No-Fly Zone Over Libya Urged as McCain, Kerry Downplay Risks

US Senator John Kerry
Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Senior U.S. senators from both parties stepped up their push for a no-fly zone over Libya, suggesting Pentagon concerns about its risks are overblown.

Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. should begin working with allies to prepare a no-fly zone that would be implemented if Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi used his air force “as a means of massacring large numbers of civilians.”

Kerry, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday, downplayed Defense Department warnings that a no-fly zone would be “an extraordinarily complex” operation and would require an attack on Libya’s air defenses.

“That’s actually not the only option for what one could do,” said Kerry, a Vietnam combat veteran. He said bombs may “crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in congressional testimony last week that suppressing Libyan air forces would require offensive military operations against Libya. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.”

‘Cratering’ Runways

Damaging runways has limitations, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan told reporters today. Saddam Hussein, after the 1991 Gulf War agreement was signed prohibiting aircraft flights over the south, attacked Iraqi Shiites with helicopter gunships, he noted.

“So you could take certain actions but there are second-and third-order effects as well. Cratering runways does not necessarily solve the problem,” Lapan said.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy pilot who flew combat missions over Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war after being shot down, dismissed such concerns in an appearance yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program.

“I would like to point out their air assets are not large,” McCain said of Libya’s military. “Their air defenses are somewhat antiquated.”

Sending a Signal

A no-fly zone, McCain said, “would send a signal to Qaddafi that the president is serious when he says we need for Qaddafi to go. And also, it would be encouraging to the resistance, who are certainly out-gunned from the air.”

Putting in place such an exclusionary zone, as the U.S. did over Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990’s, would be intended to prevent Qaddafi from using aircraft against anti-government rebels.

“I think that if you were to have one, it’s not going to be like Iraq or Bosnia for the long term,” Kerry, of Massachusetts, said. While those no-fly zones lasted years, Kerry suggested a zone over Libya would be needed for a shorter duration, though he gave no time estimate.

President Barack Obama has said all options are under review.

“Lots of people throw around the phrase of ‘no-fly zone,’ and they talk about it a though it’s just a game, a video game or something, and some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about,” William Daley, Obama’s chief of staff, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

Arming Insurgents

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told “Face the Nation” that a no-fly zone is “worth considering.” He said another option “is simply aiding and arming the insurgents.”

The U.S. Senate on March 1 approved a non-binding resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya and endorsing U.S. outreach to forces opposing Qaddafi’s regime.

Pentagon spokesman Lapan said “planners are looking at all the various options. So they would look at sea-based assets, land-based assets -- what it would take should that decision be made.”

Planners are looking at the requirements for aerial refueling tankers needed to keep fighter aircraft flying patrols and setting up a system for quickly rescuing any pilots shot down by Libya -- so called “search and rescue” capability, he said.

“You have to have a robust capacity and plan in place in case of a downed aircraft and recovering downed aircrew. All of those elements would be part of that planning,” Lapan said.

No U.S. Ground Troops

McCain called the option of a U.S. ground intervention “very unproductive,” while Kerry described it as “the last thing we want to think about.”

“We don’t want troops on the ground. They don’t want troops on the ground,” Kerry said on CBS.

Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser to former President George W. Bush, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program that a better alternative than a no-fly zone might be to funnel arms to Libyan rebels, including anti-aircraft systems, “so they can create their own no-fly zone rather than the United States have to do it.”

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