Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time, according to senior NATO and U.S. officials. ~The Washington Post

James Joyner makes the best case one can that Libya has shown NATO to be relevant and effective, but it seems to me that the steady drip of one story after another reporting both the deep political divisions and the military inadequacy of the non-U.S. allies is eroding whatever positive effects the Libyan war is having on the alliance.

The Libyan war is supposed to be an experiment in burden-sharing to get European governments to carry most of the load in responding to a regional conflict, but mostly it is showing everyone why in the near term burden-sharing isn’t feasible. The original plan was that the U.S. would facilitate eager European allies in attacking Libya, but it would not dominate the campaign after a certain point. This is what Nikolas Gvosdev has aptly referred to as the “just enough” doctrine. Gvosdev observes:

The consensus assessment is that this has not worked out according to plan. The Gadhafi regime did not fold after the first wave of airstrikes. The Libyan opposition to Gadhafi that was assumed to lurk even in the capital Tripoli was not emboldened to come out and topple a dictator, even one targeted by allied bombs. And the rebel groups have not shown much prowess on the battlefield. So now the president is besieged by calls from all quarters to “do more.”

Along with the many other doctrines and ideas that the Libyan intervention is damaging, the idea that U.S. allies should and can take up more security responsibilities in their regions may be the one that will take the biggest hit.

The truth is that NATO provides political cover to the more aggressive member states to abuse the alliance’s reputation and resources for wars of their choosing. An alliance filled with members that fight with extremely limiting caveats or not at all is an alliance that will not be able to manage very well in anything more demanding than the small humanitarian wars in areas close to NATO states. For all the talk of the value of interoperability and cooperation that the alliance offers, the immediate problem that the major non-U.S. members are facing is that they are running low on precision munitions, and as far as French and British fighters are concerned the munitions the U.S. has available don’t fit on their planes. The European governments that are doing the bulk of the fighting can’t rely on U.S. resources to resupply their air forces, and the governments whose planes are compatible are contributing small numbers of planes or prohibiting them from launching strikes at all. As the Post reports:

European arsenals of laser-guided bombs, the NATO weapon of choice in the Libyan campaign, have been quickly depleted, officials said. Although the United States has significant stockpiles, its munitions do not fit on the British- and French-made planes that have flown the bulk of the missions.

Britain and France have each contributed about 20 strike aircraft to the campaign. Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Canada have each contributed six — all of them U.S.-manufactured and compatible with U.S. weaponry.

One can call this a “wake-up call” if one wants. It is going to make a lot more people question why the U.S. entered a war with the promise that direct U.S. involvement would be limited when it should have known its allies couldn’t fight largely on their own.

James claims that NATO confers greater legitimacy on an operation:

In truth, however, the political value in a NATO operation is that the alliance’s name is a stand-in for the developed world and operating under its name confers a legitimacy that national flags don’t.

This is partly true. Some of the governments participating actively in attacking Libya wouldn’t be there if this were simply a “coalition of the willing” led by France and Britain, but if operating under NATO’s name confers legitimacy that national flags don’t why is it that only six non-U.S. governments are directly participating in the war? Together with the U.S., just one-quarter of the alliance is actually involved in striking targets in Libya. NATO’s legitimacy is enough to keep Italy and Norway on board with the war in one way or another (though Italy’s relatively large number of air-to-ground attack aircraft won’t be launching any attacks for political reasons), but it can’t get most of the alliance’s members to participate fully in the war. Perhaps this is because they are understandably unclear on why a defensive alliance is waging an offensive war outside Europe.

That is what makes Libya different from Kosovo or Afghanistan, and that is why there is more reason to question the alliance’s future on account of Libya. Kosovo could be (weakly) rationalized as something NATO had to do because Kosovo was in Europe. The argument was that it would have been a political embarrassment to appear unable or unwilling to intervene in a European conflict, despite the fact that it was an internal conflict. After 9/11, involvement in Afghanistan made a certain amount of sense as a matter of supporting an ally that had been attacked. However, the “out-of-area” character of Afghanistan naturally put significant strains on non-U.S. allies whose publics had good reason to ask why their soldiers were risking their lives in Central Asia to serve U.S. interests unrelated to them. Libya is an “out-of-area” mission that involves attacking another government because of its internal affairs. It is every bit as much at odds with the alliance’s purpose as Kosovo, and has little to do with European security as most European governments understand it. This doesn’t show that NATO is adapting to new conditions so much as it is a reminder that NATO has long since served its purpose.

Libya is in some ways an attempt to make good on some of the rhetoric of a “global NATO” at the same time that it is trying to force Europeans to take up more of the burden for regional security. The alliance might bear up under the strains of both of these, but probably not without a greater U.S. role. More than likely, the U.S. will be pulled back into a more active role in Libya because the non-U.S. allies can’t or won’t bear the burden, and when that happens we can be sure that supporters of the Libyan war are going to invoke the importance of preserving NATO. “We cannot let NATO fail!” Of course, if the non-U.S. allies were not in danger of failure according to the standard set down by Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy yesterday, Americans wouldn’t have to worry about this, but they are.

P.S. As a thought experiment, consider how much worse for NATO Kosovo would have been if the U.S. had taken a backseat role after two weeks, and Clinton, Blair, and Schroeder then declared that the operation would continue until Milosevic stepped down from power. As it was, the bombing took 78 days, which was approximately ten times as long as the allies originally expected it to take. Milosevic remained in power until October 6, 2000, and his eventual fall was under entirely different conditions of domestic political opposition when the country was not under attack. How long do you suppose Milosevic might have tried to hold out against NATO if the alternative to resistance was removal from office? Libya is more limited in what the allies are willing or allowed to do militarily, NATO has relatively fewer resources available, and the war is much more ambitious in what it is trying to achieve politically. Kosovo wasn’t really the success many humanitarian interventionists claim that it was, but NATO was trying to achieve much more modest goals than it is now.

Update: This morning’s story about a munitions shortage reminded me that during the Kosovo war NATO governments experienced the same problem. The USAF relied heavily on precision munitions in Kosovo and started running out of their pre-war supply. The British have been through this before:

But the UK troops suffered a “critical munitions shortage”. Had the air campaign continued, Britain would quickly have run out of weapons, specifically precision guided munitions for the RAF.

The BBC article on this from 11 years ago includes some commentary that seems very relevant today:

Professor Michael Clarke, director of the centre for defence studies at Kings College London, said: “It has been an open secret for some little time now that our stocks of precision guided missiles are very much lower than they would need to be.”

He added: “Many in the military say that we have been very lucky so far, from the Falklands onwards.

“To make good these deficiencies will be pretty expensive, but many would argue that if we don’t make them good then the British will just walk themselves into an operation that will go seriously wrong.”

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