATO's role in Afghanistan. NATO itself, with the greatest objection coming from Turkey, has not yet agreed to take on the command task. Italy and Norway, however, have threatened to review their participation unless there is a clear command, apparently under NATO.[13] French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said: “The Arab League does not wish the operation to be entirely placed under NATO responsibility. It isn’t NATO which has taken the initiative up to now.” Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that his nation was not completely opposed to NATO involvement, as long as it was understood the action would be brief and not include an occupation of Libya.[3]

Opposition in Libya

There appears relatively little understanding of the opposition, and it may have started spontaneously. The Tunisian revolution seems to have been triggered by the suicide of a fruit seller who felt humiliated by the government. In Libya, unrest seem to increase with the arrest of a human rights lawyer in late February.

At least some of the opposition is a militant Islamic group that has waged an insurgency for over ten years, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Members have had connections to Osama bin Laden, but was not clear, in 2005, if the group is an al-Qaeda affiliat.[14] Al-Qaeda, however, announced affiliation in 2007.[15]

While France recognized a rebel government,[2] it has been the only country to do so. An alternative suggestion for a traditionally legitimate interim government is one based on Libyan tribal traditions.[16]

There are conflicting reports about U.S. contacts with the opposition. Several U.S. military officials denied a claim by Khaled El-Sayeh, of the rebel force, who said “We give them the coordinates, and we give them the location that needs to be bombed.”[3]


In Congressional testimony on 17 March, General Norton Schwartz, U.S. Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said that some statements were "overly optimistic" about implementing a no-fly zone, and "it would take upwards of a week." He continued, "The question is, is a no-fly zone the last step or is it the first step?" He suggested that full U.S. involvement might require taking resources from Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to a question from Sen. John McCain (Republican-Arizona), himself a former U.S. Navy aviator, "A no-fly zone, sir, would not be sufficient."

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns was the senior member of the briefing team. Other members were Alan Pino, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, Gen. John Landry, National Intelligence Officer for Military Issues, Nate Tuchrello, National Intelligence Manager for Near East, and Rear Admirals Michael Rogers and Kurt Tidd, respectively Director of Intelligence and Vice Director of Operations on the Joint Staff.[17]

While Obama sent a letter to Congress that he had the authority to conduct an action that would be limited, the New York Times reported that some members of both parties believed he had exceeded his authority without Congressional consent.[3]

Tomahawks fired from USS Barry, viewed through night vision devices aboard USS Ponce (LPD-15)

Initial operations

First combat actions were taken by patrolling French fighters, which attacked ground targets including tanks, during daylight hours. More dramatic was a nighttime wave of over 100 BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles, fired from U.S. and British naval vessels against air defense and command & control targets.

The U.K. part of the salvo came from a Trafalgar-class submarine, which has 12 launch tubes. The rest came from two Burke-class destroyers, USS Stout (DDG-55) and USS Barry (DDG-52); two Los Angeles-class submarines, USS Providence (SSN-719) and USS Scranton (SSN 756); and the USS Ohio (SSGN-726), a Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine converted for cruise missile launch and support of United States Navy SEAL operations.

Follow-up attacks involved B-2 stealth heavy bombers, EF-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft, and AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft.[4] Three B-2's, flying from Whiteman Air Force Base in the U.S., dropped a total of 45 GBU-31 2,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions against hardened aircraft shelters.[18] Growlers would both have jammed air defenses, and probably launched AGM-88 HARM antiradar missiles. Even though the Growlers are carrier-capable, they, and the B-2s, would have flown from land bases; no aircraft carrier in range could handle them. Sigonella, Italy is one plausible location.

U.S. Marine Corps Harriers, however, operated from the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3), an amphibious ship deployed in the waters off Libya. They are part of the 23rd Marine Expeditionary Unit, which provides a contingency ground force. Its V-22 Ospreys were involved in a combat search and rescue mission.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers and F-16CJ air defense suppression aircraft also participated. They operated from Aviano, Italy.[19]

Flying from the U.K., Royal Air Force participation included Panavia Tornadoes launching Stormshadow missiles, air refueling, E-3 Sentry command & control, and Sentinel R1 imaging radar aircraft. The attack aircraft flew out of the RAF base at Marham.[20]

Further attacks in Tripoli did strike Gaddafi's compound, which does contain military facilities. Vice Admiral William Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, who has been the U.S. spokesman in Washington, said “We are not going after Gaddafi.”[21]


While government forces had pushed back rebels into Benghazi, air strikes broke up their attack and allowed the defending forces to regroup.

U.S. politics

Sen. John McCain said, of turning the government force outside Benghazi into wreckage and encouraging the rebels to regroup, “I hope it’s not too late...Obviously, if we had taken this step a couple of weeks ago, a no-fly zone would probably have been enough. Now a no-fly zone is not enough. There needs to be other efforts made.”

While President Barack Obama said Gaddafi must go, this is not part of the UN authorization, and the end state remains murky.[21]

Liberal Democrats in Congress, as of the 19th, are angry about the action. A conference call among Representatives Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Donna Edwards (Md.), Mike Capuano (Mass.), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Maxine Waters (Calif.), Rob Andrews (N.J.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (Texas), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) “all strongly raised objections to the constitutionality of the president’s actions” during that call, said two Democratic lawmakers who took part. Kucinich questioed if it might be an impeachable offense.[22]


CNN, and its senior reporter, Nic Robertson, vehemently denied a Fox News report that Robertson and other journalists had been used as human shields by the Libyan government.[23]

Arab League

Arab League opinion, as well as expectations of the Arab League, have been varying widely. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon attended a meeting at Arab League headquarters in Cairo. League Secretary General Moussa said
...it was the Arab League who asked the UN to implement the no-fly zone in the first place. They respect the UN resolution, he added, and there is no disagreement over this, especially as it stipulates that there should be no ground offensive, but only action to tackle the threat to Libyan civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere.
The support of the Arab world is vital, said Ban, adding;“This decisive measure is a means of protecting the civilian population who have been killed by Colonel Gaddafi.”[24]

Reuters reported that Moussa had clarified, after the meeting with Ban, that he supported the military action. "The Arab League position on Libya was decisive and from the first moment we froze membership of Libya ... Then we asked the United Nations to implement a no-fly zone"[25] His emphasis on the UN role does not address the conflict about NATO, EU, or some other coalition command. He continued, "We will continue to work on the protection of civilians. We urge everybody to take this into consideration in any military action."

Gulf Cooperation Council

"Abdulrahman al-Attiyah, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, said Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were taking part in the Western-led Libya intervention for 'safety and security according to the UN resolution'".[25]

Continuing operations

F-15E Strike Eagle at RAF Lakenheath, preparing to operate against Libya

By the 21st, it was obvious that aircraft of coalition members, without a clear understanding if this was coalition policy, were carrying out battlefield air interdiction missions as well as suppression of enemy air defense and offensive counter-air, the latter being the core of a no-fly zone operation. "The airstrikes, led by France, carved a trail of devastation that stretched more than 15 miles along the highway to Ajdabiya, another city under siege by forces loyal to Gaddafi...eight tanks and a similar number of armored personnel carriers were reduced to mangled clumps of searing-hot metal. Russian Grad missile launchers, pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, amphibious armored vehicles and tank transport carriers also were destroyed, their carcasses littering the sides of the road." Some of the bodies of the government forces had dark skin, suggesting they were mercenaries from subsaharan Africa rather than Libyan Arabs.[26] It is also not clear if the rebels have the skills and communications to cooperate with aircraft for close air support.

The full-sized French carrier Charles de Gaulle is moving into range, as is the lighter Italian carrier Garibaldi.

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle crew ejected after experiencing mechanical problems. The aircraft, based at RAF Lakenheath, was operating out of Aviano, Italy. Both were recovered. One was recovered by U.S. forces, using V-22 Osprey aircraft,[27] by Marines of the 23rd Marine Expeditionary Unit from the amphibious ships in the waters off Libya.[28] The other was rescued by rebels and returned to U.S. personnel. There is a report that the second crewman met a Libyan who had worked for the U.S. Embassy, and knew how to telephone the State Department Operations Center. That Washington organization then arranged the physical pickup by the Italian Navy.[29]

Four Qatari Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers were due to arrive in the area of operations. A French Defense Ministry spokesman said "As announced by the Qatari authorities, it will deploy four planes in the zone to be able to take part in the operations, which is another sign of Arab participation in this international operation to protect civilians."[30]


US policy is to hand over leadership to another country, probably France or Britain, and to some kind of alliance. One possibility had been to hand over to NATO, but it is not at all clear, especially with Turkish objections, that NATO will accept. France may want a broader EU role, and the Arab League is hesitant about being part of a NATO operation. Italy, however, has threatened to withdraw its key bases if NATO is not in control.[31]

Compromise to put NATO in charge may be emerging. "Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara that a 'compromise has been reached in principle”' on transferring control of the Libyan operation from an ad hoc U.S.-led coalition to formal NATO command. The arrangement was hammered out in a conference call among U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her counterparts from France, Britain and Turkey. As a NATO member, Turkey had insisted on conditions for NATO’s takeover of the operation, which required approval from all 28 members."[32] The Washington Post article, however, did not clarify the reaction of the Arab League to NATO control.


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO has agreed to take command of the no-fly zone proper, although other operations, such as ground attack, were not covered.
We are taking action as part of the broad international effort to protect civilians against the attacks by the Gaddafi regime. We will cooperate with our partners in the region and welcome their contributions. All NATO Allies are committed to fulfill their obligations under the UN resolution. That is why we have decided to assume responsibility for the no-fly zone.[33]

Under Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, NATO will also take responsibility for the arms embargo against the Gaddafi government. Commanded by Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri, of the Italian Navy, with headquarters at NATO Maritime Command Naples, the operation will intercept aircraft and ships carrying weapons or mercenaries. Ships will remain in international waters, but "have the right to stop and search any vessel they suspect of carrying prohibited cargo."[34]

It remains unclear, however, if UN Resolution 1973's provisions to protect civilians will be interpreted, by NATO, to take over the attacks on regime forces and other operations beyond the no-fly zone and arms embargo. Rasmussen told CNN "What we have decided today is that NATO will enforce the no-fly zone. We are considering whether NATO should take on overall responsibility. That decision has not been made yet."[35]

Juan Cole suggests that the part of Resolution 1973, which calls for protection of civilians, will require attacking artillery and armor advancing on rebel-held cities. The most dramatic example of this was the destruction, by French aircraft, of the armored brigade threatening Benghazi. Germany and France, according to Cole, consider this too much intervention, and he expects this to be conducted by a "sub-NATO UN alliance...probably led by France."[36]


  1. Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions, United Nations
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert Danin (20 March 2011), Libyan Strikes: Clearer Objectives Needed, Council on Foreign Relations
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Elisabeth Bumiller and Kareem Fahim (21 March 2011), "U.S.-Led Assault Nears Goal in Libya", New York Tumes
  4. 4.0 4.1 Martha Raddatz and Devin Dwyer (20 March 2011), "Libyan No-Fly Zone Takes Effect as Arab League Criticizes Coalition Strikes; U.S. Bombers Destroy Libyan Targets, State TV Reports Civilian Casualties", ABC News
  5. Andrew Rettman (21 March 2003), "'Hawkish' France says Yemeni leader will fall", EU Observer
  6. 6.0 6.1 Joshua Keating (22 February 2011), "Europe divided", Foreign Policy
  7. Dominique Moisi (23 March 2011), "Opinion: Sarkozy goes to war; France's lead in military intervention is key to national pride and 're-legitimising' the French president.", Al Jazeera
  8. Steven Erlanger and Judy Dempsey (23 March 2011), "Germany in New Strains With Allies", New York Times
  9. Samantha Power (September 2001), "Bystanders to Genocide", The Atlantic
  10. Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers (18 March 2011), "Obama Takes Hard Line With Libya After Shift by Clinton", New York Times
  11. Daniel Drezner (21 March 2011), "The utility of not taking the lead on Libya", Foreign Policy
  12. Strike against Libyans, Royal Air Force
  13. Jonathan Marcus (21 March 2011), "Libya military operation: Who should command?", BBC News
  14. Gary Gambill (23 March 2005), "The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)", Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation 3 (6)
  15. Bill Roggio (3 November 2007), "Libyan Islamic Fighting Group joins al Qaeda", Long War Journal, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  16. Ranj Alaaldin (4 March 2011), "How Libya’s tribes will decide Gaddafi's fate: Colonel Gaddafi has lost control over Libya's tribes – they urgently need support, argues Ranj Alaaldin.", Telegraph (UK)
  17. Josh Rogin (17 March 2011), "Inside classified Hill briefing, administration spells out war plan for Libya", Foreign Policy (magazine)
  18. Press Release: Global Strike Command supports Operation Odyssey Dawn, Air Force Global strike Command Public Affairs, 20 March 2011
  19. Joint Air Force Component Commander Operation Odyssey Dawn (20 March 2011), U.S. Air Force aircraft strike Libya, Seventeenth Air Force
  20. Updated: British Armed Forces launch strike against Libyan air defence systems, UK Ministry of Defence, 20 March 2011
  21. 21.0 21.1 Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger (20 March 2011), "News Analysis: Target in Libya Is Clear; Intent Is Not", New York Times
  22. John Bresnahan & Jonathan Allen (19 March 2011), "Liberal Democrats in uproar over Libya action", Politico
  23. Wolf Blitzer and Nic Robertson (21 March 2011), "Robertson: This allegation is outrageous and it's absolutely hypocritical", CNN
  24. "UN and Arab League talk unity over Libya", Euronews, 21 March 2011
  25. 25.0 25.1 Reuters (23 March 2011), Arab League chief: We respect UN resolution on Libya military action
  26. Sudarsan Raghavan (20 March 2011), "On a Libyan field, allied airstrikes bring destruction and hope", Washington Post
  27. Anna Mulrine (22 March 2011), "How an MV-22 Osprey rescued a downed US pilot in Libya", Christian Science Monitor
  28. Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, Public Affairs (22 March 2011), F-15E incident in Libya; crew recovered, United States Air Force
  29. Martha Raddatz, Kirit Radia, and Luis Martinez (22 March 2011), "Downed Airman Rescued by Libyan Who Called State Dept. Operations Center", ABC News
  30. "Qatar to Send 4 Mirage 2000 to Libya", Al Defaiya Magazine, 22 March 2011
  31. Jorge Benitez (21 March 2011), Italy threatens to take back its bases unless NATO is in command, Atlantic Council
  32. William Branigin and Tara Bahrampour (24 March 2011), "NATO moves toward command of Libya operations; French jets hit plane, air base", Washington Post
  33. NATO Secretary General's statement on Libya no-fly zone, 24 March 2011
  34. NATO ships move to enforce UN arms embargo, 23 March 2011
  35. Elise Labott and Paula Newton (25 March 2011), "NATO announces agreement on enforcing no-fly zone over Libya", CNN International
  36. Juan Cole (25 March 2011), "Libyan Liberation Movement Strikes Back as NATO Comes to the Rescue", Informed Comment