It’s been over four months since NATO launched its air campaign in Libya. Dubbed Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, NATO pilots have logged at least 17,924 sorties, 6,788 of which were strike missions “to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under attack or threat of attack.”

Additionally, 17 warships under NATO command have hailed 2,100 ships and boarded 211 to enforce an arms embargo. When this second 90-day mandate expires in September, UNIFIED PROTECTOR will be more than twice the length of the 1999 air operation for Kosovo and three times the length of the 2001 ground campaign in Afghanistan.

The operation will continue to chug along through August, but we can expect new debates this fall to consider what comes next when the current mandate expires. There are visible signs that countries are scaling back their commitment by either withdrawing like Norway or reducing force presence like France and Italy. Given current U.S. military commitments and planned defense cuts, it does not seem likely that Washington will want to increase its role in operations.

Thinking about the future, NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero was plain that status quo is likely. “We have made clear that there has to be a political solution to the crisis, but we have made it equally clear that our military operation will continue for as long as it is needed.”

At least politically, Tripoli appears to be ready for the long haul. Gaddafi’s spokesman, Musa Ibrahim said, “This war, this honorable confrontation, could go on for years. We do not want it to…but from the beginning we were preparing ourselves to fight on the diplomatic front for years, on the military front for years, on the economic front for years.”

As both Romero and Ibrahim remind us, all war requires political solutions and military means are simply an extension of policy. As NATO leaders reconvene in September to consider Libya, they are reminded that if the policy fails to achieve the objectives, then change the strategy.

As I wrote earlier, strategy is best thought of as a game plan, road map, or ends, ways, and means. Fundamentally, strategy is about how leadership can use the power available to exercise control over people, places, things, and events to achieve objectives in accordance with national interests and policies. Finally, a good strategy assesses risk as it relates to the ends, ways, and means. Risk discussions should transcend the pessimistic “what if” questions. Instead, risk should identify the gaps between the desired ends, ways, and means.

To be clear, NATO is assuming risk today by attempting to achieve particular desired ends without the available means.

Thus, when leaders meet to consider Libyan operations beyond 180 days, NATO can adjust the ends—reconcile what it wants to achieve in Libya with what it is able and willing to achieve. NATO can adjust the ways—evaluate the 180-day old air campaign, compare it to previous air campaigns, and adjust accordingly. Finally, NATO can adjust the means: if air and maritime efforts alone cannot achieve the means, consider ground options.  

In thinking about what comes next, previous conflicts are instructive. In the case of Kosovo, it appeared that air power alone could not achieve the ends, so ground planning began in earnest in late spring 1999. Had Milosevic not sued for peace, NATO appeared to be ready to adjust the means by introducing ground forces.

In the case of Iraq, the United States and its coalition allies were satisfied with an uninspired end by containing Iraq and did not seek to adjust the means throughout the 1990s. From 1991 to 2003, the coalition relied on no-fly zones where pilots logged 200,000+ sorties. It wasn’t until the end was changed by President Bush in 2003 that the means were adjusted, which paved the way for ground forces, years of counterinsurgency, and significant costs. And in the case of Afghanistan, the international community committed modest means until 2009. But Taliban resurgence and renewed national objectives compelled President Obama to change the ways (counterinsurgency plus counterterrorism) and means (the surge). The result is still pending.

Libya represents a new challenge for the Alliance. Undoubtedly, some will question NATO’s credibility if it remains satisfied with marginally effective no-fly zones and a maritime-enforced arms embargo. However, NATO leaders also need to understand the opportunity cost to the Alliance if the air campaign continues indefinitely or leads to a ground intervention. With declining defense budgets, economic crisis, and other commitments, the future of NATO and Libya cannot be discussed in isolation from other Alliance commitments to include Afghanistan.

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is assigned to NTM-A; he is the author of Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military. He is currently on leave from the Naval War College.