Libya Primer: Who is In Charge of Allied Forces?

Libya Military Resources

There is a lot of speculation and misunderstanding about the existing command and control structure for the international military operation in Libya.  The truth in this case is not pretty and in flux.

The command and control structure of the coalition is messy and complicated.  But keep in mind that the current structure was created as a last minute compromise and intended to be only temporary.  It is expected to evolve into something more functional and less transitional.  However, that evolution is dependent on either resolving the impasse within NATO or being over taken by events.

US takes the lead, but wants to pass it off as soon as possible

After the Paris meeting and French fighters flew over Libya, U.S. and British forces launched the first wave of missile attacks to destroy the air defense system of the Gaddafi regime.  While many in the media refer to this as operation Odyssey Dawn, that is the name of the U.S. military operation, not that of the international effort —which currently has no unified label.  Indeed, Odyssey Dawn began on March 4 as a mission providing aid to Libyan refugees.  This humanitarian mission was switched to a use of force mission after the UN called for a no-fly zone and President Obama tasked U.S. forces with establishing it.

General Carter Ham, the Commander of AFRICOM, released a statement confirming that he is in charge of US military forces in the Libyan operation.  “At the direction of President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates, U.S. Africa Command is commanding U.S. military support for the international enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect the Libyan people.”  Ham makes no claim to be in charge of coalition forces.

Answering to Ham is Admiral Samuel J. Locklear aboard the the flagship of the Sixth Fleet, the USS Mount Whitney.  Locklear is Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Africa and NATO’s Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples.  There are 24 or more ships from Britain, France, Spain, Canada, Italy and others nations participating with the Whitney in the coalition’s naval force.

In addition to the missile attacks already launched against Gaddafi forces, US forces are contributing electronic jamming, command and control, and logistical assistance to coalition efforts. Although the US has taken the lead in establishing the no-fly zone over Libya, the Obama administration is eager to let others lead and for the US to play a more supporting role instead.  Obama has expressed his desire for a “transition” from US to coalition leadership for the Libyan operation and specified that this “transition” should take place in "a matter of days, not a matter of weeks."

On his trip to Russia, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed Obama’s remarks, saying "We agreed to use our unique capabilities and the breadth of those capabilities at the front of this process, and then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others, we will continue to support the coalition, we will be a member of the coalition, we will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the preeminent role."

Unfortunately Gaddafi is defiant and declared, "we promise you a long war."  One of Sarkozy’s top advisors, Henri Guaino, has also warned that the coalition’s intervention in Libya may last "a while."

Is coordination as good as command and control?

Most of the members of NATO want the alliance’s integrated military command structure to be in charge of the Libyan operation.  But due to the imminent threat of Gaddafi’s forces to Benghazi, French, U.S., and British forces intervened before NATO reached agreement on the command issue.

A source in the French defense ministry revealed to the AFP that “there is no centralized headquarters and at this stage everyone is using their own headquarters in a coordinated manner.”  The result is that there are now at least three national headquarters making military decision for the coalition.

The British refer to their contribution to the coalition as “Operation Ellamy.”  They are led from their armed forces joint headquarters in Northwood.  Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach and Rear Admiral Ian Calder are in command.  Part of the British chain of command is a Joint Force Air Component deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.

As stated earlier, US forces are led through AFRICOM, whose headquarters are in Stuttgart, Germany.  Vice Admiral Charles J. "Joe" Leidig, Jr., is Ham’s Deputy for Military Operations.  The 17th Air Force is the Air Force component to U.S. Africa Command,.  It is known as U.S. Air Forces, Africa (AFAFRICA) and is located at the Ramstein air base in Germany.  AFAFRICA includes the 617th Air and Space Operations Center (AOC), which is playing a central role in coordinating coalition forces involved in Libya. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley announced in January that the 17th Air Force will be deactivated and its AOC will be combined with that of U.S. Europe Command, which is also at Ramstein.

The French refer to their military effort as Operation Harmattan and its forces are led from their air base at Mont Verdun, near Lyon.  Mont Verdun contains the Air Defense and Operations Command center for the south of France and is connected to NATO’s Air Command and Control System (ACCS).  The source in the French defense ministry also said that there have been "exchanges of staff between the three HQs," and a "definition of command structures as the deployment takes place."

British Major Gen. John Lorimer provided one interpretation of the coalition’s command structure.  "This operation is currently under U.S. command, supported closely by French and U.K. armed forces. AFRICOM is the supported Combatant Command, and U.K. has liaison officers and staff embedded at every level."  Britain’s Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell is at the Ramstein airbase in Germany.  The French have also exchanged personnel to improve communications between the HQs at Mont Verdun and Ramstein.

With multiple headquarters and no official command structure, mistakes and misunderstandings are likely to occur.  For example, while US leaders are explicitly telling the media that Gaddafi is not a target, British missiles struck Gaddafi’s compound.  The British say they attacked a command and control structure and were not targeting Gaddafi personally.  Yet the media and popular perception is of an attack on one of Gaddafi’s residences rather than a military building.

This British missile attack raises questions over the degree of coordination between the allied military headquarters.  Who is making the targeting decisions?  Are the participating air forces agreeing to one another’s target lists, simply informing each other of national decisions, or letting allies find out after the fact?

Danish and Belgian F-16s are already flying over Libya enforcing the no-fly zone.  Jets from coalition members such as Qatar, Spain, and Canada will soon join them.  The temporary arrangements between Paris, London, and Washington are not sufficient for the mission at hand or the diverse international military forces coming together.  The allies need a unified command and control structure to achieve success in Libya.  They also need to agree to one soon, because the coalition has much bigger political issues it needs to settle in order to avoid becoming mired in a long conflict in North Africa.

Jorge Benitez, is the Director of NATOSource and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Graphic: Deutsche Welle.

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