By Matthew Brunwasser
The operational headquarters of the Allied Air Command, a cavernous Cold War facility, would make a good set in a post-apocalypse horror film. Its unusual for a journalist to get access to the secret facility, which in this case is limited to the international dining hall and the conference room. A multinational group of NATO officers helping command Operation Unified Protector agreed to answer questions.
Maj. Gregor "Beppo" Brehm is from the German air force. "Coming back to your question, 'what's the problem working in Libya?" he said. "It's exactly this. We are not in Libya."
UN security council resolution 1973 authorized NATO to protect civilians in Libya but not with forces on Libyan territory. So Allied Air command's mission can be complicated.
"We enforce the embargo and the no fly zone and protect civilians from any attack, but we don't have boots on the ground, and so we have to establish the situational awareness from the air," Brehm said.
There is some intelligence from the sea, but in general NATO is conducting operations from far away. It's also stretched wide with 13 airbases in six countries and four headquarters in three countries.
"We provide for the air campaign the strategic direction and then the day to day command and control is done at Poggio, [Renatico, Italy]," said Deputy planning chief, Wing Cmdr. Mike Rafferty from the UK.
It might seem inefficient to have political directives coming from Belgium, strategists in Turkey and pilots in Italy but Rafferty says it works better than you'd think.
"We share the same databases, we use the same procedures which we train to use day in day out during exercises, the whole thing is very joined up. Information passes up and down the chain very quickly," Rafferty said.
Operations-wise, there are two ways NATO fulfills its mission to protect civilians. Dynamic targeting is the term NATO uses for attacks against moving targets. Deliberate targeting means hitting specific non-moving targets, the infrastructure behind Gaddafi's forces.
"You attack the supply chain to those forces, so for example we have been successful taking out ammunition storage areas, command and control networks, the supply chains, a lot of that goes on out of site of the population and out of site of the media, but I can assure you we are doing that day to day and we are being successful, slowly his forces are being degraded," Rafferty said.
Adapting to NATO strategy
Wing Cmdr Rafferty said it's been frustrating to see how well Gaddafi's forces have adapted to NATO strategy. Lt. Col. Anthony Stroup from the US Air force, is the political advisor at Allied Air Command Izmir during the operation. He said he knows that from the television coverage of civilians being killed, the situation looks grim especially in Misrata.
"But from an expectations management perspective, you got to look at how bad it would be if we went there," Stroup said. "You also have to look at conditions under which we are operating. You have weather conditions that hinder you, the way Gaddafi's people are operating, wearing civilians clothes in a urban environment, not caring if civilians are hit by our aircraft."
NATO says it will continue its operations until Gaddafi meets three conditions: stopping attacks on civilians, withdrawing his forces and allowing monitors and enabling the UN to provide humanitarian assistance. Stroup stresses this will also require a political and diplomatic solution.
"We're just a piece of the puzzle with our military operations," Stroup said. "
The officers gathered in the bunker wouldn't estimate how much of Qaddafy's forces have already been destroyed, nor how long operations will last.