Operations in Libya - Defence Committee Contents


Initial command and control of the operation

62. Events in the spring of 2011 developed very quickly. The UN Security Council having adopted Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011, on 18 March the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that enforcing the Resolution would be an international operation, further suggesting that any operations could be led by the US, France and the UK, with the support of Arab nations. It was initially uncertain whether NATO would play a formal role.[68]

63. At a meeting in Paris on 19 March the three allies leading the operation, the US, the UK and France agreed that military action by French, British and US Forces would begin on 19-20 March, the aim being to protect Libyan civilians and to degrade the regime's capability to resist the no-fly zone being implemented under the UN's Resolution. At this time, the situation in Benghazi was deteriorating with civilians at immediate risk of massacre by pro-Gaddafi forces. After that meeting, however, there was some tension between the three allies following an announcement by the French President, without prior notification to his partners, that French aircraft had engaged Gaddafi forces in a series of attacks aimed at halting the advance of government forces on Benghazi. The Royal United Services Institute noted that this had had the effect of alerting all Gaddafi's forces to the fact that action had begun.[69]

64. Command and control of operations initially rested with the US, under General Carter F. Ham, Head of US Africa Command, with the tactical joint task force conducting operations led by Admiral Samuel Locklear aboard USS Mount Whitney, deployed in the Mediterranean. The US made it clear that it would be handing over responsibility for the operation "shortly", though at that stage it was not obvious whether NATO or another individual country would take control from the US.[70]

65. Negotiations continued until 23 March 2011 when NATO member states agreed that the Alliance would assume command of maritime operations to enforce the UN arms embargo in Libya. On 24 March, NATO leaders also agreed to the transition of command responsibility for enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone to NATO, while any ground attacks, for the time being, would continue to be a coalition responsibility under US command. The compromise was reportedly reached to allay Turkish concerns within NATO about the possibility of ground attacks causing civilian casualties. NATO subsequently assumed command of the no-fly zone on 25 March.[71]

66. On 27 March, despite opposition from some NATO member nations, NATO leaders agreed that the Alliance would assume command responsibility for all military operations in support of Resolution 1973. Mariot Leslie, UK Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, commented "the decision to launch the NATO military operation was actually taken by the [NATO] Council ten days after the second UNSCR. That is a record time".[72]

NATO Command and Control

67. NATO formally assumed sole command of all military operations in the Libyan area on 31 March 2011. The NATO operation, known as Operation Unified Protector (OUP), was commanded by Allied Joint Force Command Naples and fell under the overall purview of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral Stavridis.[73]

68. NATO allies originally agreed to conduct operations for a period of 90 days. Both the US and NATO also made it clear that providing direct close air support to the Libyan opposition forces was not part of the coalition's mandate and that NATO had no intention of establishing an occupying force in Libya.[74] At the beginning of June 2011, NATO allies agreed to extend operations for a further 90 days from 27 June until the end of September 2011.[75] In evidence to us on 12 October Mariot Leslie confirmed that on 27 September, authority was given for a further extension of operations to 26 December 2011, should it still be considered necessary.[76]

69. Mariot Leslie explained the normal process whereby NATO would generate forces in advance of an operation. Planning starts before a formal decision to have an operation is made. Formal planning would start with an initiating directive from the Council asking commanders to start planning. During that planning process the commanders would hold a force sensing conference, when they would ask individual nations "What could you provide?" This would be followed by a combined joint statement of requirements, when they will ask nations for specific capabilities, followed by a force generation conference and revised statements of requirement as the operation progresses.[77]

70. In this case, there were clearly some problems in the early days of the operation. As Nick Harvey MP, Minister for the Armed Forces, pointed out, the allies had to get used to each other's modus operandi in the early days, particularly in relation to "basic communications".[78] Other analyses have reported that there was a potentially serious lack of co-ordination between French Air Force action around Benghazi and the rest of the coalition in the early stages on 19 March.[79] On this occasion, it was described as representing merely a political irritation, but in other circumstances could have been extremely serious given that one ally launched air-to-ground attacks before the coalition as a whole had attacked the air defence system of the adversary.

71. The speed at which the necessary forces were generated by NATO participants was accepted by both participants and commentators as remarkably quick in the current Alliance context. Mariot Leslie said:

    For this operation they were made extraordinarily rapidly. I don't think there has ever been an operation when a crisis has appeared as this one did in mid-February and a matter of weeks later there is an operation already taking place.[80]

She added that plans being developed in parallel rather than sequentially had assisted the rapid development of the required forces:

    Nobody was reckless in what they did but there were times when the rather long chain of military planning had various bits going on simultaneously rather than sequentially, so the decisions were made on the basis of things brought together at the decision point, but had been going on in parallel. We had people working on concepts of operations for some part of the operation while simultaneously working out the rules of engagement for other parts of the operation, and then bringing the strands together of how you did an arms embargo, how you did a no-fly zone, how you would conduct attacks or measures to protect civilians.

    They were working up the forces required and the planning often in parallel and then reconciling them just before the rules of engagement were brought to the council for decision. It was a remarkable tribute to our military colleagues, how quickly they worked. In the council, people worked with extraordinary speed—early, late or weekend—for about three weeks, to reach the final decisions, which the council took on 27 March.[81]

72. Air Marshal Harper, UK Military Representative to NATO, commented:

    It was incredible, quite frankly.

    [...] getting consensus from 28 nations; getting operational plans drawn together; establishing headquarters and a bespoke command and control system for a complex operation; generating the forces; accounting for all of the political nuances; and bringing in those nations that, in some cases, had some initial concerns that needed to be explained or discussed. Doing all of that in 10 days was quite a process.

    [...] To generate that in 10 days was quite a feat. When one casts one's mind back to the Bosnia campaign, the same process took some 15 months. [82]

This view was confirmed by Lieutenant-General Barrons, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations):

    The hardest part of the command and control [...] was how to take the range of assets that were provided by nations and make them operate quickly and effectively in the sort of setting we found ourselves in, in Libya. That required some really adroit handling from the commanders, staff and airmen who were flying, to make that happen. [83]

We asked why the NATO Response Force was not activated and were advised that "the NRF is largely a land construct, so it is not ideally suited to an operation of this nature".[84]

73. It was also essential that there was communication with the National Transitional Council for their awareness of the location of civilians. Lieutenant-General Barrons said:

    In order to prosecute that operation successfully, it was clearly important that there was some connection between the National Transitional Council, which has a very good view of where the civilian population we are trying to protect exists, and the NATO chain of command. We need to be absolutely clear, however, that our remit is to protect the civilian population, no matter who is oppressing it. We are not therefore acting in any form of military capacity on behalf of the NTC, so it is an unusual position to be in.[85]

74. We commend NATO and UK Forces for the speed of the operational deployment in Libya. We are however concerned about the tensions regarding command of the operation during its early stages. There was confusion over the command and control of the operation in the early stages of the operation until NATO took command. We are particularly concerned at the apparent decision of the French Government to commence air operations without consulting allies. We call upon NATO and the Government to look very carefully at how command and control decisions were made in the early stages of the operation and to identify the lessons for any future operations which necessarily begin in an ad hoc manner.


75. Our witnesses praised the contribution of all NATO countries to the operations. Mariot Leslie, cautioning against drawing conclusions about the role of any one ally from this operation, said that no country had withdrawn from the command structure or refused to play its normal part, though some had played a less visible (and hence less well-reported) role than others. In some cases this might have been because it did not have equipment relevant to this particular operation, having agreed to concentrate on some other part of the NATO remit.[86] In other cases the contribution had been more by reinforcing parts of the command structure with specialist skills. Air Marshal Harper agreed, saying that even countries with domestic political difficulties had contributed.[87]


76. As a result of Arab League concern about developments in the region and its support for action in Libya, some non-NATO forces became integrated into the command structure of operations. A meeting to discuss military operations and participation in Paris on 19 March was attended by European and North American ministers, representatives of the EU, UN and Arab League, and ministers from Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco. During the weekend of 19-20 March Qatar also joined the coalition. On 25 March the United Arab Emirates confirmed it would provide 12 fast jets to the operation.[88]

77. The involvement of Arab League countries in the NATO operation in Libya was significant. Mariot Leslie, UK Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, said:

    That was the great success of NATO's partnership policy. It is not the first time: we are now—if not this week, then by next week—up to 50 countries taking part in the ISAF operations in Afghanistan. I think Bahrain is just about to join us as No. 50. There are plenty of other operations in which NATO has partners involved. What was special about this one is that NATO, right from the start, when the council was looking at whether or not we were going to take on this operation to enforce UN Security Council resolutions, and following something that the British Foreign Secretary had formulated, said that it was important to us that there was a demonstrable need for military activity, a clear legal base for it and clear regional support. We already knew from national contacts that in particular the Qataris and Emiratis were likely to want to get involved if there were a NATO operation to plug themselves into. It was an operation that allowed them to use the types of interoperability with NATO that our partnership policies already allowed us to practise and exercise elsewhere. Right from the start, they were around the table, as were the Swedes, who work very well with NATO, using, incidentally, elements from the EU battle group— the Nordic battle group—and so were a number of other Arab countries. It was the council's intention from the start—indeed, for some members it was almost a condition from the start—that there should be demonstrable regional support, which those partnerships did indeed demonstrate.[89]

78. It is clear from the evidence we received that real value was added by non-NATO countries, representatives from the Arab League for example providing support to the NTC on the ground, and air assets provided by Qatar.

79. Any non-NATO country taking part in Operation Unified Protector, was expected to abide by the same regulations as the rest, as Lieutenant-General Barrons, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations) made clear.[90] However we questioned witnesses on how the contributions of non-NATO nations fitted in with the formal NATO command chain or whether those nations were acting under bilateral alliances with the NTC. Lieutenant-General Barrons assured us that "any asset that was racked into Operation Unified Protector would be playing to exactly the same regulations" as NATO.[91] He could not comment on the use of assets under any bilateral agreement.[92]

80. Witnesses made clear that while the NATO mission excluded an occupying force, there were a number of allied personnel in Libya. Arab League countries were also represented on the ground. Lieutenant-General Barrons said:

    there were various forms of European representation in Benghazi, alongside the NTC. That is one way in which diplomats and their military advisers can influence and advise the NTC's senior leadership in Benghazi about how they might choose to conduct their campaign within the rules that have been set. You are absolutely right: there were representatives of Qatar and other Arab nations on the ground; they were there at the request of the NTC, sat alongside the NTC, and were able to provide advice, encouragement and guidance. Our contact with General Hamid, for example, and others meant that we too were able to make suggestions about how they would be able to conduct their operations and stay within the terms set.[93]

81. We welcome the significant involvement of non-NATO countries, particularly those from the Arab League and Sweden, to operations in Libya. However, we are concerned to establish how the contributions of non-NATO countries fitted into the NATO command and control structures and call on the Government to clarify the command and control structures that were implemented and how they were coordinated. We also call on the Government to clarify how it ensured that any bilateral alliances between non-NATO countries and the National Transitional Council were monitored to ensure that they did not impact unfavourably on the NATO mission or were contrary to the measures in the UN Resolutions. An assessment of the integration of non-NATO countries should be a key part of the lessons learned exercises undertaken by NATO and the UK.


82. NATO itself had limited military capabilities. Mariot Leslie said:

    Almost the entirety of the military capability available to NATO belongs to the nations of NATO—so it is the US defence capability, the British defence capability, French, German, Polish and so on. Whenever there is a NATO operation, it is those national capabilities that are brought to bear under the NATO commanders.[94]

83. It is clear that unexpected operations such as that in Libya rely on nations agreeing to participate, and then providing the capability which they have previously notified would be made available should an operation demand it. Mariot Leslie, UK Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, said:

    What those national capabilities are, including in peacetime, are part of a defence planning process in which NATO collectively looks at what it would like to ask of individual nations. It looks at the best efforts it would like them to make to assign things for NATO commanders. It gets exercise collectively. We are familiar with what each other has and what we might make available.

    At the end of the day, on every single NATO operation and within any NATO operation, a nation could decide for reasons of its own—legal, political or whatever—that it was going to withdraw that capability at very short notice. The alliance solidarity prevents most people from doing that most of the time, but it is a perpetual tension between national sovereignty and collective endeavour that is a perennial issue for the alliance.[95]

84. During our inquiry we explored the capability implications of a nation's decision not to participate in an operation, for example Germany's abstention in the UN Security vote and Turkey's opposition to military intervention in Libya, and difficulties this could cause given NATO's reliance on the pooling and sharing of military capabilities to undertake operations. Mariot Leslie said in evidence:

    it makes you more reliant on other people. [...] On the case of Germany, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Germans did make their AWACS available in Afghanistan at very short notice to allow other alliance AWACS to be deployed to Libya. They were helpful over that point.

    There is the perennial NATO issue of whether or not nations are going to make available the assets that they have assigned to SACEUR. Addressing that is as much a political question as it is a capabilities question. We have two problems. Do we have the capabilities—that is what the capabilities initiative will address—and is there the will to deploy them?[96]

85. We questioned witnesses on whether there was any shortfall in assets across NATO during the operation. Air Marshal Harper, UK Military Representative to NATO, told us this would not be a matter for NATO as an organisation:

    If a NATO member nation is doing its job and continuing to conduct the mission without declaring a shortfall, asking to stop, or asking within the alliance for other members to assist it, it is not NATO's business. [...][97]

but he was not aware of any NATO member declaring a shortfall:

    not to my knowledge. We are aware that nations help each other out throughout the campaign, but that is only, if you like, the vibes that one had around the margins of meetings.[98]

86. We asked the Ministry of Defence for further information on the processes followed by NATO in the event of a shortfall:

    SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] monitored the CJSOR [Combined Joint Statement of Requirement] and national contributions on a daily basis, identifying any overall capability shortages and surpluses, including any shortages reported by Allies. Where a shortage existed, SHAPE could engage with nations holding such capabilities to try to obtain additional pledges.[99]


87. It is clear from the evidence we received that there was concern at the highest level in NATO that there is an over-reliance on the provision of some capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence and refuelling aircraft by the United States. Air Marshal Harper said:

    There is no question but that this operation throws into stark relief the capability gaps that exist between the non-US members of NATO and the United States.

    The Secretary-General's top priority at the moment is an initiative called Smart Defence, which looks at the capability of pooling and sharing initiatives in the future, whereby nations would get together, multinationally, to provide capabilities. Issues to be discussed include: assured access to those capabilities and their availability, and sharing costs with industry. But, there are significant moves under way at the moment in Allied Command Transformation to address that. Indeed, the United Kingdom plays a serious role in bringing those negotiations forward.[100]

Mariot Leslie, UK Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council, added:

    That is obviously absolutely right. The capabilities and the gaps that were shown up by this Libya campaign—not finished yet—are the ones that had already been identified by NATO. So, the spotlight was shone on them. There are some others that did not show up because this was a relatively limited operation and very close to NATO's shores. But, at last year's Lisbon summit meeting, a Lisbon capabilities package was adopted by all the heads of state and Government which included things like the priority for NATO to have more ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—capabilities available to it and the need to have more capabilities among its full structure for air-to-air refuelling. There were other things in that package, too—missile defence and so on.[101]

88. An Interim Report on Libya by the Royal United Services Institute concluded that the US provided at least 27% of the dedicated intelligence assets deployed during the operation.[102] The NATO Secretary General has said that the "mission could not have been done without capabilities that only the United States can offer. Let me put it bluntly: those capabilities are vital for all of us. More Allies should be willing to obtain them".[103]

89. The publication of the new US Defence Strategic Guidance for Defence[104] on 5 January 2012 with its new focus on the Asia-Pacific region also has potential implications for future NATO operations. Although the US has re-emphasised its commitment to European security and to aid NATO allies in the event of attack, the US Administration acknowledged that its posture in Europe will need to be adapted. Future budget cuts would put "added pressure on all of us collectively to come up with some innovative pooling, sharing [and] multilateral procurement" as well as innovative approaches to "doing more with less." The Administration has added that these issues will need to be addressed at the NATO summit in Chicago in May 2012.[105]

90. For the time being, there will still be a heavy reliance on US command and control functions for future operations. It should be a priority for NATO to examine this. However, whilst accepting the current economic climate and its implications for defence capabilities, we are concerned that future operations will not be possible if the US is not willing or able to provide capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence and refuelling aircraft. It should be a priority for NATO to examine this over-reliance on US capabilities and assets. This challenge will be heightened by the US stated intention to shift its military, geographic and strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

91. We have no evidence of any shortfalls in military assets held by NATO nations needed for operations in Libya. Nonetheless we seek assurances that the UK is pressing NATO to consider the issue of over-reliance on any single nation, and is itself considering the balance of its future forces and how it can best add to the overall mix of NATO capabilities and command and control capacity.

68   HC Deb, 18 March 2011, col 613 Back

69   Royal United Services Institute Interim Campaign Report, Accidental Heroes, Britain, France and the Libya Operation, September 2011, p 4 Back

70   US Department of Defense, Briefing by Vice Admiral Gortney on Operation Odyssey Dawn, 19 March 2011, and House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/IA/5909, Military Operations in Libya, October 2011, p 10 Back

71   Ibid, pp 10-11 Back

72   Q 153 Back

73   House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/IA/5909, Military Operations in Libya, October 2011, p 11 Back

74   Ibid, p 12 and see US Department of Defense News briefing with Vice Adm. Gortney from the Pentagon on Libya Operation Odyssey Dawn, 28 March 2011; "NATO will not arm Libyan opposition, Rasmussen says", Trend News Agency, 31 March 2011; and NATO and Libya: Key Facts and Figures available at: www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_71641.htm.  Back

75   House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/IA/5909, Military Operations in Libya, October 2011, p 20 Back

76   Q 144  Back

77   Q 189 Back

78   Q 270 Back

79   Royal United Services Institute Interim Campaign Report, Accidental Heroes, Britain, France and the Libya Operation, September 2011, p 4 Back

80   Q 153 Back

81   Ibid. Back

82   Ibid. Back

83   Q 237 Back

84   Q 169 Back

85   Q 237 Back

86   Q 128 Back

87   Qq 153, 159 & 194 Back

88   House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/IA/5909, Military Operations in Libya, October 2011, pp 5-6  Back

89   Q 131 Back

90   Qq 248-251 Back

91   Q 250 Back

92   Q 251 Back

93   Q 248  Back

94   Q 186 Back

95   Q 186 Back

96   Q 185 Back

97   Q 188 Back

98   Q 189 Back

99   Ev 56 Back

100   Q 180 Back

101   Q 180 Back

102   Royal United Services Institute Interim Campaign Report, Accidental Heroes, Britain, France and the Libya Operation, September 2011, p 6 Back

103   NATO Secretary General monthly press briefing, 5 September 2011. Available at: www.nato.int/cps/fr/SID-FB3BDFC5-DEB36199/natolive/opinions_77640.htm  Back

104   US Defense Department, Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012  Back

105   US Defense Department Press Release, Official: Strategic Guidance Recognizes U.S. NATO Commitments, 9 January 2012. Available at www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=66729  Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 8 February 2012