Global Politics

Why the UK is undecided on helicopters for Libya

After two months of air assaults by the NATO-led coalition, there's little sign that Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi is willing to back down.

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Now there are signs that some in the coalition are ready to ramp up the military action. The French government said it will deploy attack helicopters to Libya. And Britain is considering following suit.

The British defense chief, General David Richards, said last week that NATO had to step up the fight in Libya, hitting the infrastructure supporting the Gaddafi regime. Otherwise, Richards warned, the Libyan leader could cling to power for a very long time.

Michael Graydon, a retired British air force chief, quickly agreed. He said that going about it in a "graduated fashion" isn't the best way to do it.

"I think if you can sit in Tripoli and hardly know there's a war on, then I think something's missing," Graydon said.

That's hardly likely, following Tuesday's NATO bombardment of the Libyan capital. Reporters who witnessed the attack called it the heaviest to hit Tripoli since the air campaign began some two months ago.

The French say they'll follow up by sending a dozen attack helicopters within a few days – aircraft that can fire with more precision at moving targets. The British Armed Forces Minister, Nick Harvey, said on Tuesday that Britain is also considering deploying Apache helicopters to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi.

"Attack helicopters are one tool for doing that and the use of attack helicopters is one of a range of capability options under consideration," Harvey said. "However I stress no decision has yet been taken as to whether to use our attack helicopters in Libya, and we will keep the House informed as decisions are made."

Harvey maintains that the use of the helicopters wouldn't mean an escalation of the conflict. But Jim Murphy, a Labor opposition MP, isn't so certain.

"It would be an escalation in the scale of commitment of British forces. The principle is very clear; the Resolution 1973 backed by the House of Commons was to protect the civilian population in Libya. It's proving very difficult to do so," Murphy said. "It's always very difficult to do these things from that height, entirely through fixed-wing aircraft. So there's a logic, I'm sure, for having helicopters at a lower level able to fire different munitions and target more precisely."

But beneath the disagreement over what is and isn't a change in the Libyan mission lies another issue, one not aired publicly. Some are concerned that Britain is being asked to do too much, suggesting the United States needs to do more.

Retired British diplomat Sherrard Cowper-Coles doesn't expect President Obama to offer any more military might when he sits down with Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday.

"The sad truth is that we couldn't actually mount these operations without American air-to-air refuelling, without American command and control, without American aerial reconnaissance, without American signals interception capabilities," Cowper-Coles said. "So America is there but not necessarily as visible as Mr. Cameron and President Sarkozy would like."

Whatever comes out of the talks in London and later this week in France, there isn't likely to be any quick end to the battles in Libya — not as long as Gaddafi remains in power.